One night last January, Rami Nakhle bounced toward the Lebanese border on the back of a motorcycle. A gang of smugglers—the kind who usually transport guns, drugs, fuel, and more mundane commodities—had agreed to take him from Homs, Syria, to Beirut, less than one hundred miles away.
To get out of Syria, Rami had promised to pay $1,500—six months’ salary for the average Syrian—cash to be paid on arrival, by a friend. The smugglers ordered him to ditch his small bag by the side of the road and proceed with only the clothes on his back, though this may have been a trick to cheat him out of his belongings. Smugglers can be dangerous people to deal with, but it was a risk worth taking. Rami had just been discovered by the Syrian security services. He had few options but to leave.
On a dirt track leading to the border, Rami waited with one of the smugglers until after dark. When the lights of the nearby Syrian military outpost finally flickered off, the pair inched toward the border. Everything was going according to plan.
Suddenly a Syrian soldier jumped out of the brush, rifle in hand. It was an ambush—a rare trap set to combat smuggling. As the soldier let loose several warning shots, initial shock gave way to survival instincts. Rami and the smuggler jumped off the motorcycle and fled in opposite directions as more soldiers started to appear, drawn by the gunshots and shouts. While border guards usually turned a blind eye to contraband, smuggling people was another issue entirely.
Rami ran as fast as he could for a couple of miles, until he figured he’d lost his pursuers. He was safe for the moment, but in the middle of nowhere. He stayed in the brush through the rest of the night, unsure of what to do.
At sunrise, a man came down from a nearby hill, shouting at Rami to stay put. The man turned out to be another smuggler.
“Do you want to go to Homs for $100 or continue to Beirut for $500?” he asked.
“Beirut,” Rami replied. The journey had nearly cost him his life. But at least he’d save $1,000.
• • •
As he sits in his self-styled command center, Rami’s piercing green eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep, oscillate between Al Jazeera on an old TV set and the screen of his laptop. To keep his outings to a minimum, he keeps a carton of Winston cigarettes close-by, along with a portable gas burner to boil water for tea. In the battle for Syria, every moment is precious.
Rami spends his days, and large chunks of his nights, on the living-room couch in a ramshackle flat in East Beirut, collecting information from a network of activists in Syria. His computer screen is a jumble of Twitter, YouTube, Gmail and Skype. Every few minutes his phone rings; it’s usually a newswire service or journalist looking for updates, but occasionally it’s his family in Syria, whom he refuses to talk about.
With foreign journalists barred from entering Syria, and now being expelled or detained if they have made it in, news of the increasingly bloody uprising there comes through intermediaries such as Rami. He says many of his contacts only answer calls from him, because they fear that branching out and speaking to journalists could expose them to the regime. Rami serves as a vital link between the outside world and the anti-regime protesters on the streets of Hama, Baniyas, Dera’a, and Damascus.
When the protesters make gains he is upbeat and exuberant. On bloody days, when the Syrian regime brutally reasserts itself, he struggles to remain optimistic. If the regime is not overthrown, it is unlikely that he will ever be allowed to return home.
Rami came to the attention of Syria’s mukhabarat (secret police) a year before he fled. The investigation started after he began writing for an online publication that, while censored in Syria, is available by proxy. Under the pseudonym Malath Aumran, Rami argued for human rights and democracy, and he continued doing so amid the growing police pressure. During 40 daylong interrogation sessions over the course of that year, the mukhabarat failed to connect Rami and Malath. But his extensive contacts with international media organizations and activist communities, coupled with his travel abroad, raised their suspicions. At one point, the feared Palestine Branch of Syria’s mukhabarat showed him a small cell where officers told him he would spend the rest of his life. During the questioning, he played dumb.
The mukhabarat finally informed Rami that he was banned from traveling. Rami became convinced that his next visit to their precincts would result in his imprisonment. He would, he expected, be tortured until he gave up the identities of other activists in Syria. He knew he had to escape.
