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Risking her life to tell Aleppo's story

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Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab recently won two Royal Television Society Awards

"(We must) keep trying to tell the world what's happening," she said

London CNN —  

Waad al-Kateab has spent the past year bearing witness: to the destruction of her city, the death of her neighbors, and the constant dangers of life under siege.

Until December, she lived in rebel-held eastern Aleppo and filmed dozens of reports that showed the human toll of the Syrian war.

Many of her reports – broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 News – were shot in the hospital where her husband worked. In others, she captured daily life under siege.

“When I was there, I was very strong … I (had) to say or tell the world what’s happening in Syria,” Al-Kateab (not her real name) told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview in London.

“(But) I’m not just a journalist. I was with my family there; I was a mother.”


Al-Kateab has a young daughter, and as she filmed the horrific injuries sustained by adults and children during the bombardment of Syria’s largest city, she worried for her family’s safety.

Last June, she was filming in the emergency room when three young boys were brought in. Mohammed, Mahmoud and Ammar had been playing at a friend’s house when a bomb hit, and Mohammed was seriously injured.

Doctors, including al-Kateab’s husband, Hamza (not his real name), tried to save him, but her camera showed his body being wrapped in a blue sheet, and carried onto a bench outside. His brothers weep, before their mother arrives to carry her son away.

“I was with my daughter there on the same day,” Al-Kateab said. “So it (was) too hard to say that the children – one of them – the child who’s eight years old – (was) dead … I’m just thinking that maybe my daughter will be … instead of him…” She struggled to finish her sentence. “It’s too hard.”

But in the face of horror, Al-Kateab’s camera never looked away.

Claims of chemical attacks

Her films offer what could be important evidence about the way the war in Syria is being conducted.

The United Nations and human rights groups claim chemical weapons have been used in Syria, and some of al-Kateab’s pieces show people arriving at the hospital after what Aleppo’s doctors said was a chlorine gas attack in September.

In the reports, children breathe through masks as medical staff tend to them.

“You couldn’t see blood … but you see a lot of people couldn’t breath(e),” al-Kateab remembers.

“And you also, when you were in the ER room, you smell the smell, and it’s very bad things. There’s nothing to do for these people, and they are a lot; there’s many people that’s injured by the chemical weapons.

Especially in the last days of Aleppo, every day (in the) evening there was a chlorine gas attack. And that was very difficult.”

Lives saved – and lost

In another video, al-Kateab filmed doctors performing an emergency caesarean on a woman who caught up in the bombing on her way to the hospital – and the fight to resuscitate her baby.

“I didn’t believe that he’d be alive,” she said. She recalls a nurse doing CPR on the baby for twelve minutes. He survived. “It was amazing moment,” she said.

She and her husband came to London to attend the Royal Television Society Awards, where she took home multiple prizes, including one for a piece that the judges said moved them to tears: “The Last Flower-Seller of Aleppo.”

“All the world knows that Syria has a war and she’s six years until now. But a lot of people didn’t realize that there’s life too,” she said. The gardener, Abu Ward, “was one of the most amazing men I’ve seen in Aleppo. He gave us a lot of hope.”

She speaks in the past tense because, during filming, Abu Ward, was killed, she said – by a cluster bomb.

“That was the life in Aleppo. Everything or everyone you can meet today, maybe you will [lose] him in the next days.”

’We were so afraid’

Al-Kateab, her husband, and their young daughter were some of the last civilians to be evacuated on December 22.

“There were a lot of injuries in the hospital, and my husband was there, he has to … he was responsible for all the injuries,” she said. Those last days were some of the most challenging. “There was a lot of dangers, of maybe shelling in the street, or in the road, and of being arrested by regime or the Russians,” she said. “Especially those two days before we left (in December), the regime forces interrupt(ed) the buses and they arrested a lot of people and killed a lot of (people]) .. We were so afraid that maybe that (would happen to) us,” she said. “(But) we are now out and we are safe.”

The family have now left Syria – and Al-Kateab is expecting her second child.

“I believed that maybe the world can do something for Syria, especially in the last days,” she said. “We lost our city. We are now all feeling lost. I don’t know, maybe we have just to continue, and keep trying to tell the world what’s happening.”