From the fifth floor of that building in Harasta, it is the world that felt so remote and isolated. There used to be a small room, with a tight bed, and a table. On the three shelves above the table were several computer programming books, separated from a collection of Russian novels by a book on the art of chess.
It was a room brimming with casual serenity. Its window overlooked a skyline divided between the tortuous mountaintops of Qasiun Mount and the monotonous concrete of the Presidential Palace, under which the city looked like a vast, forlorn prison. It also overlooked the numerous impoverished houses leading down to the slums, which were passively dormant in the midst of their day-to-day misery.
Meanwhile, the haunting question of justice occupied Bassel Khartabil Safadi, and will soon bring him into a battle fought in frightful secrecy; a battle which will require outstanding intellect and cost too much blood, and in which the boundaries between truth and fiction will be blurred. Soon, the world will turn with its secret war onto this cave-like dwelling, where many nights will be rendered sleepless by the unfolding layers of an infinite conflict. These layers will overlap and form a brutal world of information, the conqueror of which will be two steps ahead of his enemy!
The Tyrant’s Weak Spot: Technology for Revolution
The demonstrations began to march past Bassel’s house, where he resided with his father, a middle-aged, cultured and good-natured man who would welcome us with the warmest solicitude.
The road from Harasta to Bassel’s office, near the General Organization for Cinema, was shorter than the road to the Presidential Palace in the Muhajirin district. This district is the central nerve of the regime, which connects the vast distances of the old world of information: the secret police disguised within the city’s ordinariness; military barracks and security branches operating late into the night; and officers, agents and informants deployed and engaged in daily raids.
Later, with their loose shirts, the officers sit down for long hours looking into the reports flowing from houses, lanes and alleyways. They follow names, dates and movements, and then stamp certain reports “highly classified.” Enveloped papers travel through hundreds of offices for review and analysis. Hundreds of agents sit in front of their screens, filtering their old-fashioned search results and looking for words, comments, plans and movements amidst the conversations bursting out of the internet. The regime was engaged in an utterly unfamiliar battle.
Bassel was aware that the social media and the internet would help protect the revolution from the regime’s brutal crackdown. Times have changed, and the regime could no longer conceal its crimes as it had in the 1982 massacre in Hama. More importantly, Bassel was aware that the regime had an exploitable weak spot.
It would take the regime the next two years to understand this weak spot and reuse it against the revolution. For decades, its amassed information about even the most minute details of Syrian society had helped it isolate, expose and rule over its citizens with intimidation and fear. A “cyber generation” of Syrians, however, have recently been capable of opening up to each other and to the outside world. The absolute domination began to decline.
Bassel has been one of the main contributors to the introduction and promotion of the internet in Syria. From behind his computer, Bassel would spend hours and hours at work, in the second floor of a ‘60s building in the Rawdah district, with high ceilings and white paint that smells of comforting moisture. Harnessing all of his programming skills, he contemplated a secure network for transmitting and exchanging information.
In the beginning of the revolution, information was mostly circulated through Facebook pages. Bassel struggled to raise awareness on cybersecurity, particularly through anonymous Tor Browser and data encrypting tools. He also guided activists to the use of secure communication programs, VPN clients, and later helped smuggle several satellite transmitters and communication devices. His most notable work, however, was hacking the regime’s security systems, and obtaining considerable information that were critical to protecting activists and securing their movements.
Bassel did his utmost to adapt technology for the sake of the revolution, putting his expertise at the disposal of the movement’s youth. In this he wasn’t alone; there were hundreds of anonymous activists who were entrenched behind their screens and pseudonyms, fighting for the revolution on this particular front. Dozens of pages were created, and hundreds of networks were formed, all to enable Syrian revolutionaries to safely transfer and exchange information. There was no one place to gather them, and no leader to direct their action. While the regime had long been able to penetrate society at all levels, these were finally able to penetrate it and detect its weaknesses. They devised several systems to convey the glaring picture of a revolution facing a bloodthirsty regime.
Squares and Field Activity
Despite the numerous opportunities he was offered as a world-class developer, with global contributions and innovations, Bassel continued his technical work within Syria. He chose not to travel nor to remain silent, but to provide technical support and to be active even as a protester and photographer.
In 2011, he documented the earliest demonstrations that broke out in Harasta, and attended the first few hours of a sit-in held in the city of Duma, along with a large group of students from Damascus University; then returning to his office to upload the footage and send it to various media outlets, news agencies, and human rights organizations. “Let’s bring the protesters some biscuits,” he said later that night. He got up from behind his computer and affirmed: “They need some sugar to sustain themselves in protest until morning.”