• • •
Before the uprisings, pictures of President Bashar al-Assad donned the walls of most Syrian offices and shops. He does not immediately look the part of a strongman. When he assumed power in 2000 after his father Hafez’s death, he had the moustache, but little else suggested a totalitarian figure in the making. He’d trained to be an ophthalmologist and lived a fairly normal existence in London until the death of his brother Basil—who was to succeed his father—called him back to the family business in 1994. With his soft features and uncontroversial background, Bashar heralded, in the minds of optimists, a new direction for Syria.
Syria’s secret police showed Rami a small cell where they told him he would spend the rest of his life.
“I supported our regime just like any normal citizen,” Rami says of his former life. “I bought into the propaganda completely.”
Bashar did liberalize the economy a little, bringing in Western cigarettes and Pepsi which were banned under his father. Damascus hosted jazz festivals in the citadel of the old city, art galleries and five-star hotels opened up, and tourists flooded into the country. For the foreign visitor, Damascus was safe, cheap, and exotic.
Adding to Bashar’s benign image was his London-born wife, Asma al-Assad. The stylish former investment banker has in recent years vied with Jordan’s Queen Rania for the media’s attention. In an article published just after the Egyptian revolution, Vogue called her “a rose in the desert” and lauded her commitments to civil society and youth participation in politics. Husband Bashar made an appearance in the photos, dressed in blue jeans while playing with his kids on the floor of the family’s smartly-decorated Damascus home. The ill-timed story is no longer available online.
To the untrained eye, Syria in Bashar’s early years seemed to be charting a new course against the currents of an old system. For Syrians though—especially those not in the regime’s good graces—it was all veneer. Rami’s sentiments toward the regime changed when he was a student at Damascus University. In 2006 a young woman and fellow student was the victim of an honor killing, stabbed 25 times by her brother after he suspected her of having sex with man who was not her husband. “It was really like the worst crime you can imagine,” Rami recalls.
The woman’s brother was arrested and put behind bars. In keeping with Syrian law, he was released after a mere six months.
Rami was not close to the murdered woman. But they were acquainted, and the blatant injustice that followed her death struck a chord. Initially he was perplexed, unable to understand why the killer went effectively unpunished. Rami looked for books about the subject, but there were none available. He decided he had to look elsewhere for answers.
At this time the Internet was largely foreign to Syrians, including Rami—the man who would become one of the country’s most-wanted cyber dissidents had yet to actually use the Web. “Finally I went to a friend of mine and I said ‘okay, you have the Internet and I heard that you can find anything on the Internet,’” Rami says. “‘Is it really true? So search for me about honor killings in Syria.’”
Rami found what the Syrian government tried so hard to keep out of the newspapers and books. He quickly discovered that Syria had a host of problems beyond honor killings—dictatorship, martial law, torture, political prisoners, censorship—that were never discussed. Once he began learning the truth, there was no turning back.
• • •
In late April, a month and a half after the uprisings began, Syrian refugees began arriving in Lebanon. In the northern reaches of the country—near where Rami entered—they crossed the small Kabir River (paradoxically, “Big River” in Arabic) to flee the violence. Many of the refugees were from Talkalakh, a town of about 20,000 just a few kilometers from the border. Its proximity is a luxury many of Syria’s tumultuous cities and towns do not have. As protests in Talkalakh grew in late April, the regime cracked down hard. Troops stormed in, searched houses at random, and fired on protesters. The town was ringed with tanks.
Most of the refugees are afraid to talk. Home is just a few kilometers away and they can hear the gunshots at night. They are shaken and suspicious of possible Syrian mukhabarat activity on the Lebanese side of the border, too.
Their fears are understandable. The picture of what is going on in Syria, transmitted by Rami and fellow underground journalists in Beirut, is grim: automatic weapons fired at protesters; thugs with sticks unleashed by the busload every Friday in central Damascus; people beaten to death; shabiha, Assad regime “toughs,” left free to roam cities, shooting indiscriminately.
