Nagieb Khaja approached the Turkish border guards with his hands in the air, declaring in several different languages that he was a journalist. It was late 2015 and with no legal way to enter Syria, he had to smuggle himself across the border. But instead of being placed under arrest, the guards beat him up before letting him continue onwards.
The next day he posted a selfie where his left eye is so badly bruised it was swollen shut.
“Physically, I don’t know why, but I can take a lot,” says Khaja in his apartment in the Nordvest district of Copenhagen.
“I think it’s partially because I grew up in Avedøre. I got into a lot of fistfights with other kids so I know how to take a good beating. Maybe it’s also partially genetics. But after they beat me up, I picked up my stuff, had a few days break, and started working again. I know some other guys who would have been traumatised by it – it was a rough one – but I could work. And maybe that’s one of the reasons that I have a bigger obligation. I don’t know if it’s a curse or a gift to be mentally strong, to physically take these things. I am really good at talking to people and developing good relationships with people, I can put a story together, and I can take a good beating once in a while or be exposed to threats and work afterwards. So I think it’s a waste of capacity if I don’t do it.”
The son of Afghan immigrants, Khaja has olive skin, dense black hair, speaks Dari and understands basic Arabic. These are the superficial reasons why the 37-year-old reporter has become one of Denmark’s most prominent war reporters in the Middle East and Afghanistan – he fits in.
In Afghanistan he found that the Taleban couldn’t be reduced to simple-minded Islamists and that there were a myriad reasons for their power and support. In Syria, he identified early on the complex and mutually exclusive interests of the different anti-Assad rebel groups, who were initially supported without differentiation by the Western media and governments.
He has been held hostage twice by the Taleban, observed the aftermath of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, followed rescue operations in Aleppo, and trailed a Danish gang leader who had travelled to fight with Syrian rebels. Besides national TV and print media, his work has also appeared in Vice, The Guardian and Al Jazeera.
His accomplishments are noteworthy, given that he was brought up in a marginalised suburb of Copenhagen with high rates of unemployment and low levels of education. But while his family was not well off, his father encouraged him to be curious.
“He worked in factories and hotels, as a dishwasher and in the kitchen. He was a man who had a lot of potential, but unfortunately the circumstances meant he had to work with other things. He hoped his unfulfilled ambitions could be fulfilled through his kids – he hoped to inspire us,” he says.
Khaja would discuss international news, especially events in the Middle East, with his father who provided a different perspective to the Danish media. The 911 attacks and subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were especially interesting to a young Khaja, now studying journalism at the University of Southern Denmark.
“My father also made me aware that there are a lot of stereotypes in the media of Arabs, Afghans, Muslims in general. Later I realised it myself as a young kid with an Afghan background from a so-called ghetto. People from these environments see themselves portrayed in the media quite often and we find it difficult for us to recognise ourselves.”
Growing up where he did, Khaja could hardly avoid getting to know the young men in his neighbourhood who were involved in crime and anti-social behaviour. But it wasn’t just geographical proximity that brought them together – Khaja was also curious.
“I thought they were cool – I was attracted to them because they were wild some of these kids. Sometimes we got into trouble – fights, stealing stuff, doing stuff that shouldn’t be the average thing kids do, but when you’re in an environment like that a lot of the things that are not average things to do, start to seem normal,” he says.
Khaja drifted from the crowd when he moved for university, and returned to Copenhagen to start work as a journalist. But a funeral this summer brought them together again, and he saw how drug addiction and poor lifestyle had taken a toll on some.
“One of them almost didn’t have any teeth left. So it wasn’t a normal or average Danish environment. This is a part of Denmark that is not being portrayed in the international press. Denmark is always perceived as the perfect place. And relatively, Denmark is certainly better than many places. But there are environments in Denmark where people are not well off compared to other places that Denmark compares itself to.”
