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Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently Pt. 2: Syrian Citizen Journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza Speaks Out

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Extended interview with Syrian citizen journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza, co-founder of the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Watch Part 1 || Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently: Syrian Citizen Journalists Document a City Under Siege

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue Part 2 of our conversation with Abdalaziz Alhamza, a Syrian journalist and activist, co-founder and spokesperson of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. We speak on the eve of the President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin about to meet at the G20 summit in a bilateral meeting, where they are expected to have Syria at the top of their agenda.

Aziz, it’s great to have you with us and continue this conversation. Talk about what you want to see come of out this meeting between the leaders of the United States and Russia, and how it relates directly to your city of Raqqa.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, as Syrian people we’ve been hearing about meetings between U.S. and Russia all the time, and all of it were like useless. So, we hope, with this new meeting, that at least the Syrian people will have like non-fly zones, so where the people, they can go there and stay safe. People, they have been getting killed not only by ISIS as the regime and the forces are fighting on the ground, so they’ve been getting killed also by United States and Russia. And the main thing that we’re looking for, to have this safe or like non-fly zones. And then, if they will able to have like a political solution to defeat Assad in the same time while they are fighting ISIS, or United States is fighting ISIS. So, that would be like the best thing for the Syrian people. And it’s going to be like the perfect tool to end this conflict soon.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve talked in the first part of the—our conversation about no-fly zones and what this would mean, since most people now, in places like Raqqa, are being killed in airstrikes by the U.S. and Russia. What would no-fly zones look like? How would they be enforced?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, they could be like some areas, cities, town, or whatever, close to the borders. And it will be protected, so none of the forces can go there, none of the airstrike can target the city. Because right now there are like—tens of countries are bombing Syria. So, like, to have all these countries like bombing the—whatever they’re trying to bomb, and like to have the civilians away from these bombs and these conflicts. So, if Russia and U.S. want to fight, they can fight like with the other groups and have the civilians away from their fight. So, to have like only a place where it’s provided—places are provided with like electricity, water, like the basic thing to be—to have—like the basic kind of life things, and then to let the civilians go to it, so if they want to be out of this conflict. So, and then—and if like we’ll be able to have all the civilians in these areas, I’m OK, like, if they will destroy each other there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Aziz, do you hold out any hope? Because now the Trump administration has come out—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a statement Wednesday, saying that the U.S. is willing to work with Russia to establish these no-fly zones or a de-escalation zone. There has been talk of that before, but do you think now it’s likely that Putin and Trump will agree tomorrow to establish such a zone?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: We hope so. But I’m like pessimistic about that thing, because we’ve been hearing about the fly zones like since 2012. And all like with the Obama administration, we’ve been hearing the same thing, and nothing happened. So, the Syrians started to lose the trust of U.S., so the Syrians mostly don’t trust the U.S. anymore. And a hundred person, they don’t trust the Russians, because the Russian like have killed like civilians, like more ways than anyone else in Syria. So, to have like both countries who are involved with killing thousands of civilians, so they’re like not a trustful countries like so. But we hope that they will agree to do that thing, after five or six years of talking and speeches.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does Assad, the Syrian president, fit into this picture, who’s working so closely with the Russian regime?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, when we’re talking about Russia, it means the Syrian regime. So, the Syrian regime is doing what Russia is telling. And so, we started not to mentioning Assad regime, which is the—like the main problem or like the main creator of the conflict in Syria, because Russia is taking its place. So, talking about Russia, it means like the Syrian regime and Russia. So, the Syrian regime has like no voice anymore. So, and they—like, without Russia, the Syrian regime would be defeated like years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to comment for a minute on just how lucky we are to have you sitting here at our—in our studios in New York. You’re here with this new film, City of Ghosts, which is about Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the organization you helped found. Now, you started, I mean, after the Syrian uprising against Assad. Then, you wanted to document ISIS and what it was doing in its takeover of your city. And you were getting out these videos to counter the extremely professional ISIS videos. But—and you’ve been here many, many, many times to the United States. But is it true this is the last time you can be here in the United States, when you leave, because you’re a Syrian who now can’t return because of the ban that has been put in place by Donald Trump and the U.S. Supreme Court?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, like, to be Syrian, like nowadays, is like a huge problem. And especially I’m a refugee. I’m from Raqqa. So all that things came in one person. So, yes, like probably I will not be able to come back again, whenever I leave the country, because of the new ban. So, I was lucky with the other bans. So, first ban, like I was lucky to be in Sundance, where City of Ghosts was premiered. And like Sundance was—

AMY GOODMAN: When you were at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah—

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, yeah. That night, it came out.

