Gaza journalist Shrouq Al Aila became the director of Ain Media after her husband, who co-founded the production company, was killed in an Israeli airstrike. (Photo: Courtesy of Shrouq Al Aila)

Q&A: Journalist Shrouq Al Aila on what cameras can’t show about the war in Gaza

Gaza journalists Shrouq Al Aila and Roshdi Sarraj were on a work trip in Saudi Arabia last fall when their home became a war zone. The married couple quickly returned to Gaza to report and to be with their community. But Sarraj, the founder of local production company Ain Media, would only manage to produce a few reports. On October 22, he was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Al Aila, 29, quickly picked up where her husband left off and became the head of Ain Media covering the war and displacement of Gaza’s residents. The production company has suffered other losses; early in the war photographer Ibrahim Lafi was killed and Haitham Abdelwahid, also a photographer, went missing along with a close journalist friend, Nidal Al-Wahidi. Sarraj’s founding partner at Ain Media, Yaser Murtaja, was murdered by an Israeli sniper in 2018.

Al Aila spoke to CPJ from Rafah, in southern Gaza, where she was sheltering with her young daughter. Since the interview she moved to a tent in Deir al-Balah to escape Israel’s expanded offensive in Rafah, the family’s third displacement since the war began. The interview was conducted using WhatsApp voice notes; every time she paused in her narration, the sound of Israeli drones, what Gazans call the “zanana” (buzzing sound), was audible on the recordings.

The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe the day your husband was killed?

It was a Sunday. We sat down to have breakfast at 11:00 a.m. Roshdi had an assignment to film the paramedics and their first aid operations. I told him that I was worried about this assignment, and that I didn’t want him to ride in the ambulance to film, because they were hitting the ambulances. He said, “Who will film if I don’t? Someone should deliver the message.”

Journalist Roshdi Sarraj was killed by an Israeli airstrike on October 22, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of Shrouq Al Aila)

Roshdi was rushing his family to have breakfast that morning. His mom was telling him, “Have your breakfast and go to your assignment — we still have a lot to do before we can eat.” Roshdi is typically calm and chill, but he was agitated. He insisted: “We’ll have breakfast together.” So, we gathered around the table. I was picking up a piece of bread when an airstrike on a nearby building caused a big shockwave and the dining table moved from its place.

The nine of us went into the garden. I was holding Roshdi’s hand in one hand and in the other, I was carrying Dania, our 11-month-old daughter. My sister called, and yelled that Tal al-Hawa, a beach area nearby, was being hit extensively. Our house is in southwest Gaza City, close to the beach. The strikes were many, close, and ongoing.

Roshdi moved and stood in front of me and Dania, still holding my hand. I tried to move him next to me. Suddenly, everything turned gray. The first thing that came to my mind was that my blood sugar was low [and I must have been fainting] but then I started smelling the smell of a strike: the smell of concrete, rubble, and gunpowder.

I couldn’t see anything, but Roshdi wasn’t holding my hand anymore. I started waving my hand, searching, but I couldn’t see or feel Roshdi. At that moment I still didn’t understand that we were actually hit. For us, when you are hit, “khalas” [that’s it], it’s the end, you will die… But I was alive, standing in my place, and Dania and I hadn’t moved, even though the house was hit by two rockets.

When my view began to clear, I saw Roshdi. I touched him and held his hand to try to pull him up, but he fell down again. We carried Roshdi in front of the house. I could see a crack above his right eyebrow. It was about two centimeters [0.8 of an inch], and it was bleeding. I could see his brain convulsing. He was still alive and having difficulty breathing. People next to me were screaming and calling for help. I contained myself and called my brother, who is a doctor, and told him what happened. He said he was coming. The ambulances told us they couldn’t reach us because the whole area was under extensive bombardment. This is the moment when I lost it.

We put him on a soft blanket, carried him, and started walking under the consecutive strikes to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital, carrying Dania, everyone was calling me. I was reading the Ya-Sin surah of the Quran. Roshdi’s father said “You’re a believer. Roshdi’s injury is critical. Pray for him.” I didn’t understand. I asked him “Did he die?” He answered “No, he is a martyr.” Roshdi needed an emergency operation with doctors who specialize in the brain and nerves. Such doctors weren’t available.

We buried Roshdi in an emergency graveyard. There were about 20 martyrs, and they wanted to bury him in one mass grave with everyone else. Some friends said no, we should separate him, but his father wanted to bury him like everyone else. They ended up just putting a board to separate him from the others. This is our “luxury” and the reality of our graves. He wasn’t buried like we usually honor the dead.

Now, I’m a widow, an orphan [because my parents died in my childhood], and raising an orphan. 

After your husband was killed, you stepped in to lead Ain Media. How are you able to work? 

Only four of our team members are able to work right now. The circumstances are dire. We are not superheroes, but when I think about our ability to deliver, I say that we are. All of Ain Media now depends on one camera. Can you imagine?

We can’t find equipment, so we tried buying it from people who don’t need it, but some, including journalists, are exploiting the situation and raising the prices. So if a mic costs usually US$400, it’s now US$1,000.

