Celebrating the lives of Arab dissidents – Part I

“The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!” So wrote the journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky in 1925 – or rather, those are the words he put into the mouth of a (possibly fictitious) French diplomat. Much the same quotation was later attributed to George Bernard Shaw – and, with more chilling effect, to the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin.

Cynical and callous as those words are, they do contain a sad grain of truth. We grieve over the demise of an individual but colossal death tolls seem to numb our senses. They simply do not make sense. The human mind cannot fathom tragedy on such a scale. Or perhaps the deluge of bad news engenders a despairing sense of apathy, which today we call ‘compassion fatigue’. For the perpetrator of mass murder, of course, this is all to the good, as apathy grants him (invariably it’s a him) carte blanche to continue working his trade…

Remember how the world cried “never again” after World War II, when the full horror of the Nazi onslaught against Jews, Roma, political opponents and gays was revealed. Then came mass atrocities in India and Pakistan, Cambodia and Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, Iran and Iraq. Now we witness in our living rooms the murderous ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Or consider the shameful persecution by Daesh of Yazidis in Iraq, as described by my colleague Linda Wesson for Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau. Not to forget the human cost of persecution in Eritrea, war in Congo, occupation in Palestine, or gangland drug feuds in Mexico.

One might imagine that, in the 21st century, ubiquitous coverage of war on both mainstream news and social media would eliminate the excuse of “we didn’t know”. Apparently not. However, if we considered the “death of one person” as the tragedy it is, maybe we could extend our sense of outrage to the fate of thousands. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There’s a special providence in the fall of sparrow“. How much more so for our fellow human beings?


No hiding place? Recalling Orouba and Halla Barakat

Take the case, for instance, of 60-year-old Orouba Barakat, a physician, and her 22-year-old daughter Halla, a journalist. Both were Syrian activists opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus. Orouba was a member of the opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council; when not working as a physician she used to investigate torture in Syrian government prisons. For her part, Halla, who was born in the USA, was a noted journalist and chief reporter for the much-read Syrian dissident online journal, Orient News. She also contributed freelance pieces to ABC News. Fearing for their lives, the pair fled their homeland, first for the UK, then the UAE, and finally Turkey. But it was no use. Late on Thursday 21 September this year, they were found dead in their apartment in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighbourhood. Their bodies had been strangled and stabbed. The grim message to all those fleeing conflict or oppression seemed clear: You can run but you cannot hide.

So who killed them? Islamic State assassins? Or perhaps Assad’s henchmen? To be sure, it could have been either. Both women were friends of Kay Mueller, the US aid worker kidnapped by Daesh in August 2013, who was killed 18 months later. Their constant public advocacy for Mueller must have enraged the jihadists; and maybe that provided one motive. On the other hand, the mother and daughter probably irritated the Assad regime to equal measure, given their exposure of state crimes and the plight of Syrian refugees. One of their lasting legacies will be the charity they set up to assist Syrian women living in camps in eastern Turkey.

In a touching tribute to Halla, Orient News drew the connection between individual tragedy and mass atrocity. The article called Halla ‘[an] original… A Syrian, who loved deeply, and was loved by Syrians in return’. It then related a string of atrocities committed by Damascus against its own citizens, before invoking the language of Holocaust scholars to demand: “Whom shall we remember, the perpetrators or the bystanders?”

And in a reprisal of our question as to what happened to ‘never again’ after Auschwitz, Orient News declared:

“The tragedy of the 21st century in Syria could have been prevented, only if the civilized world had spoken up and taken measures in 2011 against the Assad regime. Syrians were waiting to see what would be done in Washington, London, Paris and Rome, but there was no reaction. Had the world learnt from the Holocaust, the Assad regime would not have been still in power.”


Syria and Yemen – beyond the statistics

Those Syrian camp-dwellers whom Orouba and Halla did so much to help are individuals, of course. Yet, in another sense, they are just specks in a sea of three million Syrian refugees who currently find themselves marooned in Turkey. Again, we are confronted by almost unimaginable numbers: as of February 2016, well before the fall of Aleppo, Human Rights Watch said that 470,000 had died in conflict, 6.1 million were internally displaced, 4.8 million were forced to seek refuge abroad, and more than 117,000 had been detained or were ‘disappeared’. Now there are certainly villains on all sides in the Syrian conflict. It would be wrong to say that the Assad regime is to blame for all the horror taking place. On the other hand, state forces and their allies are said to be responsible for 75 percent of all civilian casualties in the country, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Similar depressing news emanates from Yemen, where controversial Houthi rebels are fighting a Saudi-led alliance loyal to Yemen’s formal (and former) president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. For at least a year, he has been stuck on 10,000 deaths from that war, a figure that is still given by the United Nations. However, the true count is probably many times that number. Which reminds one of the mordant saying attributed to the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

So, beyond the stats with multiple zeroes after them, here is one more story of a life lost through conflict – a young Syrian whose work benefited the world. Moreover, his death at the hands of the Assad regime robs Syria of immense natural talent, which it will so badly need when the war eventually ends.

In a follow-up article I hope to highlight two other inspiring people who became victims of current Middle East conflicts: one young, female and Syrian, the other older, male and Yemeni.


Bassel Khartabil Safadi, free speech activist and internet pioneer

Born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus, Bassel Khartabil hardly seemed destined to lead a charmed life. Yet in his brief 34 years on earth, he achieved more than dozens of others have done over much longer lives. The son of a Syrian mother, a writer, and a Palestinian father who taught piano, Bassel never let his straitened circumstances distract him. Long before the start of the Syrian uprising of 2011, he pioneered new technology to better the lives and expand the minds of fellow citizens.