AMY GOODMAN: —where City of Ghosts premiered.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were protected in Utah because of all the protests, and the ban was stopped.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah. So, and then like the ban came out, so if Sundance was like a week later, I was—I would not be able to be there in Utah. And then I left when the two judges came, and like they take like the rule, the ban, down. And—

AMY GOODMAN: So the Washington state judge said no to Muslim ban one.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the Hawaiian federal judge said no to Muslim ban two.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so I—like I left U.S. Then I came back for a couple of festivals, like South by Southwest. And then I was like lucky all the time, so like the ban didn’t affect me at all. But like recently, like when the court approved like the recent ban, I guess it’s going to be like my last time. I hope that I will be able to come again, but like no one knows. Every time with like the last bans, I was saying it’s going to be my last time. And I’m here again. And hopefully I will be able to make it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what is your response to the fact that the Trump administration is doing this, at this time? When they’ve stepped up airstrikes in Syria, they’ve simultaneously said that Syrian refugees cannot come into this country.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, like the main thing for our organization, when we started, to say that like not all our people are like terrorists. Like we are from the city. We are local. We were forced to flee. And we’re against ISIS. So, we wanted like to say that like just to fight this idea or like that thing, this propaganda thing. And like Trump administration is trying somehow to say the same thing. So, he started with the ban, killing civilians, without like even like—before they were like—they were like announced statements, saying, “Ah, we did these massacres,” or whatever. Recently they stopped even like releasing these statements. So, the thing with Trump—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Explain that.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you just said.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, like with Obama administration, when there were like airstrikes or massacres killing civilians, the U.S. administration were announcing like statements saying that they killed civilians by mistake or whatever. So they were like talking about their massacres. Recently, like we were missing the thing. So it started to be changed with Trump administration. And when the ban started to be like that, that like—he thought that it would help like—or like it would help to protect the country. But that could like create more extremism. So, when you feel that, OK, you need to be banned in doing something because of your religion or because where you’re from, so that will create like other extremist people around the world. So, and like that affected like many good people, like, and many thousands of people who have like families, friends, relatives who work, other things to do here in U.S. So, and with Trump administration, people like—like, personally, I was not thinking that other things will come, and especially like how he will work with Russia, collaborate with Russia, the travel ban, other things that’s affecting not only Syria, it’s affecting like the region, and recently Europe and every like country in the world. And like the problem, no one can know or can guess what will happen in the future. So, we start to do that ban, with the airstrike, collaboration with Russia, so no one will know like where we will ended up with, like three or four months.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you know people, Aziz, in Syria who were either approved for refugee status in the U.S. and then prevented from coming, or people who hoped to get refugee status in the U.S.?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, after this conflict, most of the Syrians will—like, will be willing to go out or to come to U.S. or any safe country, because they have like children, they have no future there in the country. I don’t know personally like anyone who was in Syria, because like most of the refugees who were coming like to U.S., they are coming from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon. So, no one’s coming directly from Syria. And they have to be interviewed like for two or three years, so it’s not an easy process. So, people, they could be killed or die, waiting for like the approval. But the thing—I don’t know anyone personally, but like I was reading, hearing like thousands of stories, people who were not able to come, reunion cases, like people who had like family members who are like in Syria or like the neighbor countries who are waiting to come, like to have reunion with their families in U.S., but they were not able because of the ban.

