The mounting death toll in Syria’s brutal civil war has included dozens of local and foreign journalists covering the conflict. On Wednesday, it claimed another. Iraqi freelance cameraman Yasser Faisal al Jumaili was killed by al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters in northern Syria after being stopped at a checkpoint outside the village of Saraqeb. He was on assignment for an unidentified Spanish media outlet at the time, but had previously worked for Al Jazeera and Reuters. Journalist Jane Arraf, who worked with Jumaili on a recent story for America Tonight, remembers a talented and big-hearted father of three who was fearless, but not foolhardy, in his quest to tell important stories.
A lot of people who didn’t know Yasser Faisal know a part of Iraq through him. His images were the ones we saw in almost every story from Fallujah and Ramadi and the most volatile places in Iraq. Yasser’s courage and passion were the reasons we saw any of those images at all. Whether it was covering the Friday protests in al-Anbar when security forces sealed off the cities or interviewing women who had been imprisoned and mistreated, Yasser’s work made it possible for us to shed some light on parts of Iraq the world rarely sees.
Yasser and I worked together for almost four years for Al Jazeera English, and more recently Al Jazeera America, on stories ranging from the Iraqi-Syrian border in western al-Anbar, to Mosul, to the southern port of Basra. If you needed something done, you knew Yasser could do it – and do it beautifully.
Our last assignment was in November for America Tonight in Basra and the southern marshes. “He has a beautiful eye,” is what we say about cameramen who capture those details that bring images to life. You can see Yasser’s beautiful eye in the lyrical images of boatmen gliding through the water and in the gorgeous sequences of men building a guesthouse straining to lift bundles of reeds. Because his heart was as expansive as his talent, he also noticed things that not everyone would. In a dimly lit hallway at the Basra hospital while I talked to the mother of kids with heart defects, he zoomed in on her young son and his cousin shyly holding hands while they waited to be seen by a doctor.
Yasser was both substance and style. For a correspondent, he was a dream come true. He was not only skilled, incredibly hard-working and good-natured, but he was full of ideas about how to film a “piece to camera” and made me do it over if my hair was out of place. For a macho guy from Fallujah, he was always eager to offer wonderfully specific opinions about colors and makeup.
Yasser was – dashing is the word that comes to mind, in the way of film stars when film stars had both charm and an easy elegance. He was gallant. “Ladies first,” he would say, opening a vehicle door even in a war zone or passing around chocolate he had brought for his colleagues. His phone was a constant stream of messages from old and new friends from all over the world. Conversation was sprinkled with phrases he was testing out in French and English to see if he was getting them right.
Yasser didn’t have the support or security of a full-time job. As a freelancer, he was always juggling assignments, many of them in places considered too dangerous for foreigners. When he hurt his shoulder on the job last year, he didn’t get paid and he didn’t work. When he recovered, he threw himself back into it. As well as his passion for the story, he had three young children to feed.
Yasser was almost fearless but never foolhardy. In hours and hours on desert roads, travelling through towns where al-Qaeda still had a foothold, Yasser was often the one who decided it was too risky to stop and if we ran into trouble, was often the one who talked us out of it. After surviving the war in Iraq, a civil war, and the almost constant threat of car bombs, at the age of 35, his luck ran out on the battlefield in Syria.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in Iraq has a long list of friends and colleagues no longer with us. News of violent deaths comes in email messages you have to read over and over to believe, phone calls you want to have misheard. Each death takes a piece of your heart with it. Yasser’s death makes our world that much darker, relieved only by the memory of all the light he cast while we were lucky enough to have him with us.