[Before we fled Rafah] we had recently moved to a house with solar panels were I could finally charge my devices myself. Before, we used to send our laptops and phones to a supermarket with solar panels that would charge the devices in exchange for U.S. dollars. It would take about four hours, so for at least four hours a day I was disconnected from the world.

There’s only one bank working but thousands are in line waiting, so you will never get your turn. We resorted to exchange facilities, who would retrieve your money for a 20% cut. Madness.

We now use the toktok [a three-wheel motorbike] and the caro [an animal-drawn carriage], but even finding that kind of transportation is a luxury. Sometimes we travel on foot, which is extremely tiring.

The internet is extremely bad. After the bombardment  of transmission towers, the connection became worse. We even tried to connect from the Egyptian side and some people tried connecting from the Israeli side, but it’s very difficult to upload content. This is the most difficult problem for us now. The clients needs their material. Now if you want to upload one gigabyte, it costs four dollars by people with internet who charge others to connect. If I shoot 100 gigabytes of material, which is the size of a documentary we produced for Al Jazeera, it costs US$400 just to upload it.

This is all lost money. You need extra money for equipment, to upload content, for transportation, and to charge your devices. This is the extra cost of media production in the war, and it’s really tiring.

What motivates you to continue amid the hardship?

What I feel for Ain Media is different. It is the place where I met Roshdi. It is the point of intersection and love. I know how much effort and time Roshdi put into it. Most of our conversations even at home were about Ain Media. I would never disappoint Roshdi and leave everything behind. This is what’s pushing me. I don’t know what will happen after the war, but now, Ain Media’s name should always be in the production. No one can comprehend how we’re doing it.

During the war, we’ve been producing content for multiple media outlets including Al Jazeera, the BBC, the French M6 channel, and other Swiss, Dutch, and Australian outlets like ABC. The work consists of news reports and documentaries. Long films about Gaza and the ongoing situation. There is other work for organizations like the World Health Organization.

All my tears, my thoughts, my dreams are on hold. I am just working now. I don’t have the luxury to break down or to grieve. I don’t have the time or the space. I don’t know what the next minute brings, if I will live or die, so I can’t even think about the future. In the war, you reach a state where you feel like every second could be your last.

I have no doubt in my ability to lead Ain Media, and the proof is our ability to do some work during the worst kind of conditions during the ongoing war. I am proud of the team.

[In the future] Ain Media will be doing more work outside Gaza, and we will most probably have a branch in another country. We will have trips to other countries to shoot episodes and do work. It was our dream, and I want to make it happen.

How much of the media coverage reflects the reality on the ground?

Something that the camera or the video can’t show is the smell of the rubble. Since Roshdi was martyred, I’ve been associating the smell of the rubble, the gunpowder, the concrete, and the dust, with death. Every time I pass by a newly destroyed house, I go back to the first hit, and to the biggest loss. This is something we can never reflect in our reporting. The audience will never know how it smells or what the bodies smell like. Many people are still under the rubble and the civil defense isn’t able to retrieve all the bodies because they don’t have the infrastructure for it, like trucks, or the fuel for these trucks to work. Their priority is the people who are still alive or the areas they can actually reach.

Sometimes I feel like this is all for nothing. I take a picture of something and I look at the real scene in front of me and I feel like 70% of the immensity, the magnitude, and harshness of the scene aren’t reflected in the photo or in the video. So sometimes I say, “No one will ever feel what’s going on but us.” And I wish that no one would have to endure what we have been through — this endless nightmare. What suffocates me as a journalist and makes me relive the sorrow is this smell, especially because I’m a survivor of an airstrike and I was picked up from the rubble myself. You become gray — everything is gray, your face, your body, your clothes, the environment around you. Everything. And the thing that bothers me the most is that my daughter Dania was also gray when she was pulled from the rubble.

What is your message to the world?

My message to the journalism community is: We as journalists talked about everything. We filmed everything. It is now time for foreign correspondents to come and cover the war. We don’t have any more words. There’s nothing left to say or film. You can watch everything on your screen and still, nobody acted. It’s like we’re down a well screaming and we only hear the echo. We need foreigners to come and report, maybe they have something to say, maybe someone will believe them, but we are tired and exhausted, and we have done everything in our power to tell the story.

More than 100 journalists were killed in this war. It’s such a shame that journalists were targeted. Where is the freedom of journalism? Where are the press protection groups? Where is international law? As journalists, we are tired, and disappointed.

[Editor’s note: In response to CPJ’s request for comment on Roshdi’s killing emailed from Europe, the Israel Defense Forces’ North America desk said: “The IDF takes all operationally feasible measures to mitigate harm to civilians including journalists. The IDF has never, and will never, deliberately target journalists. Given the ongoing exchanges of fire, remaining in an active combat zone has inherent risks. The IDF will continue to counter threats while persisting to mitigate harm to civilians.” To date, CPJ has determined that at least three journalists were directly targeted by Israeli forces in killings which CPJ classifies as murders and is researching 10 other cases that indicate possible targeting.]