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A Syrian Activist and Filmmaker in Hiding: Interview with Democracy Now!

[Screen shot from video below.] [Screen shot from video below.]

Syrian troops continue to fire on protesters despite a visit by Arab League monitors to assess the Assad regime’s compliance with a plan to resolve the country’s political crisis. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the nine-month-long uprising. We’re joined from Damascus by Bassel, a Syrian activist and filmmaker just back from the city of Homs, where three dozen people were reportedly killed the day before monitors arrived. Speaking from hiding, Bassel says the violence in Homs is threatening a civil war pitting local civilians and army deserters against the security forces. We’re also joined by Karam Nachar, a U.S.-based Syrian cyber-activist who details how he is working with Syrian protesters via social media platforms to organize and get out images of the protests and the Assad regime’s crackdown.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Observers from the Arab League are headed to three more Syrian cities today as part of an effort to assess the Assad regime’s compliance with an Arab League plan to resolve the political crisis in that country. The plan calls for the withdrawal of state forces and weapons from residential areas, the release of political prisoners, and the establishment of dialogue between the government and the opposition.

The Arab League effort has alarmed many Syrian activists, in part because the mission is headed by a Sudanese lieutenant general named Mustafa al-Dabi, who was once based in Darfur, where a prosecutor from the International Criminal Courts says the Sudanese army carried out war crimes. On Wednesday, the Sudanese General Dabi said he saw, quote, "nothing frightening" in his initial tour of the city of Homs.

AMY GOODMAN: Activists in Syria say the Arab League monitors are being shielded from the ongoing violence in Syria, where over 5,000 people are believed to have been killed in the nine-month-long uprising. Three dozen people were reportedly killed in Homs the day before the monitors arrived. On Wednesday, Syrian protesters in the city say they confronted Arab League peace monitors by displaying the dead body of a boy who they said was killed by Syrian government forces. Meanwhile, at least six people died in the city of Hama on Wednesday, when forces opened fire on a group of thousands of anti-government protesters. Human Rights Watch says Syrian forces have transferred hundreds of prisoners in Homs to military installations, where the observers are barred.

For more on Syria, we’re joined by two guests. Karam Nachar is a cyber-activist who is working with Syrian protesters via various social media platforms. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University in the History Department, specializing in the modern Middle East. Joining us from Damascus is a Syrian activist and filmmaker named Bassel. He just returned from Homs. For security reasons, he asked we only use his first name.

Bassel, why don’t we begin with you on the ground in Damascus where protests are taking place, and you’ve just come out of Homs. Can you tell us what happened there?

BASSEL: Good morning, Amy.

I just got back from Homs yesterday, after spending one week there. The heavy bombing and shelling of the city continued for several days, 'til the night of the Arab League delegation's arrival. I witnessed tanks withdraw from Homs the morning before the observers arrived. Like, the problem is—now I’m calling you from Al-Midan area in Damascus. Activists has called for a protest in this area, and they expected the monitor—the delegations, the monitors, to come and see the protest. But no one arrived here. And the security forces are cracking down the protesters. I can hear them running in the streets now. And they are like—they have besieged the protesters in one of the mosques here in the area. So, we are wondering now why the delegation is here. They are cracking down on the protesters now. And we don’t—we are, like, wondering what are they doing here now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say "bombing and shelling," you’re saying that the air force was dropping bombs on the town, as well as shelling it?

BASSEL: No, no. Like, bombing like—it’s like missiles. Like, it’s not a air bombing, but you can hear and see the bombing in the area. It’s not like air forces, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the delegation, is the delegation traveling in one group from one town to another, or are they spread out so that some remain in Damascus while other parts of the delegation go out to different parts of the country?

BASSEL: Yes, supposedly, they have to stay in each city. Like, there is a group in Homs now, and another group is supposed to go to Hama today. So, and yesterday, there were clashes in Hama.

