Syria’s first Kurdish-language newspaper

Group of volunteers struggles to publish paper on a shoestring budget amid continued turmoil. – Karlos Zurutuza – Al Jazeera – 18 Oct 2013

At first glance, nothing makes Nu Dem – “New time” in Kurdish – stand out from any other newspaper.

Only its staff knows the extreme challenges that the first Kurdish-language newspaper in Syria faces: hardly any electricity, no Internet, no rotary press, and not even a salary. “Publishing an edition every 15 days is a real challenge for all of us. That is our contribution to society in these war times,” said Qadir Agid, the editor-in-chief, from Nu Dem’s headquarters in Qamishli, 680 kilometres northeast of Damascus.

Agid, a teacher in a nearby village, has taken time away from his family to work on the newspaper, launched this May with a circulation of 3,000 copies. The ruling Assad family – first Hafez and then his son, Bashar – has long taken harsh policies towards the Kurds: forbidding the use of the Kurdish language, forced population displacements, and denial of citizenship to thousands of them amid aggressive Arabisation campaigns. After the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Syrian Kurds vowed neutrality, following a “third way” that has led them to clash with both the government and the opposition. In July 2012, Assad loosened his grip on Syria’s Kurdish region, and Kurds took over parts of northern Syria.

‘To work for the people’

Electricity has come back after a long outage, so 25-year-old Evin Lili immediately plugged in both her laptop and cell phone. “My mother left for Iraqi Kurdistan, so now I have to take care of my four younger brothers,” she said, explaining that she approached Nu Dem “to work for the people” and to develop her journalism skills.

“The toughest thing about my job? Getting people in the street to talk to me. The whole city is full of mukhabarat agents [Syrian secret police] and people are afraid,” the new journalist points out.It’s a massive effort for most of us as we use the Latin alphabet to write our variant, Kurmanji, whereas the Arabic alphabet was the only one used in Syria.The insecurity is worsened by the growing cost of daily life. The prices of many basic products have tripled since the uprising, but salaries have not followed suit.

But the picture in Qamishli barely resembles that in the rest of the country, where many towns of this size have been levelled to the ground and civilians are trapped in the crossfire between government forces and myriad opposition groups. Today, the presence of the regime in the Kurdish northeast is limited to a few cities such as Qamishli. Kurdish flags are ubiquitous on rooftops and murals across the city, but Assad loyalists are still control of both the city centre and the nearby airport, apparently unmolested. Rumours have swirled around a secret deal between Damascus and the PYD, the dominant party among Syrian Kurds. But Salih Muslim, PYD’s co-leader, told Al Jazeera that “there is no agreement of any kind”, and that Assad “simply didn’t want to open a new front with Syria’s biggest minority”.

And Redur Khalil, a spokesperson for the Tekineyen Parastina Gel, a militia whose name can be translated as “people’s protection units”, told Al Jazeera that his military force had “no communication whatsoever” with Assad forces. “Our most pressing problem are jihadists backed by Turkey,” added the former PKK fighter.

The price of independence

Alan Hassan walks by a big sculpture of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, every day on his way to work at Nu Dem. He said he has gotten used to the constant patrols and random searches by the regime’s paramilitary forces.”Many of them wear masks and drive around the city centre in 4×4 trucks boasting big Syrian flags,” explained Hassan, who will try to finish his work a little earlier today to take a proficiency exam in Kurdish, a language that many Kurds in Syria have just started writing in the last two years.

“It’s a massive effort for most of us as we use the Latin alphabet to write our variant, Kurmanji, whereas the Arabic alphabet was the only one used in Syria,” said Hassan, who edits the Arabic section of the paper and specialises in politics and sports. The power goes off again, so candles placed on tables are used to light the room. Hozan Hadi keeps working on a notebook while he holds a flashlight in his mouth.

“I had to leave Damascus and quit my civil engineering studies a year ago, but I decided not to stand idly by while life was collapsing around me,” he told Al Jazeera. Hadi added that he combines his work as a journalist with poetry and rap, and that despite his short experience, he’s already aware of the price to pay for being “independent”: “No matter what we write or who we interview, we always receive the same criticism from every faction.” Hadi points to the political dispute between Syrian Kurds, divided between those who share strong links with Kurdish political parties in either Iraq or Turkey. Tensions are rife among them, but the existence of a common enemy has seemingly worked as a powerful cohesive force that led them to establish the Kurdish Supreme Council, the highest authority in the region. After yet another busy day of work, the staff takes one last break at the terrace. Their tired eyes rest over a city in darkness, just 500 metres away from the Turkish border.

‘We are not going to give it up’

Massoud Hamid, the driving force behind the project, has arrived just in time for the last tea of the day. The Kurds of Syria deserve a real newspaper like elsewhere in the world – and we are not going to give it up.Now 33 years old, Hamid was taking an exam at the University of Damascus in 2004 when he was arrested by the Syrian police. He was charged with “state crimes” for publishing a photo of a demonstration in Damascus on the Internet, a bold action that he paid for with three years in prison. Reporters Without Borders recognised his imprisonment in 2005 and gave him an award in France after his release. Hamid returned to Syria in 2011 in the heat of the revolution. Since then he has struggled to complete his PhD studies in Paris while managing Nu Dem.”There are other publications in Kurdish in Syria, but we are talking about folded photocopies,” Hamid told Al Jazeera as he unwraps his journal’s full edition of 3,000 copies. He has just brought it from Dohuk, Iraq, about 400 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. For the time being, it’s the closest accessible printing press.

“Crossing the border twice a month to print the newspaper involves a lot of hassle and money,” laments Hamid, who can hardly cope with all the expenses generated by the project. Copies are sold at 50 Syrian pounds ($0.36) – but the cost of printing each one is 65 pounds ($0.47). Nonetheless, Hamid’s stance is crystal-clear: “The Kurds of Syria deserve a real newspaper like elsewhere in the world – and we are not going to give it up.”