'Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently:' A Syrian Citizen Journalism Project
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Syria's Civil War began in the spring of 2011. Protests against President Bashar Al-assad lead to accusations that he was killing his own people with chemical weapons. A refugee crisis soon followed sending millions out of Syria into several other nations. ISIS also established a stronghold there. One small group formed with the hope of countering the ISIS recruitment message — they were residents of the city of Raqqa, Syria. Their citizen journalism driven project was named "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" or RBSS. I recently spoke via Skype with RBSS co-founder Abdalaziz Alhamza about the group and what he still trying to do even as he's no longer able to live in Syria. I began by asking him how he and his fellow journalists got started.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So for my colleagues and me who started this organization we all were involved with the media work in the citizen journalism against the government. When the Syrian revolution starts how to take photos, how to film, and how to upload the news and how to be in touch with international media. That was so important to our people about what was going through the media. And since the Syrian regime the Syrian government prevented most of the journalist and the media organizations to cover what's going on in Syria, ISIS did the the same. So they prevented almost everyone to go to their territories and cover what's going on so there was no other source of information besides ISIS propaganda, ISIS media offices, so that's what the the main motivation and reason for my colleagues and I to start RBSS to cover what's going on. Because ISIS used the media as a way to recruit people from all over the world, they were able to recruit thousands of people from more than 84 countries. So we decided to use the same tools that they used to counter their propaganda to fight against the recruit recruitment machine.
GOLSTEIN: You and your colleagues clearly felt like you had to do something — how scary was it?
ALHAMZA: We knew it would be like a risky thing. For me personally and for most of my colleagues we all got arrested by the Syrian government. So I got arrested three times I was tortured, and I was lucky enough unlike many Syrians, I was lucky enough to be released unlike many Syrians who got killed in the jail.
GOLDSTEIN: You were able to just offhandedly say that you were tortured which would terrify many of us and everyone listening I'm sure. So what did it feel like to go through that? Did you ever hit a time in your life where you weren't sure if it was all worth it?
ALHAMZA: I had like this talk between me and myself couple of seconds but then it goes away. So far me when I started to be involved with the media work or being a protester in the street, I was like 20 years old I really believed like in the revolution. I believed that our country deserved democracy, deserved freedom. So that was like something I was like fighting for since 2011. And I knew it would be like a risky thing. So later on I’ve been through many things — I was arrested and each time I would be arrested I would say I wouldn't go out and protest anymore. But like the second I hear a protest out in the street you'd find me like the first one being there. It was just was like something inside and later on when I started to lose like family members and friends — you know it’s like a duty and is something that I should like fight for because my friend and my family members, my colleagues they give their lives for this work to continue.
GOLDSTEIN: So where are you living now, when was the last time you were in Syria?
ALHAMZA: So I've been living like a different countries and I had to move for security reasons. I've been like in Turkey, in the U.S. in Europe. So I can move back and forth so I move and I change my location all the time.
GOLDSTEIN: You hope to go back to Syria at some point?
ALHAMZA: I hope that I can go there one day. Unfortunately I can’t go right now since I'm wanted in most of the groups like in Syria and most of the government's. All my friends my colleagues and I we always to go back there someday but hopefully when the situation would get better.
GOLDSTEIN: How shocking was it for you as a young man living there to see what happened. I mean basically we hear living in Syria under the the current regime was bad enough and then when you have ISIS in the mix — was this something that you could ever imagine would be the sort of terror the sort of happening in your in your country?
ALHAMZA: So for me personally I've witnessed like barrel bombs I witnesses rockets, air strikes, massacres, rockets hitting and destroying like an entire cities. It’s like I've seen enough of blood I wasn't expecting that to happen in my country to one day but we ended up having an authoritarian regime and authoritarian government that has been torturing and killing Syrians for decades. 80 percent of my city has been destroyed. Right now when I look at the footage coming out of my city I don't recognize like my neighborhood, my house. So are you barely recognized trees and places where I grew up because of the destruction.
GOLDSTEIN: What has your involvement your leadership with RBSS taught you about the power of information the power of journalism? The fact that it can really have a huge impact on people all over the world — and it seems that the work you've done is is an obvious example of that.
ALHAMZA: For me coming from an authoritarian country where there is like authoritarian government regime — the young people today have no power to do anything. They were ignored by the government and most of the young people would skip the country just skip the military service and to look for a new life. So I grew up in this environment in this situation and when the revolution has started all these things had changed. So I always heard that like as a young people I can be involved in politics or leadership, talking about anything serious. So starting RBSS we noticed that we can make a change we reach like millions of people, we've been interviewed by almost all my applications, we've met with governments with the president, with ministers at a young age. I remember being 23 years old speaking at the UN, speaking in like the huge platforms, talking with decision-makers fighting for my own city. So we noticed that we could bring a change and all what what we had to use as our like mobile phones, out social media, the internet. So we're a civil society organization right now, fighting for the Syrians arrived and encouraging the next generation of Syrians to take lead in the country and make a political change.
GOLDSTEIN: That is Abdalaziz Alhamza co-founder of ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.’ He was recently in Arizona as part of the McCain Institute.