The Syrian regime killed and tortured in an attempt to get the spirit of the revolution back into the bottle. Computer programmer Bassel did not participate in the demonstrations when the peaceful revolution took off in Syria in March 2011. He did not shout slogans nor sprayed graffiti against president Assad and his regime. But Bassel was fighting back with his mobile phone and computer.

With the help of a large network of video correspondents across Syria he collected video footage a
nd pictures. The correspondents risked their lifes to get the video, while Bassel uploaded and sent the materials to regional and international television networks.

Security services closed in on the network of correspondents. Their amateuristic operations were very dangerous – none of them was a seasoned war journalist and none had worked as a professional with video recording equipment before.

Setting up a secure Internet connection – the specialism of geeks like Bassel – was a matter of life or death. As the revolution unfolded many of Bassel´s friends left the country. In December 2011 most of the first generation activists were dead, in prison or abroad. Bassel remained in Damascus. Until it was too late.


His hope: a free Syria
His weap
ons: computer, mobile phone and camera
His opponents: failing equipment, on line security, mistrust and betrayal


Bassel lost friends, met new ones and fell in love. However, the rumours kept circulating: did Bassel have warm contacts with the security services? Is that why he seemed to get away with a lot of revolutionary work. He never seemed to be in the wrong place at at the wrong time. Did Bassel play a double role?


What can you expect on the next pages?

a. some scenes that did not make it into the story ('spiked stories')

b. a few additional links to the chapters in the app
c. some notes on 'the making of....'


More than three years I followed Bassel, a Syrian internetgeek and founder of the software company Fabricatorz. The story Bassel – Van nerd tot spil in het Syrische verzet - reveals what was going on behind the screens of the Syrian revolution.

This long read is published by Uitgeverij Fosfor (Dutch).

Behind the screens
A. Prologue

Three members of the national security services are holding a hunting contest. The Israeli, Russian and Syrian team are standing at the edge of a forest in which three rabbits are released. The winner is the team that first manages to capture the rabbit. Within three minutes, the Israelis return; relaxed and whistling they hold a nicely skinned rabbit. Fifteen minutes later the Russian team is walking out of the forst; panting and with a rumpled rabbit.

Then they are all waiting for the Syrian team to return. It takes a long time and after an hour they decide to have a look. In a clearing in the woods they see the Syrians standing around a donkey. They are hitting and kicking the animal: "Say you're a rabbit!"

1. September 2010, Damascus

`Got a legal approve from the Syrian government for Aiki Lab the first hackerspace in the Arab world. starting very soon in Damascus' (Facebook, 30 May 2010)


Bassel and his friend Daris spent a few months searching for a suitable office space: not too expensive, a central and easy accessible spot and a trustworthy owner.

Then he tweets the address: Hackerspace Damascus 170 square meters of open space for geeks and hackers to invent space rockets: Zahrawi Avenue - Rawda - Damascus (Twitter, 4 July)


September 2010 the Aikilab crowd celebrated the end of the ramadan in the Aikilab co-workers space. Bassel enjoys being the host of the evening and welcomes all 60 guests personally. This so called Creative Commons iftar was the fourth big event since the opening of Aikilab.



2. February 2011

The place is very popular amongst people working in the creative industries of Damascus. They meet, experiment and work at Aikilab. The added value is the very fast internet connection. This 3G connection is more expensive but easier to obtain than an ADSL connection.

The planned Twestival will not take place at Aikilab, Bassel assesses the situation as too risky. The police asks him over for 'a cup of tea' and the message is clear: do not organize anything right now. The tension is growing in Syria due to the upraisings in Tunesia, Lybia, Egypt and Yemen. Bassel knows the security service (mukhabarat) is watching him closely. And although the security officers do not seem very smart when it concerns technology, they can easily close down Aikilab.

