Phone Calls to Hell
by Shakeeb Al-Jabri
There is no war won without the media winning it first – a Syrian activist once told me. The regime seems to know this all to well which is why media access in Syria is severely restricted. Journalists take statements from eyewitnesses remotely. The government controls all communications networks forcing activists to rely on satellite phones and modems to keep the channels open with the rest of the world. Journalists call activists, they record their statements and stories are written.
After eleven months of revolution the stories are changing dramatically. The calls are becoming darker. Assad’s minions are determined to crush the uprising at any cost. Stories about protests are being overshadowed by stories about military campaigns and charred bodies. Homs, the capital of the revolution, is under an especially ferocious assault. The most horrific stories are coming from there.
The latest escalation began two weeks ago. Assad’s army surrounded several cities and shelled residential neighborhoods with mortars and rockets. Commercial satellite images published by the US State Department confirm that artillery and MLRS units are deployed around several cities in Syria. The operation became known by activists as “Operation Decisive End.” The violence perpetrated by the regime escalated and the number of daily casualties sky-rocketed. The regime decided to turn every opposition stronghold into hell.
I arranged an interview with a volunteering medic in Bab Amro. He had to use his break for a trip to a location set up with satellite Internet. He said his name is Yousef and that he’s been attending to the wounded since the early assaults on the neighborhood. The previous day another field clinic suffered a direct hit by a mortar. The volunteers had to move the patients while the shelling campaign continued. It never ended, throughout the call I heard gunfire and explosions. Sometimes the sound was so loud that I had to ask Yousef to repeat himself. Many of the volunteering doctors were injured and most medical supplies were destroyed. Yousef had spent his night tending to the wounded who were moved to the mosque. “I pray to God to protect them,” he said, “we cannot treat those with critical injuries, we just watch them die.” Mosques are usually a safe refuge for those fleeing the violence but the sanctity of the houses of God was never a red line for Bashar’s army. During Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, they besieged, tear-gassed, shot at, and raided mosques. They even shelled and toppled minarets in Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Deir Ezzor. Yousef was very concerned for his patients. “We already have stacks of bodies,” Yousef pleaded, “Where are the humanitarian relief organizations? Are we not people? All the injured will die without help.” I asked him to describe the wounds of his patients but the response came in the form of a loud explosion. Fifteen seconds later the call dropped. It took me until two days later to verify that Yousef survived the explosion.
An activist colleague of mine asked for help to find contacts in Inshaat, a neighborhood in Homs. He said a friend of his has not been able to reach his parents for over a week. I promised the friend, Maher, to try and find him someone he can talk to. Inshaat is right next to Bab Amro and was a frequent target of the regime’s military campaigns. I had a contact there but he disappeared a long time ago. I started calling contacts in other neighborhoods in Homs hoping they can find me someone in Inshaat. Each phone call took me further from my goal. The activists reported that more than 70% of Inshaat’s families fled when the shelling started. Those who remained either had no where to go, or did not wish to see their houses ransacked in their absence. “It’s a ghost town, you’re not going to find anyone,” said a reliable contact in the Homs Revolution Council. Another contact in Homs said that residents fled because the army is likely to make its way into Bab Amro through Inshaat. Maher was anxious and asked for constant updates. I was hoping to get him anything he can use to get by until he managed to get through to his parents. I avoided giving him bad news. But the truth was Inshaat had virtually disappeared from the map. I told Maher what I knew and hoped he wouldn’t be crushed. He managed to get through to his house, he told me a few days later, but a stranger’s voice answered. The stranger told him the house doesn’t belong to them anymore. His family was evicted.
Rami Al-Sayyed had been known as Rami Abou Maryam and Syria Pioneer. He volunteered his time in Baba Amro as an undercover citizen journalist. He was one of the first activists who risked their lives and braved sniper bullets to film the protests in Homs. Rami also set up a channel to live stream the anti-regime demonstrations and the army’s assaults on the city. Rami never admitted he was the one behind the channel but whenever his colleagues told me he is “out” or “busy” I was sure to find a live feed on his channel. Interviews with Rami were often too close for comfort. Sounds of gunfire and explosions are common background noise on calls with activists in Homs (and elsewhere in Syria) but on calls with Rami I often heard shells whizzing by. On my last call with him he was speaking from an activist hide out. He went there to upload videos of a family that had been buried in the rubble of a collapsed building. All members were dead. “We plead to humanitarian organizations to provide safe passage for the women and children. Leave us men to our fate. But for the sake of humanity let these women and kids go far from here.” I didn’t know what to tell him. The humanitarian organizations are fully aware of the situation. They will not send aid workers as long as bullets were flying. I thanked Rami for taking the time to talk to me and hung up. When I woke up today I found a live feed from Bab Amro. It was Syria Pioneer’s channel and it showed the army’s brutal shelling of Homs into the eighteenth day. The feed stopped broadcasting at around 11:00 (local). Later in the evening I called another activist in Baba Amro as Rami was not online. The activist relayed to me the sad news that Rami was critically wounded by shrapnel and that he was receiving treatment in the field hospital. A few hours later Rami passed way.
Daily phone calls into Homs are glimpses into the Hell the regime created. Women and children have turned to corpses, buildings to rubble, yet the spirit of the revolution continues. It continues with each phone call. My fear is one day there will be no one left to answer.
Special thanks to Damascus Rebel for help in writing and editing this article.