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His contacts in criminal communities would prove vital for his first major scoop in 2005. After reading an article by TV2 News about the formation of a new Copenhagen gang, Triple A, he wondered why he hadn’t heard anything about it, given that it was supposed to be active in Avedøre. He eventually revealed that no gang existed and that the story was a fabrication – a revelation that got Khaja nominated for Denmark’s top journalism prize, the Cavling.
His contacts would again prove useful in 2012 when a former gang leader, Abderrozak Benarabe, learned of his plan to try and travel to Syria to cover the early stages of the conflict.
“He said that we should go down together. I thought, ‘what’s he talking about?’ I didn’t know what to answer him, it didn’t make sense that this criminal would be going to Syria – what would he do there?”
Khaja asked around in the community and learned that Benarabe – otherwise known as Store A (Big A) – had become religious following his most recent conviction. When his brother survived a cancer diagnosis, he decided to express his faith by fighting with Syrian rebels.
At first Khaja was worried about being associated with Benarabe, who had booked himself on the same flight as Khaja to Turkey en route to Syria. But then it dawned on him that Benarabe’s journey would make a good story. The ensuing documentary From gang war to Jihad was one of the first journalistic insights into the foreign fighter phenomenon.
“I saw him as a chance to attract a different audience, to attract people who don’t care about foreign politics or wars in the Middle East, because I had a fascinating character,” says Khaja.
“I told him that a lot of young people who don’t care about Syria will watch a documentary because he was in it, because they love true crime and he was like a celebrity in these environments.”
A brutal conflict
In the process of shooting the documentary, Khaja was confronted with a conflict far worse than anything he had ever experienced before.
“The conflict in Afghanistan was nothing compared to what [President] Assad was doing to his people – the Syrian government were ruthless,” he says.
While Assad’s methods were cruel, the opposition groups weren’t always pretty either. But these nuances were often lost in the reporting he found.
“At the time everyone was portraying the Syrian uprising as an uprising that was about democracy and all the groups were fantastic freedom fighters. It was a biased perception about all the rebels – there were very few critical stories right in the beginning about the Syrian rebels and their different agendas,” he says.
“One group didn’t just want a secular Syria, they also wanted pluralistic Syria. But there was another group of guys we underestimated – the Islamists who didn’t just want to topple Assad but replace him with an Islamic government.”
The conflict in Syria started almost six years ago, and reached a brutal peak in December with the bombardment and eventual evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces.
Khaja had been in the city earlier in the year to follow the work of the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defence organisation, which he first saw rescuing civilians following artillery and aerial attacks in Eastern Aleppo in 2014.
‘Syria’s White Helmets’ by Nagieb Khaja for Al Jazeera.
“When the Syrian government and Russian airplanes bomb areas they have a tactic of returning and bombing again and hitting the people who were coming to rescue the survivors. The White Helmets were quite heroic because they knew they would come back and bomb the same place so I was very impressed by them,” says Khaja, who spent 12 days following them for a documentary that was aired on Al Jazeera.
But not everyone shares the same view of the White Helmets, for example the journalist Eva Bartlett. In December, she spoke at a press conference organised by the Syrian government and held at the UN in which she attacked Western coverage of the conflict and argued that organisations such as the White Helmets did not exist.
Many of her points against Western reporting of the conflict – including the claim that the Al Quds hospital attack never took place – have since been debunked. But this is unlikely to reach all of the 3.4 million people who have watched a video of the press conference on Facebook.
“Watching people like them telling stories about the White Helmets being in bed with militants made me angry, very angry, because it was lies,” he says.
“Her statements are being fed out through a lot of platforms sponsored, for example, by Russia which has a very aggressive information war going on right now about Syria and other things.”
Russian disinformation campaigns have been strengthened in recent years with dedicated English language news channels, such as RT and Sputnik. The video with Bartlett was distributed on Facebook by a page called Now This, which is a branch of the Russian state broadcaster RT. Their support of the Syrian government means they have an interest in undermining support in the West for rebels, which have been armed by the US.
