LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Ten years ago this week, protesters in Syria were crushed by government forces, launching a bloody civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than 10 million people. Bassem Habieh picked up a camera - initially, he used his phone - and began documenting what would be years of urban warfare from his hometown of Douma, a rebel holdout. Later becoming a professional photographer, his camera lens often focused on children, many who have known only fighting their whole lives. Bassam Khabieh's forthcoming book is called "Witness To War: The Children Of Syria," and he joins me now from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.
BASSAM KHABIEH: Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And journalist and author of the memoir "The Home That Was Our Country," Alia Malek wrote the book's introduction and interviewed Khabieh to bring out his stories. She's on the line with us from Baltimore. Welcome to you.
ALIA MALEK: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bassam, the first photo that went viral for you was from 2012. Mourners gathered to pray for protesters killed by the Syrian regime.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the picture, we don't see faces, just silhouettes backed by an intense blue sky. The sun is on the horizon. Tell me about that scene.
KHABIEH: Actually, it was a very challenging mission to report from Syria, trying to capture important moments where people gather and express themselves. But at the same time, we have to cover the face of people because the Syrian authority used to use all media material to track the people who participated on the movements, so it was so challenging for us to take a picture and tell the story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you have to be extremely careful. You know, the Syrian regime has imprisoned so many people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't want to expose them. I'd like to ask you about another picture you took in 2013. It's heartbreaking. A row of children, adults wrapped in white shrouds, victims of a chemical attack. This photo was seen on the front page of The New York Times, and it shocked the world. What was it like to be there?
KHABIEH: I still remember that day being around dead body. There was no blood. They are just sleeping and not moving. I didn't expect to cover an event like this. There was shortage of people who can help because there was more than 5,000 people who are suffocated and need the help. So we journalists - we want to tell the story. But at the same time, we need also to help people because it was overwhelming. There was a lot of pain on their faces. It was difficult. This is what I can say.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alia Malek, you're of Syrian descent. You still have relatives in Syria. You're a journalist. You've reported there. Put the work of Bassam but also of others like him during the Syrian war into context for us. So many reporters started out like amateurs, like Bassam. They were the ones who really did a lot of the frontline storytelling.
MALEK: Yeah, we owe them a debt of gratitude. Ironically, I think both him and I thought that if the world knew and if we did our jobs wonderfully, you know, professionally and with empathy, that it might make a difference. If they weren't able to serve that purpose in the moment of engaging the world enough to sort of break through that apathy or to inspire kind of action, then maybe, especially the photographs - they can be a kind of witness. I think that is partly why that's why it's titled the way that it is. You know, the photographs can serve as a kind of testament or witness statements, witness photographs, if there's going to be any kind of accountability processes that we might be able to hope for in the future. So while it might not have been able to save those children's lives or to have changed what the nature of their childhood was like, there might be a possibility for justice in the future.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bassam, I want to talk about the children because in this book, you know, of course, we see the tremendous suffering, but we also see their resilience. We see them at play. The cover of the book shows a child blowing bubbles. We see other photos of children studying in bombed-out schools. How did you seek out daily life?
KHABIEH: Actually, the photo on the cover book tell us about a lot of stories. I take this picture in the middle of a destroyed neighborhood. That girl was standing in the middle of damage and start blowing bubble toward the sky, the sky where the airplane came and dropped the missiles. So we can see here the action and the reaction from this child, from this little girl. So this is the message that the life is continuing, and even this brutal war will not deter the children from continuing their life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this, Bassam. How do you feel after 10 years of documenting such terrible, painful events?
KHABIEH: Actually, I'm not feeling good. I'm not good anymore. What happened in Syria is shameful for all the humanity. What we saw in the media on the documentation doesn't cover even 5% of the agony of Syrian people. It's painful, actually. I hope the international community will move because the Syrian children and their family deserve justice. And the criminals must be held accountable and face justice.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bassam Khabieh's book "Witnesses To War: The Children Of Syria" comes out April 22 and is now available for preorder. Bassam and journalist Alia Malek, thank you to you both.
MALEK: Thanks, Lulu.
KHABIEH: Thank you.
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