Bilal Abdul Kareem, the last foreign journalist left in east Aleppo, describes scenes of carnage as shelling resumed on rebel-held districts
Trapped US journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem has described how he feared execution by Syrian government forces as they advanced on his refuge in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
Asked what was going through his mind when he recorded what he dubbed as his “final” message on Monday Kareem said he believed he would be either shot or beheaded.
“They would probably shoot me because they are not friendly to journalists,” he said as he hid from the ongoing bombardment taking place outside.
“They are less friendly to western journalists. They [the Syrian army] probably don’t know what to do… ‘should we shoot you? Should we cut your head off?”
Kareem’s message was one of despair and disappointment with the international community, and went viral.
Having travelled to Syria for what he had hoped to be just three days, Kareem has been reporting on the developing situation in east Aleppo for the past four months after the city was held hostage by the Syrian army.
Despite these horrendous conditions, he continued to report on the deteriorating situation via his independent media outlet, On the Ground News (OGN), as well as helping reporters for major foreign news outlets such as CNN and Al Jazeera.
He recorded live interviews with civilians and numerous rebel groups, with his news outlet dedicated to “bringing people the information they need to make an intelligent decision in terms of who and what is happening on the ground”.
The only foreign journalist left in eastern Aleppo, he was able to document first-hand the brutal realities of living under what many commentators have described as a “medieval” siege.
When asked whether he had become more of an activist than a journalist during his time in the city, he said: “I am going to report what I saw. Does that make me an activist because I clearly saw aggression on the part of one party against another? I don’t think that makes me an activist. I think that makes me a journalist.”
Via On the Ground News, Kareem was also able to interview rebel leaders who were influential in continuing the Syrian revolution, causing some of his critics to condemn him for seeming to provide a platform for rebels deemed overly radical.
Responding to these charges, he said: “OGN is dedicated to bringing people the information they need to make an intelligent decision, in terms of who is who and what is what, here on the ground.”
This entailed interviewing figures “who some people may not like”. He put to his critics whether they would “simply want to get the information that your governments want you to have, or do you actually want the information that is for real, so you can make your own determination?”
Reporting from eastern Aleppo has, however, proven difficult, with his small team of journalists regularly facing attacks from Syrian government and Russian air strikes. This was no different in the final days of the fight to break the government siege, as the aerial and ground bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in the past few weeks.
Civilians who were injured from the bombing were unable to be rescued as a result of the heavy shelling, with some trapped under rubble being left to die, he said. “When a house collapses on its occupants, they no longer have the heavy equipment to pull the people out of the rubble, so those people have to remain where they are; sometimes they are dead, sometimes they are not.”
Speaking about the Syrian reaction to the ceasefire, he described how many of the fighters who were fighting Syrian government forces were doing so for their families “and not necessarily for their land”.
“When you are looking at it from the side of the Syrians, one of the things that many of the people don’t understand is many of these fighters are fighting for their homes,” he said. “Their wives and children are here with them, so they are not necessarily fighting for their land. They are fighting for their families. So after five years of fighting and bloodshed, they weren’t so happy to leave.”
Asked why the 250,000 Syrians trapped in the besieged area refused to leave the rebel-held territory, he said: “You can go to the nearest checkpoint and cross into regime-held territory, [but] if you do, keep in mind people have been very reluctant to, because the regime has by conservative estimates killed about half a million people. Do you think they [the Syrian government] would mind adding an extra thousand or two thousand to that? That is why there have been so many people, despite the difficult conditions on this side of the divide, who have not been motivated to go over to regime-held territory.”
Recording his message to the world, Kareem chastised the leaders of the “Muslim world” for what he described as “dropping the ball” over the Syrians’ fight for freedom.
Frustrated with world leaders being unable to fight “state-sponsored” terrorism, he said: “They (Muslim leaders) have a human, moral and even before that an Islamic responsibility to help their neighbours. The remaining neighbourhoods here [in east Aleppo] could fall tonight, in a week or in a month.”
Kareem also criticised online activism aimed at raising awareness about Syrian human rights: “Facebook likes and tweets are not enough. I think people out there understand that.”
Speaking to 1,000 protesters outside the Syrian embassy in London on Monday night, he urged the crowds to “stay educated, stay engaged and stay with us”.
With the bombing intensifying in the background as MEE conducted a Skype interview live from east Aleppo, he urged people to contact their government and ask “what are you doing for the people inside Aleppo, and what are you doing for the people of Syria?”
“Half a million dead, more than 12 million displaced. People have got to get serious about human rights,” he said as he left to seek shelter from the bombs raining down on him only metres away.
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