Fresh from his exclusive interview with Abu Qatada in the Jordanian capital Amman, Bilal Abdul Kareem sat in the International airport in Doha, Qatar and contemplated his next move. It was 2014 and officials gave no reasons why he was being prevented from entering the country he had made his home. He described himself as a ‘refugee’ with no place to head for!
Today Bilal’s home is Eastern Aleppo. A city almost completely destroyed by Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes but where, remarkably, the resilience of the fighters on the ground appears to be undiminished. Bilal told “Muslim Eye” that the mood among the fighters was neither one of silent resignation nor one of quiet acceptance of defeat, on the contrary, the atmosphere was one of defiance and a confidence that the siege would soon be broken.
At the centre of Bilal Abdul Kareem’s bravery is the unrelenting burning desire to reflect real Muslim voices and narratives. Formerly, an employee of Al Huda TV, Bilal’s departure from the station reflected his passion to allow Muslim voices to be heard. Although he was impressed with the work of the Channel, he felt the impression it gave was that Muslims did not have any problems around the world!
His decision to enter Syria followed a number of hard-hitting documentaries he had made to reflect the plight of voiceless Muslims. His documentary on Barber Ahmed, British activist facing extradition to the United States, helped bring to the world’s attention a man who had been incarcerated without trial for 8 years. Now in Syria, he arrived to reflect the view of hundreds of Western fighters who had come to Syria to help out with the war effort.
Bilal recalls the fear he felt as he crossed the Syrian border from Turkey, he was easily the odd one out. A black American from New York speaking Arabic with a foreign accent but quite clearly a man who could be trusted to reflect the plight of the Syrian people and the various armed groups that emerged to protect the people being attacked from all directions by the Syrian regime. Bilal soon became a celebrity in his own right reporting as an independent on the major world news networks about the views, opinions, and conditions of the Syrians on the ground.
He had taken up base reporting from the outskirts of Aleppo but when the cessation of hostilities was announced, two and half months ago, he decided to enter Aleppo for a few days and report on the town which has now been besieged by the regime for almost two years. His path into the City was remarkably easy but his exit when the fighting and the Russian airstrikes resumed was blocked.
Bilal reflected on his life’s journey and on the situation in Aleppo, he told "Muslim Eye", “You could not believe what the situation is in besieged Aleppo right now…because I was here in Syria and I could not believe it (myself)…the amounts of airstrikes that land on this place on a daily basis is unreal, it’s unreal…I have been target slash hit but maybe not targeted a full eight times…from drone strikes to conventional missiles…so I cannot tell you how many times it’s being said, ‘that’s the black guy so go and get him’…but being the only Western journalist here and the only Black guy in town for sure, I have been targeted…So the only thing that is keeping me going here is only Allah, because I have no business still being alive”
The eight separate hits of drone or mortar fire have landed twice on his office and car completely destroying them. Bilal is under no illusions, “How can I explain that why (I am still alive) because I am so smart and so clever that I can keep away from these bombs? (He chuckles) I don’t even know when they are coming…so it’s only Allah that is allowing me to be here…so I really want to take advantage while I have this time left because that might be a day, an hour or a year or ten years only Allah knows!”
Staying alive is a task to which he has to dedicate much of his time. Bilal admits that he has lost his trust in people in an environment where the possibility of kidnap, ambush, and direct assassination attempts are a daily hazard and a real possibility. Therefore, invitations from people he does not know well enough are ignored, announced public meetings where he is due to speak, he does not attend or random approaches from strangers set alarm bells ringing.
Nevertheless, far from regretting the decision to enter the city, Bilal says, ‘I think this is what Allah wanted and I am honoured that maybe Allah has a role for me to play here…so how can I be sad?!”
His “On the Ground News” service was born in the knowledge that despite the high number of interviews and commentary he had given to the mainstream media about the situation in Syria, the voices of ‘ordinary’ Syrians were not being heard. He puts this down to the constraints placed on the mainstreams who must respond to audiences and are sometimes in fear of risk of losing financial support by conveying unpalatable ‘Muslim’ narratives.
In particular, as the world points out the differences between moderate and extreme Sunni groups, Bilal believes that the unification of Sunni Muslims as an ‘Ummah’ is viewed an existential threat to some world leaders. Not so, the Shia creed which does not have the same global vision of Islam. Bilal is quite convinced of the need to talk to those who the mainstream media are not talking to because he believes the role that the ‘silent voice’ plays are important in shaping different narratives.
He is clear in his own mind that he feels he has a religious, social and moral obligation to report on events as they unfold. As ordinary people in the West make judgments about those who are demonised by the media, Bilal’s concern is that judgments are based on facts and the voice of the Syria opposition fighters are allowed to feature in the analysis and assessments made about Syria and the current crisis.
The “Muslim Eye” asked Bilal Abdul-Kareem to respond to the feeling in the Middle East demonstrated by a recent poll on Arabic Twitter where the belief is that Russia and America are in fact working together against the Syrian people. He told “Muslim Eye” that the people do not trust either side and are apathetic to the scurry of talks that are taking place between the two powers. He confirmed that the world’s discussion on Syria was not a topic of conversation or concern for the people in that area.
In reflecting the view of the rebel opposition, Bilal Abdul Kareem reflected his assessment on those on the ground in Aleppo about the ultimate intention of both the Russian and American governments. “Neither side want this siege to end. Each side benefits from the bargaining chip that they can offer to the 350,000 people trapped inside or gain concessions from the rebels.”
He gave evidence of the lack of desire by the American side to see the end to the siege, “My proof for that is approximately one month ago just as Jash-al-Fatih was planning the breaking of the siege, America launched a missile attack on the area where the meetings were taking place and killed the commanders that were putting together the plan to end the siege.”
In summing up the mood of fighters in Aleppo, he was candid, “The situation is Aleppo…how can I describe this...I want you to image that you put meat on the table and you have hungry lions around the table… I want you to picture the look that you see in the lions’ eyes…that’s the look that I see in a lot of the eyes of the fighters that are here…the fight to break the siege has been planned and will start very soon, like animals in a cage they’re waiting... (to be unleashed!)”
On the Ground News
Published on 20 Oct 2016 on You Tube
Today was supposed to be a day the Syrian regime assumed would see droves of his countrymen running from rebel territory to the regime side. However, only around 200 in total out of 350,000 tried it. You won't believe what happened when they did and who tried to fabricate a story and got caught.