It all began when he began using his father’s CD-ROM to learn English when he was only 10. The next year his mother gave in to his pleas and bought him a computer. As a teenager, he taught himself programming, when not immersed in reading up on Greek mythology and ancient Middle Eastern history. The internet remained severely restricted in Syria during Bashar al-Assad’s initial years in power – despite the president’s boast that he would be the IT godfather of the nation he had inherited from his father. Bassel, however, saw this paucity of coverage and connectivity as a challenge.

By 2003, he was active in the global Creative Commons movement. He worked remotely with a fellow techie from the University of California, Jon Phillips, to produce the Aiki Lab and blog platform – so named after Bassel’s pet turtle. 6 years later, they launched Open Art and Technology in Damascus – described as the first significant ‘free culture’ event in Syria. It was also the first time the intrepid pair met in person! That same year, 2009, Bassel used a Creative Commons license to release video footage beamed in from a Gaza under Israeli attack – a lateral leap that inspired millions facing harsh conditions across the world.

Over time, Khartabil became chief technology officer for Al-Aous, a publishing institution devoted to archaeology and arts in Syria. He also contributed innovations to – and pioneered apps for – such universally known brands as Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia, Openclient, Fabricatorz, Creative Commons, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Sharism.

Increasingly, his yen for free expression online brought him in conflict with state authorities. After the events of 2011, first in Libya, and then in southern Syria itself, Khartabil felt compelled to work even harder. Yet now he faced more overt persecution, especially after he started using iPhones, smuggled in from a friend in Lebanon, to document the crackdown on demonstrators. Khartabil also taught the activist graphic designer, Tamam al-Omar, how to make the most of Linux and create posters by filching images from the net.

Bassel met his wife-to-be, Noura Ghazi Safadi, while returning from a demonstration in April of 2011. Syrian government forces detained him on 15 March 2012, a year to the day since the Syrian uprising broke out. He spent his first eight months incommunicado before being transferred to Damascus’ Adra prison. In October 2015, he was taken from there to an undisclosed location. Noura never heard from him again. Then in August 2017 she revealed that she now knew the truth: Bassel had been executed shortly after his move. Evidently, he was ‘tried’ and ‘sentenced to death’ by a secret military tribunal in the Al-Qaboun district of Damascus.

Tragic deaths, like Bassel’s, inevitably cast a pall over an individual’s memory. Yet the real Bassel was full of fun, a devotee of culture in all its forms, interlaced with a naughty sense of humour. Jon Phillips recalled how Bassel would tease him whenever he used the Arabic expression inshallah to wish well his latest idea. “Don’t hex it, dude!” Bassel would write. “That means it will never happen”.

Foreign Policy magazine named Khartabil as one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012; Index on Censorship awarded him the 2013 Digital Freedom Award; and, in 2014, the European Parliament credited him with opening up the internet in Syria and ‘vastly extending online access and knowledge to the Syrian people’. Even from his prison cell, Khartabil kept working. He devised the amazingly innovative and aesthetically pleasing New Palmyra Project – a composite 3D visual reconstruction of the ancient city as it was, before ISIS forces desecrated it in 2015. As with his previous projects, this one, too, uses open sources. It remains a fitting reminder of his ethos of blending technology, compassion and art. And it shows his affection for his nation, his people and for their millennia-old creativity.

“Hidden fear makes us prisoners”

Throughout his incarceration, Khartabil was the subject of a worldwide online #FreeBassel campaign to secure his release. Clearly it did not succeed. But at least it offered succour to whoever heard the message – including, one hopes, some of the estimated 70,000 still in detention. A moving and informative article in Wired describes Khartabil’s career trajectory; and also how Syria’s political prisoners somehow manage to keep their sanity by helping and teaching each other. In Bassel’s case, he befriended a fellow detainee, Wael Saad al-Deen, a documentary filmmaker and master of classical literary Arabic, who was recovering from earlier torture. Friends on the outside managed to smuggle in novels and technical books in English, many of which Bassel translated into Arabic. Wael and Khartabil both loved poetry, and Bassel would draw illustrations for Wael’s verse. As long as he could send messages from his cell, and participate in a faraway world outside, Bassel felt: “my soul is free; jail is only a temporary physical limitation”.

On learning of his murder (for that is what it was), Amnesty International wrote:

“We are deeply saddened and outraged at this awful news. Bassel Khartabil will always be remembered as a symbol of courage who peacefully fought for freedom to the very end. […] [His] death is a grim reminder of the horrors that take place in Syrian prisons every day… torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions. These cruel acts undoubtedly amount to crimes against humanity. We urge the Russian government to use its influence on the Syrian authorities to help end this madness. Thousands of lives are on the line.”

Amnesty currently runs a campaign to draw world attention to the ‘horror in Syrian prisons’.

On Valentine’s Day, 2015, Noura posted this love letter to her husband, a tribute both to the man she loved and to the Syria they were fighting for:

“Bassel, I am very afraid, I am afraid about the country that is being slaughtered, divided, bleeding, being destroyed. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid that our dream is changing from seeing ourselves being the generation freeing their country to the one witnessing its destruction. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid …”


Perhaps the last words should go to Bassel himself, in a statement of his sent from jail that a friend then relayed via Twitter and which, whether knowingly or not, answer Noura’s question about fear:

“Jail is not walls, not the executioner and guards. It is the hidden fear in our hearts that makes us prisoners”.


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