Syria: The eyes of the revolution


By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)

Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza

  • Fourth chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
  • The only source of images from Syria are the recordings made by citizens who use the Internet to broadcast them to the rest of the world.
  • Neighbors such as Bilal, Hussein, Eyyed, Abu Saleh and many others learned that no one would believe them without witness evidence. This is their story.

The images that opened the Al Jazeera Arabic news last Monday night were extremely harsh. Several civilians lay in a narrow street in Baba Amr that had just been attacked by a tank, all of them dead. One of them had his head split open, another one had died curled up against a wall, yet another lay on a huge pool of blood. Later, the scenes of tanks shooting through the city gave a clear idea of the range of the repression and, a few seconds afterwards, the images of this neighborhood’s field hospital disheartened Arab spectators.

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The author of this article, journalist Mónica G. Prieto, and a citizen of Homs dodge shots fired by Assad’s army while trying to cross a street battered by snipers and soldiers. This video was filmed this Christmas 2011 by one of the civilian cameras in the Baba Amr neighborhood.

In the office where the Baba Amr citizen journalists live, they watch the international news closely not to obtain information, but to learn from their own mistakes. “Well done, Bilal”, they said in reference to the first video while its author, who only two hours before was shaken by the massacre, watches now the scene coldly. “Look Eyyed, your tank scenes!”. And Eyyed, his legs still sore from an entire day running around to film the aggression of the Syrian Army against his neighborhood, smiles when he recognizes his own voice in the video. Hussein, who has spent the afternoon in the hospital, sees his hours of recording made up for by a few seconds in the news. The same as Abu Salah, the face of Baba Amr, the only citizen who has chosen to show his face so the Arab channels have a reporter on site.

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Tanks firing in the neighborhood of Baba Amr, Homs. December 26th, 2011. (Video uploaded on YouTube by SyrianSolidarity)

The only source of images from Syria that feeds the international media are the recordings of citizens who have chosen to document the revolution and use the Internet to spread them to the rest of the world. When Damascus restricted the access of journalists into the country, it could not have imagined that the activists’ imagination would make up for the work of reporters. Neighbors such as the aforementioned Bilal, Hussein, Eyyed, Abu Saleh and many others learned right away that without informants they would not have any visibility, and that without witness evidence of the repression no one would believe them. “It already happened during the revolution of Hama [in 1982]”, explains Eyyed. “There were not any journalists there and people did not have access to cameras or to the Internet. Nobody knew what had happened until several months later. That is why we consider images to be the most powerful weapon against Bashar Assad”.

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Bombing of the Baba Amr neighborhood the day after Christmas. December 26th, 2011. (Uploaded by MsHotspeed).

Eyyed says that when the revolution began, he had the choice to buy either a weapon or a camera, and he chose the latter. He had never recorded anything in his life, except for family events with his cell phone, but he taught himself looking it up on the Internet. “The few professional TV journalists that have come through Baba Amr have taught me, and I have strived to learn from them. Now I’ve learned to film several sequences of each event, and to be patient until I find the best shot”.

At first only five neighbors armed themselves with cameras, but the team grew to the 12 citizen journalists who work in the neighborhood right now, people involved in the revolution that need to do something besides protesting. Every neighborhood of every rebel city has its own team of citizen journalists, who devote their lives to documenting the repression.

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Arrival of a severely injured woman to the Baba Amr field hospital, in Homs. December 22nd, 2011. (Uploaded by live19820).

“In my house there has been talk of overthrowing the dictatorship since I was a child”, Bilal explains. “So I was involved in the protests from the start. At first, I rescued people who had been shot by the regime. But I wanted to do more, and I thought that the world should know about what is going on. So I met up with Eyyed and he gave me a Sony camera”. The same one that has now become the young man’s inseparable companion, devoted to getting the Syrian revolution on the Arab channels.

Since then, Bilal lives with a dozen other activists/journalists in their Baba Amr headquarters, several rooms where battery chargers, cell phones and more than a dozen laptops share space with ashtrays full of cigarette butts and the omnipresent cups of mate, tea and coffee.

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Bombing on Christmas Eve. Several women and children scream while the projectiles fall over the neighborhood. December 24th, 2011. (Uploaded by 999mahony )

The organization is similar to that of a news agency. Every morning Eyyed assigns every morning the destination of his citizen cameramen, starting with himself, who usually does the risky missions, and leaves five other members of the team in charge of communicating with the Arab and international media to broadcast details of the general situation and give out the latest figures of dead and injured people. They use cell phones to coordinate their actions as the events unfold.

Bilal, like the other cameramen, can record between five and seven videos a day. “Eyyed taught me what I know, and I’ve learned the rest from experience. I’ve learned not to get too close, it has been hard to understand that we cannot show images that are too harsh, that it is better to show emotions”. That is especially difficult given Syria’s context, where civilians refuse to be filmed or photographed out of fear that the regime might recognize and arrest them. So Homs’ citizen journalists look for long shots in which faces cannot be recognized.

