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Who’s who: Documenters in Syria

This report is based upon meetings and direct dialogue with groups and individuals working in the field of documentation inside Syria. The report draws its conclusions from information provided by these sources via meetings in Beirut, Istanbul, Antalya, and Gaziantep, in addition to direct communication with them while they were on the ground in Syria.
Who’s who: Documenters in Syria


Principle Methodology


This report is based upon meetings and direct dialogue with groups and individuals working in the field of documentation inside Syria. The report draws its conclusions from information provided by these sources via meetings in Beirut, Istanbul, Antalya, and Gaziantep, in addition to direct communication with them while they were on the ground in Syria.


The centers, organizations, groups, and individuals gave information about their work to the author of this report. As such, the credibility of the information contained within this report is based upon the meetings and conversations of the report’s author.


It is worth nothing that the state of documentation activities in Syria is unstable. It depends upon constantly changing work conditions inside Syria. This necessarily means that the report will remain open to supplements and additional measures depending on the SJAC’s follow-up on documentation activities in Syria.  These supplements and additions are also dependent on source partners, including groups and individual Syrians working in the field of documentation.


The text of the report includes the names of groups, as well as details regarding where they work and have a presence.  However, they are omitted here in the report summary for reasons related to their safety and to ensure the continuation of their work. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre retains all information and reference data for the corresponding owners regarding the nature of their activities.


The main obstacles confronted in writing this report are the chaos of documentation work and building the related database, in addition to the difficulties of communicating with groups and individuals inside Syria. The report tried to fill these gaps by drawing on a network of interconnected and continuous relationships. The incoming information compiled in the report comes from direct communication with sources.  Existing data was omitted based on accounts from others due to low levels of precision and reliability.


Strengths of Documentation Processes in Syria


Who are the documenters in Syria?


Organizations and human rights centers established before 2011:

In 2011, when the Syrian revolution began, there were no organizations of this kind licensed in Syria, and they are still without licensing even now.  These organizations worked in the narrow margin between the opposition and the regime, though they did not enjoy independence from politics.  A number of their cadres attended trainings outside of Syria, including technical training and training on standards of documentation.  Effective documentation activities from these groups was completely absent after March 2011; their databases from that time are old and out of date.  


Documentation groups established after 2011:


It does not appear that many Syrian activists were interested in the topic of documentation at the beginning of the uprising in 2011. Therefore, activists did not immediately establish effective groups and centers for documentation. The widening scope of violence throughout the period of the uprising contributed to many activists later beginning documentation operations of a serious nature. The main goal of documentation was supplying the media with current details of events from the inside of Syria, since independent press lacked the permission to enter and cover the events. With this in mind, many of the groups did not build specialized databases on violations for a long time (I estimate this time to be from March 2011 until the middle of 2012).


Interest in serious documentation work began in the middle of 2012.  Many of those working in documentation came from backgrounds that since the beginning of the uprising have included civil protest and media activism. The majority of those working in documentation had no previous human rights experience and most of them had not received any training on standards of documentation or methodology.


On a limited scale, activists of these groups did receive advice and guidance from different international human rights bodies.  They have also benefited from the experience they gained during their time working in Syria, the timeline for which has now two years. This led to a relative development in their level of work.  This development is seen clearly in the establishment of groups specializing in documenting specific violations (sexual assault, environmental abuses, and the destruction of buildings).  Development is also evident in some of the databases that were initially built in a random, disorganized fashion that later became subject to a minimal amount of organization and classification.


As a result of the increased difficulty in coordinating operations among cities and other regions, localized groups of activists and those limited to geographic regions also began to appear. These were composed of people and activists from the same region.  Their work is distinguished from that of others by their ability to arrive quickly and gain direct access to the subject matter to be documented.  Subsequently, their databases are preliminary and not built in the sequential way like those of groups working at the national level.


