Well known among his revolutionary peers, Hadi Al Abdullah grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the Al Qusayr town of Homs, Syria, and obtained a BA in Nursing from Tishreen University in Lattakia. When the Syrian uprising began, Al Abdullah was working on an MA in Emergency Room Nursing but left his studies to become an activist and citizen journalist for the Syrian Revolution. Since then, he has managed to find himself in the middle of many significant clashes inside Syria and the target of several violent attacks. In 2016, he was awarded a Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders. Currently, Al Abdullah is based in Idlib, Syria, and works as a social media reporter and an independent correspondent for several tv stations.
SYRIAWISE interviewed Hadi Al Abdullah from the liberated area of northern Syria where he is currently located.
You are a source for many foreign media agencies. Does this put pressure on you to take risks in order to cover the news in your area?
I hope to report and document all the crimes that the Assad regime and Russia continue to commit. Since we are now in the eleventh year of the revolution, we sometimes feel despair and view the things we do as pointless. Moving from my city of Homs to Idlib, I passed through many besieged areas and tried very hard to document everything. But unfortunately, the results always failed to live up to my hopes and expectations. We have no choice but to stay and strive to deliver the voice of truth. Certainly, we bear a responsibility to continue and remain loyal to the Syrian revolution and to every martyr who gave his blood to support the revolution against injustice, especially when I am covering a massacre and I see the expressions of gratitude from the people because we have made it possible for their voices to be heard through the media. The responsibility here is definitely double, despite fatigue, sadness, and sometimes an overwhelming sense of despair. The challenges are great to continue but I made a covenant with my friends, some of whom became martyrs such as Trad Al-Zohouri, Khaled Al-Issa, Raed Al-Fares, and Hamoud Junaid, that whoever survives must continue until the end.
In December 2015 you were invited along with a few other journalists to conduct a rare interview with Abu Mohammad al-Julani , the leader of al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Were you able to ask any questions about his radical ideology?
It was a tough decision to make, whether to go or not. There was something so compelling about being invited along with reporters from three well-known media outlets. I am an independent journalist and I do not represent any tv station from 2011 until today. Despite offers I have received to work for some of them, I preferred to remain independent. Al-Jazeera, Al-Ghad Al-Arabi, and Orient were invited, and then there was me. They treated me as if I was a television reporter as well. During that period, I had been living with Raed Al-Fares, journalist and founder of the Kafranbel Media Center. I had consulted with Raed about attending this conference and we both decided that if the questions were free, and I could ask what I wanted as a journalist, I would go. But if the interview would be directed so that we would only be able to ask specific questions, then I would apologize. When we asked Al Nusra Front about the possibility of free questions, they said sure. We made a decision to go and it was only after we arrived that we were told that they did not want political questions. But they agreed to do the interview anyways after I told them that I would withdraw if my questions were restricted to only preapproved topics.
I had prepared the questions previously and was bold in asking them directly such as “Why are you affiliated with, and supported by, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?” and “If you really care about our country, why aren’t you a Syrian faction?” Along with my questions, I also emphasized that the presence of Al-Nusra, and its association with the ranks of Al-Qaeda, was detrimental to the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people. Because of the way I confronted them, I faced some harassment later.
Indeed you did. Just one month later, in January 2016, you and the late Raed al-Fares were arrested by Jabhat al-Nusra. Can you tell us why you were arrested, how you were treated, and why they set you free?
We were raided by Al-Nusra twice because they were not satisfied with the presence of Radio Fresh, which was run by Raed, and I was helping him in this business. In the first of the two raids, we were surrounded by members of Al-Nusra Front with weapons and military convoys. I was beaten, and one of them accused me of insulting the Messenger, and I do not know why he accused me of that. The second raid was the result of our work policy, which was against extremism. Contrary to their radical views, the policy of the revolution, and the people was green, compared to their black one. Media pressure and popular support were on our side. The news of our arrest was spread in the media and people began to denounce it. This later resulted in Raed being released safely and the equipment that had been confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra being returned.
Are your video reports being archived?
This is a problem for me because until 2014 all of our videos were being filmed in Al Qusayr in Homs by my friend Trad Al-Zohouri and I. After leaving Homs, we continued to work together in al-Qalamoun in the countryside of Damascus until Trad was martyred there. Trad’s family had been storing the video archives for us and they still have them.
When I came to Kafranbel in northern Syria, I was filming with Khaled Al-Issa who was part of Radio Fresh and the Kafranbel Media Center that Raed had introduced me to. May God have mercy on both of them.
During an assassination attempt while we were covering events in Aleppo in 2016, Khaled Al-Issa was martyred when the house we were in was blown up and all the archives that were in it at the time were stolen. Unfortunately, I have not been able to recover any of the stolen archives.
As you have mentioned, you have lost several close revolutionary friends and colleagues to the conflict in Syria. How would you want them to be remembered or memorialized in the future?
I try to keep their memories alive with us, starting with my personal life as I talk about them at every occasion and event. I have made short story videos about them and also wrote a book called Critical Cases from My Diary of the Syrian Revolution. I talked about the friends who were martyred in this book as a kind of permanent memorial to them. What I hope for in the future is that there will be media academies based on teaching the aspects and principles of media that my friends adhered to, and sacrificed their lives for.