AMY GOODMAN: Aziz, I wanted to ask you about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Both Russia and Iran have said that he was killed, Russia said in a Russian airstrike in Raqqa. The founder of the so-called Islamic State.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you know about this?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so, it’s 100 percent rumors, because no way al-Baghdadi will be in Raqqa. And it was like a way just to remind people that, ah, Russian is fighting extremism, like just announcing that thing. Like I could tweet today that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi get killed wherever, and like all the media will talk about it, because it’s like kind of an important thing to do. And even the Russian airstrike, like with the Russian warplanes, targeted Raqqa a couple of times, and only the countryside. And most of the airstrikes were like—were by the international coalition. So there is like no way that al-Baghdadi would be killed by the Russians. It was like kind of propaganda, just to remind the people, ah, that we’re fighting extremism, we’re fighting ISIS. And it’s an easy thing to do, like with any country, any government, any group, since we have like all those countries and groups are fighting, so anyone can like announce that al-Baghdadi getting killed. So, there is like no video, no photos, no details, nothing at all. So, as I said, I can tweet it like after this show, and like I will have all the medias talking about it, and you will bring me again to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the significance if he were killed?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, the thing like that—all the clashes taking place around Raqqa. And al-Baghdadi, like mostly he should be in al-Mayadeen, Deir ez-Zor, that area, so he’s not going to be like close to the clashes, like fire lines. So, the thing—the city is like surrounded, and there is like no way. Like even like they will be—either they will defeat like SDF and United States and the coalition, or he will be—or he would be killed. So, and there is like no way to get to Mosul back that time, when they announced that thing, to come from Mosul or Iraq or wherever he was to Raqqa, and—because there are like clashes all the ways. And the safest place to have like the leader or the founder of ISIS be heading is like Deir ez-Zor, and especially al-Mayadeen. So—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why is that? Explain those places.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, it’s like the farest places of all these clashes that is taking place in Iraq and Syria, so—and it could be wrong, so that’s like my expectation like where he could be. Maybe he could be like in other towns, in other places, but probably he’s like in Deir ez-Zor, so—because it’s like the safest—the safest place so far.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, since the war began, the uprising began, in 2011, because of course this war did begin as an uprising against the Assad government, millions of people, Syrians, have been displaced outside the country and in the country. Now, the U.N. reported last week that something like half a million people have returned to the country, including to Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus. These areas are controlled by the Assad government now. So can you explain why people are returning?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so, mostly the people who return, they were like—they are like women, children. The thing was, they were displaced to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. And like being there, being like in the hell. So, there is like no services. Like recently in Lebanon, like Syrian refugees were burned and killed. So they were like tortured. So, nothing like changed. Those people, they left. They flee the country to have like a safer place. They ended up like within refugee camps, where there is like no healthcare, no services, nothing at all, staying at tents, were tortured and killed, arrested by the governments. And we didn’t fight the men, or like we didn’t fight like the international organization are playing like a main role to help them. So, all those government who are supposed to take care of those refugees, and they were taking thousand and millions and billions of moneys from like the European Union, U.S.A., and like in charge of taking care of the refugees, and they’re doing nothing. They are staying like in the desert, in nowhere, and they can’t leave these refugee camps. They can’t work there. There are like doctors, engineers. So they could help like to do something. And like even when the U.N. come, they take like less than 10 persons of them like to the European countries. Like as an example, like in Turkey, there are like almost 4 million refugees. Like in Lebanon, there are like almost more than a million.

AMY GOODMAN: In Lebanon, in these last few days, there have been major fires in camps, a little girl killed in one of these fires, many people injured, as the whole Syrian refugee camp burned down.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: That’s true. And like we didn’t find like any response from like the U.N., Amnesty or whatever. And like it was committed by the Lebanese army. So, we were talking like about the army of the government, not about militias.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you understand happened just this week in the refugee camp.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so they said that there was like a suicide bomber in there. And they took all the refugees, like thousand of refugees, with children, women, like out to the desert. And they forced like most of them to take their clothes off. And they were tortured. They arrested many of them. And then they started like to burn these camps, where like children killed. So they didn’t care about like children. And even the like most—some of the Lebanese medias or like officials said, “Ah, it could be anyone, like a suicide bomber—a woman or a children. So we don’t care. We need like to—we need to check everyone.” So, that’s the thing. And like to be a Syrian nowadays is like a huge problem. Like it’s not only in the neighbor’s country, talking about Algeria and Morocco. There were like couple of tens of refugees who were stuck, and like the Moroccan government were sending them back to Algeria, and Algeria government was doing the same. And some of them got killed because of no food, no water, like no thing. And like we heard like only just a statement from like Human Rights Watch, from Amnesty or whatever, and they haven’t done anything. So, none of the other countries could say or do like, “OK, we’ll take these like 20 or 30 or 40 refugees and put them in somewhere, in a safer place.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Abdalaziz Alhamza, Syrian journalist and activist, co-founder, spokesperson for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. I’m looking at a tweet you sent out on June 24th, Aziz. You write, “My uncle 'Yassin Alhamza' was killed by the international coalition led by #US airstrikes on #Raqqa city #RIP.” Rest in peace. When did this happen?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, one day before I tweeted that thing. So, he was also going to a school where there is—I don’t know how it’s called. So, it’s like some—a hole in the ground where people get water.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A well.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, he went there like to get water, because there is like no water.