Links

Aikilab was the first one in Damascus but there are many hackers spaces across the world

Bassel is cofounder of the software company Fabricatorz

One of the ideas was to submit an proposal and go for the Google Lunar Prize

Links

Announcement of the Twestival in Aikilab (via Wayback machine archive)

The vibrant film festival Dox Box was one of the annual cultural highlights in Damascus
This report of the Open Net Initiative (ONI) gives an impression of the internet in Syria. Even though the report is outdated (2009) it provides a thorough insight in the state of the Internet in Syria
The report Syria's Cyber Wars' by Amjad Baiazy describes the internet situation in Syria in 2011
An excellent story is The Hackers of Damascus, by Stephan Faris in Businessweek (121115)
3. March 2011

March the15th many people overcome their fear and start demonstrating for the first time in several cities in Syria. Demonstrators sing, make jokes and are waving with olive branches to show they are unarrmed. This peaceful atmosphere turns grim quickly.

4. May 2011
Bassel on Facebook: 'uploading from slow connections Have tried all kind of technologies to upload stuff to web in unstable connection situations and here are the results for upload using http multi part requests:   Technologies that don't work: - html5 is not stable ...' (FB post, 17 May)
 Links

Protesters tear down a poster of president Assad in Daraa (0.23 min)

This video clip of Damascus Bureau shows neatly How it all began (2.04 min)

The BBC reported on the events in Damascus, Daraa, Homs and Hama on March25th 2011
The BBC also broadcast a detailed Panorama report about the Arab Spring: How Facebook changed the world (59 min)
The BBC report Who are the Shabiha
A good study on the Syrian Shabiha by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung
 Links
Insightful article in The Guardian: 'Syria's video activists give revolution the upper hand in media war'
Fantastic photo reportage Local Reporters by Alessio Romenzi
Cameras everywhere, publication of the video advocacy organization Witness
5. August 2011

'telecomix #Syria gets major censorship upgrade. SSL TOR VPNs blocked. Skype & phones tapped. What was safe yesterday is not safe today' (retweeted 22 July 2011)

'Protests started in Harasta (Damascus country side Syria) so electricity went down'

(Facebook, 11 August)


'International visa and MasterCard ATM and credit cards are not working in Syria anymore' (FB 24 August)


'One was killed by security forces in Harasta when 5000 protestors tried to reach Damascus, while all kinds of communications are off' (FB 28 August)

'If your government shuts down the Internet, shut down your government' (FB 30 August)


6. September 2011
'Two snipers in front of my house. Harasta'

'Heavy snipers presence in Harasta, I can see at least 8 from my place'

Guys, everything is cool. Thanks for caring about my security'

(FB, 30 September)

7. October 2011

Bassel posts: 'with VPN being blocked now in Syria iPhones became useless all of a sudden!'

'unless they entirely turn off the internet (which they do every Friday) there are still ways to bypass the censorship'

'one advantage iPhone used to have over Android in Syria was the working VPN and the Apple store being accessible over VPN. now that's gone'

(FB, 15 October)

Links
The Revolution is being Televised, a reportage by Al Jazeera (24.15 min)
DIY Drones and Parot shopping: how to built your own drone
The old neigbourhood of Bab Touma described by  Frederick Deknatel
Links
For general information on tools and tactics:
Citizen Lab
Tactical Tech
Electronic Frontier Foundation

8. December 2011
In this long Facebook post Bassel describes his activities of one day:

'I became expert on handling stress, seriously you can't imagine how my daily life looks like during the past 8 month.

