According to the United Nations, more than 93,000 people have died in the violent conflict consuming Syria. For journalists covering the civil war since it began in March 2011, there has been constant debate on these numbers. This figure now rivals the death toll tallied after the Bosnian Civil War.
In addition to these casualty figures, pictures like the alleged mutilation death of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib by the Syrian Army or the video of a Syrian rebel eating the human heart of an enemy combatant can cause compassion fatigue making the tragedy of Syria hard to comprehend.
But comprehension of Syria’s human suffering is desperately needed to keep the human cost in perspective. Journalists at MBN felt that a different approach was needed to give an Arab speaking audience a deeper personal, connection to individual Syrians trying to survive.
In March of 2013, MBN launched the Syria Stories website at www.syriastories.com. The mission was simple: instead of focusing on ballooning death tolls or curating graphic video, we would focus on six — only six — individuals. We sought out people living inside and around Syria willing to share deeply personal, first person stories with us. With parallels to other wartime diaries throughout history, the project was designed to share lyrical, poignant moments of despair and hope in Arabic from six civilians in the crossfire in real time.
The initial release of www.syriastories.com (Version 1.0) was launched to persuade Syrians to securely nominate their friends and peers. In the meantime, MBN Digital partnered with the BBG’s Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) to design a responsive, secure website with an elegant display on any device (Version 2.0).
Meanwhile, a list of several dozen Syrians was whittled down to six. MBN staff selected four men and two women from different ethnic and martial backgrounds. Louise, Furat, Waleed, Sindbad, Sasha and Basel. We convinced them to commit to the project for a least one year. In order to do this, we had to protect them by concealing their true identities, faces and life details. (Please see Brian Williamson’s post about how ODDI struck a balance between the concept art and personal security.)
Syria Stories (Version 2.0) launched in June 2013 with a timeline and map of these diaries dating back to March 2011. Stories include how a famous actress divorced her husband because of her own political convictions, how a father who spent hours looking for fuel and potable water to brew a meager cup of coffee and a how a young man felt after his friend died in the hospital before he had a chance to apologize for a recent feud.
In three short months, the project has amassed a Facebook community of more than 60,000 Arabs from the Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan … and of course Syria. These diaries are reaching the “walls” of more than 1.5 million Facebook users each week, according to Facebook Insights. What’s more heartening is the compassion evident in the comments. Instead of the political polarization found on many Syria web pages, Arabs across the region are expressing signs of support for these Syrian characters with sentiment such as “God bless this writer.”
As the project moves forward, MBN plans to work further with ODDI to map the impact the project has in the next year as tens of thousands read, share, comment on simple yet insightful stories of survival and hope. And perhaps, if Syria witnesses a true solution to its conflict, we may have the opportunity to share the true identities of these six brave individuals with the world.