Middle East
4:13 pm
Fri February 15, 2013

Conflict Transforms Syrian English Teacher Into War Photographer

Originally published on Thu February 21, 2013 12:33 pm

Syria's war has thrown ordinary citizens into situations they never could have imagined and changed them in ways they never would have dreamed. It's turned carpenters, engineers and doctors into armed rebels. And in Aleppo, it has turned a young female teacher into a war photographer.

We first met Nour Kelze back in October, on our first trip to Aleppo. We asked her to work with us as an interpreter. She agreed but said she also would be shooting pictures.

Kelze, 25, had been teaching English and only recently became a war photographer.

She covers her hair with a hijab, or a stocking cap, or sometimes a helmet. She has sharp eyes and a sly smile. But probably the most striking thing about Kelze is how calm she is in the face of chaos.

As we got out of the car in a bombed-out neighborhood during that first trip, she led us around like we were on a tour. We started to hear shelling and gunfire, but Kelze was unfazed.

"We're not even close to the front line yet," she said.

She walked us to what she called the back of the front line. It was the backside of a building. The only thing separating us from the front line was the building.

We started asking questions about a guy who was killed the day before. Turns out, Kelze knew him. He had been part of a team of rebel fighters, known as the Free Syrian Army, which helped pull the body of an old man out of some rubble. A government sniper had shot the man in the chest and killed him.

Kelze says the rebel fighter provided cover by shooting at the government sniper. "At the same moment, two rebels ran into the street, dragged the body, and that's it."

Kelze photographed the whole thing — the body of the old man being dragged out, and the rebel who was shooting to provide cover. Now the rebel shooter is dead.

As we walked through the rubble of the ruined streets, she remembered him — her voice showing no emotion.

"He went to see his family last Saturday ... and then he came back here the next day, and he died," she said.

An Accidental War Photographer

It's this kind of experience that gives Kelze credibility with the rebels in Aleppo. It means they give her access, and good access means good pictures.

When the Syrian uprising started nearly two years ago, Kelze was a recent college graduate teaching English in a private school.

Protests kicked off around the country, but not the northern city of Aleppo, Kelze's hometown.

That's because the business-minded city was more concerned with survival than politics. Kelze says she'd go to protests that lasted only five minutes.

Then some in the protest movement took up arms, and last summer those rebel fighters brought the fight to Aleppo. At first, Kelze did what she calls "woman things" — cooking for the rebels.

Then she offered to record one rebel unit's battles and upload the footage to the Internet. She says it was her way to help the cause.

"The camera is as equal as a weapon," she says. "And you need to document every single thing that's happening. Because back in the '80s, when we were in similar situation, nobody had any idea about what was going on in Homs and Hama," she says, referring to a brutal crackdown by then-President Hafez Assad, father of Syrian's current President Bashar Assad. Tens of thousands of people were killed then.

Kelze believed her new role was to make sure similar atrocities don't go unreported.

Last fall, a well-known war photographer with the Reuters agency, Goran Tomasevic, spotted Kelze or shooting pictures with her cellphone. He trained her for a week on how to use a professional camera, then gave her a few of his cameras to keep. She's been sending pictures to the agency ever since.

It's not an easy job. One day Kelze was shooting pictures of the aftermath of a bombing by a government plane. The jet circled back around and came in low. Rebels fired at it with two doshkas, a Russian name for large-caliber machine guns.

"I felt so safe because usually ... when the doshka starts firing at the jet, the jet would go up high and not come back again," she says.

But that's not what happened this time. As rebels fired the doshkas, Kelze couldn't hear that the jet was coming even closer. She pulled her face away from the camera to see that everyone else had hit the dirt.

"And they said, 'It's getting lower! It's getting lower!' It was the jet firing at the doshkas. Firing bullets," she says.

Kelze pulled her cameras in tight, turned her back on the plane and ran to hide behind some sandbags. As she did, she took shrapnel across her leg and back.

