The Grapes of My Country: Syrian Journalism Baptized in Blood
Every Syrian city is unique, and such uniqueness has contributed to the richness and diversity of the Syrian uprising. From Daraa, which is dubbed “the cradle of the revolution”, to Homs, “the capital of the revolution,” each city has made its own contribution to the uprising that started in March 2011, filling it with different colors and nuances, after decades of silence and stagnation. Within this context, at Syria Untold we want to highlight the role of Darayya - a city in the outskirts of Damascus and one of the oldest in Syria- through one of its most renown and inspiring projects, Grapes of My Country ("Enab Baladi" in Arabic).
From the beginning of the uprising, Darayya was known for its massive peaceful demonstrations against the Assad regime. Nonviolent activists such as Ghiath Matar and Yehia Sharbaji used to present the security forces with water bottles and roses, and letters that read: "We and you are both sons of this homeland, please let us protest peacefully." The regime responded to the nonviolent movement by arresting and killing activists and shelling the city.
The Grapes of My Country newspaper - named after the city’s most renowned crop - was born out of the need for independent media to reflect the changes on the ground. To challenge the regime’s four-decade long monopoly over communications and repression against media activists, a group of young men and women from Darayya decided to join efforts to provide the city with a different kind of news reports and analysis, which soon became a bi-weekly publication.
The project has faced endless repression and obstacles, but it has persisted and it continues to work on the ground. Its goal, in the words of its founders, remains the same as when it was launched: "To promote the principles of the civil state and civil society, which are more crucial now in order to fight the extremism and violence that threaten the spirit of the revolution.”
The first issue of Grapes of My Country was published on January 1st 2012. In a conversation with Syria Untold, one of the founders recalled that moment as “a dream come true that made the whole team cry with happiness.”
The funding, as she explained, came from the founders own pockets, in addition to some contributions from Darayya residents who wanted to support an independent media project in their city. While the project has managed to get support from some media organizations, the team have refused many funding opportunities in order to maintain their independence.
The newspaper started by covering a variety of issues, from social to political, economic and cultural, and gradually incorporated more specialized issues written by professional journalists on areas such as medical literature, civil resistance and humanitarian aid. Its evolution goes hand in hand with that of the city, which witnessed increasing suffocation at the hands of the regime.
Between August 20-25, hundreds of Darayya residents were shot in cold blood after the regime stormed the city, shelling it and carrying house-to-house raids. It was the most dramatic moment in the city´s recent history, and it deeply affected the Grapes of My Country team. The trauma caused by the loss of friends and relatives and the death of one of the project’s co-founders, Mohammad Quraitem, soon after, led to the subsequent decentralization of the project, which spread to other cities. They started publishing in the northern areas free of regime control, such as Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, where there was more room for work.
“The project was about to end around that period, but we managed to continue,” one of the team members explained. “Our journalistic experience and commitment to tell the truth were now baptized in blood.”
Despite the increasingly dramatic situation, following the Darayya massacre, Grapes of My Country published a series of articles listing the names of the martyrs and the damages caused to the city. The title of this series reflected Darayya´s resilient attitude: “Liberated and in the process of national liberation.”
Ten months after leaving Darayya, the team is now preparing its re-launch there, following petitions from residents. The fact that the city has no electricity and is subjected to an almost total isolation, makes Grapes of My Country more necessary than ever.