We speak to a member of ‘Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently’ about reporting from the Syrian city being controlled by Isis and bombed by the West
“Go back to where you came from” is the most common slur used against people who racists deem unfit to be in this country. But for Abdalaziz Alhamza, one of the founders of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, there is nothing he wants more to return to his home. However, after the group was declared an enemy of God by terrorist group Isis, his dream may never come true.
In 2014, Raqqa was captured by Isis and declared as the extremist group’s stronghold. Now, nobody from Raqqa is allowed to leave without permission and the only chance of survival is by swearing allegiance to Isis. Since then, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, also known as RBSS or RSS, has developed into one of the only reliable journalistic sources to come out of the area but, as one might imagine, there is great personal risk.
Only a couple of weeks ago Ruqia Hassan was executed for continually speaking out about the human rights abuses committed by Isis on her Facebook page. In October 2015, RBSS activist Ibrahim Abdul Qadir (aged 20) and his friend Fares Hamadi were found stabbed and beheaded in Turkey. All members of RBSS are in their early twenties and they all acknowledge and accept that their work is deadly.
While the mainstream media was relatively silent, RBSS brought to attention how Isis had banned the internet in private homes in Raqqa, forcing individuals into internet cafés so that they could be monitored and controlled. Isis intentionally hides the brutal and stark reality of life under their regime so that they can lure in new fighters and make themselves appear stronger through propaganda. The work of RBSS dispels the image that Isis is attempting to convey of themselves and informs the rest of the world of their actions. For example, the group broke the story of the United States’ failure to save journalist James Foley and other hostages.
At the beginning, there were six immensely brave members who founded the citizen journalist group. Previously, they all worked as young journalists and media professionals. According to Alhamza, who is only 24, and one of the groups founders, “we came up with the idea after we had left the old city. We had set up the group in opposition to Assad but then when Isis arrived we felt like we had to do something for our city. For us, it felt like a duty to keep doing our work to show the reality of life there.”
Since 2014, some of your RBSS colleagues have been killed. Do you remain inside the city?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: No, I have now got political asylum in Berlin. Initially, I came here illegally but I have the right to be here now. In July 2014, they managed to hunt down and kill three of my friends who had fled to Turkey. But, there are still RBSS reporters in Raqqa. Currently, there are 17 reporters inside the city and they send us text, photos and videos back to show what is it like there. Even though I am here, I am still getting death threats daily. Personally, I still hope that I can go back and work there with them but who knows… maybe they will even kill me in Germany?
Do you think that is likely? Does that prospect scare you?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: Well, they have long arms and I don’t make any effort to hide my identity! I keep doing interviews so I am known. So, it is easy to find me. I am not scared because I have come to expect that I will be killed anytime and I don’t care because I know that I will die anyway one day. Honestly, I just want to return to Raqqa and complete my life there so I will not be silent. But, I am doing nothing compared to the guys that are still there.
Is it just male journalists that work for RBSS? There is a lot in the media about how Isis treats women, is this true? Do female journalists face different risks?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: No, we work with both men and women. Firstly, working in Raqqa is different to working in any other city in Syria. It is the most dangerous place in the world. So, any photo uploaded directly by anyone – man or woman – will lead you to death. We have developed our own way of reporting but I can’t tell you about it. It isn’t safe for both men and women. But, I think, it is worse for women, yes. Under Isis, women now have to wear black niqabs so the atmosphere for them has changed a lot.
“The United Kingdom’s bombs will not change anything; it is wasted money for nothing. It is money that could be spent helping refugees”
Are you worried about your reporters and friends still over there?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: After a week, one of friends started reporting and they had him arrested in under a week. Right now, nobody who resists is safe. But, to me, they are heroes. They are working in the most dangerous city in the world and they have decided to do this for our city. My colleagues in Raqqa are doing special things that nobody else can do. They risk their lives daily.
How do people get involved with RBSS?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: Well, that is tricky. We cannot recruit people because we cannot trust people, you don’t know who is on your side so at the moment we cannot look for any new journalists. So, we just work with the close group of the 17 inside the city for now and those outside who have had to escape and flee.
As far as I can see, it seems that RBSS relies quite heavily on social media to disseminate the reality of Raqqa. Can you tell me a bit more about your methods?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: While in the city, we were just reporting from our belongings. We didn’t have more than our mobile phones and laptops. Through online methods, such as Facebook and Twitter, things can be sent out relatively anonymously but we were just working with what we had.
“Working in Raqqa is different to working in any other city in Syria. It is the most dangerous place in the world. So, any photo uploaded directly by anyone – man or woman – will lead you to death”
How do you feel, as a Syrian in European, watching governments join forces to bomb your home?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: It is traumatic. They forget that destruction and the rockets do not do anything. The French, and the other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States have decided to join forces to bomb. But, it would be better if they joined together to support refugees instead of bombing Syria. Syria has been bombed for more than a year now and it hasn’t changed anything. The United Kingdom’s bombs will not change anything; it is wasted money for nothing. It is money that could be spent helping refugees.
What about the attacks in Cologne? How does the media rhetoric around that affect you as a young man who really should be a celebrated member of the German community?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: It goes without saying that what happened in Cologne is wrong, nobody disagrees with that. However, the media immediately jumps to whether they are Syrian, refugees or Arab. The biggest problem is the media assumptions that it will be a Syrian refugee who did it. I am not saying that I wouldn’t think it is wrong if a Syrian refugee had done it. But, you can see a pattern. For example, the Charlie Hebdo cases and the Paris attacks, people were quick to jump on the finding of a Syrian passport and say it was Syrians even though they were homegrown attackers. The problem is not just the refugees in Europe, it is also the media.
But, there is also another side to war and devastation that people do not so frequently touch on; the human cost. You and all your colleagues are very young. Do you sometimes wish you could have had a peaceful youth? Now you are in Berlin do you want to behave like your average European man in his early 20s?
Abdalaziz Alhamza: In a way, I just feel sad to be in Berlin. I cannot be happy here like normal because I know it was because I was forced to leave my city. At the same time, foreign fighters and other people have come to Raqqa and changed everything. Now, they control the city and have displaced most of Raqqa’s people. I just hope that one day I can return to my city again.