From behind a camera, he chronicled a war — and the destruction of his Syrian home town
By CAITLIN GIBSON | The Washington Post | Published: November 26, 2017
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Karam al-Masri was a young law student in Aleppo. His schoolteacher parents had raised him to be an engaged citizen, so Masri followed anti-Assad regime protesters into the streets, and posted to Facebook the video footage he captured on his old Nokia cellphone.
"I wanted to tell the truth," the 26 year-old told the audience gathered for an International Center for Journalists awards dinner this month. "I wanted to tell the world what was going on."
He never planned to be a journalist, never imagined that he would ultimately chronicle the obliteration of his beloved city from behind a camera lens — nor that he would receive a prize for this work, the 2017 Knight International Journalism Award. But the war changed everything.
"Every day was a struggle to survive," Masri said from the stage of a Washington, D.C., ballroom. In the past six years, he'd been shot, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured. His mother had been killed in the bombings; other friends and family had perished, too.
"Syrians have lost everything; even their dreams no longer exist," he said. "I have waited for a happy ending like the one I have seen in Hollywood films. I want an end to the misery that the Syrian people have endured ..."
For now, he could offer only a faintly positive note on which to end his speech:
"I have gained a great deal by going through this experience — mainly, I have fallen in love, in love with being a journalist, and conveying the truth," he said. And the crowd before him rose to its feet.
One year ago,Masri was seeking shelter in half-demolished buildings, dodging mortar attacks, his stomach knotted with hunger. He doubted he'd get out of Aleppo alive.
Now, days after the awards dinner, he sat in a brightly-lit conference room at the ICFJ headquarters, clad in blue-rimmed glasses and a black bomber jacket, swiveling his chair as he spoke — in English and in Arabic, through a translator — about his past and future.
His career as a journalist might have ended even before it began, after a friend reported his Facebook posts to the regime in 2011. Government forces came for him at night, he says, surrounding his family's home with heavily armed vehicles and bright lights. The message, for him and anyone who saw it: If you do what he does, it will cost you.
He was held in solitary confinement for a month, in a claustrophobic cell that barely contained his narrow frame. He came to memorize the markings left behind in the plaster walls by the previous occupant. The prisoner had used a sharp edge — a zipper, Masri suspects — to carve a straight line for every day of a roughly seven-month sentence, the word "freedom" in Kurdish, an elaborate drawing of the prison itself.
After Masri was pardoned and released, "I was in absolute fear," he said. "I was quiet, I was compliant." But he gradually began to forget the fear and the pain. He started documenting protests again — this time surrounded by trusted friends and wrapped head-to-toe, "like a mummy," so he couldn't be identified.
In 2013, he bought a used Canon camera and began to experiment with its settings. "I laugh at the quality of those pictures now," he said. But as Western journalists abandoned Syria, Masri started freelancing for Agence France-Presse.
Over the next three years, he filed hundreds of images. He remembers every one: An emaciated baby nursing an empty bottle. Bandaged men slumped on a debris-strewn, bloodstained hospital floor. A young boy bent over a black body bag, his tear-streaked face frozen mid-scream.
On his way to cover a massacre in eastern Aleppo in November 2013, Masri and two friends were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint. They were blindfolded, driven hours away, and put in solitary confinement for 45 days. After that, his captors moved Masri from prison to prison for nearly six months.
Every time a new prisoner arrived, he said, everyone would gather around, eager for news from the outside. This was how he learned that his family's neighborhood had been bombed.
His worst fears were confirmed when an aunt came to visit. "I asked, 'Where's my mother?' and my aunt said she was sick," Masri recalled, his eyes reddening. He later learned the truth that his aunt couldn't bear to share: His mother was dead. Soon after, his aunt was also killed in a bombing.
Masri wrote of his grief for Agence France-Presse: "I've lost everything — my family, my university. I'm an only child. What I miss most is my family, my father, my mother. Particularly her. I think about her every day, I see her in my dreams."
By the time he was released from the ISIS prison, Masri no longer recognized his devastated home town. But he soon resumed his work, filing video and photos to AFP as the siege of Aleppo began and the chaos around him intensified.
"The destruction in those last three months was worse than what we'd seen in the three years before," he said.
His editors at AFP watched anxiously from afar as the Syrian army closed in on Masri's neighborhood, according to their firsthand account in the AFP. To protect him, his colleagues ran Masri's photos without his name — but he demanded that they reinstate his byline. The work was his responsibility, he told them, and he wanted his name there to lend credibility.
His tenacity — paired with the exceptional quality of his photography — made him an immediate standout among the roughly 300 candidates for this year's Knight International Journalism Award, says ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan. He shared this year's prize with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Karachi-based journalist and filmmaker.
"Had it not been for him, the world may not have known about a lot of the atrocities that were taking place in Aleppo," Barnathan told The Washington Post. "It was just too dangerous for Western journalists to be there. And he learned best practices on the job to become a reliable journalist, and to be our eyes and ears in this horrific war zone."
In his final weeks in Aleppo, Masri texted constantly with Rana Moussaoui, an AFP colleague in Beirut. He told her of the constant danger, his growing hunger, his mounting despair. When he lost his camera in a fire, he wrote to her that he'd lost the will to go on: "I don't want to leave. I want to be buried here with everything beautiful that I lost, with my parents and my memories."
Moussaoui and other co-workers rallied to support him, telling him that his work was important, that he had to survive.
He left Aleppo during the mass evacuation in December 2016, using a borrowed camera to document the refugee migration. He crossed the border into Turkey and eventually made it to Paris, where he has lived since March. He was recently granted asylum in France and hopes to continue his career as a photojournalist.
At night, he said, he dreams of two Aleppos: the thriving city he knew before the war, and the demolished ruins he fled.
As for his new life in France, he shrugged. "I can live anywhere. It doesn't matter. I could live on Mars," he said. "I lost my country. There's not an option to not adapt." What he wants, he said, is to go back to a war zone — "I can go anywhere but Syria" — as soon as he can.
"It's become an addiction. I feel bored in a life of no adventure, no danger, and at the same time, there is a growing need for objective, neutral documentation," he said. "And my camera can do that."
There is one photograph in particular that he pulls up often, he added, scrolling through his phone to find it. The image is of a city street, framed by buildings with shattered windows. Three massive buses stand their ends, towering above the dusty road where a boy walks past. There is danger in this scene, Masri explained: The abandoned buses were used as fortified perches by government snipers. Civilians were sometimes killed just crossing the street near buses like this, he said.
Amid the many horrors of war-torn Aleppo, Masri said he was the first to capture this particular detail. But that's not why the photo means so much to him.
"This is in my neighborhood," he said softly. "This was my home."