Individuals and independent activists


These are activists and individuals working independently who do not belong to any group. They constitute the majority of those working in the field of documentation in Syria.  They are also the most important sources of information and data about violations in their regions. They have unprocessed documentation material and their priority is on violations within their area.  The existing documentary material from individual activists comprises the largest and most important of all the documentation in Syria.  Because of the independence of individual activists their work enjoys a higher level of security and protection from security breaches than the work group activists.  However, because of their lack of involvement with any group, there remains a risk of eventually losing the data if the activist is arrested or murdered.


Independent, individual work is distinct from the propagandistic documentary materials that groups produce for greater attention, aiming to add a certain political character and manipulating databases to produce press materials.


The work of independent individuals enjoys personal motivation and is not dependent on others in the completion of work.  In contrast, individual activity is lacking in that it doesn’t allow multiple attempts of different people to obtain information from the source in the event of a poor response.


What are the kinds of information being documented?


Lists of the names of those killed, arrested, and missing:


Most activists undertake the preparation of lists of names of those murdered, arrested, lost, and forcibly disappeared. This process is distinguished by the large number of those working on it. These lists enjoy a high degree of credibility because of the ability to cross-check its information from different sources among activists very quickly. This work is progressing on a number of levels, beginning with individual work on a narrow scale, of people documenting names in the neighborhood or village in which they are active, and broadening to groups working on a wider level, including local groups working at the level of cities or regions.  There are also groups working on the national level, and preparations of these kinds of lists are among their activities.


Official government documents and papers


There are two main ways through which government documents and papers are collected:


1) Militants storming official and security headquarters: This mainly occurred in regions in northern Syria (Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Azzor, and Raqqa). This is the most important means of obtaining these kinds of documents. Its most important benefits are:

●     The ability to obtain a large quantity, huge batches of documents, correspondence, and commands directed through the security and military branches, as well as other official institutions.

●     The high credibility the documents enjoy is the result of their having been obtained from their archives directly and not through any mediator.


Among the drawbacks of taking official government documents, the greatest is the fact that the documents are in the hands of armed militants. As such, they subject to significant tampering. Additionally, documents obtained in such a way are exposed to the dangers of neglect, destruction, and loss.  Furthermore, there is less confidence that such documents will arrive at secure databases, far from tampering.


Another drawback is that these documents are becoming available to people who use it to access information about who worked as an informer and sent their loved ones to prison.  The result of this has been the direct killing of people who were listed in these documents as supporters of government forces.  


2) The second way in which government documents are collected is from dissidents or sympathizers with the revolution who are still on-the-job (i.e. working for the regime); a small number of documents are leaked through this channel. 


Visual and audio materials


These are the primary and unprocessed clips that activists use to capture the location of an event (the location of a shelling, the body of someone torture to death, local witnesses of an area that was attacked, etc.).  These materials are the most important in documenting and dating the event, its location, and those involved.  Usually, local activists, who don’t have much experience in documentation or recording, film these clips, resulting in clips of unprofessional quality.  The greatest strength of this type of material is its documentation of an event in the moment, at the place it occurs.  Whereas the greatest weakness of these types of documents is that the vast majority of them are being treated as though they are media materials, and they are sent to TV stations, published through social media websites, and circulated publicly.


Lists of names of the wounded people


This type of material is relatively recent.  Documenting the names of the wounded and their conditions did not begin until the most recent period of the Syrian uprisings.  Therefore, it doesn’t cover a long period of time, and the databases are incomplete, with a significant gap of time.  Additionally, there is a lack of interest in this type of documentation in favor of documenting the names of those arrested and killed.  The most prominent actor carrying out such documentation is a new group of Syrian activists inside the country who focus primarily upon documenting the names of the wounded and permanently disabled (amputations, handicapped, etc.).  This group works alongside doctors and medical personnel in field hospitals and health centers on the borders of neighboring countries.  The group enjoys the advantage of covering the bulk of Syria geographically, and primarily works in regions under opposition control.  The group also has previous experience in documentation operations and has the highest degree of professionalism compared to other Syrian groups carrying out documentation.  They also have an organized approach and a detailed database.


