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Syria activists record all they can for history's sake

Trying to identify corpses, digitally documenting destruction, the activists want to be sure that 'one day no one can say a piece of our history is missing.'

October 24, 2012|By Los Angeles Times staff
  • A man severely injured in the shelling of a bakery in Aleppo, Syria, is evacuated Tuesday.
A man severely injured in the shelling of a bakery in Aleppo, Syria, is evacuated… (Narciso Contreras / Associated…)

MOADAMYEH, Syria — As his camcorder scanned the charred walls and partially collapsed roof of the mosque on the outskirts of town, Adnan Sheikh began his narration like he had dozens of other times:

"Moadamyeh al Sham, 8-30-2012, the remnants of the damage and destruction that Assad's gangs inflicted when they stormed the city," he said. "Even the houses of worship were not spared."

A former physical education teacher here, Sheikh carries his camera wherever he goes these days. A black camera bag hangs from his shoulder across his wiry frame.

At the Ali ibn Abu Talib mosque, he pointed the camera at two gaping holes in the dome where shells had hit. When he entered the prayer area, he didn't bother removing his shoes. Sacred respect for the prayer hall seemed no longer relevant with the carpet covered by dust, shattered glass and rubble.

"This is to document history and to show the destruction," he explained. "We know that no one will come to help us but this is a historical responsibility. In the last few weeks we have even been photographing the roads and buildings in case they are destroyed."

Later that night, he uploaded the video onto a portable hard drive containing hundreds of other videos, photos and files documenting the history of Moadamyeh's participation in the Syrian uprising. The archive, some of it widely distributed on YouTube and Facebook, begins March 21, 2011, when about a dozen residents came out in a peaceful protest in solidarity with demonstrators in the southern province of Dara.

It continues through August this year when forces of President Bashar Assad allegedly stormed the town of 30,000 on the outskirts of Damascus, killing an estimated 100 people and leaving scores of damaged and demolished buildings.

Little has escaped the Moadamyeh activists' effort to chronicle every detail of the uprising. Even government weaponry turned against civilians here has been preserved for posterity.

"We are collecting everything including the empty shells and unexploded ammo for a museum," said Sheikh, 30.

Activists across Syria have been undertaking similar documentation, recording events from the early demonstrations to the subsequent shellings and clashes and making memorials to victims. The videos are uploaded to YouTube and photos onto Facebook. The lists of those killed daily are distributed through Skype and email.

The detailed chronicling is more than just a manifestation of revolutions in a time of social media saturation. In a country still living in the shadow of a brutal government crackdown 30 years ago that left tens of thousands of civilians dead, but that is not spoken of publicly, it is a response to a hole in Syria's history books, and a means of ensuring that it will not happen again.

For decades the Muslim Brotherhood uprising that began in the late 1970s was referred to simply as "the events." Even in vague terms, it was rarely discussed, and children grew up without knowing the history that plunged their country into such scared silence.

"The regime … bulldozed over the buildings and covered the mass graves, then said we don't ever talk about this," said Amr Azm, a professor of Middle East history and onetime member of the Syrian National Council. "There was also the sense of this as an unspoken horror, this thing that everyone knew about and no one talked about."

The Assad government now describes the opposition as terrorists, the same way it had portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit with more success then.

Unlike other recent uprisings in the Middle East, which were chronicled daily and extensively by both domestic and foreign journalists, the Syrian conflict — longer, bloodier and more complicated — has mostly been covered from afar. Few journalists have been legally allowed inside, forcing those willing to go to be smuggled in.

As a result, much of the onus has fallen on the activists who are themselves at the center of the uprising.

Several groups put out daily reports on people killed and alleged human rights violations by the government. The information comes from sources at the scene, including doctors and nurses working in field hospitals, who feed it to activists working outside the country. Sometimes, a victim's name, hometown and age are available, other times the body comes with no ID.

Beyond the daily death lists, activists like Sima, a 22-year-old pharmacist in Aleppo who didn't want her last name used for security reasons, are trying to create extensive files about those killed. She visits their families — sometimes showing up at the wake — to ask for photographs, marital status and other details of the person's life, including whether they participated in the uprising.

Her role has become more difficult since the toll in Aleppo rapidly increased in late July. Shelling and airstrikes make it too dangerous to visit certain neighborhoods and some families are impossible to reach as thousands have fled the city.

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