'Nearly two years ago, I met a group of young Syrian journalists at a dive bar around Times Square. We spoke for hours, and their stories of human cruelty were detailed and beyond appalling. These were all refugees from the city of Raqqa and, in concert with other young men and women who were still living in Syria, they formed the core of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under Isis rule. Foreign journalists found that their reports were as reliable as they were sickening. On their Web site, the R.B.S.S. journalists posted reports of mass shootings, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual abuse, and other crimes. These brave reporters, who have been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and portrayed in Matthew Heineman’s excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts,” worked under constant threat of death; ten of their colleagues, friends and family members, both inside Raqqa and in Turkey, were hunted down by Isis forces and executed for the crime of committing journalism.
When news came this week that Isis had been flushed out of Raqqa by coalition air strikes, I called Abdalaziz Alhamza, perhaps the most eloquent of the young men and women I met that night in Times Square. He and I came to know each other at other events, and it was immediately clear to me that he was feeling no sense of relief, gratitude, or liberation.
“How are you?”
“Pretty terrible,” he said. “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” Alhamza felt no immediate sense of relief or happiness. His city was in ruins. He and everyone he knew had lost friends and family. After speaking on the phone, we decided to have a conversation by e-mail and what follows are his responses to my questions, edited for clarity and space, about his life and about Raqqa, its tragedy, and its future.
Life in Raqqa before the war was as normal as any city in the world. We had schools, universities, parks, bars, and cafés, though, of course, Raqqa was not a big city like Aleppo or Damascus. Raqqa was a somewhat forgotten city even though it has oil and gas and an agricultural base. The Euphrates and the dams there provide the country with much of its electricity.
“I was born in Raqqa and I came from a middle-class family. I didn’t really want for anything in my life at all. As a child and as a teen-ager, I had a good life. Before the revolution started, in 2011, I was a college student. I hung out with my friends, stole a little money from my dad. Basically, I wasn’t doing anything all that useful. But when the revolution began, my friends started telling me about politics in Syria, about the first demonstrations in the country. They talked about how the government denied us freedom of expression and civil rights, about how people who spoke out were killed or ‘disappeared.’ The Assad family had already been in power for more than forty years. They said we could be a great country, but we aren’t.
“And so I joined early the many Syrians who began asking for basic freedoms. But the regime reacted to the demonstrations by killing civilians. We saw that the regime had to end. The international community reacted to all of this with little more than speeches. The Assad regime prevented most of media organizations from entering Syria and covering what was going on. Local television just showed banal programs, like documentaries about animals and things like that.
“So I decided to go to the next demonstration and take video footage and upload it all on social media. That film was picked up by various media organizations. That’s really how I turned into an activist and a citizen journalist. My friends and I decided to get together and establish a Facebook page to report the news and provide what we call ‘local co-ordination.’ We organized and called on people to come to demonstrations, day after day.
“Because of these activities, I was arrested three times and tortured. The methods of torture that I went through, and so many others went through, included electric shock; whippings; solitary confinement for five, six days at a time in a tiny, windowless toilet stall.
“In March, 2013, troops from al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-allied jihadist group] and the Free Syrian Army pushed out the Syrian-government loyalists. For the next half year or more, we enjoyed a period when we could work freely and walk in the streets carrying revolutionary flags. Raqqa had more than forty civil-society organizations. I was helping to run an organization that was involved in education, and, along with my friends and comrades, we were able to re-open universities and the schools.
“Isis began to take control of the city in January, 2014. They closed Christian churches and Shia mosques. They committed countless human-rights violations, the first being a public execution that I witnessed with many others. The reaction of people in Raqqa at first was to demonstrate against Isis. Because I took part in that, I came under investigation. I was interrogated by Isis five times.
“When Isis took over complete control of the city, in mid-January, 2014, they came to my house to arrest me because I was covering the clashes between them and the rebels. I was just incredibly lucky that I wasn’t home when they came. I realized that I could no longer stay in Raqqa. At first, I thought I could stay in the city and live underground, but I was facing the threat of execution and I fled across the border to Turkey.
“When I arrived in Turkey, I kept hearing how Isis’s human-rights violations were increasing by the day. And so, in April, 2014, my colleagues, inside of Raqqa and outside, decided to start R.B.S.S. in order to report on the realities of what was going on. We also supported awareness campaigns in the most dangerous Isis strongholds: we used graffiti campaigns, we distributed posters. Eventually, we turned out to be the main source of news that was coming from Isis-controlled areas.
“We lost our first colleague in Raqqa because we were communicating through Facebook. We decided to be far more careful and got training on the use of encryption methods. Nevertheless, we lost still more friends, colleagues, and family members. They were arrested, tortured, executed, sometimes beheaded, both in Syria and Turkey. Still, our only weapon to fight Isis was through information and the Internet.
“In July, 2014, I left for Germany. Turkey no longer felt safe. But life in Europe is not so easy, either, not when there are neo-Nazis accusing me and other Syrian refugees of being terrorists!
“We had all hoped to defeat Assad by now and have a free, democratic, and unified Syria. Now I only dream about returning home and rebuilding the country. This generation of Syrians has lost everything. We can only put our hopes in the next generation. We have the resources to be a great country, but it will take a long time.
“In the meantime, R.B.S.S. will keep working, reporting the news, organizing awareness campaigns and workshops, and trying to help rebuild Raqqa. So many children were killed in the fighting. One of the things that Isis did was to target them. They opened tents for children and gave them games and dollars and candy and phones––things that their parents could no longer provide. This is how they recruited children. Even now we have to be aware that Isis will remain a timebomb. They were able to spread their ideology to so many young people in Syria, the region, and throughout the world. It’s so important to fight against this ideology and prevent the new generation being radicalized. R.B.S.S. is out of money and if you go to our Web site and donate something, you will be helping.
“You have to realize this: I am not happy. How could I be? It is true that Isis is defeated now in Raqqa. But ninety per cent of the city is destroyed, there is rubble everywhere. Thousands have been killed. Hundreds of thousands are living in miserable conditions. People are sleeping outdoors in the desert heat. They are lucky if they have a tent.
“When I tell people that the media are celebrating the ‘liberation of Raqqa,’ they are upset. Some of them say, ‘Fuck the media. Fuck isis. And fuck everyone else.’ You have to understand, there is no one from Raqqa who didn’t lose a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a beloved person. I lost my uncle. Everywhere I’ve ever lived there is gone.
“Understand: my people have been living under the worst conditions in the world and under the most brutal group, Isis. We faced constant human-rights violations for years. We faced air strikes, shelling. Human beings deserve a better life.
“According to my sources in Raqqa, most Isis fighters left the city before the final battle started. Isis used civilians as human shields. People reported that as they were fleeing the city during the air strikes, they could hear children, women, and men shouting from under the rubble, but they couldn’t do anything to help them. People cannot quite believe that they are alive. And those that did get out left behind family members, friends, who were killed.
“People told me that when the international coalition started bombing Raqqa, in 2015, the air strikes were targeted at Isis fighters, at their headquarters and their vehicles. They knew that being home was not a problem, they would be safe. They did fear Russian air strikes and Assad’s forces. But then the strategy of the coalition seemed to change; the strikes seemed more random, less accurate. They felt that the main goal was only to get rid of Isis without caring enough about thousands of civilians who are living there.
“It’s been three and a half years since I have been back home. I hope I have a future in Syria. But the city is now facing new problems, more human-rights violations. And R.B.S.S. has to go on exposing these violations and help prevent the explosion of an ideological timebomb. We don’t know who will control the city in the end. Raqqa will be liberated only when its people will be able to go back to their houses and live their lives as free men and free women.” '