Still, Khaja isn’t overly concerned that RT and Sputnik will fundamentally undermine trust in media, by presenting conflicting and – often untruthful – news stories. The fact that there is even a discussion about fake news shows a major improvement in the critical media awareness of the public. In the process, they are understanding the need to support quality media.
“A few years ago people were talking about how the era of journalism is gone because we had these new social media platforms that made journalism superficial. But I think we are drifting back again because of the big stories about major fake stories.”
Syria under Assad
The conflict in Syria has claimed around 500,000 lives and displaced around five million people since 2011. Early hopes that Assad’s regime would be replaced by a secular and democratic alternative have largely been lost following the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo.
If stability means Assad’s continued rule, it could be considered the most pragmatic option to end the six-year conflict. But Khaja warns that stability under Assad will come at a high price. There is strong evidence that the Syrian government systematically imprisons, tortures and kills citizens seen as a threat to their rule. According to Amnesty International, at least 18,000 have been killed in Syrian prisons since 2011.
“Can we trust Assad when he says, ‘lay down your weapons and nothing will happen to you? A lot of people are afraid of that. A quarter of the Syrian population is now abroad. A lot of them fled either because they wanted to avoid military duty, or because they didn’t want to fight and have blood on their hands. What will happen to them? They can’t go back. What about the refugees who are political activists, or people related to political activists or militants who can’t go back? So there are a lot of people who will never have the chance, or won’t risk going back. So this will be a peace, if it’s on his terms, that will at worse benefit his elite or those who supported him.”
Changing the world
Khaja has spent a lot of time with people who are threatened by Assad. They are his sources, the people he needs to tell his stories about life in conflict. And it would be hard not to get attached to them given the circumstances.
“The things you experience down there, the relationships you have with people who are stuck down there and harmed because of the war, it’s really heavy – it’s a heavy burden to have,” Khaja admits.
“When I travel to Eastern Aleppo and come back I feel like I’ve fallen down a black hole. I feel better down there, I feel worse up here because of the relationships I have with people. I feel like I am letting people down and that I am running away. I know there are kids down there that can’t get out of the situation. It’s actually terrible, and because of that I get a small depression. But after a couple of months I feel like my batteries have been charged again. And one of the ways of getting all these negative feelings out is using them in a constructive way, engaging with the public in Denmark or internationally with my family and friends. I am good at that,” he says.
In previous interviews he claims to hate the adrenalin that comes with being in a warzone, and that he has refused to write a will out of superstition that something would then happen to him. But, even though he doesn’t like the warzone or the danger, he keeps returning – often against his own better judgement.
“In the moments where things are happening – these terrible things I’ve experienced – I’m convinced it wasn’t worth it. A story is not worth your life. One story will not change anything unless it’s a story that goes out on all platforms and ends up in political change. But when I get out of these situations, I would say that in general my work is worth taking risks for – but it’s not worth the single story. And it’s not only when I was kidnapped, it’s when I am sitting in a house or building in Aleppo and I hear a Syrian government airplane coming and people say they are going to drop a bomb, I also don’t think it’s worth it. When in Syria I see someone get shot right in front of me, it’s not worth it. It wasn’t worth it two months ago when I was imprisoned for 24 hours by the Taleban because I was doing a documentary about Helmand,” Khaja says.
While physically fit – he turned down sugar in his coffee and admits to taking three fitness boxing classes a week – he knows he isn’t psychologically impervious to the pressures of reporting from a warzone. If the pressure gets the better of him, he says he would be happy to communicate the issues he believes in from a safer setting.
But for now, he still manages to convince himself that the risks are worth taking, and that he will make it through somehow.
“I don’t see it like, it could be fun to do journalism. I don’t do it because it’s exciting. I want to change things,” he says.
“I have my conviction and I want to make a difference. I became a journalist because I wanted to change the world.” M