Documents and lists of the names of sites exposed to the destruction of residential and archeological structures


These documentation efforts are recent.  This type of documentation has acquired importance as of late; work began on it in the second half of 2012.  Work groups formed after an expansion in the scope of aerial bombardments and missile bombings and the total collapse of a large number of residential areas and buildings.  The groups are particularly active in the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and the Damascus countryside where residential neighborhoods are the most exposed to destruction.  In Aleppo, archaeological and historical buildings were subjected to great ruin because of repeated bombing and military operations within the city.  This documentation work is insufficient relative to the work strategy, despite the clarity of the purpose and its specialization. The group’s available databases are basic and random.


Documents on the intentional pollution of the environment and public health


This is a recent kind of documentation that doesn’t cover the entire period of the revolution.  The need for it emerged after repeated, intentional instances of polluting drinking-water sources and the intentional neglect of garbage in neighborhoods that had witnessed protests against the regime, both of which contributed significantly to the spread of diseases and sickness, and threatens the health of residents in areas that have a high population density (Aleppo, Homs, and the Damascus countryside in particular).  Recently established groups work on this type of documentation in addition to local individuals.  This type of documentation is lacking due to poor coordination among activists in different areas.  The foundations of this information are distinct in that this documentation is local since these types of violations are not universal.


Lists of the names of the officers overseeing arrests and torture


A large number of groups work on this type of documentation on a local level or on a national level, in addition to individual activists who work independently.  The sources of information can be divided into two basic groups:


a)      Official records and documents that were acquired directly from security headquarters after they were stormed by militias.  Or documents that have been leaked by dissidents who either left their positions or remain in them but are supporting the uprising secretly.


c)      Testimonials of the arrested and survivors of detention centers.


These lists enjoy high credibility due to the frequency of their data. from various sources. over the course of two years.  Organizing the names of junior officers is the most important gap in the reliability of this information due to the lack of cross-checking information about them with information on senior officers.  The databases contain these names, the geographic locations of work, and the position that the concerned person held.  Additionally, the details connected with the nature of each officer’s role and duty are not always sufficient in expressing the nature of the task and level of responsibility in detention and security centers.  Different groups who work on this type of documentation enjoy professional levels and many different access capabilities. 


Lists of the names and conditions of sexual assault victims


The databases in this type of documentation are formed from lists of names of sexual assault victims in addition to the names of the areas in which the violations occurred and available victim testimonials.  This type of documentation work faces difficulties delineated in particular by:


a) A difficult social work environment, where the middle class is inclined to cover and obscure these types of violations.


b) Work teams that are inexperienced, which leads to the building of insufficient databases.


c) Coverage of small geographic areas due to the scarcity of the number of activists working on this type of documentation.


Documentation operations in this field are undertaken in a disorganized manner by documentation groups that perform different activities and for whom this type of documentation is not the most important.  While there exists one specialized group working in this field, it has worked since the beginning of 2012 in Homs only.  Its human resources are formed primarily by female activists in Homs.  This group is well experienced in this type of documentation and has carried out a number of detailed databases and has a satisfactory level of professionalism.  Whereas recently two work groups have formed outside of Syria, they have formed in refugee camps in neighboring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan.  The bulk of their work is performed retroactively among victims who have been displaced from their neighborhoods to refugee camps. 


What do the most active documenters do?


Build wide networks of relationships with groups, organizations, and centers of documentation, as well as with local individual activists in their region.


Distribute the work in certain documentation fields among individuals of one group.


Maintain good relations with the armed opposition permitting them to obtain the information and data they have, and making room in the field for activity within areas which  the militias control. 


Cross-check data among different parties aiming to raise the level of credibility of the information.


Preserve copies of databases backed-up outside of Syria to protect them from confiscation during raids, arrests, or damage in regions that witness continuous military operations.





Gaps and Points of Weakness in Documentation Procedures (Negative aspects of the documentation work in Syria)


What are the documenters not doing? What are they not doing well? Why?


– Documenters are not recording the testimonials of survivors.  This is true of sites that were exposed to bombing or storming.  There are not recorded testimonials of released detainees nor of detention center torture survivors.


– Documented information is not subject to the necessary verification before it is adopted.  A large portion of information is based upon only a single source.


