Life in Syria

Filmmaker honored for capturing some of the most heartbreaking and gripping footage coming out of Syria

‘There are no rules in this war. There is no safe place, no place we can relax,’ volunteer documentarian Waad al-Kateab says

A distraught mother carries the body of her young son, Muhammad, who was killed in an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. (YouTube).

In December, Waad al-Kateab won two awards from Amnesty International for her films documenting life in the rebel-held area of eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Trapped in the besieged city al-Kateab was unable to attend the award ceremony herself but instead sent a letter which was read in her absence, urging the international community to “remember your humanity.” The “only thing that’s available in this city,” she wrote, “is air, but this air, most of the time, is polluted with poisonous gases and chlorine. This is a perished city called Aleppo.”

At the time of filming an estimated 50,000 civilians remained trapped in the ever-diminishing enclave of eastern Aleppo and it is the daily horrors to which they were exposed that al-Kateab’s footage sought to capture. Over the course of a year al-Kateab provided dozens of reports for the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, which took her on as an exclusive filmmaker at the start of last year to document the crisis.

As the beleaguered city was pummeled with missiles by the Russian-backed Syrian regime, and a series of failed ceasefires left civilians increasingly desperate, al-Kateab remained holed up in Aleppo’s last functioning hospital, Al-Quds, filming as her husband, a doctor, tended to the endless casualties of the war. Though she is pregnant with their second child she made the decision to stay in Aleppo to document the devastation.

Speaking to Women in the World in a telephone interview, al-Kateab explained how she, her husband and their baby daughter had spent almost two years living on the floor of the hospital which, despite being overcrowded, remained the safest place to seek shelter. “I couldn’t stay alone in the house … anything could happen,” she said. “There are no rules in this war. There is no safe place, no place we can relax.”

Each day al-Kateab forced herself to focus solely on the human tragedy unfolding before her. Such was the daily chaos and devastation she recorded al-Kateab said at times she felt numbed to what she was seeing, as when confronted by a mother who, covered in blood, was screaming and asking what had happened to her children, six of whom had died in a single day. “I just tried to keep filming without feeling.”

Were there moments when she wanted to get out, to escape the city and seek safety for her family and unborn child? “Yes,” she said. “I was always crying when I was filming.”

Punctuating reports of the horrors taking place in the emergency room where she did most of her filming were scenes as inspiring as others were heartbreaking. One woman, nine months pregnant, was rushed to the hospital after being hit by barrel bomb shrapnel. When the doctors delivered her baby boy by Caesarean section they could at first find no heartbeat until, to their visible elation, the newborn suddenly started to cry. “The most elemental sound of all,” said journalist Matt Frei in the report, “more powerful, for a brief moment, than Aleppo’s daily cry of death.”

These are the stories, al-Kateab mused, that give hope. “The hospital can do a lot for these people.” And indeed it did. The baby boy, Mohammed Hakeem, is now 9 months old and living safely in Turkey with his mother, with whom al-Kateab remains in regular contact.

In another report al-Kateab filmed two young boys, covered in a film of white dust, as they waited in shock while doctors attended to their little brother, Ismail Mohammed. The boy had been badly injured in a bomb blast that hit as all three boys played at a friend’s house. In the end, doctors were unable to save him.

As a young girl, covered in blood and lying in the bed opposite watches silently, a doctor tries in vain to comfort the eldest brother. The two brothers are then shown hugging and kissing their sibling’s lifeless body and the viewer is reminded, as with so many of al-Kateab’s films, of how this war has so prematurely pushed Syria’s left-behind children into adulthood, confronting them daily with scenes of un-imaginable suffering.

Al-Kateab says she remembers filming that video and recalled how hard and painful it was to eventually see the young boy’s mother arrive at the hospital, only to find her youngest son dead. The film ends as the mother cradles the boy’s body like a baby and carries it out of the hospital to be buried.

Despite the worsening situation in eastern Aleppo al-Kateab and her husband remained committed to caring for the wounded. She said they’d grown accustomed to the daily depletion of food, water and medical supplies imposed on them by the siege and never imagined they would be forced to leave. Eventually they were however forced to flee and, among the last to leave Aleppo, they traveled to Turkey, where they’re now living safely and awaiting the birth of their second child in early May.

As independent journalists have been denied safe access to Syria, al-Kateab has provided a lens through which the rest of the world can bear witness to the human reality of the war as it enters its seventh year. As Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear wrote in an essay last month, “She has done that important thing in journalism: she humanized the victims, showed us whole families in their worst moments, chronicled their pain and showed the world the horror, without intruding, and with a skill it takes most decades to learn.” 

Below, watch the heartbreaking video of the brothers saying goodbye to their baby brother, who succumbed to his injuries. And see more documentaries from al-Kateab’s at Channel 4.

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