AMY GOODMAN: So the infrastructure is bombed out.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, like—

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t get actual water.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: And the school—yes, and the school was bombed, and he got killed with seven children. So, they were also trying to drink water from the school. So, he didn’t killed first with the first airstrike, so some—like some kids were injured, so he tried just to get them, like to help them, two of them. And then, other airstrike targeted the same place, where he got killed.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us about him, who he was?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: He was like a teacher, and for like tens of years. So, he’s so known in the city, because he helped like—he was like a teacher of like two or three generations. And in Raqqa, we were like a tribal community, so everyone knows the other. And he was like so known in the city, and he was like that old man who decided not to leave his hometown. And he sent like all his family members outside of Raqqa, but he decided to stay to protect his house. And he was like unlucky, where he got killed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And where did his family go, outside Raqqa?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: He has like a son in Germany, like his daughters in—so, in Raqqa countryside, with SDF control. And his wife has died, so…

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You said that seven children were killed in the same U.S.-led coalition airstrike that killed your uncle. Could you say—we talked a little bit about this earlier—what you think the Trump administration, the change in U.S. policy has been that has led to such a massive increase in the number of civilian casualties in U.S.-led airstrikes between last year and this year, to the extent that now, in the first six months of 2017, the U.S.-led airstrikes have killed more civilians than practically any other party involved in the conflict?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: In Raqqa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Raqqa.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, the thing—so they were like so careful. So, right now with the Trump administration, they want to defeat ISIS as an organization, as a group, as soon as they can. So, to do that thing, they have to kill like that number of civilians. But if they will be like more careful, it will take them like longer than that, but that will prevent killing that number of civilians. So what they are doing, like there is like—they are like shelling on the city and airstrike in the same time, and it’s bombing the city randomly. So, they don’t care if they will kill like civilians, children or whoever. The thing they want to just defeat ISIS and somehow. So, doing—having this strategy, they will be able like to defeat ISIS as like in—like in a short time. But to be more careful and preventing killing that amount—that much of civilians, so they—and it would take them longer. So, they don’t want to spend that much of time. And for Trump administration and like for the U.S. policy with Trump, the main focusing on defeating ISIS. So, they want to defeating ISIS as soon as possible, and they don’t care about the other things. So they don’t care about the humanitarian side. They don’t care about the civilians. What they want to do, like killing or defeating ISIS, with whatever will happen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you said that it was only in Raqqa that the U.S.-led coalition has killed more people than any other party in the first six months of 2017. Can you talk about what’s happening in the rest of Syria and whether it’s still the Assad government that’s killing the most civilians, and what the impact was of Russia’s intervention in September 2015 on the conflict?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Sure. So, like the thing—the main—so, if you want to talk about the Syrians who have been killed with all the sides, like 90 percent of the Syrians have been killed by Assad forces. So, that started to—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ninety percent?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Ninety-five percent, even more. So, it’s nothing comparing with ISIS or other groups. So, but the thing—other groups started to be in the conflict, started with al-Qaeda, ended up with ISIS. So, every single city or every single town, there are like—some forces are fighting each other. And like some territories, there is like one force that’s controlling the area.

So, talking about like Aleppo as an example, it was controlled by—like most of it was controlled by the opposition or the Free Syrian Army, and then like the Russians started to bomb. They killed civilians way more than the Syrian regime, more way than ISIS, al-Qaeda, other groups. And they burned Aleppo. So, Aleppo was—like most of it was completely destroyed, so to defeat whatever. So, when the Russian airstrikes started to target Syria, the main thing, like the Russians kept telling that they want to bomb Syria, they want to bomb ISIS, they want to defeat extremism. And then they started to kill civilians, to kill like—to target like rebels. So the first Russian airstrike targeted like an opposition area where ISIS and al-Nusra a hundred kilometers away. So, and then they started to kill civilians, and they kept talking in the media that they are like defeating ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the U.S. and Russia are doing this deliberately, killing civilians?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, the thing, it’s like with the Russian, directly, when they entered the conflict, they started to kill civilians. So, they’ve been doing the same thing as the Syrian regime. They had like—they have like more developed warplanes, military equipments, and they—even they send soldiers. So, they started directly with the U.S., with Trump administration. So there were like no forces, no troops in Raqqa, and it was like only airstrike. And they were like so careful. And even like they will—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You mean before the Trump administration.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, even like with the airstrikes, they were targeting like a specific car where are like ISIS fighters, like a moving specific car. Right now they just bomb like everything. So, that thing started to be changed like with the Trump administration.

