Their Most Effective Weapon: Activists Arming Syrians With Cameras, Not Rifles

Mosaic

First Posted: 23/02/2012 15:38 Updated: 6/03/2012 22:56

When a war reporter is killed, it is possible to feel as if their work has been silenced. Last reports are left unwritten, or un-broadcast. Stories are lost.

But when veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik and 20 others were killed in the Syrian city of Homs on Wednesday, what took place afterward amid the rubble and death reflected the best aims of their profession, as well as its dangers.

Dozens of videos and reports, each telling one part of the true horror of their final moments, were released minutes after 11 government rockets slammed into the building.

Those videos were sent out by email, streamed online and broadcast on the world's mainstream media ensuring it was impossible for the regime to deny what had happened - try as they might.

The footage of the attack was visceral, and at times unbearably gruesome. It depicted everything - from the shelling itself and the whine of rockets fired from government batteries, to the wounded trapped under the rubble.The footage also showed the badly injured colleagues.

On Thursday even those wounded in the attack themselves were posting videos, including Sunday Times journalist Paul Conroy:

But this stream of media is nothing new in Syria. For at least 11 months since the start of the first protests in March 2011, activists in the country, helped by foreign networks, have produced a constant torrent of video and photography depicting the horror unfolding under President Bashar al-Assad's rule, as similar movements also took root across the Arab world in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other nations.

The videos have chronicled every stage of the Syrian uprising. From the the first six months of almost exclusively peaceful protest to the eventual shootings of demonstrators and government attacks on Hama, and now the tank assaults and crimes against humanity being broadcast around the world. All of it has been captured in sometimes overwhelming volume, detail and horror.

Some of the activists capturing the footage have also broadcast live pictures. In recent weeks The Huffington Post UK and many other media outlets including Sky, Al Jazeera and the BBC, used Bambuser streams published by Rami Ahmad Alsayeed of rocket attacks, burning oil lines and demolished buildings in Baba Amr, Homs.

Alsayeed was killed with three friends this week by a mortar shell which hit his car on the way to a hospital. Many other such reporters have died, disappeared or been tortured in the line of their work - including several killed alongside Colvin and Ochlik.

"Our citizen journalists' network at work is as important as ever, if not more important," said WIll Davies, media campaigner at Avaaz, in an interview conducted with the Huffington Post UK last week.

Avaaz is one group organising a network of these videographers and journalists. They provide equipment, support, basic training and contacts with mainstream media to their volunteers, in return for the international profile boost such material gives to the crisis.

"They're taking tremendous risks. They may call up on a particular day and say 'there are tanks outside my house', or further down the street, and I'll say 'do you feel comfortable about going out and filming it' and they say 'yes of course'. They come back and the next thing I know they're sending me a link on YouTube."

Obviously, technology has had a role to play. Avaaz has sent mobile and satellite phones, laptops, video cameras and latterly even lenses hidden inside spectacles or pens to its network of activists, to help them record footage quickly and upload it safely.

Indeed the network's entire operation - from the secure Skype connections its members rely on to talk to each other and the media, to the Avaaz website and social networks that connect it together - is all built on a platform of new media.

It is possible, however, to over-estimate the role of technology in this effort. At various points in the last 50 years the revolution - whether in West Germany, Libya, Egypt or now Syria - is said to have been photographed, televised, blogged, YouTubed and then Tweeted, but none of that technology would be of any use without the bravery of the people who use it.

So who are the citizen journalists risking their lives in Homs to tell their story?

"Syrians, mostly people in their teens, 20s or 30s, mostly men. There're a few women, but it's mostly young men," says Davies. "The same demographic that is responsible for this whole revolution."

"There is tremendous camaraderie between these groups. They band together. They live in safe houses, sharing beds and the little amount of food they have. Living a very basic existence and moving from safe house to safe house.

"There is no competitive edge whatsoever. And they are just so dedicated to the cause."

In one sense they sound like soldiers more than journalists - and indeed the language Davies uses to describe them is occasionally surprisingly militaristic: citizen journalists aren't given cameras - they are "armed" with them, for instance.

"[When the regime captures anyone filming] they will torture them in all sorts of ways, from electrocution to pulling their fingernails and toenails out," he says. "They won't' kill them, they'll detain them, force them to admit to being foreign terrorists, and then they will generally release them after about two months."

"Initially they're broken men and you think, 'how can you carry on' … But these guys say no, I want to stay, I want to carry on fighting.

"And they pick up their most effective weapon and carry on. Which is their camera."

Danny Dayem is a British-Syrian activist, who has featured on almost every major news network including the BBC and Sky in the past two weeks for a series of videos he recorded amidst the destruction in Homs.

His clips, which are narrated in English and with Dayem brazenly standing in the street with his face uncovered, are an angry plea for help.

"Are we animals dying here?" he asks in one. "Where's the UN? Where is America?"

Dayem was shot in Syria in September, but managed to escape from a hospital where he was being hunted by government forces and get away to the UK. And then, earlier this year, he went back again, not only to record videos but also, he says, to help bring in medical supplies and other aid to the stricken city of Homs.

Speaking from Beirut recently, Dayem said he shares Avaaz's language of the camera as a weapon. But he also goes further.

"If [citizen journalists] knew how to use a weapon, they would join the Free Army," he said.

"If they knew the tactics and they'd been in the army before, and they knew how to use weapons, they would be in the Free Army and the Free Army would accept them."

It's a question of abilities, and willingness to help, he says.

"Anyone does any job they can do. If my job is to clean the street I'll clean the street. If it's helping the revolution I'd do anything. Anyone will do anything to help the revolution on the ground. Inside is different from outside. Everyone inside, on the ground, against the government, is different from people outside.

And Dayem is convinced it's made a difference.

"If it wasn't for the media, for the videos showing the truth, we'd have over 100,000 or 200,000 people dead now," he says.

"The strongest weapon right now is not the kalashnikov or the RPGs, or the rockets, the weapon is the camera. If it wasn't for the camera the regime would be killing hundreds of thousands."

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