By ANNE BARNARD, HWAIDA SAAD and HANIA MOURTADA
July 6, 2013 – BEIRUT, Lebanon — Even as the Syrian war took bigger and bigger bites out of his life, Fidaa al-Baali never stopped trying to document the conflict — not when his brother, a rebel fighter, died in battle; not when security officials, trying to pressure him, arrested his father; not even when the rebel battalion he was embedded with unleashed a mortar attack that killed his fiancée.
On Friday, Mr. Baali, a citizen journalist and an antigovernment activist known to many Syrians by the nom de guerre Mohammed Moaz, died of shrapnel wounds sustained weeks earlier as government forces shelled his neighborhood, Qaboun, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Mr. Baali had remained in the working-class jumble of concrete houses during months of heavy bombardment, rushing with his video camera to the scene of attacks.
When antigovernment demonstrations broke out in March 2011 and citizen journalists began documenting them on video, Mr. Baali, who was in his early 20s, was among the first who dared to show his face — a distinctive one, with deep-set eyes and a shock of dark hair flopping across his forehead. He looked straight into the camera, helping to embolden an army of young Syrians who, as protest turned to armed struggle, brought the war into the world’s living rooms from front lines that international journalists could not always reach.
For distant observers, the struggles and losses of Mr. Baali’s own life regularly played out on camera, and in the many interviews he gave by phone and Skype. They punctuated the drumbeat of generic violence, injecting intimacy into the swelling numbers of casualties that the world had grown accustomed to. He did not arm himself, but lived in hiding like a fighter, moving from one friend’s basement to another. Reporters who kept in touch with him on Skype often saw him in a windowless room, the thunder of shelling heard in the background.
He did not speak much about his own history; conversations with him were rushed and focused on whatever he had just seen. But over time, his personal trajectory reflected the shift in the Syrian conflict, from an often idealistic protest movement to an insurgency that grew more violent in the face of a withering government crackdown and could not always claim the moral high ground.
He began saying that he regretted demonstrating peacefully in the beginning. The only way to overpower the Syrian government, he said, was to use “bullets and Kalashnikovs.”
Mr. Baali evolved from a cheerful jokester who mispronounced his R’s to a hardened man, retaining a sense of humor but sounding bitter and increasingly militant. A New York Times journalist who regularly spoke with him on the phone described his voice as getting deeper over time, his manner more gruff.
“We have no one but God and the Free Syrian Army,” he would say.
Mr. Baali obsessively sought out the scenes of shelling and airstrikes to report on civilian suffering, and was embedded with various battalions of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group, to document its tactics, and was wounded in the arm. He often helped foreign reporters with logistics as they traveled in Syria. And he left behind a string of videos and interviews that trace the contours of the conflict.
Last year, on a visit by United Nations observers to assess the escalating crisis, Mr. Baali appeared in a brief clip, his arm in a sling, facing a group of observers. Their fatigues, flak jackets and blue berets contrasted with his rumpled polo shirt as he tried to convey a sense of impending catastrophe, pleading with them to try harder to get to restive areas where the government did not want them.
“When there’s destruction happening, you’re not coming here,” he told them, making taut gestures with his unscathed hand, his voice alternating between plaintive and impatient. “You can communicate with the U.N.,” he said. “There are people who can’t.”
The observers appeared eager to move on. They became fidgety. As he continued — “We are dying here, my brother,” he said — one of them walked over and kissed him on the forehead. Mr. Baali was briefly struck speechless, then continued his harangue. But the observer group, by then, was on its way.
Not long after, Mr. Baali appeared in another clip, standing beside the body of a bearded man partly wrapped in a white shroud — his brother. Barely holding back tears, he stroked his brother’s face and kissed his head.
“He’s lucky. He’s a martyr now,” Mr. Baali told a Times reporter at the time.
In the spring of 2012, security forces detained his father, a former businessman, in an apparent effort to intimidate the son into abandoning his activism. His father was held in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, in a branch office of the air force intelligence, feared by many activists.
After he was released, rebels launched an attack on the branch. Mr. Baali was there to cover it.
But the indiscriminate nature of the war hit home for Mr. Baali in April. A group of fighters he had come to trust with his own life fatally wounded his fiancée. They launched a barrage of mortar shells on an area of Damascus where she was staying at the time. Rebels have increasingly tried to hit the center of the capital with shells, which are by definition indiscriminate, and have periodically killed civilians, fueling resentment.
A few days after his fiancée’s death, his zeal for describing the conflict, for a rare moment, faltered. “I almost died because I was in the same area that day,” he said haltingly. “I can’t continue the interview. I don’t know what to say.”
About two months later, Mr. Baali was trying to cross from Qaboun to Jobar, another contested neighborhood, when he was hit by shrapnel from a mortar strike by government forces. He lingered in a hospital for weeks, finally slipping into a coma.
On Friday evening, as news of his death emerged, social media buzzed with reminiscences from his friends and acquaintances.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the group based in Britain that documents the conflict, congratulated his family on his “great legacy.” Mr. Baali, it said, was “a brave young man who sacrificed his life to give voice to the pains of the Syrian people.”