For days, I had been trying to reach Khaled al Zubi to discuss the essay he was writing, the latest in a series from locations where the mainstream media cannot go. My messages on WhatsApp had been received and read, but there was no response.
Khaled—an opposition-media activist based in southern Syria—had spent the last six years reporting from the front lines and documenting Assad regime war crimes for local media from near Dera’a, where the national uprising broke out in March 2011. I feared for his safety. A couple weeks earlier, he’d messaged that his family had to flee their village of Muleiha Sharqiyya after unknown assailants fired on their house during the night. He gave no details.
To be sure everything was all right, I sent him another, short message a little over a month ago. “Hey Khaled, how’s everything going?” I wrote. Within a few minutes, it was read, a good sign. “Good Jeremy I’m fine, Alhamdulilah [praise be to God],” he wrote back. “I’m sorry I did not respond before, but four days ago my wife gave birth to a son. I’ve been very busy.” “Congratulations Khaled that’s great!” I replied.
But the joy was brief. On August 21, Khaled, his newborn son, and his brother Osama were all killed when their car drove over a roadside bomb planted along the main road leading south of their hometown.
What does an editor feel at a moment like this? Grief-stricken to lose someone I knew from several months of exchanges. Deep sadness over the loss of another young life. And incompleteness. I still had questions for him about his essay!
Khaled and Osama, who was also a media activist, in fact left a legacy beyond Khaled’s letter from Dera’a, published here. They were two of the most prominent media activists documenting the Syrian revolution in the south and had left a treasure trove of video and photos from the front lines.
The Arabic-language media have been carrying tributes. Al-Jazeera’s News Race program featured a segment on Osama, naming him one of the top four “people of the week” alongside Steve Bannon, Julian Assange, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. “Always a journalist…Osama Zubi reported on the Syrian revolution from its inception.… Always accompanied by his camera, he was kidnapped by death without a moment’s notice; however, he wasn’t alone. He passed on with his brother Khaled and brother’s son,” the August 26 report said.
The road Khaled and Osama were killed on links their hometown to the neighboring village of Karak, and they had often traversed it. Their friends think the improvised explosive device (IED) had been planted recently. Remnants of the IED bore markings indicating it was produced by the Syrian military, manufactured at the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Jamraya, outside Damascus. According to the US Treasury Department, which first placed sanctions on the center in 2005, this is reportedly where the regime developed its chemical weapons. Muleiha Sharqiyya and Karak are close to regime-held territory, not far from the Tha’la military air base, where the regime stockpiles heavy weapons. It’s possible that regime forces infiltrated opposition lines to plant the IED.
Friends of the brothers see their deaths as part of the latest regime tactic to quietly kill opposition figures without appearing to violate the cease-fire. The brothers were two of seven opposition figures who succumbed to IEDs in the east Dera’a countryside over a period of 48 hours.
Khaled and Osama were just two of the several hundred thousand who have died since the Syrian uprising began. They could have fled to Jordan, just 12 miles to the south. But they were citizen-journalists we describe as “media activists.” They chose to face threats and hardship so they could report the story of Syria.