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 weapons: 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).
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!"
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.
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
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
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.
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)
'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)
'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)
Bassel posts: 'with VPN
being blocked now in Syria
iPhones became useless all of a sudden!'
'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)
'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)
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)
- 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.
- 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.
- Most of the writing was done in 2013. The original story is longer than the published version.