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Syria violence claims talented young filmmaker

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Alexandra Sandels and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times –

BEIRUT — He was an adventurer and artist, with an easy smile and a passion for travel and filmmaking. He was a gifted computer webmaster, but couldn’t be chained to a desk.

He took a motorcycle journey from his native Syria to India, getting gloriously lost along the way in war-torn Afghanistan. Last year, he won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue graduate film studies at Syracuse University.

But his tormented homeland kept drawing him back.

“Syria needs me,” he said in a computer chat with a friend in his hometown of Damascus, the capital, last December, as he considered leaving disconcertingly calm Syracuse, N.Y., for the tumult of Syria. “Or maybe I need her more.”

Bassel Shahade, 28, a restless soul who reminded one of his U.S. classmates of the dreamy young Ernesto “Che” Guevara — in this case armed with a lens, not a gun — was killed last week in the Syrian city of Homs, epicenter of the uprising, apparently while filming the violence.

He had gone to Homs to document the rebellion there while training cadres of “citizen journalists,” amateur videographers who daily risk their lives providing firsthand accounts on YouTube that have helped define the Syrian upheaval.

It remains unclear whether Shahade fell victim to random shelling or sniper fire. At least one of his film proteges reportedly fell with him.

His death left a profound void and a flood of tributes on Facebook pages and other social-media sites.

“I’m still hoping someone will call and say the news was false,” said Lana Hijazi, a Palestinian film student who studied with him last year at Syracuse’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Shahade’s image — a jaunty smile framed by unkempt, dark curls — put an alternative face on a struggle increasingly identified with bearded gunmen. Friends say Shahade remained committed to peaceful change and embodied the many Web-savvy, young, middle-class dissidents who have faced brutal repression in Syria.

“How many talented people shall we lose to have Syria liberated?” read one Facebook posting.

Wrote another heartbroken acquaintance: “It takes a person a lifetime to find such a friend.”

Shahade didn’t fit the Syrian revolutionary profile. He possessed a precious U.S. visa, an escape route available to the privileged few. Moreover, he was a well-educated Damascus Christian in a rebellion that has taken deep root among alienated Sunni Muslim masses away from the capital. A Christian minority terrified of an Islamist takeover remains a pillar of support for President Bashar Assad.

Many observers see Syria headed inexorably down an Iraq-style path of sectarian mayhem and slaughter. But Shahade often told people of how Muslim activists not only accepted him, but sought to afford him special treatment.

At raucous and volatile street demonstrations, he confided to one friend, Muslim protesters would form a circle to protect him and his Christian co-participants, evidence that the revolution was not about sects and ancient enmities.

Having studied computer science at Damascus University, Shahade landed a job in 2008 as a Web developer in the capital with the United Nations. He was also a co-founder of a film club and decided he wanted to direct movies, a desire solidified as the anti-government uprising began in March 2011.

As he recounted to the Los Angeles Times this year, he was among a group of Damascus Christians distributing pamphlets and pasting pro-democracy stickers on the walls in Bab Touma, the capital’s ancient Christian quarter. He and others traveled to opposition strongholds in the restive suburbs to join in demonstrations outside mosques after Friday’s Muslim prayers.

“We were very welcome there,” Shahade recalled in the January interview with The Times at a Beirut cafe.

But he wasn’t all about politics. He reveled in wandering the winding alleys of old Damascus. He took his bike on overland jaunts as far as Aleppo, 220 miles to the north. Before going to the United States, he fulfilled a dream of taking a marathon motorcycle trek all the way to India, more than 2,000 miles, on his battered Russian bike, named Lenin.

“I told him he was crazy,” said Mohamad Khouja, 27, a Syrian friend and co-worker who also received a Fulbright scholarship and remains in the United States. “I said he should be preparing for his Fulbright. But he just did it.”

His Fulbright application predated the major demonstrations that began in spring of 2011. That summer, after returning from India, he was detained for a few days for protest activities, friends said. He departed for New York in August, deeply torn about leaving what was becoming a full-scale rebellion.

“He used to tell me: ‘I am no better than the people dying on the streets,’” wrote one former co-worker. “‘My presence there is essential.’”

But he was also welcomed at Syracuse, where the three-year graduate film program boasts an intimate and international collection of would-be filmmakers.

“He was a very outgoing, good-humored, talented young man,” recalled Owen Shapiro, his adviser and a professor at the film school. “He was very cool, very sophisticated, smart, creative.”

One of his short films, “Saturday Morning Gift,” is an intimate and playful look at a boy, his family and warfare. A kind of nostalgia suffuses the work. But Shahade, who left behind his mother, a sister and brother, became more and more focused on the unrest in Syria, interviewing Noam Chomsky and other left-leaning academics for a documentary on the Syrian revolt, “Singing to Freedom.” As time went on, it became intolerable for him to remain in Syracuse, so far from the action.

“He would say this country (the United States) is so blessed and so peaceful,” recalled Junekyu Park, a Korean film student at Syracuse who became a close friend. “He wanted something more dynamic.”

Many tried to discourage him from returning to Syria.

“You have a chance to offer a great service to this country through your education, so don’t ruin this chance,” a professor friend in Damascus urged him in a chat. Shahade replied that when one loves a country so much it “becomes a curse and you cannot stay away.”

By Christmas, he was back in the Syrian capital, though he told Syracuse he would be returning to continue his studies. He wanted to film the revolution, and he had no illusions about the perils.

“If something happens to me, I left in my (Syracuse) house all my DVD film collection, it’s a rare and unique collection…. It’s for you,” he wrote last Dec. 18 in an email to Park.

“Just be safe!” his Korean friend replied. “And come back!”

A few weeks later, Shahade wrote to say he had been arrested again. He was now barred from leaving Syria, while he and three other journalists faced charges of “weakening national sentiment and publishing false news,” Shahade wrote. What happened to the criminal case is not clear.

A video clip circulating online shows Shahade’s coffin, draped in a Syrian revolutionary flag, amid mourning chants led by Abdel Basit al-Sarout, a former professional soccer goalkeeper who has become a legendary chanter at Homs’ well-orchestrated street protests.

“Bassel devoured life, he wanted to do everything and know everything,” wrote a former co-worker in a tribute. “Even when I saw his body on YouTube, I could only imagine that he died smiling.”

Shahade was buried in Homs, one more “martyr” in a city that has produced multitudes. A memorial Mass at a Christian church in the Qassaa district of his native Damascus was canceled because of security concerns.

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