Home network keeps world focus on Syria revolt

1st August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of miles from his homeland, Rami Abdel Rahman runs a network of 200 rights activists across Syria who report to him to allow news of the latest bloodshed in their country to reach the outside world.

"We are all normal people, with normal lives, normal families. We don't have an office. We work from home or from our jobs," said Abdel Rahman, 40, in a telephone interview from his home in Coventry, central England.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which he heads has burst onto the world stage as a primary source of information for the world media since his country's anti-government revolt erupted in mid-March.

With foreign reporters denied access on the ground, the activists armed with names -- based on hospital lists -- of those killed in clashes between security forces and protesters have been the source of front page news.

Abdel Rahman, who hails from the eastern Mediterranean city of Banias, is the only member living in exile. To avoid the network being dismantled if one member is detained, most of his colleagues do not know each other.

Contacts are made through Skype, Gmail and by telephone on unregistered numbers.

Critics have questioned Abdel Rahman's credibility and claimed he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood with a political agenda, while the authorities in Damascus accuse him of being on a mission to destabilise the country.

"I am an independent, I am not a Muslim Brotherhood member and I'm not in the communist party," said Abdel Rahman, who describes himself as close to prominent and often jailed Syrian opposition figures such as Michel Kilo.

"We don't receive a penny from anyone," he said, insisting that its own members fund the Observatory and an Arabic-language website.

Fending off charges of being a propagandist, the Syrian Observatory head has declined to corroborate reports of defections within the army or allegations of active Iranian involvement in crushing protests in Syria.

On Sunday, an army assault on the rebellious city of Hama, north of Damascus, killed nearly 140 people, according to activists, triggering furious condemnation from abroad.

The city of Hama, famed for its ancient watermills, was the site of the 1982 killing of 20,000 people when the military put down an Islamist revolt.

Abdel Rahman said a repeat of such a large-scale massacre would not be possible in the age of Facebook, Twitter and of NGOs such as the Syrian Observatory which was founded five years ago.

"In the end we will get democracy in Syria, within six months," he predicted. "We are going through a very hard time, we have to be patient, we are like in a war. But we must not give up now."

Abdel Rahman said "Syria will never be the same again" after the March 15 outbreak of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad and his Baath party.

The activist's passion for the cause of human rights dates back to an incident he witnessed at the age of seven "when I saw my big sister beaten up" by security agents, the Observatory chief said.

Abdel Rahman moved to Coventry in 2000, faced with the prospect of arrest back home for his activism.

Steering clear of the glare of London, he lives with his Syrian wife and their five-year-old daughter, keeping a low profile running a shop that sells books and clothes.

He scoffs at Western calls for Assad to bring in reforms.

"I don't trust the international community... It is up to the Syrian people to do it for ourselves," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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