Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently: the courage of reporting on life in Syria under ISIS

by Marco Nurra – translated by Roberta Aiello

We are caught between two aggressive and brutal forces. The first is a criminal regime, obsessed with power, claiming to fight against terrorism by killing children. The second spreads evil and injustice, and paints our nation black. Each of them considers us criminals because we are disclosing their actions to the world. Now the mere mention of the name of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has become a crime punishable by death.

On 25 November 2015, Abdalaziz Alhamza, on behalf of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), received the International Press Freedom Award in New York for the work the group has done in the last two years. 

Maybe we’re not professional journalists, maybe we’re only ‘citizen journalists’. We don’t care a lot about labels. We just want to prove ourselves on the ground as a force facing the most brutal regime, Assad, and the most dangerous organization, ISIS.

At least three of them have been murdered.

The silent massacre of Raqqa

In northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, stands the town of Raqqa, considered the headquarters and capital of the Islamic State. 

The lack of journalists on the ground, both national and international, kidnappings, crucifixions, beheadings and repression by ISIS had created a curtain of silence around Raqqa, which was impenetrable for the foreign press. Until a group of young journalists and Syrian activists launched a revolutionary information campaign called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), with the goal to publish and distribute online content in Arabic and English to document the massacre that had been taking place in their city.

The Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group was created two years ago, in April 2014, as a response to the crimes committed by the Islamic State. “It was a duty for us. We used to fight the Syrian government regime, and now we had a regime that was even worse,” Abdalaziz Alhamza, one of the founders, told the Times

From 2013 to the present, more journalists have been killed in Syria than anywhere else in the world, according to data compiled by CPJ. When the risk became untenable, the big news agencies withdrew their reporters from the country, leaving a large information gap behind them.

In this context of international isolation, many local journalists and bloggers have organized citizens groups to oppose the censorship of ISIS and denounce what was happening in the country. The first time that ISIS crucified one of its prisoners, it was a RBSS activist that broke the news to the whole world. “We were activists against the Assad regime when we started, but after our city was freed, and ISIS took over our freedom, we just decided to launch this campaign to expose all the crimes that ISIS do,” one of them explained in an interview to VICE News.

Curiously, Raqqa was the first city to be freed from the oppression of the regime. “It was a normal city like any other city in the world,” the article, published on Vice News, stated.

“There were female doctors, lawyers, teachers. There were a lot of women who weren’t even wearing hijabs. It was a normal city like any city in the world.”

When the first information produced by RBSS began to spread on social networks and in newspapers around the world, a manhunt began to find those responsible, to find out who were those “infidels.”

At least three of them have lost their lives. Moutaz Bellah Al-Ibrahim was kidnapped and murdered in May 2014. Ibrahim Abd Al-Qader was killed in his apartment in Turkey, on the border with Syria, in October 2015. Ahmad Mohamed Almossa was murdered in Idlib, in northwestern Syria, in December 2015, by some hooded men.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently consists of about 17 people. Their strategy, compared to two years ago, has changed. When they all lived in Raqqa, they gathered material with their smartphones (photos and videos, mostly) and published it on Facebook and Twitter. With a simple search, they could have been identified as a RBSS member. Currently, 12 of them live in the city and communicate with the 4 members who live outside through an online secret group. Those who live in Raqqa upload all the material on the group: photos, videos, news, data; those who live (safely) outside are responsible for organizing and spreading the contents on Facebook, Twitter, on the website, and filtering the news to international journalists.

Despite these precautions, the risk of getting caught is very high: taking pictures inside the city is prohibited, Internet is very slow and the Internet coffee shops are controlled by ISIS. “There are rewards for anyone who kills one of us. We don’t know the amount, but I am sure it’s a big number,” Alhamza specified.

Abdalaziz Alhamza’s speech during the International Press Freedom Award ceremony in New York:

Let me illustrate the size of our suffering. This beautiful city, New York, has a population of about eight and a half million people. Imagine that more than two million people were forced to flee and the city had no teachers, doctors, postal workers. People watch the suffering in Syria, and they believe that it is far away from them. But the distance from Damascus to Rome is almost the same as from here to Miami.

Abdalaziz Alhamza and Hussam Eesa, co-founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), will be speakers at the International Journalism Festival #ijf16.