But in the same time, talking from like a Syrian perspective, like who’s focusing or following up what the Syrians are thinking about, so people are like more happy with the like—or like happier with the Trump more than Obama, so because like in less than a hundred days, Trump administration bombed like an army base of the Syrian regime after the Syrian regime used like the chemical attacks. And like many Syrians started to call Trump “Abu Ivanka al-Amriki, like the father of Ivanka the—al-Amriki like the American. So, but the thing, like he destroyed like 20 warplanes. If that thing would happen like in 2011 or 2012, that would save like thousand of Syrians’ life. But the thing that—U.S. administration or U.S. government should not wait for like the chemical weapons or attacks to happen to have like an action. So, Syrian people are getting killed with power bombs, rockets, airstrike, everything, so not only like chemical weapons. So, the thing with the Syrians, they are saying like, “OK”—like some of them, “OK”—they were like saying, “OK. Should we wait like for another chemical attack to have like a response from the international community?”

So people were like more optimistic, because with Obama administration, he kept talking about red lines, and everyone crossed the red lines—so, even my grandmom—and he had like no action. So, the people, like the Syrians, were like hopeless from Obama administration. Right now, it’s started to be different.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you just about your organization, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently? If you could just take us through, first, how you came up with that name, and then talk about your colleagues and your own evolution, being in Raqqa, why you were forced out, and what have happened to those of your colleagues in Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently who have been killed, those who have been—who have left and those who are still there?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, the thing—like my colleagues and I, all of us, we were like activists in the Syrian revolution when it started in 2011, and most of us like was arrested by the Syrian government. Personally, I was arrested three times by the Syrian government. So, and then like we believed in it as a revolution, and we joined like this kind of revolution trying to change the government, like defeating like a dictator. And then everything—like we were expecting that everything will be done like in six months. And it took like forever.

And then we ended up with ISIS one day. So our city was like the first liberated city. We were able like to do many activities, even Nusra was there. So we ended up with 40 civil society organizations, schools, universities. Life started to be normal. And then like ISIS showed up. They took over the city. They started this human rights violation.

And personally, as someone who’s from Raqqa, I didn’t expect that my city will have like all this focus. So, Raqqa was like completely forgotten before the revolution. So, even like in the weather news, they were mentioning like—in Syria, there are like 14 cities. They were mentioning only 13 cities, and even they were not mentioning Raqqa on the weather news. So, and then like all the media started to talk about it. The international community, Trump, Hillary, Obama, Putin—all like the world leaders are mentioning Raqqa like every single day. So, and personally, I didn’t see any foreign person in Raqqa. And right now there are like people from—like are fighters from 84 countries in Raqqa. So, it started to be like a new New York. So, like, my mom was telling me before, like after she left Raqqa, that walking in Raqqa’s streets you will hear like thousands of accents, thousands of languages. And like in one—she couldn’t imagine that’s Raqqa. So we were like—all people were speaking only our accent, only our language, before the—like before ISIS.

So, for me, I was forced to flee the country. ISIS came to my house to arrest me. I was lucky not to be there. Then it took me two days to get out from Raqqa. Then, like when—I kept in touch with my friends, colleagues, and we were—we knew like what was going on. And we started to see like ISIS propaganda, like the fake news. So we decided that we will not be silent, we should do something. And it was like not a planned thing. So, we had like that Skype call. Everyone was like in the front places. And then we agreed to do something. And we decided to have this name, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. “Raqqa,” the name of the city. “Is Being Slaughtered Silently” is like a slogan. We say it in Arabic. It means like when there is like a—when there is like a violation, and if there is like someone who’s attacking you, is torturing you, and like you don’t have a power to say something or say, you know. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you say it in Arabic?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: الرقة تذبح بصمت So, that was the thing. And “Silently” because, back that time, no one heard about Raqqa. So, we came up with this name, and directly we started the Facebook page, Twitter account. And we ended up doing a website. And then we started our reports. So, we decided to take the place of the—like the place of the international media. So—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Because there was no media in Raqqa at the time.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: That’s true.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Because ISIS kicked out the media.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, that’s true. So, that was like the main reason. And then we ended up like we—that we don’t want to just report news. So we have people, like we have our families, our relatives, our friends, living in Raqqa. So we decided to do something to aware them, when ISIS started to recruit children, recruit civilians. So we started our campaign to let the people know that there was like a resistance movement in Raqqa. And then we started to do this magazine to send like messages to the children. We focused more on children than anyone else, so—because it was like the main target of ISIS. So we did like—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Children were the main target?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, because they had like—they have like not enough knowledge to decide this or no, which is good, which is not good. And children were in the street all the time, and ISIS cars were driving all the time. ISIS did the tents to do like games with the children. And whoever was answering, they give him like money and dollars, mobile phones, something their family were not able to provide to their children. So children thought that ISIS is like the good people. And if any child or kid decided to join ISIS, he or she doesn’t need the permission from the family, so they can easily go and join ISIS. So we started to send messages to their families: “OK, be careful. Watch out your children. Don’t have them in the street alone.” And then we did like a caricature written in our local accent.

