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The battle for exposure in Syria

Amid a shortage of weapons, rebel groups have been using media to attract financial support
Last modified: 25 Jan 2013 20:58

IDLIB, SYRIA - The rebel-held town Heesh in Idlib province is just 600m away from the frontline.  Al Jazeera's team, accompanied by an Idlib-based journalist, arrived in Heesh to film the clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces, as artillery bombardment continued to shower the town.

Just after we parked our car, an angry rebel confronted the local journalist: “Get out here! Why are you here?" he shouted. "Are you coming to film the destruction? Where were you before? Where were you when the town was still in one piece?"

His comrades tried to push the angry man back. But he continued to shout: "You have been filming in every town where shells hit. But when it came to Heesh, you ignored it completely. I do not want to see you here."

The local journalist responded by saying he could not film in every single town in the province alone, telling the fighter it was the job of Heesh activists to show the world what has been going on in their own town.

Ten minutes later, the fighter calmed down and the crowd that formed around the car had dispersed.

We strolled through what looked like a ghost town. Most buildings had been reduced to rubble. We stumbled upon hands and legs of mannequins from destroyed clothes shops, pieces of broken mirrors from the barber shop, burnt children's toys and piles of garbage.

We did not see a single civilian resident, in what was once a town of 22,000 people. There were only fighters roaming the streets, seemingly undisturbed by the falling rockets.

Rebels had been trying to push back regime forces and attack the strategic military base of Wadi al-Deif on the main road between Damascus and Aleppo, located just 17km away from Heesh.

Weaponry 'through a dropper'

But fighters are lacking the heavy artillery they need to make lasting advances. The weaponry is arriving in their hands "through a dropper", they say.

Amid the shortage of weapons and the prolifiration of diverse opposition battalions, each group has been trying to attract financial support to fund its battles.

Media – and especially social media- has become their means to showcase their dedication to the fight and thereafter invite outside donations.

"He is upset because no media outlet showed up in the town before. We were left alone for months," a fighter named Mustafa said, trying to justify his comrade's outburst. "Nobody knew about us, so we received no moral support or help with weapons."

Opposition activists film rebel operations and clashes with regime forces and upload the footage to be watched by people worldwide on YouTube. They also send video to television networks, hoping it will be broadcast.

But in Heesh, activists lacked good cameras and internet devices. They had to go to nearby towns where they could connect to the internet and upload the footage.

"This process sometimes took few days. By the time we released the footage it had become outdated and unusable. So very few people heard about us," Mustafa said.

Thus while the town is strategically important in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad's forces, it received no media attention and little was known about the suffering of residents there before they fled the bombardment.

'Allah Ykhalisna'

Fighters say media exposure would not just have increased the chances of receiving money from outside. It would also have prompted fighters from other towns to join them at their frontline.

"The lack of phone lines and the continuous shelling have made communication between fighters in different towns difficult. When we watched reports on TV about fierce clashes in the neighbouring town, many of our fighters went there to fight along," Mohammad, another fighter in Heesh, told us.

"But nobody came to help us because nobody knew about us".

While different battalions are eager for media exposure and a lot of residents want to show the world the humanitarian catastrophe they are enduring, some locals in Idlib province are growing sick and tired of the media.

In the nearby town of al-Bara, we filmed children who started working in a vegetable shop after their schools were closed.

The father welcomed our crew. I sat silent near him on the sidewalk waiting for my colleague to finish filming.

A few minutes later, the father- who probably thought I was a foreigner who did not speak Arabic - told his friend: "We have reached a level where we are allowing our children to be filmed so that the world can feel our pain. But the footage has become a tool for the opposition living outside to beg for money."

"I just want this whole situation to end," he said.

“Allah Ykhalisna, Allah Ykhalisna (May Allah get us out of this situation)".