One of the few refugees who isn’t afraid to talk, though he insists on doing so behind closed doors, is called Omar. He’s 33, Sunni, from Talkalakh. He joined daily demonstrations in the town and has videos on his mobile phone to prove it. These days, he regularly crisscrosses the border to check on family and get news. The Syrian border guards aim their rifles at his chest to intimidate him and interrogate him for fifteen minutes or so every time he runs into them. He mentions rumors that the Assad regime has handed out weapons to civilians in villages surrounding Talkalakh, specifically, villages inhabited by members of the Alawi sect, of which the president is a member.
The regime accuses protesters of being Salafi—followers of the austere version of Sunni Islam practiced by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Omar denies this, but everybody seems scared of sectarian conflict. In his videos, the protesters chant “salmiya, salmiya”—“peacefully, peacefully.” As the conflict intensifies though, he confides that if he could get his hands on a gun, he would use it.
• • •
Exile in Beirut doesn’t mean safety. Despite the city’s glossy image on the pages of high-end travel magazines, it is still a place where life can be cheap and brutal violence is common, even during times of relative peace. Its past and present are also closely woven with that of its neighbor. Until 2005 tens of thousands of Syrian troops were stationed across Lebanon (they arrived in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war). Syria’s mukhabarat operated in Lebanon from headquarters in the Beqaa Valley town of Anjar. After the civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon was effectively under Syrian yoke, forced to obtain Syrian approval for what are typically sovereign decisions.
‘They will catch you!’ the commenter said. ‘You traitor! Hope they cut your fingers off so you can’t type anymore!’
In 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, many Lebanese rallied to push Syria out of the country once and for all. While final investigations into Hariri’s Valentine’s Day death have gone nowhere, the former premier had become increasingly critical of Syria before his assassination, and many suspect that Syria played a significant role in his murder. After mass demonstrations in Beirut, Syria got the message and in April 2005, the last of Syria’s troops crossed back into their homeland, ending nearly three decades of occupation.
But while Syria is officially now out of Lebanon, the influence of the occupation remains. As the Ba’ath regime in Damascus undergoes the most significant test, its usual outspoken critics in Lebanon are eerily quiet. In recent shows of force, Syrians—mostly from the pool of hundreds of thousands of migrant manual laborers employed in Lebanon—marched through Beirut with portraits of Bashar al-Assad, pledging their support for him. Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, announced, “Any harm done to Syria will also harm Lebanon with the same or even greater magnitude.”
A suspected large number of Syrian mukhabarat agents are also still active in Lebanon, along with a number of armed political parties with close ties to Damascus such as Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And Lebanese security services that may continue to do Syria’s bidding don’t make the situation any easier for refugees such as Rami. Lebanese authorities have begun cracking down on Syrian protesters on the Lebanese side of the border. In February three Syrian brothers—Jasem Mer’i Jasem, Shabib Jasem, and Ali Jasem—disappeared after Jasem Mer’i was detained by Lebanese military intelligence for handing out literature calling for democracy in their homeland. When Shabib and Ali were told that their brother was to be released, they headed out to the mukhabarat precinct to pick him up. They have not been heard from since.
Investigations into the case of the Jasem brothers and similar incidents have been fruitless. “The secret police here are just as strong as they are [in Syria] and they operate the same way,” Rami says. “They do not arrest you by court order; they will just kidnap you and take you to jail.”
Given Rami’s illegal entry into Lebanon, his fears are compounded. If he is involved in any run-in with Lebanese security forces, he may be deported. A grim fate would await him in Syria.
• • •
The threats come in constantly. One day on Twitter, among the usual cyber flotsam of Bieber Fever and insipid musings, a supporter of the Assad regime wrote to Rami, “Your days are numbered.” He followed shortly after with another message: “You will miss your family :-)”
On an online article that mentions Rami, a reader commented, “They will catch you! You traitor! Hope they cut your fingers off so you can’t type anymore ya zib!” (“you dick!”).
Rami shrugs off most of the abuse. He suspects that the mukhabarat have somebody permanently on his case simply to harass him on social-media sites. On inspection, most of those attacking him seem to have just created their Twitter or Facebook profiles: no profile picture, no friends or followers, and a history that only shows support for the Syrian president and hatred of Rami.