And actually, I can hear, like, the security forces outside of the room I am in now. So I’m, like, keeping my voice a little bit low. They are outside, Juan, so I need to keep my voice a little bit low. Sorry for that.

AMY GOODMAN: We can hear you just fine, Bassel, but we want you to be very careful. You can tell us you can’t talk. That is fine. We also have a guest here in the studio, Karam Nachar. But I do want to ask you about who is killing who in Homs, in Hama, in Damascus, right now. Tell us who the forces are.

BASSEL: Actually, the violence in the city of Homs is like—what I saw the last week I was there, like, it’s threatening to turn into like almost a civil war. A heavy crackdown on the city, punishing the rising area and killing the civilians, is forcing the locals to form like an armed resistance to the regime’s forces. And they are supported by army deserters. So the fight is between the locals and the security forces and the supporters of the regime. The rising areas are besieged by the regime forces. I tried to cross to the besieged area of Baba Amr for three days, but I failed to enter this area. I witnessed—and actually, I was shot by snipers when I was trying to cross to these areas. People are forced to fight back to block out the security forces and make their way out to provide food and supplies. So, like, they are putting the people in the position like they have to defend themselves. This is what I saw in Homs. But the violence is rising and the tension is, like, becoming more high there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bassel, when you say snipers, are these snipers Syrian forces, or are they people in civilian garb? Is their ethnic battling that’s broken out, as well?

BASSEL: The snipers, no. The snipers are for the army, actually. And I’m sure for—and I was shot while—while trying to cross from area to area, I was, like—they tried to shoot on all of the people trying to cross. And they are army forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you’re hearing right now, Bassel? Again, we don’t want you to endanger yourself. Stop talking, if you have to. If you must leave, tell us.

BASSEL: I’m trying not to, like—the activists with me in the house, like, tell me, like, I have to keep my voice a little bit low, because they hear like a lot of troubles outside. Actually, the security forces are cracking against the protesters outside now.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you had trouble with security forces yourself before?

BASSEL: Yeah. I was arrested for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were detained?

BASSEL: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Karam Nachar—

BASSEL: Actually, a lot—

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

BASSEL: A lot of my friends are still detained. Yesterday they released around 700 detainees. But still, thousands of detainees are still in the prisons. Among them are tens of my friends. They are not terrorists. They are filmmakers, journalists, doctors, lawyers. They are very high intellectual people and activists.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the reports of prisoners, like you were once, but prisoners now, being moved from the city of Homs, as they brought in the Arab League monitors?

BASSEL: Actually, this is—yeah, this is a Human Rights Watch report. This is the only thing I heard about it. But it was leaked from the army itself. Some officer from the army leaked it to the Human Rights Watch.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about defecting officers, of defecting soldiers?

BASSEL: They are increasing. And I met some of them in Homs. They are supporting the locals, fighting back and trying to defend themselves. But the violence is raising in the city, and it’s really, really dangerous. Like, you cannot walk after 3:00 in the city. You’ll be shot. And you don’t know from where it will come—from the army or from the locals. Like, it’s a total chaos there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how are the activists able to continue, like yourself and others, able to continue to organize and communicate to prepare either demonstrations or other opposition activities?

BASSEL: Actually, Juan, more than half of my friends in prison now. I have friends who have been killed. So we—and a lot of them, like, flew out of the country now. They are based in Beirut or like somewhere outside of Syria, in Turkey also. So, we are having a lot of troubles now. And—

AMY GOODMAN: When you say killed, have they been killed in prison?

BASSEL: No. Some—I have—one of my friends have been killed while trying to cross the borders to Turkey. He’s a doctor. And he was, like, providing help for protesters. And they followed him, and he tried to cross the borders to Turkey, and they shot him on the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Bassel—

BASSEL: This is one of the cases. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re incredibly brave to be in Syria right now as a filmmaker. What about the crackdown on the media? No Western reporters really able to, in any way, function openly there.

