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.’
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.
Other times, families don’t want to talk, either because they still support the government or are too frightened.
«I get very annoyed when I go to parents and they don’t want to talk about their martyr or give us his photo,» Sima said. «This is wrong, this is his story and he is a part of our history.»
A full reexamination of the country’s history will have to wait though. Activists are busy trying to keep up with events unfolding daily.
When Sheikh and some other young activists drove through Moadamyeh, a man flagged them down. «If you’re recording, there is a house here that has been destroyed,» he told them, pointing to a building shelled in the recent government attack.
Abu Omar, using a nickname, leaned out the driver side window and yelled to the car behind him, «Document this house and follow us.» In the other car were two young teens who seemed to have their video cameras on even before they stepped out.
They held their cameras in front of their chests, not really paying attention to what was being captured, each lens an open mouth swallowing up every image.
At an elementary school turned opposition headquarters and field hospital, one man deciphered the messy writing in a notebook and transferred it onto an Excel spreadsheet. Each entry was for a damaged or destroyed home and a list of stolen goods. One entry read, «Abdullah … home destroyed worth 250,000 [Syrian pounds, about $3,500] and gold and honey stolen worth 50,000.»
The data enable humanitarian groups to send assistance to those affected, said Amaar, an activist who did not want to give his last name, and may also serve as a blueprint for prosecution of government forces.
At night, the activists gathered in a home, each one on a computer putting together some piece of their town’s archive. A child’s bedroom, where a small teddy bear and photos from happier times sit on the shelves, had been repurposed as the temporary media center.
«This is a way to remember, but I mean, it’s a bitter remembrance,» Amaar said. «These past few days when we have been doing this documentation I don’t know what to do. Should we cry? You get choked up, how does somebody do this?»
On each screen were gory photos of bloated bodies crawling with maggots or corpses with slit throats or parts of the skull missing. Many of the dead were thrown into the orchards or basements and not discovered for days.
«Who is that?» the activists sometimes asked, squinting at a disfigured face.
Despite the obsession to record every detail, the fog of conflict leaves some bodies unidentified and some facts uncertain.
«What’s the date of death?» asked Ahmad, another activist, while sitting at a desktop computer working on a spreadsheet of the town’s victims.
«Three days ago,» someone replied.
«No, we found him three days ago but his body was like this,» Amaar said and moved his hands in an expanding motion indicating a bloated corpse. «So he must have been there for days.»
«Put him down on Aug. 25,» said Abu Omar.
«Longer,» Amaar said. «Put down Aug. 22.»
«There is a very obvious reaction from what happened in the ’80s in the way we operate now,» said Moaz Shami, a Damascus-based activist and former business journalist. «So one day no one can say a piece of our history is missing.»
Shami spends much of his day hunched over his laptop connecting with activists throughout Damascus and its suburbs, confirming news and spreading it. His few meals are squeezed in between Skype conversations.
The documentation implies a certain repudiation of the previous generation.
«Moaz used to say we are traitors, because we didn’t speak up in the ’80s,» Shami’s mother said recently, sitting in the garden of her childhood home. «I told him we couldn’t. It was different back then. We didn’t have the technology, the Facebook and the YouTube that they have now.»
«They are traitors,» the 28-year-old Shami said. «They didn’t say anything.»
«What did you want us to do?» his mother said. «They took your uncles away.»
Shami bit his lip as he thought about his mother’s words. He didn’t seem convinced.