Bassel continued to participate in the demonstrations in Duma and Harasta, as well as in the heart of the capital Damascus. He was also engaged in discussions about the desired shape of a post-Assad state. He met his wife, lawyer Noura Ghazi, when they were once surrounded in a demonstration.
His office was quick to turn into a bustling hive of civil activists from Damascus and its countryside. The first secret camera to film a “ flash” (tayyarah) demonstration in the heart of Damascus was planted there, in Bassel’s office, whereby he attached it to the “button” of late Amjad Sioufi’s shirt. Dubbed “the button man,” Amjad would soon become the most wanted individual by the security branches.
There too, we met with Mahmoud Subih, who filmed many demonstrations in Daraa and produced many videos that documented the daily massacres there. We were also introduced to Jamal Omar, Hind Majalli, in addition to many other activists from all origins and backgrounds. Several peaceful campaigns in the streets of Damascus would be launched from Bassel’s office. The network would soon expand, encompassing Damascus, its countryside, and Daraa.
Bassel would later contact Homsi activists, and even travel there to deliver communication equipment and high resolution cameras. He managed to smuggle in the first BGAN satellite transmitter to Syria, which would live broadcast the demonstrations of Harasta and Duma in full detail.
The Ethics of Revolution
Throughout his documentation of regime atrocities, Bassel was committed to accuracy with regards to the information he received about massacres, victims and detainees. While generally tranquil and composed, Bassel often lost his temper whenever he was shown fabricated or exaggerated figures about victims or arrests. “How would we differ from the regime if we fake facts?” he once exclaimed. “We’d lose our only weapon as revolutionaries if we lose credibility.”
Bassel managed to survive dozens of ambushes. “You’re such a typical Palestinian militant,” I often joked with him, to which he would respond: “Our battle is a continuation of theirs, but we must not fall into their very same mistakes.”
He was adept at hiding, maneuvering and persuasion. This allowed him to become more of a phantom wandering the city, monitored by clueless security branches that were unable to determine the exact nature of his ventures, even when he was a few meters away.
Bassel was immensely concerned about all his friends, their movements and their participation in the demonstrations. But he was no less brave, and he never ceased to outdo himself. He used to defy bullets and throw stones at security forces, even at times when we were surrounded in demonstrations.
He documented the first military defection in Harasta, when four soldiers refused to shoot peaceful demonstrators, only one of them surviving the execution. He also rescued the injured when security forces threw a nail bomb at a demonstration, which claimed the lives of dozens of people.
Once, he snuck into Harasta when it was besieged by the 4th Armored Division, wherein he managed to reach his trapped father and conduct a satellite broadcast of the ensuing assault. He continued his broadcast from the roof of his house even as three military units were raiding the surrounding buildings, meters away from where he was.
Perseverance Despite Despair
He enjoyed walking the streets of Damascus at midnight. We used to leave his office at 3am to stroll along the avenues of Shaalan, Abu Rummanah and Hamra.
One year into the revolution, he grew frustrated by the complexities towards which the battle was spiraling. As army defectors were growing in number, and military action was escalating, he felt that the people were being dragged into the regime’s favorite game. He kept thinking about the detainees, often wondering about the feelings of those released vis-a-vis the deterioration of their initial struggle. He was disappointed in the attitudes of foreign countries, and was certain that no power would intervene in support of the revolution.
His work persisted, however, notwithstanding its increasing dangers. He showed interest in making films about the revolution, and so we began preparing one about its beginnings and developments. He used to recount his infinite dreams to me during our walks. We were once walking in the Shaalan neighorhood when Bassel winked at a sniper stationed above one building.
“I want to write a novel about you,” I told him. He gave me his usual smile before his eyes drifted again.
“How would it end?” he turned back to me.
“You sitting in a solitary cell and contemplating a thought, then an idea strikes you and you smile… You overcome them despite your arrest.”
“What a dramatic end for a Hollywood movie!” he laughed.
Day after day, the dark circles under Bassel’s eyes widened. Heavy with thoughts, and burdened with enormous concerns and fears, his overwrought eyelids couldn’t sleep a wink. In the kitchen of his office, which at the end of 2012 became a safe space for whoever needed to work or to escape arrest, we would stay up late into the night, talking about the regime and the way it was operating.
Although he often ridiculed the regime, he was fully aware that it was not as idiotic as we often conveniently believed. He would go on describing to me the regime’s resourcefulness in handling the revolution. Bassel believed that it had a plenty of cards to play, despite its hand-wringing in front of the nonviolent demonstrations. Later on, his constant fears materialized in the developments unfolding before our eyes.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bassel was that he could think as the regime thought, and could see reality the way it saw it. All Bassel ever tried to do was to remain two steps ahead of the regime.
[Main image: A banner calling for the release of Bassel Safadi (Free Basel campaign's Instagram page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].