Posted in Behind the News

After Syria attack, reporter shares father’s heartbreaking farewell

, by Lauren Easton

A staff memo by Jerry Schwartz, deputy director of top stories and enterprise, describes how Beirut reporter Sarah El Deeb came to interview a father who lost his two children, his wife and other relatives in a chemical attack in Syria, and persisted in finding ways to bring the family’s story to the world in all formats:

What do reporters do when more than 300 war-ravaged miles separate them from an immense story – in this case, the gassing of civilians in Syria, allegedly by their own government? They work the phones, and the apps. When the first reports of a gas attack came in, the Beirut bureau immediately began searching for eyewitnesses, survivors, doctors and residents to report out the details. Reporter Sarah El Deeb and her colleagues, along with social media editor Nadia Ahmed in Cairo, set out to gather details of the attack, scouring social media for videos of the gassing and contacting locals to source and permission the material. El Deeb and reporter Philip Issa, aided by senior producer Bassam Hatoum, recorded and edited Skype interviews with witnesses. When the witnesses lacked access to Skype, El Deeb recorded their audio via WhatsApp and sent the files to Ahmed, who edited them with photos and video obtained from citizen journalists. El Deeb spent hours on the phone, “staying in touch with the families, letting them talk, hearing them describe the horror they have just been through” said Zeina Karam, news director for Lebanon and Syria.
Abdul-Hamid Alyousef holds his twins, who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria, April 4, 2017. (Alaa Alyousef via AP)
Her persistence led her to the Alyousef family and, eventually, to the bereaved father of 9-month-old twins. In a phone interview, Abdel Hameed Alyousef – who himself would suffer from exposure to the toxic gas – described how at first he thought the children had survived, only to discover later that they had died along with his wife. El Deeb persuaded relatives to give AP footage that showed the father in the front seat of a van, holding the dead children as he asked a cousin to record his farewell to them. AP was the first media organization outside Syria to speak to Alyousef. Later, when he reached Turkey, El Deeb arranged for the AP to interview him on camera. The impact of El Deeb’s reporting was stunning. The story became a trending topic on Facebook. By the week’s end, it had become AP’s single most engaged Facebook post to date. The story reached over 1.4 million views on Facebook, with over 62,000 reactions, comments or shares. Most of the comments were simple, and deeply felt: “Absolutely heartbreaking,” wrote Sarah Anne Rollins. “Those poor babies. That poor father.” For her tenacity in bringing the tragic story of the Alyousef family to the world, El Deeb wins this week’s prize.