Beyond the threats, agents of the mukhabarat also try to entrap Rami online. One of their favorite tricks has been a version of the honey-pot tactic, where sexual seduction leads to a trap. But rather than sitting in a dark corner of a bar lighting a Virginia Slim, the mukhabarat set up their attractive blondes on Facebook. These virtual women try to befriend Rami and then announce that they have fallen in love with him, demanding to meet at once for sex. So far, this has not worked.
“Some of them are really, really, really stupid,” Rami laughs. “One of them used Julia Roberts’s photo!”
Smarter mukhabarat ploys have included agents posing as journalists looking to gain access to Syria’s activist networks.
In early April, Rami’s true identity was finally exposed after a mukhabarat agent, who had previously interrogated him, claimed to have recognized his voice in an interview given under his pseudonym. The discovery was revealed on the Facebook wall of Rami’s alter ego, Malath Aumran, with the message, “Hello Mr. Nakhla, we know that you are in Lebanon and walking in al-Manara [a seafront district in Beirut]. Let Human Rights Watch help you because we will let the tiger of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party get you.”
A knock at the door could be a film crew or a secret-police officer with a pistol.
Rami chose to ignore the threat. The comment stayed on his page for a while, before it was deleted. The author of the message abandoned public threats and began sending Rami private messages setting an ultimatum: if he did not renounce the revolution by midnight, his sister, who was held by the mukhabarat last year, would be harmed. Once again Rami stood his ground.
While his family has so far not been harmed, the Syrian security services sent a clear message: we know where you are and we are coming for you.
• • •
Before the family name was al-Assad, “Lion,” it was al-Wahhish: “Savage.” For those who have suffered ever since Hafez al-Assad seized power in a 1970 coup, al-Wahhish has been the more familiar surname.
In February 1982 the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which had been locked in nasty battles with Hafez for years, gained control of the city of Hama. Hafez decided to crush the rebellion and called upon his brother Rifa’at—now an opposition figure in exile after a failed coup attempt later in the 1980s—to carry out the sentence. For weeks, he shelled the old city, as much to dissuade future dissenters as to kill the armed rebels. Many civilians died. While conclusive figures were never reached, estimates by human rights organizations and journalists who arrived in the wake of the massacre ran in the tens of thousands. Hafez would never be held accountable for the massacre.
In an eerie reminder of the past, Bashar delegated his brother Maher to crush the Dera’a uprising in 2011.
But it would be a mistake to view events today as a rerun of the 1980s. News reaches cyber activists moments after events occur. Grainy video, audio of gunfire, updated lists of the dead, and the latest estimates on protester numbers all slip out of the country to viewers and readers, thanks to people such as Rami.
Despite the Syrian government’s attempts to keep foreign journalists out and curtail the communications of its own citizens, technology eludes censorship. As in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya, the revolt has been televised, tweeted, and talked about across the globe.
But more than three months into the uprising, Syria is fighting for space in the news. In early June the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax—an allegedly lesbian Syrian blogger named Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari turned out to be a 40-year-old straight American male—took up much of the press’s attention. Syria’s uprising has been slower than the more successful ones in Tunisia, Egypt,and Libya. The Assad regime is now publicly offering talks with the opposition, but the crackdown continues, and the government still refers to the protesters as terrorists and shady conspirators in a foreign plot. Many protesters distrust the government’s overtures.
Rami is optimistic about what is going on in Syria, despite the setbacks the uprisings have faced. Dissenters in Syria have shown that they, too, can have a voice, that the world will listen to them. More important perhaps, they have broken the barriers of fear and paranoia. Win or lose, “the change is not overthrowing the regime, but changing the mentality of the street,” he says.
Spreading news is an increasingly dangerous business in the Middle East these days. But Rami believes the battle is too important to lose. So he types and types. A knock at the door could be a film crew or a mukhabarat officer with a Soviet-era pistol. The ringing of the phone could be an AFP reporter or news of the death of somebody close to him.
“I made my choice,” he says, his eyes momentarily diverted from his laptop. “I am sending my friends everyday to the streets. I know they might get arrested, get shot, get tortured … and now when it comes to me, I will not withdraw.”