for example here is how today looked like for me, not to say it's not the worth day in the past couple of weeks: start the day by trying to go to harasta, fail and go back home, go out meet someone for his website, go out meet someone else for another website that is revolution related, go back home work on a tv report, go out meet video man to take videos, go back home to reply on emails, go out in a car in sideways to Duma to do live streaming, come back and have fight with the live streaming tech guy outside of syria, go talk to a guy who had another fight with someone and solve it, then came back meet another video man take more videos. have fight with GF, then go out convince someone not to commit a suicide he/she already took too many pills so take her/him to a doctor as well, solved next, go back have another fight with tech guy. open email to find a huge stack of tasks and questions, reply to some then work on another tv report, then work on someone site, then go out bring equipments form someplace back home, then go out buy charger for some equipments then come back home again and write this on facebook. and this is only one day of the revolution. thousands of people doing this and more every day and that's why it's called revolution. it's mind and power revolution in the first place'

(FB 22 December)

9. January 2012

Bassel deletes gradually all his accounts on social media except his Twitter account.

He tweets: 'deleted my Linkedin, foursquare and google plus accounts. still need to delete facebook and hopefully will be distractions free' (19 January)

'deleted my Yahoo, Hotmail, flickr, digg and stumbleupon accounts one way forward to social freedom' (21 January)

'seriously what exactly services like latitude, last.fm and doppler are made for?' (22 January)


Links
Casualties of the Syrian Civil War (Wikipedia)
Last report by war correspondent Marie Colvin
Marie Colvin obituary by The Guardian
Was the satellite phone of Colvin and photographer Rémi Ochlik tracked down by the Syrian Army?
10. March 2012

On Thursday March 15th Bassel is arrested. He is taken to the notorious Kafr Sousseh prison. After two months Bassel is moved to Adra civil prison.

Links
Syria: Torture Centres Revealed by Human Rights Watch, including some of the standard methods used
Syria before and after (The Guardian)
For the latest news on Bassel follow the Free Bassel campaign

Screen shot left is from the YouTube
channel Topgoon/Massasit Matti
by Bassel friend Jamel (Sadik)
B.  ‘The making of’ in bullet points


- The second Arab Bloggers Meeting in December 2009 in Beirut is legendary. Participants shared experiences, contacts and knowlegde in a wonderful atmosphere. There was a lot going on, as the posts below show. But absolutely no one expected  that one year later the Arab revolutions would take off, partly created by campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. Tunesian president Ben Ali was the first to leave after one month of protests.

Bassel improvised a translation from English to Arabic – because the translators were stuck in the Lebanese traffic. It was a presentation by Jacob Appelbaum about on line security and Bassel had to invent words or describe technical details while translating. He did a marvellous job. That is were I met Bassel.

Mediaoriente

JillianYork 

SaudiJeans 

Tweets from Beirut (AB09) 

 

- I visited Syria several times in the period 2009 to March 2011 due to my work for Hivos, an international development agency based in Holland. I had meetings with Bassel at the Aikilab office in Damascus. But I also used to to work at Aikilab because of the safe and fast internet connection. A few times we went out for diner and drinks with other Aikilab friends.

 

- We did not meet again since the start of the Syrian Revolution on 15th March 2011 but kept in touch by mails and Skype and Facebook chats.

 

- During a course for narrative journalism by Irene van der Linde at Studio Harcigny. I decided to make a story about Bassel and his group of friends. Autumn 2011 I travelled through the Arab region for three months during a sabbatical leave. In November 2011 Bassel and I tried to meet up in Beirut, but he assessed the situation too dangerous for travelling and stayed in Syria.

 

- We kept on mailing until he was arrested on March 15th, 2012. I started interviewing Bassel's friends in Beirut, Paris and London to reconstruct Bassel's year of the revolution.
I skyped with his family, with journalist friends of Bassel and colleagues from other human rights organiszations.

- A Lebanese techie friend collected Bassel's Facebook posts and tweets and put them in a safe database, so that I could use them for my publication.I started hunting for a publisher and wrote proposals resulting in a partnership with publisher Fosfor and a grant from the Dutch Fonds voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten, a fund for special journalistic projects.

 

- Most of the writing was done in 2013. The original story is longer than the published version.
For now all I can hope for is Bassel to be able to read this story – his story – on his new iPhone very soon.