– Documenters do not update their databases retroactively.  That is, documentation operations lack follow up.


– The databases of groups are not subjected to the needed categorization or clear classification.


– Most groups don’t retain or store backup copies of their databases in a secure location.


– Groups and individuals working in the field of documentation still strive to produce media material to convey an image of what is happening in Syria to the Arab and international communities, which has greatly affected the credibility of documentation material and the quality of the databases they produce.


– There are no reports produced from the databases, and the existing data is not subject to any kind of analysis.


– There are nearly no serious groups working on documenting the names of those killed, kidnapped, or missing from the parts of society supporting the regime in Syria, nor of regime soldiers killed in battles against the opposition.


– There are new challenges facing documentation activity with the de facto authorities that under the armed opposition control those areas where there occur continuous operations of revenge, vengeance, kidnapping, or killing.  Militias intend in numerous situations to confiscate the relevant equipment of activists, preventing them from filming, or meeting with witnesses or the families of victims.


– Most documentation activists don’t enjoy neutrality toward the victim.


– The monopoly of information for reasons of competition among activists or for security reasons, fearing the wrong party will access a victims’ personal database.


– Documentation work in Syria is faulted by the scarcity of coordination among groups on shared points of work for a purely competitive, media-driven advantage.


– The significant entry of non-governmental organizations into the general Syrian activism environment, and the sudden exposure of Syrian activists to a number of funding institutions without previous work experience with such mechanisms, contribute to the spoiling of the general atmosphere and inclination of groups and activists to market and sell their databases.  A number of brokerage operations have been recorded.


– The long, negative political situation has affected general satisfaction with the benefits of documentation processes and the possibility of reaching the justice and accountability phase.  That affected both sources of information on victims of violations or witnesses on the one hand, and workers in the field of documentation on the other.  This is reflected quite negatively in the production of documentation materials, the collection of information, and the building of databases.


– Numerous documenters undertake different media and aid activities, and a lot of them participate in civil protests.  This is what negatively influences the returns of documentation work and the time dedicated to the volume of demanded, important work in Syria in this field. 


– Groups’ lack of financial resources is inevitable; most teams continue working as volunteers.  At this time the majority of activists don’t have any resources to live.  This is what significantly contributes to the scarce number of workers in documentation and the departure of most activists from this sector to search for work that supports continued conditions of living.



Main Findings and Recommendations


What are the ways to leverage the points of strength among documenters?


Are there ways to fill the gaps effectively?


What are the capacity-building needs of documenters?



– It is possible to build upon the current points of strengths of documenters by helping groups and individuals reassess their work from throughout the most recent period; the quality, quantity and level of existing data they have.  Beginning with preparing work plans with defined goals, geographically or thematically.  Many Syrian documenters have a lack of vision and disordered work that leads largely to the beginning of new plans, most of which are not written, nor continued, nor produce serious results.


– The documentation work in Syria needs wide programs of training on reliable documentation standards; on ways of preparing databases; an on ways of inquiry, verification, and the collection and preservation of evidence.  Any program for training documentation activists in this field needs to take into consideration documenters’ basic needs, and build a training program that incorporates their understanding of the nature of the requested data being documented in Syria.


– The production of promotional materials focuses on the importance of documentation processes and building a database of violations to obtain justice for victims and accountability for criminals.  It will contribute effectively to providing a better atmosphere for the documentation work of activists.


– Work on training activists and groups to work under different conditions in different areas under the authorities that control the area is necessary.  This will increase neutrality among documenters toward victims’ political opinions.


– Documentation operations in Syria need financial support to dedicate a large number of trained and professional documenters to cover the entire Syrian geography, and to plug the gap in the shortage of work teams and scarce numbers of groups and individuals working in the field of documentation.


– It will be beneficial to support and augment the specialization of groups working in particular areas of documentation (destruction of buildings, environmental violations, sexual assaults, etc.) by forming specialized training programs to train work teams documenting specific kinds of violations.


– Prepare training programs and special workshops to train documenters in the fields of internet security and best practices to preserve data.



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