Since July 2015, the Syrian mountain town of Madaya has been under siege by their own government.
40,000 people live there, and the government (mostly) allows people to move freely within the town limits. But with a few exceptions for emergency aid, no one has been allowed in or out of the mountainside town for more than a year, effectively turning the former resort town into an open-air prison.
Government officials have consistently denied travel visas to visitors, too, which means no one knows exactly what’s going on within city limits — except that dozens of people have already starved to death and that it’s all in retaliation for a few rebels in the town who opposed the brutal actions of the Assad regime.
ABC News producer Rym Momtaz became obsessed with the city of Madaya early on.
She spent weeks working through her wide network of contacts (built up over years of war correspondence) to try to get news from the inside. Finally, she made contact with a mother of five who was trapped in Madaya.
At first, the woman feared for her life; she had a family to provide for, after all, and the Syrian government was not forgiving. But Momtaz gained the woman’s trust over time, and the two began to communicate every day via encrypted text messages.
Momtaz started translating “Madaya Mom’s” encrypted texts into English, chronicling the strife in an ongoing blog.
The woman, whose identity was kept secret to protect her and her family, shared the details of her life under siege — the furniture they burned for warmth; the bombs that rocked their schools and home; the scraps of food they struggled to keep down and sickness they endured from starvation; intimate details of her children’s lives and passions; and all the other struggles of life during wartime.
The blog was shocking. It was heartfelt. It was real. But Momtaz worried that not even those bursts of words could do justice to the horrifying situation.
Eventually, ABC teamed up with Marvel Entertainment to render the story of Madaya Mom in a way that people could actually see.
“[The Mother] agreed to speak with ABC because she wanted her story — and the story of her neighbors — to be known,” explained ABC News digital executive producer Dan Silver. “However, with no visuals coming out of Madaya, our team spent a considerable amount of time imagining the ways we could illustrate her powerful journey.”
Marvel tapped artist Dalibor Talajíc to bring Madaya Mom’s words to life. Talajíc, who has previously illustrated “X-Men” and “Avengers,” had his own experiences with armed conflicts in his native Yugoslavia and his current home country of Croatia.
“What I could relate to is this civilian point of view during the war because somebody else is fighting, and regardless of your actions, bombs are falling around, snipers are shooting around, and you just survive,” he said in an interview with NPR.
Using Madaya Mom’s own words, Talajíc turned the story into a stunning visual narrative.
He recreated the ruin and claustrophobia of life in wartime Syria in a stunning way.
“[Madaya Mom] is a huge fan of Spider-Man, and she could not believe that the people behind Spider-Man, Marvel, knew that she existed, knew her story and were interested in giving her story the same treatment they gave Spider-Man,” Momtaz said in an interview with Fusion. “The only difference being Spider-Man is fiction and her story is unfortunately is … very real.”
Check out the first few pages of the story below:
The story of Madaya Mom is available for free online, and it’s also an exclusive print comic. But the real-life Madaya Mom is still trapped under siege.
Right now, Madaya Mom’s graphic narrative is the only way for the world to hear her story — though hopefully someday we will hear her voice directly from her mouth, too. Another aid convoy entered the city at the end of September, but the future is still unwritten for her and many like her.
For now, all we can do is share her harrowing story.
ABC also produced a free teacher’s guide for educators interested in adding “Madaya Mom” to their curriculums.
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