AMY GOODMAN: Caricatures?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so to let the children read it and understand—

AMY GOODMAN: No, cartoons.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, cartoon, like to let them understand like what’s going on. So we’ve done it with the experts, and we were sending these materials to our colleagues, who were—they printed out the magazine and spread it out.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that they—ISIS was getting more sophisticated in its video messages, like really fancy kind of trying to make their videos like Hollywood or like news, in response to what you were putting out? Your stuff was rough. Your stuff was on cellphones. But it was a very different picture that was coming out of what was happening in Raqqa.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So like, for us, they used like the media to recruit people everywhere. So most of the soldiers who joined ISIS, they joined because of the media, because of the propaganda, because of the Hollywood-like. So, many—like ISIS was sending messages, you’re like—like “You’re playing like these video games on computer or PlayStation or whatever. Come and play it in the reality.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, let’s go to City of Ghosts, the film about Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, that is now opening in New York and Los Angeles, which looks at the way ISIS started to use more sophisticated media technology to gain support in Raqqa.

HAMOUD: [translated] During the revolution against Assad, I used to edit photos and video. In my opinion, a camera is more powerful than a weapon. And that’s why whoever holds the camera is stronger. When ISIS first came to Raqqa, it used to spread its propaganda through CDs. They were very poorly made videos that looked like they were filmed with phones. But then ISIS decided to work on its media more than its weapons. So any video produced after the takeover of Raqqa is professionally made in order to recruit people to their paradise.

ISIS MUSIC: For the sake of Allah, we will march to the gates of the paradise where our maidens await.

ISIS MEMBER: [translated] The Islamic State is in great need of men that have strong media skills, so they can bring the real news to people.

HAMOUD: [translated] Big productions, using Hollywood techniques, which can be compared to films with high production values. No matter what the video is about, it always has the same effects and the same professionalism, in order to attract supporters.

AMY GOODMAN: So there is a clip from City of Ghosts, but it’s an actual ISIS video. And, shockingly, the words are in English that they put on the screen. This is one of their recruitment videos. Why in English?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so, it’s not only in English—in French, in Turkish, in like tens of languages. So like they produce videos in other languages, mostly in English because it’s like the international language, to recruit people everywhere. So they were not focusing only about Syrians or only about Arabs. And then they use the videos to send messages, and especially recently. So, they were not asking people to come and join them, so they were saying, “OK, wherever you are, you can go and do attacks. You can go and like kill people. You can go and like bomb yourself. You can do whatever you want.” And that’s what we’ve been seeing recently, like in U.K., before in U.S., in Asia, in Africa, in Europe and everywhere. So, and those videos, those messages were sent in all the languages, so to let all the people understand and get it.

And they have like—and they have like a good machine to promote that thing on social media, so through Facebook, Twitter, other things. And sometimes they go like to Twitter and see like the trender, so what’s the most used hashtag, so and they tweet with it, so to promote their propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: But so tell us about you, who you are, your collective, and what has happened to each one of you, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. You started your organization in 2014. How long were you able to remain in Raqqa, your home city? And talk about when you left and when others were killed.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, ISIS came first to Raqqa in April 2013. I stayed in Raqqa until January 2014. After they took over—after they took control of the city, they came to my house looking for me, so I had to leave after two days. Most of my colleagues decided to stay in Raqqa. And then, in April, we came—we came up with the idea of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. We started to work on it. And then, after two or three weeks when we started, ISIS announced that—and in the Friday’s pray, like in the—every single Friday prayer, there is like a speech. And they announced in that speech that “Anyone who’s working with RBSS, if we will arrest”—