"I thought I was waiting for death," she says. "Because all I was thinking about is that the jet is going to throw its big bomb now, and we're going to die in pieces."

That didn't happen. For whatever reason, the jet flew away. In the end, Kelze's injuries were relatively minor.

Working Despite The Risks

In conservative parts of Aleppo, it's very strange for a young, unmarried woman to be running around with a bunch of guys, let alone guys with guns.

But Kelze says she doesn't care if people gossip. She says her family supports her, and that's all that matters.

On the day Kelze took us to the front line, rebel fighters stormed her family's neighborhood, where her mother and three siblings still lived. Government troops responded.

As we drove around, Kelze frantically tried to call her mom to see if she was all right. She asked us if we could give the family a ride out of the city.

It was sundown by the time we finally found them.

They had made their escape from the neighborhood and were standing on the street with what looked like everything they owned.

Kelze's mother smiled and chatted as if nothing was wrong. An older aunt didn't do so well. Inside the car she rocked back and forth, grabbing my knee and repeating prayers of thanks.

Some news organizations have stopped taking work from freelancers in Syria. They say doing so only encourages young, inexperienced and uninsured reporters to risk their lives.

But even if she weren't sending pictures to Reuters, Kelze says she would do this work anyway.

When we last saw her, Kelze said she was planning on setting up a kind of media center that would help her and other Syrians connect with foreign journalists.

But then, something happened.

Just last week, rebels launched an offensive in another front-line neighborhood. A few days later, Kelze went to shoot pictures there.

A government tank fired and hit a wall. The wall collapsed on Kelze. She came to amid a cloud of dust. The bones around her ankle were broken. She is now being treated in a hospital in Turkey.

Kelze told us the attack has only strengthened her resolve. Once the leg heals, she says, she hopes to be back at the front lines.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

War changes people, and not just soldiers. The conflict in Syria has torn families from their comfortable homes, forcing them to live in tents or worse. It's also torn families apart, transforming carpenters, engineers and doctors into armed rebels. NPR's Kelly McEvers has this story from the Syrian city Aleppo of a young woman who was a teacher one year and a war correspondent the next.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We first met Noor Kelze back in October. It was our first trip to Aleppo. We asked her to work with us as an interpreter. She agreed but said she also would be shooting some pictures. Noor only recently became a war photographer. Just a few years ago, she was in college.

Noor covers her hair with a hijab, or a stocking cap, or sometimes a helmet. She has sharp eyes and a sly smile. But probably the most striking thing about Noor is how calm she is in the face of chaos. As we get out of the car in a bombed-out neighborhood, she leads us around like we're on a tour.

NOOR KELZE: You're going to see now a totally damaged building. You're going to see a lot of shelling.

MCEVERS: Here in this neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KELZE: Yes.

MCEVERS: That's big and close. This neighborhood is totally bombed out.

KELZE: And we're still not close to the front line.

MCEVERS: She walks us to what she calls the back of the front line. It's the backside of a building. The only thing separating us from the front line is the building. Noor translates my questions about a guy who was killed the day before.

KELZE: From that point, he died.

MCEVERS: He was killed there?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: The rebels start firing at government troops just a few blocks away. So where are the regime's troops, and where are the rebels?

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: Another shell comes in. Noor keeps working as if nothing happened.

KELZE: At that point across, that's the regime forces.

MCEVERS: It turns out Noor knew the guy who was killed. He was part of a team of rebel fighters known as the FSA or the Free Syrian Army. That team helped pull the body of an old man out of some rubble. The old man had been shot in the chest and killed by a government sniper. So you were here the day the old man got killed - or no. You were here the day they pulled his body out.

KELZE: Pulled, yes.

MCEVERS: So what - can you describe that a little bit?

KELZE: Well, actually, it was like three or four FSA soldiers. One started shooting from the window, tried to shoot at the sniper to distract him or to stop him from shooting back at us. At the same moment, two FSA ran into the street, dragged the body and that's it.

