Beirut, Lebanon - The Syrian government’s massacre of 49 children and 34 women in the town of Houla was only the latest crime against humanity perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al Assad – and exposed to the world by horrific footage posted to YouTube.
Omar Shaker, a young Syrian student, is running for his life because he helped document the government’s destruction of an entire quarter of the Syrian city of Homs called Baba Amr, in February. Baba Amr, with its 28,000 people, is where American journalist, Marie Colvin died in the shelling.
The entire quarter is now a crumpled ghost town, where hundreds or perhaps thousands perished, and the rest scattered. Shaker says that Syrian security forces are still tracking down many residents who fled to neighboring villages, and arresting or murdering them; we cannot know the full extent of the killing, because western journalists are barred by Syria, and can no longer get there, even if they were willing to risk ending up like Colvin. So we are dependent on activists such as Shaker to get the word out.
I spoke to him in Beirut, to which he escaped after Baba Amr fell, and where he is living in hiding and using an alias. He told me that another of the brave young people who filmed Baba Amr’s destruction and conveyed info to international journalists via skype and twitter was just arrested in Aleppo. The laptop – and the family - of this young man, Ali Othman, were also seized, revealing the real names of fellow activists like Shaker.
We met in a mall, and Shaker asked me not to photograph his face. Syrian agents in Lebanon – or their Shiite allies in the Lebanese government – are on the lookout for activists such as Shaker, and some have been deported into the hands of the Syrian secret police.
Shaker described how young people trapped under Syrian shelling in Baba Amr gradually banded together to tweet and skype, and managed to smuggle in a satellite dish to expand their reporting. This young man, in tee shirt and jeans, looking like an average American college student, told me quietly,
“My job was to document people who died of torture.” You can google his reports or find them on YouTube.
Shaker’s message: The revolt in Homs (and elsewhere in Syia) started as peaceful protest against the Assad dictatorship. It turned violent because the Syrian military attacked massive demonstrations; this ultimately provoked defections from the Syrian army and the formation of the so-called Free Syrian Army to defend civilians under attack.
There is a desperate need for humanitarian aid for the many thousands displaced by government attacks such as in Baba Amr.The resisters inside also need help, Shaker says, with communications equipment so they can show the world what is happening. “When we did live streaming the shelling was less,” he says. He wants to set up an underground network of Syrian journalists inside and outside, who can keep the world informed – and is desperately seeking funding.
Shaker regrets the militarization of the conflict and is ambivalent about the idea of the West sending weapons to the opposition. But he makes a crucial point: the bulk of the aid and weapons now arriving are being raised outside Syria by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or Gulf countries that would favor such groups to lead a future Syrian government.
“In Syria people are moderate, and they don’t care about religion,” he says. But if the bulk of the aid that reaches the resistance comes from Islamists or their backers, the nature of the resistance will change, especially as the government continues the slaughter. He says, “People are growing beards because they need and want to get aid money.”
If western governments want to see a non-Islamist government emerge after the ultimate fall of Bashar al-Assad, they should be helping the secular resistance, now.