On April 25, 2011, a man held up a video camera in Daraa. He was not an experienced videographer and he did not have a tripod. He stood in front of a group of Syrian army soldiers with tanks and filmed them shooting their machine guns towards civilian targets. Each time he watched the clip on his laptop, he noticed the footage was shaky due to his trembling hand, so he would go back to his dangerous and exposed vantage point to film once more. He did this 24 times before he had a somewhat stable clip.
His name was Mohamed “Abu al-Nimer” Masalmeh. On January 18, 2013 — after 22 months of reporting as a citizen journalist from Daraa— he was killed by Assad snipers in the village of Busra al-Harir. He was armed with a microphone and his camera.
32-year-old Abu al-Nimer was well-known in Daraa for his impeccable aluminum kitchen cabinets and window frames. Before the revolution ignited from his home city, he had been detained for four months in the Air Force intelligence center in Damascus. He was released during the first weeks of the Arab Spring in time to witness an ousted dictator in Tunisia and a roaring Tahrir Square threatening Mubarak. A group of underground activists, including Mohamed, began meeting in Ali Masalmeh’s farm to discuss how to begin the revolution in Syria. In the meantime, 15 schoolboys, influenced by their older brothers’ secret discussions and scenes of protests in Egypt and Libya, wrote on the school walls, “The people want to topple the regime.” The boys were arrested and tortured.
On Wednesday, March 15, 2011, Mohamed joined a group of 30 men to protest the schoolboys’ arrest in Daraa’s main square in front of the Saraya courthouse. Intelligence officers had already heard about the plot and swarmed the area. The protest was silently aborted. On March 18, they tried again, this time emerging from the Hamza and Abbas Mosque after Friday prayers chanting: freedom, freedom, freedom. Thousands joined them, security forces opened fire, two protesters were killed, and a revolution was born.
Mohamed laid down his construction tools and picked up a camera to film the events unfolding in Daraa. He joined the growing Sham News Network (SNN) as a citizen journalist. His reports from Daraa were moving tributes to the sacrifices and destruction of his city which has been under siege since April 2011. He took to wearing disguises during his television reports: a black wig; a scarf; large sunglasses. But the son of Daraa with his round face and kind eyes was known to his city and to the shabiha. He was a wanted man.
Last year, Mohamed began reporting for Al-Jazeera. He felt Daraa had been forgotten in the media as the violence raged in the rest of the country. His brave reports from the ground exposed the suffering of southern Syria.
A week before his death, his wife returned to Daraa to visit him. They took walks on the snow-covered streets and he drew a heart in the snow with the words “Daraa, Wala’.” Her name meant loyalty. He was loyal to his wife and his city. He was also known for his generosity, often returning home with emptied pockets as he walked the streets of Daraa listening to tales of hardship. And although he was the city’s most prominent media activist, he never upgraded his old Nokia phone, saying, “This phone understands me and I understand it.”
Mohamed once said, “I thank God that I was blessed to be one of the men to leave the Hamza and Abbas Mosque chanting, ‘freedom.’” He insisted on mentioning martyrs’ names in his report, lest anyone forget, names of other sons of Houran: Ali Masalmeh, Mahmoud Jawabrah, and Husam Abd al-Wali Ayyash. When 4 SNN citizen journalists were killed in June 2012 in Damascus, Mohamed protested in Daraa, without a disguise, holding a sign that said: “We are all Sham.”
In the last few weeks, his friends begged him to leave Daraa; it had become too dangerous. He replied, “I’ll leave but first I need to go to Busra al-Harir so I can rest.” Busra al-Harir — a village around 50 kilometers from Daraa — was the site of intense fighting between Assad forces and the Free Syrian Army.
In his final video, he stands on a street corner with armed FSA fighters. He is unarmed, in regular clothes, holding a microphone with a makeshift Al-Jazeera logo. A fighter tests the situation and darts across the street first. He arrives safely to the other side. Abu al-Nimer is next; he is visibly nervous. He puts his head down and runs. Three shots break the silence. Three bullets catch him before he reaches to safety. He falls; his body convulses. The video ends.
Mohamed was shot twice in the torso and once in his leg. There were no doctors or an adequate medical facility to treat him. Like thousands of Syrian martyrs before him, and dozens of citizen journalists, Mohamed Masalmeh bled to death.
Daraa slowly bleeds hero after hero. The courageous city resists, but paused one day in January to mourn Houran’s beloved son, Mohamed “Abu a-Nimer” Masalmeh, who had finally found a place to rest.
This piece was originally published in Syria Deeply and in Sham News Journal in Arabic.