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.
Which is how Beirut reporter Sarah El Deeb came to interview Abdel Hameed Alyousef, who lost his two children, his wife and other relatives in the attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. And how she persisted in finding ways to bring the family’s story to the world in all formats.
And it is how she won the Beat of the Week.
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. 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 Nadia Ahmed in Cairo, who edited them with photos and video obtained from citizen journalists.
El Deeb spent hours on the phone, staying in touch with the families. ... She persuaded relatives to give the AP footage that showed the father in the front seat of a van, holding the dead children.
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.
Her persistence led her to the Alyoussef family and, eventually, to the bereaved father of 9-month-old twins. In a phone interview, the father – 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 the 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 Alyoussef. 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, this 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 Alyoussef family to the world, El Deeb wins this week’s $500 prize.