Syria One Year On: Activist Rami Jarrah Reveals His Terrifying Flight Across Border


First Posted: 15/03/2012 06:06 Updated: 15/03/2012 10:24

In January 2011 Rami Jarrah, 28, was living in Damascus with his wife and young daughter, working a good job in the import business.

Eight months later he was fleeing Syria in a taxi, an undercover activist escaping for his life from President Assad's secret police.

An online alias, 'Alexander Page', was Jarrah's way to fight the regime - the means with which he anonymously released videos, organised protests and talked to the international media.

It was 4am when a friend called him at home to tell him the Twitter account had been compromised, and that the country's most notorious government agents were coming.

"There is a report out for you," said his friend, informed by an insider in the government. "You're wanted. And they're going to come to your house today."

Jarrah told The Huffington Post UK: "I thought about being smuggled out, but what about my wife and daughter? I thought about going into hiding, but again what about them? ... The only thing I could think about was all of us going together."

Jarrah doesn't know who gave up his identity. He suspects someone may have told the husband of his aunt, who he said works for the government intelligence services.

What mattered was that the Air Force Military Intelligence (AMI) knew his name.

And as someone who had already been hunted, detained, interrogated and beaten, Jarrah wasn't going to wait to test his luck.

Above: Amateur video of demonstration against the Syrian regime in the southern city of Deraa, Syria on March 19 and 20, 2011. Photo by ABACAPRESS.COM


'I Never Thought This Was Going To Happen'

Born in Cyprus to exiled Syrian activists, Jarrah grew up in the UK and moved to the United Arab Emirates before going to Syria in his early 20s.

Syria under Assad "was brainwashed with schizophrenia", he says. "You would say something in the street and say something totally different at home."

When the Arab Spring exploded in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Middle East, it gave expression to long-held frustrations with the Syrian regime, Jarrah said. And it set his mind running with ideas.

But at first actually following through with a real-life protest seemed risky at best, and insane at worst.

Jarrah said: "I was working at this company, in charge of a department, and I was fairly free to do what I want. So I stopped working and I started going on Facebook, on Twitter and on Skype talking to people and trying to organise demonstrations. But I never actually sat down with myself and thought 'this is actually going to happen'.

"The first sign that we were actually going to do it was on 5 February, when we organised a demo that was going to happen in central Damascus. But before going I sat there and thought 'what the hell are we doing?' And when we went to the Friday market there were three or four secret police at every single shop," he said. "I ended up just buying groceries and coming back."

A spontaneous protest on 17 February and the first organised demonstrations on 15 March proved that the uprising was more than hopeful talk online, however.

"Anyone who saw it on TV was gob-smacked. They didn't believe it was true," he said. "They were chanting 'peaceful, peaceful, peaceful' and that was an inspiration and a role model".

Within hours Jarrah was filming a protest in Damascus.

But within a week he was caught and tortured.

"I spent three days in a security branch in central Damascus," he said. "It's considered torture but it was relatively mild. I wasn't allowed to sleep or drink, or eat, I was kept standing for the entire three days, I was beaten in my stomach and the upper part of my legs. When I passed out they would throw bleach on me, mixed with water, and then suffocation and psychological torture."

After that experience, Jarrah spent three days thinking he was going to quit.

"But then, seeing that so many people had been detained, and that I wasn't the only person, I thought, okay it's an uprising, it's not happening to me it's happening to the whole country."

ABOVE: A man sets on fire a photograph of Syrian leader Bashar Assad as pro-Islamic activists protest against him for his security forces' violent crackdown of protests there, following Friday prayers at a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, April 29, 2011.

'Every Single One Was Hunted Down'

Like many movements across the Arab world, the Syrian uprising seemed to catch the regime totally off-guard.

"There were points at the beginning where we thought 'this week the regime is going to fall'," Jarrah said.

"That atmosphere was there. 'We're going to get to Damascus'. It was on fire. Everyone was thinking it's going to happen.

"The regime seemed like it was messy, they didn't know what they were doing, they couldn't control it like they do now."

Everything changed during Ramadan, Jarrah said, when the protesters thought they could throw the knockout blow but the regime had other ideas.

"The government had plans for Ramadan," he said. "They knew what they were going to do. They isolated people in mosques; they didn't let them leave and started opening fire. They used so much force and then the attacks that happening in Homs especially repressed the movement. And when Ramadan was over there was a sort of hopelessness."

Jarrah quit his job to focus on his double life as Alexander Page. He filmed and publicised protests, worked on Twitter and Facebook to organise the opposition, and built up a following in the West through appearances in the international media.

Even as his profile grew his friends were starting to disappear.

"Of the committee I was in every single one was hunted down, two were killed, some were arrested, some fled the country," he said.

Eventually he decided to check if his identity, which the regime had denounced in regional media as a creation of the Israeli government, was as watertight as it seemed.

When the call telling him otherwise came, he was shocked, but not surprised.

Three hours later, he was at the border.

There, waiting at the side of the road, was an AMI agent - the same force that was hunting him down.

"I grabbed my daughter from my wife and started playing with her, pretending it was fine," he said.

"The guy holding our passports calls the AMI officer and asks, 'do you want these?'

"The officer takes a look at us. Then he says 'no they can go'. He didn't even look at the passports. That was the peak for me. That was where I was going to have a heart attack."

ABOVE: Supporters of the Free Syrian Army ride a motorcycle with a rocket-propelled grenade in Kafar Taharim, Syria, 24 February, 2012.

'I Would Gladly Do It Again, And Again, And Again'

Jarrah now lives in Cairo, where he co-produces the Activists News Associationthat seeks to support citizen journalism and get videos out to publications including the New York Times, Sky News and The Huffington Post UK.

Several times a week he hears about a friend or colleague in Syria who has been detained or killed.

"I don't want to sound heartless, but it's become very normal," he said.

"A friend of mine was taken from his house the other day in Damascus and is still missing. I was sat by myself the day before yesterday thinking, 'why am I not annoyed by this? Why am I not weeping?' Because he's probably dead. But we're hearing this happening every day.

"And then every two or three weeks you sit there and you break down. And it just topples."

Some think that Syria is now heading for a civil war.

With the UN Security Council unable to decide on a resolution condemning the violence, and with direct intervention off the table, the Free Syrian Army is taking responsibility for arming itself even as the regime, emboldened, steps up its fight.

Despite this, Jarrah still believes there is more the outside world could do.

"Why are Syrian ambassadors still in Europe?" he asked. "Why have they not been kicked out? Why are international ambassadors from all over the world still in Syria? Why has there not been a Security Council resolution that condemns the government? Why, why why?

"If these were there they would contribute to isolating the Syrian regime financially, politically and even morally."

But despite all the death, the uncertainty and the chaos it brought to his own life, Jarrah is adamant he would do it all again.

"In a moment's notice," he said. "I would gladly do it again and again and again. And I'm not saying that because I'm supposed to say it. The first moment that I was allowed to chant was a drug. It was a rush. It was something that I looked for again and again, and the reason I kept going."

"We had no dignity. None whatsoever. We walked in the streets with our heads down.

"And if you ask any other Syrian, I think they would say the only way Assad could stop this is if they kill every single one of us."

Read Rami Jarrah's blog for The Huffington Post UK

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A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, north Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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