AMY GOODMAN: RBSS is Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, yes. So, “would be killed or executed, if we find out who they are.” And that’s what happened. Like after like a week or two weeks later, after the speech, in May 2014, they arrested one of my colleagues in a checkpoint, and then they executed him in a public square. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And his name was?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim. And later on, they started like to do many things trying to stop us. So they spread like security cameras everywhere. They spread like checkpoints. And they couldn’t find any of us. Then they arrested the father of Hamoud, one of my colleagues, and his friends. And they—

AMY GOODMAN: Hamoud is who we just saw in the video.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The very first person.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, Hamoud is also co-founder of the group. And they started to communicate with us, like either giving three names of our colleagues inside or killing the father. So Hamoud had like to choose between his father and his friends.

AMY GOODMAN: And where were you at the time, you and Hamoud?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Hamoud was in Turkey. I went to Turkey to stay with him. And then he said that his father is not better than the rest of the Syrians. So they—he told them, “Go and kill my father.” So, and then they—

AMY GOODMAN: So they gave him a choice: turn in three of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently inside, and you’ll save your father, or we will kill your father.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. And he said like, “OK, kill my father.” So then they executed his father like in a professional Hollywood video, was produced by ISIS. ISIS tied him like to a tree, and they came behind the tree, they shot him in his head. And then—it was like a way to stop us. And then we went back to Hamoud, and he kept saying that thing: “They thought by killing my father, that they will stop us doing this work. They didn’t know that they pushed us to do more and more.” So, and for Hamoud, he kept saying that. Every time when he thinks that he’s like powerless and he has like no power to complete, he’ll watch the video of his father, and that gives—that gives him more power. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And then he named his baby after his father.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, the same name. And then like ISIS had like a long armor. They beheaded Ibrahim, my colleague, and his friend. So they came in Urfa, in Turkey, in the Syrian-Turkish border. So, Urfa is a Turkish city.

AMY GOODMAN: They got him in Turkey.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So they sent like a guy who stayed with him for six months. He made like a friendship with them. Then he brought other people like to his apartment, where we found out next day that Ibrahim, my colleague, and his friend Fares both were beheaded. So, and later on they assassinated Ahmad, Hamoud’s brother, in Idlib. So, it’s a city controlled by the opposition and Nusra. And then, recently was Naji. He was like our trainer, our movie director. He was like 40 years old. He had two daughter—he had two daughters. They assassinated him like in Gaziantep in the afternoon, 12 p.m., in the city center. And in that point, we couldn’t stay in Turkey anymore. Our office in—we had like an office in Turkey. They tried to bomb our office more than one time. We were lucky that the Turkish authorities stopped the cars. And then we couldn’t stay in Turkey anymore, so we had to move our colleagues to Germany. And to know more about other things, you need to watch the movie. It will be open in theaters July 7th in New York, July 14 in L.A. and across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s City of Ghosts.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, it’s, in a sense, a testament to the impact of the videos that you were producing, that ISIS obviously carried out these horrific atrocities. But can you tell us what you know about what the impact has been on people in Raqqa of seeing what you’ve been disseminating, you and your group?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so, the thing, like we knew that our work is like so effective, when we knew that ISIS started to target us and follow us, not only in Syria or in Raqqa, even like outside. I’ve been threatened all the time in Germany. All my colleagues, they have the same thing. So, our messages reach out like mostly other people in Raqqa. We started with the magazine, with the graffiti. And like early, in the beginning, people had like access to the internet. And like early, like when we started, like thousands of people were arrested because they put “like” on our Facebook—on our Facebook page. So‚ every—like, and ISIS kept talking about us. And like many people, they were arrested and charged of being RBSS.

So‚ and then, for ISIS, they didn’t target anyone specifically. So they’ve done attacks everywhere. And they didn’t—like, and they didn’t try to target, or they didn’t attempt to target someone like personally, like a president, a minister, a politician or whatever. They’ve done like these random attacks everywhere. We were like the only group who were targeted by names, by persons.

