Alone on the front line

By Jihan Hafiz

Photo by Ali Mustafa, taken during the “Battle of Tahrir Square” between Nov. 19–25, 2011

My last conversation with Ali was serious. He was my best friend and a freelance journalist, scrambling to find work to pay his way out of Syria. He was filing photos, news updates and tweets for major news networks; but they were slow to pay him. He was under constant bombing and shelling from Assad’s military. Writing me from the heart of Aleppo, Ali had no insurance, no safety net, nothing. I begged him to leave. Before we were abruptly cut off, he said, “I’ve got to make money first. I don’t even have enough for my plane ticket home yet.”

Those were Ali’s last words to me. Forty-eight hours later, a barrel bomb killed him. He was not taking photographs at the time. He had put down his camera after an attack to help first responders pull out injured and killed Syrians.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal from the media following Ali’s death. Why didn’t his life matter enough to those employing him to pay him on time? If they had, he could have gotten out. He could still be alive.

The agencies he worked for hardly knew of his violent death. Media watchdog groups and international news agencies mentioned Ali’s death in passing, but their descriptions were brief and didn’t include how he sacrificed his life so people would know what war looks and feels like. What if he had light skin or a white-sounding name? What if he didn’t resemble an Arab? What if his name wasn’t Muslim? Would it have been different?

Ali and Jihan

Ali and I found each other in Egypt on a muggy afternoon in September 2011. He had just arrived from the West Bank in Palestine. I was filming in Tahrir Square, but after a short while, I was called a spy and a crowd grew around me. I was on edge when Ali approached me and asked softly if I was Jihan Hafiz. Though at first I snapped and asked who he was, we quickly became great friends.

Ali and I were inseparable, constantly checking in on one another, and enjoying hours of conversations about journalism, revolution, Palestine and our beloved Egypt. Ali was half-Egyptian too. He was like a brother to me. It didn’t take long for me to realize his humanity. His work put him so close to suffering and he could convey it more deeply than anyone I knew. He felt people’s pain in a personal way. Ali never pretended to be objective. He was never removed from his story. He always picked a side.

Ali’s gifted eyes caught incredible photos. He snapped some of the most important moments of the last 10 years. He revealed exactly the moment as he felt it.

Six months after Ali’s death, my distrust for the media remained deep, when our friend Ahmed Deeb, a Palestinian journalist from Gaza, contacted me from Syria. Like Ali, his commitment to telling important stories led him to precarious situations where he was uninsured and underpaid. Ali, Ahmed and I shared the feeling of being disrespected because of our names and identities.

Photos by Ahmed Deeb

Ahmed was in Syria at the height of a bombing campaign in November 2014. Our conversation was eerily similar to the last one I had with Ali. Ahmed was looking for contacts to media organizations that would pay him fairly and on time. He was trying to get out of Syria. I gave him contacts to people I knew and remained worried until he crossed the border to Turkey. In the days before Ahmed safely returned, I had flashbacks to Ali’s death. When he finally made it out of Syria alive, I told Ahmed I wanted to tell his story.

Photos by Ali Mustafa — Left: Syria, 2013; Right: Qalandiya, West Bank, 2011

I felt that perhaps I could prevent another journalist of color with a Muslim name from becoming a statistic, with no memory of his contributions.

Ahmed was eager to tell his story and share the challenges he faces. Ahmed went to Syria not as an impartial journalist from a faraway country, but as someone who suffered from the tragedy and devastation of war. He gained the trust of Syrian people on all sides of the conflict. Like Ali, he formed close relationships with the people he covered. Fighters would tip him off about battle plans and mothers would cry with him. But when it came time for Ahmed to pitch stories or negotiate with international media organizations, he was paid barely enough to cover his costs.

Photo by Ahmed Deeb

Ahmed continues to go to Syria, but the agencies now refuse to accept work from journalists there because of the liability. Despite the lack of money and recognition, Ahmed keeps telling stories. To him, the Syrian people are more important than the work itself. Ahmed often puts down his camera to carry an injured Syrian or lend a hand to medical units as bullets whizz by. In Gaza, he puts aside his camera to pray with the family of a young child killed by Israeli bombs. Ahmed, like Ali, is much more than just a journalist.

Some leeway has been given to Ahmed, but it’s not enough. The situation for journalists like Ali and Ahmed is not improving. Even as their photographs make the front pages of the world’s biggest newspapers, they continue to be ignored and exploited while their important contributions go unrecognized.

For more on this important issue, watch the short documentary below:

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