BEIRUT, LEBANON — A man in paramedic clothing just to my left drills into the rubble of a building destroyed by an airstrike in Syria’s biggest city of Aleppo. On my right, another man uses a mallet to break the thick, collapsed concrete walls. These aren’t the best tools to use to look for survivors, but these are the best tools available in a city that has been repeatedly bombed by the Russian Air Force in collaboration with the Syrian government.
Aleppo is 370 kilometers (230 miles) from Beirut, but a team of journalists, producers, and NGOs have worked tirelessly to produce two videos that put you in the shoes of the Syrian Civil Defense — a group of volunteers widely referred to as the White Helmets who perform similar duties to the Red Cross — and a local journalist, working in extremely testing circumstances.
The project was produced by UNESCO in partnership with The Association for the Support of Free Media and the Syrian SMART News Agency. The French group Association for the Support of Free Media and the Samir Kassir Foundation, a Lebanese organization focusing on press freedom, brought this project to Beirut’s Riviera Hotel for a few days this week.
On hand, was Gaziantep-based therapist Aya Mhanna. Mhanna treats Syrian journalists and other Syrians who are struggling to comprehend the things they’ve witnessed in Syria’s brutal civil war that has dragged on for five years and has no end in sight. Nearly all of the viewers on Tuesday were left speechless after watching the video. One broke into tears. Mhanna was on hand to help viewers deal emotionally with what they had just seen. She said the video drew strong emotions from viewers — something that she and others hope will reinvigorate people covering the Syrian crisis.
“So many people have run out of things to say about Syria,” Mhanna told ThinkProgress from the Riviera Hotel in Beirut where the virtual reality simulation was performed. “This gives us a new method of reaching people and showing them what Syrian people go through every day.”
In 2011, Syrians took to the streets to protest the dictatorial Assad regime after finding inspiration in similar revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad regime hit protesters with force, and after seeing many of their compatriots killed, Syrians took up arms against the government. Five years on, radical Islamist groups like ISIS have entered the scene and made themselves a major fighting force. The Russians intervened last year with airstrikes that they said are intended to target ISIS, but airstrikes by Russia’s and Syria’s airforces have killed thousands of civilians.
The besieging and destruction of Aleppo has been a massive driving factor in the refugee crisis too. There are almost five million Syrian refugees around the world, while 6.6 million are internally displaced, according to statistics compiled by the European Union. More than 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance in the country.
With five years of war and constant news of destruction and loss of life, comes fatigue. Many who initially followed Syria news with vigor have lost hope of any positive developments. This is why the Association for the Support of Free Media has tried to help SMART get this video out.
Mariam Chfiri, a program manager with the Association for the Support of Free Media, said she has shown this video to a number of people from international delegations, including embassy workers and journalists. Some who have seen it expressed an interest in sharing it with a larger audience. But there are doubters too.
“I showed it to a Russian journalist who was pro-regime,” Chfiri told ThinkProgress. “Before the video he expressed doubt about what was happening in Aleppo and also said he had never experienced this kind of technology before. After the video, all he said was that the video quality wasn’t all that great — even though he had never seen 360 video. So, while it didn’t change his mind entirely, I think there was something in his eyes that showed it had an effect on him.”
Another viewer accused the journalists of staging certain scenes, like the one where a journalist interviews a local atop of pile of rubble that used to be a residential building. In this scene, destruction is visible in every direction but up. A spin around in a circle shows large collections of concrete all around you, making the likelihood of a staged scene almost unimaginable.
But the reality of the video is there for all to see. Look up and you see the blue sky and the passing clouds. Behind you, depending on the scene, is a building’s wall or a rolling landscape. There are people walking the streets or leaning on a building or parked car in casual conversation. In one scene, you are with the White Helmets packed in the back of a pickup truck as it races to the scene of a bombing. To either side of you are your colleagues as you fly down a narrow Aleppo road lined with frantic civilians.
In another, you run inside a nearby concrete building as the regime targets an area it bombed just minutes earlier in an attempt to hit rescue workers or crowds that have gathered to rescue the wounded. Crowds are on the street, but their panicked faces quickly flee in varying directions, seeking solace in the nearest opening as you throw yourself up a short flight of stairs.