Bassel Al Shahade, a young Syrian filmmaker who gave up his studies in the United States to cover the carnage in his native country, was killed Monday by shrapnel while filming in the war-ravaged city of Homs. Our Observer, Bassel’s friend and fellow filmmaker, told us how the slain citizen journalist has become, for many Syrians, a martyr.
Syria’s government has severely restricted journalists from covering the 15-month-old uprising, meaning international media outlets have heavily relied on people like Bassel to document what is happening on the ground.
Bassel, 28, was an accomplished filmmaker, which gave him an edge over many other citizens-turned-journalists. He had won a documentary prize in his hometown of Damascus and received a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue his studies at Syracuse University in the United States.
When he decided to quit his studies and return to Syria to cover the uprising, he put his skills to use by training others in the use of video cameras. He was taking several of his students on their first mission Monday, when he was killed by shell fire in one of Homs’ most dangerous neighbourhoods.
Many Syrians have taken to social media networks to mourn his death. Hundreds have replaced their Facebook profile images with photos of Bassel, and some have even created memorial pages in his honour. His friends recalled his sense of adventure. Just last year, inspired by Che Guevara’s memoir “The Motorcycle Diaries”, he had gone on a solo motorcycle trip from Syria to India, via Afghanistan.
Shahade was also notably mourned by many in Syria's minority Christian community, to which he belonged. While much of the clergy remains loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, this has not stopped some Christians from siding with the opposition.
A photomontage created in memory of Shahade.
'It was his dream come true when he got a scholarship to study in the United States. But how was he supposed to stay there while his friends and family were being killed back home?'
Rami is an activist in Homs who has contributed to the Observers program since the very beginning of the Syrian uprising.
Bassel was one of those young Syrians who believed in the revolution from the start. He was arrested when the action first kicked off in Damascas, during a protest in the Al-Midan neighbourhood. Soon after, he left for the United States to study cinematography, thanks to a scholarship.But he felt compelled to return to Syria when the uprising spread across the country, reaching the cities of Homs, Deraa, Idleb and Hama. It was his dream come true when he got a scholarship to study in the United States, but how was he supposed to stay there while his friends and family were being killed back home?So he gave up his studies and went back to Damascus. He then travelled to Homs after hearing how bad the violence had become in the city.That was three months ago. He stayed in my house for three days, during which time we held training programmes to teach young people journalism skills. He organised several sessions in other activists’ apartments, and sometimes even in his own. The students were taught video editing software, and how to use different types of video cameras.“The soldiers must have seen them with their camera, because they suddenly came under fire”Once they’d mastered the theory, Bassel took his students out into some of the most dangerous parts of Homs, so they could put their new skills into practice. He showed them the best ways to capture the kind of good quality footage needed to illustrate the army’s strong presence in the city. He also showed them how to film soldiers and carry out interviews.He was out with two students filming in the Safsafa neighbourhood the day he became a martyr. Safsafa was undergoing heavy army fire and shelling. For two or three hours, they endured the bombardment, all the time trying to capture the events on film.The soldiers must have seen them with their camera, because they suddenly came under fire. Missiles and shells were fired directly at them, killing them on the spot."Anyone filming here is putting themselves in great danger. Their lives are constantly at risk"Bassel and his students were the bravest of citizen journalists. Despite the dangers, they were out there on the frontlines, filming tanks and soldiers. They also filmed the snipers who are responsible for killing people every day. Anyone filming here is putting themselves in great danger. Their lives are constantly at risk.Thousands of activists in and outside Syria are devastated at Bassel’s sudden death. The army knew his funeral, scheduled for Wednesday, would attract big crowds. They shelled the grave where we were supposed to put his body, so we couldn’t bury him.According to the Syrian activists, this video, uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday, shows a memorial for Shahade."Bassel’s dream was to make a film about Homs. We’re going to do it"We’ve got footage filmed during Bassel’s training sessions, and also lots of his own footage. Every day, he filmed about two gigabytes’ worth. What Bassel really wanted to do was make an entire film about the city of Homs, not just short video clips. He’d already made a synopsis, and I think we, as his friends, have to finish his film. We hope to soon be able to broadcast it across the world via the Internet.
A short film by Shahade based on interviews with a boy who survived the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Video posted on his YouTube channel in 2010.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.