BASSEL: I heard of some journalists are being in Baba Amr now or some—like, there are some journalists succeed to sneak into Homs and other areas. And actually, when I held my camera and went to Homs, I went and shot some, during this week. I was like—I was like holding a weapons with me. Like, if they discovered this camera in any way, I will be like in a total danger. So, it’s very dangerous to hold a camera and just, like, travel around the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We also have here Karam Nachar. I wanted to ask you about the role of the Syrian diaspora in what is going on in the continuing protest movement there in the country.

KARAM NACHAR: Well, to be honest, it’s been quite instrumental from the very get-go. You know, this whole revolution was pretty dependent on social media and also on YouTube, because if you don’t have a video of a particular demonstration, then you don’t have the demonstration at all. And, you know, arguing about the actual truthfulness of the entire revolution was dependent on the ability to produce videos that show unequivocally the demonstrations, you know, in particular cities, with signs that prove these are cities inside Syria. And so, you know, once the activists take these films on their phones, internet is so slow in Syria, and it could always be cut completely, cut off completely. And so, it was up for the diaspora to basically get these videos through Skype or through Facebook pages from the actual activists on the ground, and then send them to, you know, the media, send them to Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, all the primarily Arabic-speaking news channels. And then, at the beginning, they would tell us, you know, "These videos are not really that good. Please get back to the activists and ask them to, you know, change their location, get a better shot." You know. And so, this was—this was one of the first ways in which a lot of the people abroad got involved, becoming the administrators of the pages on which all these videos were being uploaded and from which the media was getting its footage.

But then, you know, we became very heavily involved other things, like, for instance, raising funds. And by that, I mean humanitarian assistance for the families of the marchers, you know, people that were killed by the regime. We send them sometimes medical assistance or money, food, clothing, and helping out also with technological equipment. You know, a lot of the phones that the witnesses from inside Syria use to call Al Jazeera, for instance, to report on what’s happening, they can’t use their cell phones, their Syrian cell phones, because these could be very easily intercepted by the government. And so, we buy these satellite—satellite-enabled phones from Dubai, and then we send them—we send them through smuggling to inside the country. And these same phones can also be used to, you know, make the videos, basically, like show what’s happening, sometimes through live streaming, as well. And so, this technological stuff was also extremely important. And so, raising the funds, buying the stuff, and sending it inside was also very important.

And the refugees, you know, now we have—we have thousands of refugees in Lebanon and in Turkey. And so, I know several groups also in the diaspora that are working on just humanitarian aid and assistance to the refugees in both countries.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you must be aware, obviously, of the reports in the WikiLeaks cables of U.S. government support for opposition groups, even before the uprising in Syria.

KARAM NACHAR: Mm-hmm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any concern about that, in terms of the U.S. government’s involvement in helping to support the opposition movement, either financially or otherwise?

KARAM NACHAR: Well, you know, there’s—I always say there’s a pre-15—March 15, 2011 moment, and there’s a post-March 15, 2011 moment. Of course, before two thousand—before the beginning of the revolution and, you know, when George Bush was in power, of course there was a certain regime change plan on the part of the American administration, and there were certain ties that the administration here was trying to build with certain opposition figures. But that opposition, that older opposition, that was always rooted—like, based outside, outside the country, and not really in touch with anyone inside. You know, they got the money. They started a couple of TV channels, I think. But that is just completely different from what started happening afterwards. Even now, the Syrian National Council, for instance, which is basically the conglomeration, the biggest conglomeration, of opposition parties, the vast majority of the members of the Syrian National Council are people that became involved as a result of the revolution itself. You know, there are certain senior figures in the council that were always based outside, but that money never went to them as members of the Syrian National Council now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Bassel. Bassel, are you still there?

BASSEL: Yes, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: The violence now in Daraa—you were talking about the protests in Damascus and the Arab League monitors being in Hama. The history of Hama, where a massacre took place in 1982 under Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad. The significance of this area and what you—what people are calling on these Arab League monitors to do?