MCEVERS: Noor photographed the whole thing - the body of the old man being dragged out, and the FSA rebel who was shooting to provide cover. And then that guy who did that was killed yesterday.

KELZE: Yeah, exactly. He went to see his family last Saturday...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KELZE: ...just saw his family, and then he came back here the next day. He died.

MCEVERS: What was his name?

KELZE: Omar(ph).

MCEVERS: Omar? Rest in peace.

KELZE: Yeah.

MCEVERS: It's this kind of experience that gives Noor such cred with the FSA rebels in Aleppo. It means they give her access, and good access means good pictures. When the Syrian uprising first started nearly two years ago, Noor was a recent college graduate teaching English in a private school. Then some in the protest movement took up arms, and last summer, these rebels brought the fight to Aleppo.

At first, Noor did her part by doing what she calls woman things, cooking for the rebels. Then she offered to record one rebel unit's battles and upload them to the Web. She says it was her way to help the cause.

KELZE: The camera is as equal as a weapon, and you need to document every single thing that's happening because back in the '80s, when we were in similar situation, nobody had an idea about what was going on. These generations are much more aware. So we are going to let the world see what's going on.

MCEVERS: Last fall, a well-known war photographer with the Reuters agency spotted Noor shooting pictures with her cellphone. He trained her for a week on how to use a professional camera, then gave her a few of his cameras to keep. She has been sending pictures to the agency ever since. It's not an easy job. One day Noor was shooting pictures of the aftermath of a bombing by a government plane. The jet circled back around and came in low. FSA rebels fired at it with two doshkas, a Russian name for large-caliber machine guns.

KELZE: I felt so safe because usually, you know, what's been happening to us, it's a long time. When the doshka starts firing at the jet, the jet would, like, go up high and not come back again.

MCEVERS: But that's not what happened this time. As rebels fired the doshkas, Noor couldn't hear that the jet was coming even closer. She pulled her face away from the camera to see that everyone else had hit the dirt.

KELZE: And they said it's getting lower. It's getting lower. It was the jet firing at the doshkas, firing bullets.

MCEVERS: Noor pulled her cameras in tight, turned her back on the plane and ran to hide behind some sandbags. As she did, she took shrapnel across her leg and back.

KELZE: I thought I was waiting for death because all I was thinking about is that the jet is going to throw its huge bomb now, and we're going to die in pieces.

MCEVERS: That didn't happen. For whatever reason, the jet flew away. In the end, Noor's injuries were pretty minor.

In conservative parts of Aleppo, it's very strange for a young, unmarried woman to be running around with a bunch of guys, let alone guys with guns. But Noor says she doesn't care if people gossip. She says her family supports her and that's all that matters.

On the day Noor took us to the front line, rebel fighters stormed her family's neighborhood, where her mother and three siblings still lived. Government troops responded. As we drove around, Noor frantically tried to call her mom to see if she was all right. She asked us if we could give the family a ride out of the city. It was sundown by the time we finally found them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

KELZE: (Speaking in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: They had made their escape from the neighborhood and were standing on the street with what looked like everything they owned. Noor's mother smiled and chatted as if nothing was wrong. An older aunt didn't do so well. Inside the car she rocked back and forth, grabbing my knee and repeating prayers of thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: 2012 was the most deadly year on record for journalists. Many of those deaths were in Syria. Some news organizations have stopped taking work from freelancers in Syria. They say doing so only encourages young, inexperienced, uninsured reporters to risk their lives.

But even if she weren't sending pictures to Reuters, Noor says she would do this work anyway. When we last saw her, Noor said she was planning on setting up a kind of media center that would help her and other Syrians connect with foreign journalists. But then something happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: Just last week, rebels launched an offensive in another front-line neighborhood. A few days later, Noor went to shoot pictures there. A government tank fired and hit a wall. The wall collapsed on Noor. She came to amid a cloud of dust. The bones around her ankle were broken. She is now being treated in a hospital in Turkey. Noor told us the attack has only strengthened her resolve. Once the leg heals, she says, she hopes to be back at the front lines.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.