Much like Syria as a whole, little was known of the city of Raqqa before the civil war and the establishment of Daesh. Now, however, Raqqa conjures up images that stretch to public square beheadings, women clothed in black and groups of unruly men running amok with tanks and guns. Little is said of the living hell its citizens are forced to endure as the five year conflict rages on and even less of the daily civilian death toll that fails to hasten its end.
Raqqa was captured in 2013 and made Daesh’s headquarters in Syria in 2014 and has since been the focus of airstrikes from Syrian government forces, the US-led coalition and Russia as well as suffering irreversible damage caused internally Daesh. Hunger, siege and destruction mark the conditions of Syrian families fleeing the war in the area.
Given how dangerous the situation on the ground has become very few journalists, if any, operate directly from Syria. As a result, reports to international media agencies remain unverified due to the complete reliance on citizen journalists and activists who challenge the state-sponsored narrative of events between rebel groups, Daesh and government forces. Armed with their mobile phones these activists are civilians who face death to document atrocities taking place on their doorsteps, posting on social media sites and amassing global audiences following their daily updates. Without these uncensored sources very little would be known about the extent of the conflict.
Well known activists including Hadi Abdullah have dominated the internet for as long as the conflict has spanned and have proven to be invaluable actors in holding the Syrian government to account for its crimes. Theirs are the eyes which allow the world to see the onslaught from within.
Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is a campaign launched by a group of non-violent activists in Raqqa to expose atrocities committed by the Assad regime and “terrorist extremist group” Daesh. Their website describes the group as a “nonpartisan and independent news page [not] tied to any political or military group.”
The group was first founded in April 2014 by Hussam Eesa and a few friends under the account Raqqa Blog where news, pictures and videos from Raqqa were published regularly. Realising the support it was garnering they decided to branch out to other Syrian activists who were in the same line of work and create a bigger campaign called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. It was only a month later that the group would succumb to its first casualty: activist Almoutaz Bellah Ibrahim.
Based in Germany, Hussam Eesa works as RBSS’s public relations manager and recently represented the organisation at the One World Media Awards in London where they received the Special Award for their contributors’ “immense bravery” in exposing “…the atrocities committed by terrorist extremist group ISIS”, in reference to Daesh.
“Getting an award from One World Media makes us feel proud,” says Hussam. “It is a great honour for us, it is a great moral motivation to complete our work especially knowing that there are organisations that know our work and support us.”
Since 2014, the group has expanded its base beyond Raqqa, documenting not only atrocities committed by Daesh but those resulting from the Assad regime, Al-Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army, Russia and the International Alliance’s involvement. The group now comprises of three main teams that operate from Raqqa, Turkey and Europe. Images, videos and news reports that are collated in Raqqa are then passed onto the teams in Turkey and Europe who then upload the content online.
Due to safety concerns and to minimalise risks, activists operate under pseudonyms and are not made given the names of the team member they work with online. However, these safety measures are not foolproof; four members of RBSS – two in Syria and two in Turkey – have been targeted and killed for their work.
Hussam explains that each activist that joins RBSS is fully briefed on the dangers they will face and given full personal and digital safety training. “They know our work and know that it may lead to death,” he says. However many are willing to take the risk in order to refute statistics that fail to measure up to the true extent of over five years of death and destruction.
Groups like RBSS are invaluable in shifting the global lens to where it matters most: civilians. They provide a voice for Syrians who are otherwise drowned out by the rhetoric of conflict resolution that has no place for them.
“The work of the team is important, [it has] uncovered many facts and a lot of the media and human rights organisations even consider us as a source [and] a lot of civilians in Syria believe that we are their voice,” Hussam explains.
“Everyone knows that our work is clear and we convey news from inside Syria,” he says. However the organisation often struggles to be noticed and believed on the backdrop of political disarray where the official narrative paints a very different picture.
Getting information out of war-torn Syria has proven very difficult for RBSS, constant power cuts and lack of equipment mean internet access is a luxury. But “we have alternative ways [to go online],” Hussam says. “We do not rely on internet cafes [and] have our own ways to convey information,” which is clearly evident by the daily Facebook and Twitter updates which have amassed a following of over a million users, and the content-laden website that documents atrocities, highlights regional statistics and provides a space for activists to post personal accounts of the war.
RBSS’s goal is simple: “To get Syria to [be a] free civilian democracy” and above all to be heard. “My message to the world would be that there are a lot of civilians who want freedom and democracy in Raqqa and in Syria, our problem is not just with ISIS. We are fighting ideologies, we are fighting all of the assaults on civilians [and] we must stop the war in Syria and see an end to Daesh, the Syrian regime and all the militia [that] are fighting our rights to freedom.”
This message is certainly not new; the same calls were made in March 2011, by Syrians who were out in their thousands peacefully singing in protest for an end to the Assad regime, raising roses to the sky for their fallen before being sprayed with bullets and seeing their country ripped apart by those violently scrambling to fill the gaping power vacuum. The international community repeatedly failed to meet the demands of Syrians in 2011, to fight a regime adamant on purging its citizens of dissent.
The singing may have quietened and the revolutionary spirit dimmed against the multi-faceted terror that has engulfed Syria but to say the demands of Syrians have been put aside is to deny a people who have held out for too long at a considerable price to gain back their country and their freedom.
“The best solution in Syria would be the elimination of the Syrian regime, ISIS and Kurdish militias, and all the groups that are fighting Syrians’ rights,” concludes Hussam. “The solution in Syria is supporting Syrians in achieving what they want and not what the international community wants.”