“Seven-hour breadlines and winter with no heat and electricity have exhausted residents. People are selling off all their valuables and sending children to cut down trees for heat,” Steven Sotloff wrote to me in January of last year from Aleppo, in an email pitching a piece for The Jerusalem Report on the humanitarian situation in the war-torn Syrian city.
It was one of dozens of emails that we had exchanged during the period he freelanced for the magazine. The first thing I did when I heard the shocking news of his murder was to search my inbox to see what remained of our exchange. Eerily, nothing had been deleted. In fact, the correspondence went back before I became the Report’s editor.
Steven wrote for the Report as a freelancer, we never met or even spoke on the phone, just corresponded via email.
He reported from hot spots around the Middle East, including the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and from Egypt, where he submitted his final piece for the magazine last July, a cover story reporting from Cairo shortly after the army ousted Mohamed Morsi from power, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tamarud movement were competing for the street with rival demonstrations.
He also wrote for the Report from Bahrain and Qatar, but it was in Syria that one could sense he was deeply and personally touched by the plight of the civilian population.
In his story from Aleppo, Steven wrote about Muhammad Sidqi, a 12-year-old foraging for wood on a cold winter’s day, about Hisham Maliki, a doctor with no antibiotics available for his child patients and about Hamid Hillal, a father desperately trying to find food for his infant daughter.
Steven’s next email was prescient.
He was deliberating whether to go the regime stronghold of Latakia or to Idlib province, which, he warned, was “becoming increasing unstable” and had “seen a number of journalists kidnapped.”
We told him to watch his back, but Steven was clearly fearless. He brushed off our warnings; his pluck came across clearly, as did his gracious and outgoing personality.
In the end he decided to stay away from Idlib and headed to the Latakia area, although he made it only as far as the mountaintop village of Salma, as the regime wasn’t letting through journalists coming from rebel-held areas. From there he reported on how a paradise had been shattered by violence and how foreign jihadi fighters were fomenting sectarian hatred.
“The human cost of a war that will not end soon is becoming increasingly unbearable,” he concluded his report from Aleppo.
Syria’s suffering meanwhile drags on as he predicted, and, as he foresaw, the foreign jihadis have increasingly prevailed in the conflict. How ironic that he should die at their hands trying to report the plight of a people he cared about so deeply.
The writer is editor of The Jerusalem Report.