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A woman cries as she strokes her dead husband’s face (Uploaded by SyrianDaysOfRage on Aug. 2nd 2011)

Whereas some journalists use their cameras to shield them from the reality of what they are seeing, they do not offer any protection for these citizen reporters, more like the contrary. “If they found me with my camera, they would rip me to pieces and make a salad with my remains”, says Bilal as he bursts out with laughter. “The camera turns me into someone wanted by the authorities, the regime believes that it is a weapon of mass destruction”.

Another one of his colleagues remembers how, during one of the Army’s first incursions into the streets of Baba Amr, the soldiers took away every camera they found. “Having a camera or a spray can is forbidden in Homs. It is a crime own one of these”, he says as he strokes a red Samsung.

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Basil al Sayid films the moment of his death. December 28th, 2011. (Uploaded by syriapioneer)

There is no doubt about the risk they face. The latest eyes of the war shut by a gunshot were those of Basil al Sayed, one of the cameramen in Eyyed’s team: he was filming at a checkpoint at the entrance of Baba Amr when a sniper shot him in the head.

Spirits were very low that morning in the activists’ office that morning. But none of them hesitated to put their cameras in their pockets and go out and film, just like every other day.

Basil al Sayid was not even the first casualty suffered by the brotherhood of citizen journalists that has popped up throughout Syria. A bullet hit Abdel Aziz al Nahar’s head while he filmed some Syrian soldiers on Eyyed’s shoulders. Miraculously, he survived and now he heals outside of Syria.

His best friend is Abu Salah, 26, who barely a month ago decided to go from recording what was happening with his camera to becoming the face of the revolution.

Today, his face can be seen on Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera and other Arab channels broadcasting from homes torn by artillery, mosques, funerals or demonstrations. Armed with a camera and a satellite phone, he plays the role of a war reporter out of raw conviction. “I was one of the first to start filming, because I wanted to make people aware of what was happening in Syria. I began recording with a cell phone when everyone was scared, until they gave me a camera. Now I’ve decided to change roles. We must assume responsibilities to show the foreign media what is happening”, he explains.

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Christmas Day. Tanks from Assad’s army fire against Baba Amr. December 25th, 2011. (Uploaded by syrian0germ)

Abu Salah has survived four attacks. “Twice I was shot while filming, a third one they surrounded the house where I was staying in the Inshaat neighborhood, another time they attacked my home”. The reason is that “they tracked me down from my videos and found me”, he explains referring to the Syrian secret service. “It’s already too late: they know who I am and if they find me I know that it will be the end of me. But my neighbors are paying a very high price, and I have to measure up to their sacrifices”.

That was the reason why he decided to distinguish himself to the point of becoming the face of the revolution. Now he is recognized all over Syria, the same way the whole country remembers the name of Mohamed Farzal al Jarban, a citizen cameraman from Quseir who had his eyes ripped out by the secret service to give out a clear message. “They torture every man who takes part in the revolution. Nobody is safe in Syria”.

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Selection of the works of Baba Amr’s citizen cameramen, up to November 2011.

Many cameramen have been wounded and murdered by the regime for broadcasting its crimes on the Internet. They flirt continuously with death, and not always because they go looking for the consequences of the military aggression perpetrated by Bashar Assad’s regime. On Monday afternoon, during one of the harshest bombings of Baba Amr, a missile hit the house next to the one the activists use as their headquarters. The building trembled as most of them were uploading their images in an inner room, the safest one in the house; the explosion resonated in their ears. Driven by their instinct, they evacuated the room: once they were out in the hallway, Eyyed began to organize them. “Come on, I want someone in the bombed house and someone else on the street, we need to record the impact from outside too. What are you waiting for?”.

The day after Christmas several civilians lay dead in an alley after an army bombing on Baba Amr. December 26th, 2011. (Uploaded by syrian0germ)

The hardest thing for them is to keep cool faced with the deaths of their neighbors and friends. “Yesterday I had to stop filming”, explains Bilal in reference to the artillery explosion that killed five people, four of them underage, in a home in Baba Amr. “They were my cousins”. But that does not convince them to quit. They plan to improve the recording equipment and keep working to update the social networks where they upload their recordings, keeping the world informed. “We would not have gotten here without the cameras”, says Eyyed, fully convinced.

“Our goal is for the entire world to be able to see what is happening in Syria. That it becomes impossible for it to close its eyes, that it has to watch. We feel alone in this battle”, complains Omar Shakir, another one of the activists, in charge of telling the foreign media in English what goes on in the neighborhood. “We would not be able to take down Bashar without our cameras”, concludes Eyyed.