BASSEL: Actually, I witnessed in Homs that the security forces are confused how to handle the peaceful protests while being watched and monitored by the observers. Like videos, we witnessed some videos where the protests happened in front of military and security barriers. People were chanting and accompanied with the observers—by the observers. And the regime told its force not to crack down on them, as they do usually. The problem with the size of the delegations, like there is 20 persons only in Homs, five persons of the delegation in Hama, and the area they will cover—like, the security forces are confused with when they are present, but they cannot cover all the areas in Damascus. The killing is, like, there is—is continuing where there is no observers. But it stopped where the observers are there. So it’s a very complicated thing.

But people are very optimistic about this delegation. They are calling tomorrow for a Friday to crawl to the freedom squares. They want to start the sit-ins in squares in the cities, like Tahrir Square in Cairo. And they are very optimistic of these delegations. But what I saw today, there is—no one came to the protest. So I’m afraid tomorrow, like, people will try to go to the squares, and they will be shot. And it’s very dangerous to try to go there. Last time in Homs, they went to the square, of the main square in Homs. They killed over 100 person there. So, tomorrow, they will try to go, and I don’t know. It will be maybe a bloody day, or it will be a Tahrir Square day. We will wait tomorrow and see.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the hope is that they will do the—they will organize the protest while the observers are there to—

BASSEL: We are hoping to—we are hoping the observers will come. But today, no one came. So, let’s hope tomorrow. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And the criticism of the Arab League monitors, headed by the Sudanese Lieutenant General Mustafa al-Dabi, who was once in Darfur, where a prosecutor, of course, from the International Criminal Court says the Sudanese army carried out war crimes.

BASSEL: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: His comment that he saw "nothing frightening," he said in his initial tour of Homs.

BASSEL: That’s right. But I remember—I still remember that the night before they came, the bombing and the shelling to the cities was like—it’s like crazy thing. They stopped as the delegations came. And this delegation will stay in Homs for only one month. This is the mission of the delegation. So, the regime stopped bombing the Baba Amr area and all the rising areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to clarify, the mission is going to stay there for one month, the Arab League mission?

BASSEL: Yeah, yeah. This is what’s supposed to happen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, but presumably, because there has been bombing and shelling, there will be evidence of it, unless the government has cleared away the damage.

BASSEL: And they saw it, yeah. They saw it, yeah. But actually, the head of the delegation didn’t—like, he didn’t went to the Baba Amr area. They went yesterday without him. So he made this comment without going to this area.

AMY GOODMAN: The debate over intervention, is there one? Do people look at Libya as a model or as a problem? Do they want to handle this themselves?

BASSEL: It’s different from the capital to Homs. People in Homs are desperate there. I really—I run with women and children to cross streets while snipers are, like, making fun, like shooting in the air. People there are desperate, and they need to have a solution. People in Damascus are a little bit like—they are not witnessing what happened in Homs. So it’s different opinions here and there. But surely, we are all—agree like we need some kind of protection, some kind of observers and journalism. We need press to come here and be free to move. This is the protection we need. And I think, like, just journalists come to Syria, like, and have free to move around the country, it will be a big—a big protect for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Bassel, please be safe.

BASSEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: A Syrian activist and filmmaker, he was jailed himself. He is speaking to us from Damascus. Security forces are right near where he is right now. Of course, we are going to continue to be in touch with you. And if you have anything you need to report now, just please talk to our producers. Very brave to share this report with us today, just out of Homs in Damascus. And Karam Nachar, thank you very much for being with us.

KARAM NACHAR: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: A cyber-activist working with Syrian protesters via social media, Ph.D. candidate, Princeton University in the History Department, specializing in the modern Middle East.

We are going to break just for 30 seconds. When we come back, North Korea is burying Kim Jong-il. We’ll speak with Professor Bruce Cumings. Stay with us.

 

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