“Our families and people in Raqqa, please forgive us. We love nothing more than to enter a bit of joy and hope to your lives, our wish was that our final statement be in the time where the tyrant Bashar al Assad fell, but circumstances are stronger than we are. We ask god for the better of all.”
– Final statement (as posted) of the Revolutionary Media Centre in Raqqa website and Facebook page, November 2, 2013.
With these words, the members of the Revolutionary Media Centre in Raqqa posted their last dispatch in early November. The statement went on to explain that the centre’s staff had decided to cease all media activity and shut down their office and websites. Other media activists, organizations and website operators in the city quickly followed their lead and shut down.
According to the statement, the decision came after one of the Revolutionary Media Centre’s correspondents was beaten by militiamen from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while filming the marketplace in downtown Raqqa. Members of ISIS accused him of spying for the Syrian government.
Before that incident, Raqqa’s media activists had become accustomed to being beaten-up and accused of collaborating with the Syrian intelligence by opposition fighters, simply for filming impact locations of regime-launched bombs.
But beatings could be the least of the activists’ worries; in October, unknown forces captured Hazem al-Hussain, a media activist, as well as doctor and activist Ismaeel al-Hamoud, and even cleric Abdallah al-Assaf, a member of the legal Sharia Committee in Raqqa. A member of the committee who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Assaf had openly criticized ISIS on several occasions.
In the same month, ISIS detained three activists, Abdelilah al-Hussein, Abdallah al-Mushrif and Mohammad al-Shuaib. The militia released Mushrif and Shuaib after two days, but has kept Hussein imprisoned under unknown charges.
The Centre published photos on its Facebook page showing evidence of the torture Mohammad al-Shuaib was subjected to at the hands of the ISIS during his detainment.
But it was the murder of activist and member of the Revolutionary Media Centre Muhannad Haj Ubaid, known as Muhannad Habayibna, on the morning of Monday, October 21 that turned the tide in the city. The National Defence Forces in Raqqa, a pro-government militia whose members went into hiding after the opposition took control of Raqqa in March 2012, claimed responsibility for the assassination on their Facebook pages. Several activists, among them Samir (not his real name), felt that the regime had sleeping cells that were operating freely and with impunity within the city, especially given the almost complete lack of security checkpoints. Samir said the situation has “only increased the number of gangs and shabiha”.
Basel Aslan, 22, a media activist and friend of Habayibna, was forced to flee to Urfa in Turkey after receiving a threatening message through his Facebook page while he was in a café in Raqqa.
“Someone sent me a picture of Muhannad Habayibna right after his murder. I took it that it was the murderer who sent it, telling me that I was also a target for assassination,” said Aslan in an interview via the Internet.
“I was shaking with fear when I received the threat, and I felt that the person who had sent it had been present in the café at the same time as I was there,” he said. “One of my friends had to calm me down and take me home, and I left for Turkey the very next day.”
Aslan doesn’t know who threatened him, nor is he tempted investigate too deeply, for fear of provoking further threat or attack.
The threat of kidnapping and murder reaches beyond the Syrian border to those now based abroad. Souad Nawfal, 40, a teacher and activist, held vigil alone almost daily in front of the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, holding up banners calling for the release of the kidnapped and prisoners of conscience. Despite Nawfal’s departure for Urfa in October, she is still receiving threatening messages through the Internet from unknown parties.
“The threats haven’t ceased until this day,” said Nawfal. “They want me dead or alive, even if I’m at the ends of the earth.” On September 26, during her second-to-last vigil in the city, Nawfal was shot at by members of ISIS.
“They ran after us and stopped us,” she said. “My sister Rimal was crying and screaming, grabbing onto the barrel of the militiaman’s gun as he screamed ‘you’re as good as dead, you infidel, you collaborator,’” said Nawfal. “Rimal cried and begged them to leave me as bullets rained down, and I had no idea if they were shooting at me or up at the sky.”
But Nawfal went back to protest and hold vigil once more after the massacre at Ibn Tufeil Trade School, though they tore up her banner and “one of them wiped his beard and gestured to his neck and I understood then that they had called for my blood.”
“I started receiving threats, and I was told by people who were sympathetic to me that both my home and the school where I worked were being watched,” she said.
Nawfal and Aslan weren’t the only ones in Raqqa forced to leave the country. In October alone around 30 activists left, according to Mohammad, 32, a media activist still based in the city.
As Mohammad tells it, the exodus of activists came after the deterioration of the security situation in the city, and a number of threats from unknown sources came through Facebook, and there were also several attempted kidnappings.
The threat is greater for civilian media activists than those working with armed opposition factions, according to media activist Ammar Mohsin, 26, who is one of the media professionals working within the Uways al-Qurani brigade, part of the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement.
“Civilians are the easiest targets for kidnappers,” said Mohsin. “There are no parties on the ground that might protect them or demand their release, as opposed to those with armed backing.”
Mohsin might have a point: on November 16, Abu Raed Waysat, the head of the “Rayat al-Islam” battalion, part of the Uways al-Qurani brigade, was kidnapped by unknown parties who stripped him of his weapons and detained him in an abandoned house. His colleagues were able to release him within less than two hours, according to Abul Nour, head of the Uways al-Qurani political office, who also made assurances that such efforts would be equally extended to help kidnapped civilians.
After most activists were forced to flee, the ones who are left are in a constant state of alert, living under the continuous threat of kidnapping or murder. “The city is no longer as it once was,” says the activist Mohammad. “I can no longer stay out too late.” But Mohammad is against going into self-imposed exile, considering it “an abdication of responsibility.”
“When we decided to rise up against the regime, we were forced to pay whatever price in the pursuit of this end,” he said. “If we leave the city to the malevolent and vicious, then the revolution will be over.”