A Syrian man holds his daughter as he and his family flee rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo this month.

A Syrian man holds his daughter as he and his family flee rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo this month.

The tears began streaming down my face when I woke up to the voice message from Mohammad Abu Rajab, a doctor in the besieged districts of east Aleppo.

A couple of days before, his words to me had come to encapsulate the plight of the civilians trapped in the rapidly shrinking chunk of territory controlled by the Syrian opposition in the ancient city. Hundreds of people had died in the offensive ordered by the government of President Bashar Assad, and the prospect of death or torture was fast approaching.

It is paradoxical to be so far and yet so near to people, chronicling their suffering while being unable to smell the odor of gunpowder yourself or to see the sadness in the eyes of children save through someone else’s camera lens.

“This is a final distress call to the world. Save Aleppo.” The words were splashed on the front page of the newspaper I write for, the Guardian.

Now Abu Rajab, who had been wounded in an earlier airstrike on the city, was messaging me to say he had made it out alive in the first wave of evacuations, under a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia.

“I love you. You stood with us and carried our voice to the world. We are going to leave Aleppo with pain in our hearts, but you told me you had hope that we will meet one day, and we will meet, inshallah.”

I have never met Abu Rajab in person, though I hope to do so soon now that he and his family are safely in Turkey, where I’m also based. I “met” him, as I did much of my wide network of contacts who were in east Aleppo, online.

Aleppo has been almost impossible to visit for months. To go to the government’s side one needs a visa, which is granted very sporadically to journalists (I’ve been denied multiple times) and where movement is restricted with the presence of a minder. Crossing over from the Turkish border is fraught with its own difficulties, trekking through territory that has an Al Qaeda presence, and at any rate the eastern part of the city has been under a tight siege for months, with little food or water going in and out, let alone human beings.

 

An alternative had to be found. People were starving, hospitals were getting repeatedly bombed in a campaign likened to the destruction of Grozny. The defiant voices urging humanity’s collective conscience to do something, anything, had to be heard. But how?

It has become almost a cliché at this point to talk about how social media and the open-source data they make available are going to change journalism. But it has never been as crucial as in the case of Aleppo.

Activists and local journalists inside east Aleppo have for years relied on techniques like satellite phones and ad-hoc networks as well as renewable sources of energy like solar panels to keep their lines of communication with the outside world, they have been Tweeting and Facebooking relentlessly about life under siege.

In addition to the established local activists, other accounts popped up, perhaps the most famous of all the account of a 7-year-old girl, Bana al-Abed, operated by her mom.

I interviewed the pair by video over Skype while they were taking shelter from helicopters and fighter jets that I could clearly hear in the background. Back then they had around 4,000 followers. Today they have more than 300,000, including people like author J.K. Rowling, who took a special interest in the little girl’s well-being, sending her copies over the Internet of the Harry Potter novels after she described how much she liked reading to forget the war.

The other significant element of reaching people in the besieged city was direct- messaging applications, particularly WhatsApp.

I remember the exact moment when I realized how crucial the platform would be to cover hard-to-reach or besieged areas in Syria. I was in a Whatsapp group that brought together foreign journalists, local Aleppo journalists and residents, and the doctors who were still defying the systematic destruction of hospitals to treat the wounded.

The updates streamed in constantly from the group. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find a string of messages about the latest bombing attacks, and an hour later footage of the aftermath. Then the doctors would chime in when the victims started arriving. Interspersed with pictures of my two cats and a date night with my fiancee were countless pictures of dead babies, the flames from white phosphorus or the deep craters of bunker-buster bombs.

One morning a nurse wrote to us with an urgent message. She had taken shelter at the basement of the hospital where she worked, with bombs falling on the courtyard outside. Her message was directed to one of the photojournalists who was in the group, also in east Aleppo.

She said: “If the hospital falls on top of us, come pull us out from under the rubble, but do not take pictures. Please don’t take pictures; we won’t gain anything from it and our dignity is too precious.”

Other Whatsapp groups have been created as newsmakers come to realize its potential to reach many journalists at once and spread their message. One made up of officials in the armed opposition updated us on the progress of negotiations to evacuate civilians. Another one allowed Turkish government officials to provide constant updates about the progress of the coup attempt in July. And there are two-way mediums, almost mimicking a news conference, with the ability to ask immediate and probing questions from officials and people on the ground.

But it also comes with a new set of responsibilities: For every new contact in Syria, a drawn-out vetting process follows involving multiple, almost-daily conversations with questions about verifiable facts and cross-checking of information to ascertain its reliability before being comfortable quoting those sources.

We also need to be careful to avoid groupthink and maintain a healthy distance from the story.

But then again, how do you maintain a dispassionate distance when you’ve been, for three months, looking at the bodies of the children those doctors had to treat? Or stayed up through the night to listen in to the palpable horror in the voices of those living under the bombs? How could you not pray for their safety, and ask them to take care of themselves?

I remember one nurse who was quite active on the group, sending us the latest from his hospital ward and news of a fresh round of injured. One day, his friends on the group sent us news – his brother had died that morning, struck down by a government shell. The condolences flowed in.

A few hours later, it got worse. His father had been killed by a shell as he searched for a suitable place to bury his son.

He is out of Aleppo now. I suspect his wound will never be healed, nor will I ever forget.

It is paradoxical to be so far and yet so near to people, chronicling their suffering while being unable to smell the odor of gunpowder yourself or to see the sadness in the eyes of children save through someone else’s camera lens.

I didn’t get into journalism to interview people on Whatsapp and Skype. It can’t replace my reporting on the ground, where every building destroyed, every shard of shattered class, every drop of blood I’ve seen has left an indelible mark on me.  But sometimes we have to do the best we can with what we have. And sometimes it can carry their voices to the world.

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