So, that point, we felt that we were doing like an important work, and ISIS trying to stop us in any way. And having all that things, and having all these like family members, relatives, friends, colleagues who were killed, doing this work, that pushed us like to complete more and more. And right now we ended up like the only source of information from Raqqa to the international media, international community and everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you—we could go back to, actually, Part 1 of our conversation, which we had on Democracy Now!, which people can check out at democracynow.org, asking what happens now to Raqqa, where reports are it is days away from being liberated from ISIS control, driving out ISIS. What happens next?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So that’s the thing: No one’s focusing about the day after. Everyone is focusing only to defeat ISIS. So, there is like no plan for like schools, like rebuilding the city, like doing education stuff to the children, to the civilians. So we’re afraid that the city will be left alone, and like those civilians will create another extremism.

So, they’ve been living with ISIS all the time. They had—know ISIS only through ISIS propaganda and the recent only to our—like to our posters or whatever. And, for sure, we can’t compare our work with ISIS, because we don’t have the same fund as ISIS. Basically, we don’t have any fund. And we don’t have the same equipment. None of us studied any media, any journalism, so all of us, we are like citizen journalists. So, the civilians, like they had only ISIS propaganda all the time‚ in the street, home, radios, screens everywhere. And then they will have like a new group. So, and it will be so hard to them to understand what happened.

So, it should be organizations, civil society organizations, who should be there like to educate them, to aware them about what happened and what will happen to them. So, to have like a kind of a specific treatment, they need to have like humanitarian aid. The civilians have to have like many things. And like we’re missing all the things. Everyone is focusing: “We want to defeat ISIS.” And no one is focusing about the humanitarian side, what will happen to the civilians. So, we’re trying to do like many projects to help them to—

AMY GOODMAN: What will Assad do, when it is supposedly—when ISIS is forced out? What will the Syrian president do? Would you say he’s as much of a threat to the people of Raqqa? I mean, this began in 2011 with the Arab Spring—

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: —the people rising up in Raqqa, the first city to be liberated from Assad.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Sure. But like, yeah, so far, if SDF will remain in Raqqa, Assad’s forces can’t bomb the city, because it’s supported and funded by U.S. So, there is Manbij as an example. It’s controlled by SDF, so the Russian, the Syrian regime, like they couldn’t like bomb it. So it’s not going to be bombed, so if SDF will remain. And so, that’s a good—that’s one of the good things, from the worldview, so because like the Syrian regime warplanes is the worst ever. So, people would be sure that there is like no more airstrikes. But people will—they have the [inaudible] in their mind. So, the thing—like, it’s so important to work about the idea.

AMY GOODMAN: What—how do you maintain your hope and your bravery, Aziz?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: I can’t say that I’m brave, since I’m here outside. I have like—I can say that my colleagues are brave. They remain—they’re like in the city. Any of them could be killed like in any second.

And all of us, like we have hope, because when we start—when we joined the revolution, we joined something we believed in. And, for us, like we knew if we would not do that thing for our city, no one will do it. So it was like a duty for us to do that thing. And we love our city. We love our work. And we’re trying like to push as much as we can, doing interviews, doing our work, doing whatever we do, to go back one day to our city, like to have our city liberated. So, and for me, I don’t want to be called refugee anymore, I don’t want to be here in U.S. or in Europe. So I want to stay home. So, I’m trying—

AMY GOODMAN: And are you concerned, when you go back to Berlin, where you live? As you said, only your group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, individuals are targeted. How do you remain safe?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So, I was threatened in Germany. And I was asking to stay under security—under like security protection, and I refused. So, I’m not safe in Germany. And like wherever I go, I’m not safe. I could be targeted or killed anywhere. But the thing like—I don’t think about it; otherwise, I ended up with a therapy. So I’m trying not to think about it at all. And sometimes like missing the threats doesn’t make my day. So, the thing, I’m trying to be normal. And I don’t know like what will happen with me after 10 years, if I’ll be alive. So, maybe I will be crazy. But the thing, like dealing with all the things, with the blood, with the videos, with the conflict, all that years, we started like to be stronger and stronger. Like, right now watching like an execution video is like watching like a football game. So, all the things could affect us like in the future, but like so far, we have to do the thing; otherwise, we’ll ended up only with ISIS propaganda and the government’s propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for spending this time. Abdalaziz Alhamza is a Syrian journalist, activist, co-founder, spokesperson for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. And if people want to see the videos that people are able to get out of Raqqa, where can they go online?

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: So they can check our website. So, just googling “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” they will have access like to our Twitter, our Facebook, our website, and we have all these—all those videos there.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much, Aziz. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us. And go to democracynow.org for Part 1 of our conversation with Aziz.

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Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently: Syrian Citizen Journalists Document a City Under Siege

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