Nour Kelze | 2013 Courage in Journalism Award

Reuters, Syria.

‘I gave up to death’: Syrian photojournalist dodges bullets to show her country’s revolution.

Nour Kelze never planned on becoming a journalist. But her cellphone and a revolution unfolding before her eyes transformed her career – and her life.

Last year, while snapping photos of revolutionary fighters on her phone, Kelze caught the attention of internationally known war photographer Goran Tomasevic, who works for Reuters. Kelze’s passion for telling the story of the Syrian revolution so compelled Tomasevic that he trained the young woman and gave her some of his own camera equipment.

Kelze, 25, is now herself a photojournalist for Reuters in Syria. Her photos reflect the chaotic and ever-changing landscape in her country, giving the rest of the world a window into a country in the throes of political change.

“The camera is as equal as a weapon,” Kelze told NPR earlier this year. “And you need to document every single thing that’s happening.”

Kelze traded a classroom, where she previously worked as a school teacher, for an unpredictable, ever-changing work environment as she began documenting the human cost of the conflict in Syria. But working on the front lines of a revolution didn’t come without a personal cost.

“I had so many near-death experiences,” Kelze said. While photographing damage from a missile attack on residential parts of Aleppo in October 2012, Kelze found herself under fire from small aircraft.

“The sound was so loud that when the jet got really low and fired back I did not hear it,” Kelze said, recalling the experience. “I turned my head to see what is happening. I was so busy taking the photos that I did not notice that they all were on the floor, taking cover and the dust filled the air. I couldn’t see everything. “I thought in the next couple of minutes I will die. I thought it was the big bomb that the jet usually throws. … But luckily I was just injured. The jet fired bullets and five shrapnel went through my arm, leg and my back. I was lucky.”

Since then, dodging sniper fire and shells dropped by aircraft has become part of Kelze’s daily routine. She has been shot at numerous times, and she is often targeted in propaganda by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Another close call occurred on Feb. 7 in the Shaikh Saaed district of Aleppo, where Kelze was taking photos of rebel fighters being shot at by government snipers. “We stopped in a street where the sniper was shooting,” Kelze said. “Fighters started running to cross. I stopped and watched then started taking photos.” But a fighter’s attempt to block the sniper’s view irritated the sniper, according to Kelze. “I expected something bad to happen,” she said. “That is when I knew I had to leave immediately.”

Kelze was unable to move to elude sniper fire, and a wall fell on top of her. “As I took the last photo and turned to get out of that place, all of a sudden I couldn’t see anything,” she said. “I saw only black and heard nothing. Then I felt my body drifting. I couldn’t fight it. I gave up to death. I thought that these were my last moments and then I will see the white light at the end of the tunnel.

“Then I started to see gradually. I heard someone calling my name. For a while I thought that I was trapped under the rocks and the ceiling. Luckily I wasn’t. My friend came to me and tried to help me to stand. I couldn’t. I immediately recognized that I had a broken ankle.” Kelze was hospitalized for her shattered ankle and had surgery the following day in Turkey.

Undeterred by her near-death experience, Kelze went back to work – not to an office but to the front lines – a mere four days after her surgery. “I was so impatient,” she said. “I stayed in Syria even though it was a dangerous environment.” Armed with her camera, Kelze returned to bringing the stories of the revolution to international attention.

The Assad regime has targeted journalists, especially those working for well-known outlets, for fear their reports could lead to that very attention – and unwanted intervention.

Syria was ranked as the deadliest country for the press last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Twenty-eight journalists were killed there in 2012, and at least four journalists have already been killed in 2013. The majority of fatalities were at the hands of government forces, according to CPJ, but other attacks against those seen as pro-government were attributed to rebel forces.

Journalists whose lives are spared often are tortured and forced into false confessions of supporting the rebels or being traitors. Other reporters are denounced as spies. Aleppo, where Kelze works, is ground zero of the revolution. Half of the city is controlled by rebels and half by the Assad regime, making it a permanent battleground for the two forces. During the struggle between Assad’s forces and the rebel groups, many Syrian journalists fled their cities and the country; Kelze is one of the few still working in Aleppo. Much of her work has been published under an alias to spare her from targeted attacks.

Even when Kelze was at home recovering from her broken ankle in February, she feared for her life. “One morning … I woke up to the sound of the guys living with me saying, ‘It is close. It’s gonna hit now. Everyone hide,’ Kelze said. “I heard the sound of the jet flying up and the sound of something speeding in the air coming closer.”

“I buried my head between my arms and waited to die on the bed,” she said. “I couldn’t run – I had a broken ankle – and I froze there waiting to die. Then … boom. The doors were cracked and the windows were broken. It only took parts of seconds for the missiles to hit the corner of the street, only three buildings away. An experience that lasted for seconds, but so horrifying that it is unforgettable.”

Kelze is determined to continue showing the world what is happening in her country. “So many girls … died in the kitchen, doing a dish wash or something, and a mortar shell or shrapnel falls through a window and they drop dead,” she said. “So why should I die cheap? I have to go, I have to do this.”

In an exclusive interview with documentary filmmaker Matthew VanDyke (see embedded video on the right), Kelze talked about her decision to become a photojournalist, the challenges of being a woman covering the front lines, and why she doesn’t fear death.

Kelze is the first Syrian winner of the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award.

Follow Nour Kelze on Twitter: @NourKelze

This article was written by Lindsey Wray.

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About Matthew VanDyke

All photos and video footage of Nour Kelze have been provided by Matthew VanDyke. He is an American documentary filmmaker who has been filming in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia since 2007. He has recently finished his first film, titled Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, about the ongoing conflict in Syria. Nour Kelze is the star and a producer of the film.

The title of VanDyke’s film Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution is derived from a quote by Nour Kelze, “I used to wear fancy dresses and high heels. But, not anymore.” VanDyke met Kelze in Syria and she first began working on the film as a fixer. But as she guided him around Syria he began to film her, realizing that he had found a courageous, inspiring subject for the film. Nour Kelze was indispensable to the making of the film, on which she also became a producer, exhibiting her tireless work ethic in the production of the film both on- and off-camera.

VanDyke is currently working on a book and is a producer on a documentary film about his experiences as a combatant and prisoner of war in Libya in 2011, is a guest on television and radio programs, and frequently writes about international security issues.