A rebel fires at regime forces in Deir Ezzor, September 27, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

A rebel fires at regime forces in Deir Ezzor, September 27, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)




By Patrick Baz


He was 26 years old and had not settled on becoming a photojournalist. But the war in his native Syria changed that, and he felt compelled to document what was happening in his country through images.

The photographer Murhaf al-Modahi, who used the alias Abu Shuja. (AFP Photo)

Murhaf al-Modahi, who worked under the alias Abu Shuja, was killed in a rocket attack on September 28 in his hometown of Deir Ezzor, in the eastern part of the country. He was cycling back from a visit to his parents, where he’d been celebrating his recent economics degree when regime troops began firing rockets.

I first met Murhaf in June in Turkey, where I was leading a training session for about 15 young Syrian photojournalists. At the time, I only knew him as Abu Shuja, which means “The Brave One”.  All the students had come from the rebellion and were using pseudonyms.

These young Syrians were driven to photojournalism more through circumstance and activism than any long-held passion for the work. But Abu Shuja was a keen learner and made tremendous progress. Since the end of June, AFP had published about 20 of his pictures. The last (above) was taken the day before he was killed.

A rebel fighter and a young girl cross a bridge damaged by shelling in Deir Ezzor, on September 2, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

A rebel fighter and a young girl cross a bridge damaged by shelling in Deir Ezzor, on September 2, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

One of the most remarkable images he left us was of a hooded rebel fighter crossing a half-destroyed bridge on a motorcycle. Perched on the front of the bike is a little girl. It’s a strange and haunting image amid the destruction, and makes us wonder: Who is this man? Is he escorting her to safety? Or perhaps abducting her? Or are they simply on an errand? We’ll never know, even Abu Shuja probably didn’t know.

The civil war in Syria is the first in my experience in which local freelance reporters – many of whom entered the profession only as a result of the conflict – play such an important role in documenting a major conflict. The same has happened in the Palestinian Territories, but to a much lesser extent.

A man walks among destroyed buildings in Deir Ezzor on September 6, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

A man walks among destroyed buildings in Deir Ezzor on September 6, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

This war is becoming more and more complicated, and above all more dangerous, to cover. New rebel factions are being created from one moment to the next, and jihadis are continuing to filter in and expand their influence. It’s hard to know who’s who and who’s controlling what. Without local professionals such as Abu Shuja, the world would have a far more partial record of the horror gripping their country.

A rebel during fighting with government troops in Deir Ezzor on June 29. 2013.  (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

A rebel during fighting with government troops in Deir Ezzor on June 29. 2013. (AFP Photo / Abu Shuja)

I’m guessing Abu Shuja, if he had survived until the end of the war, would have put away his cameras and pursued another profession. As it is, he didn’t die taking photos. He died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like thousands of other victims of this brutal war. But if his demise was tragically ‘ordinary’, the Brave One was anything but.

Abu Shuja's funeral in Deir Ezzor. September 29, 2013. (AFP Photo / Ahmad Aboud)

Abu Shuja's funeral in Deir Ezzor. September 29, 2013. (AFP Photo / Ahmad Aboud)