In 2012, WITNESS embarked on an intensive program to support the use of human rights video in the Syria conflict. The people we support – many of them ordinary citizens – have become skilled filmmakers, archivists, and media correspondents using video to expose abuses in their communities.
The established media have little to no access into Syria, making the media created by these citizens essential to mobilizing a global response to the crisis. It is literally because of them that we have a human face on the conflict. They have also given us an enormous video archive that we hope one day can be used as legal evidence of war crimes.
Rami Jarrah is one of these amazing individuals. We had planned to have him as our featured speaker at our 10th annual Focus For Change Benefit. However, due to visa challenges brought about by the escalating conflict, at the last minute he was unable to join us. He prepared remarks that he asked me to read on his behalf. I am sharing his speech here so that many more people can hear directly from Rami.
Remarks by Rami Jarrah for the 2014 WITNESS Focus For Change Benefit:
I am so proud to be part of this WITNESS gathering. We are here celebrating the courage of those whose stories are rarely told — because they must work anonymously, and because their lives are at great risk.
[pullquote]”When brutal things happen in far-off places they are hard to imagine… But thanks to media activists, we do not have to imagine. Thanks to the millions of ordinary people who are filming what is happening: We can ALL witness.”[/pullquote]
When brutal things happen in far-off places, they are hard to imagine. Even for me, having seen the atrocities in Syria myself, the brutality is sometimes beyond my grasp.
But thanks to media activists, we do not have to imagine. Thanks to the millions of ordinary people who are filming what is happening: We can ALL witness.
And once you are a witness, you feel an urge to do something. I believe all people share that urge. It is why we flood the streets and join protests. It is why we pick up cameras when we see persecution.
It is why we are all here tonight. We know our neighbors are suffering, and so we come to celebrate the courage of those who are telling us their stories.
It is why I became an activist. I moved to Damascus in 2004 and lived under the limitations and indignities of the Assad regime. When the protests started in 2011, I rushed to join – and I joined with my video camera.
I saw the military firing into crowds of people. I saw bombs dropped on family homes. Simply because I had a camera, I could show these things to the world as well.
But also, because I had a camera, I was in danger. I worked under a pseudonym, Alexander Page. I was arrested and tortured, but I was not murdered only because they did not know who I was. When the government finally discovered my real name, I gathered my wife and child and we left our home within the hour. We luckily made across the border into Jordan and then into Egypt.
There, I co-founded the ANA New Media Association – Syria’s first independent free media agency – to support media activists working inside Syria by all means possible — financially, technically, and morally. We knew that citizens were creating the only objective journalism in many areas of Syria, one of the most media-repressed places in the world, and they needed support to reach professional levels. ANA has since begun a pirate radio service that broadcasts inside Syria, and a press service that provides investigative reports that appear in newspapers across the Arab world.
I would like to mention here a friend, Bara Al Boushi, a young officer who defected from the Syrian army during an attack on an anti-government protest in Damascus. On that day he said, “I have defected but I will not turn against this army with arms or kill to gain justice. Justice for me will come through shedding light on the truth.” That was the day that Bara threw down his weapon and picked up a camera.
It is the devastating reality that Bara is no longer with us in this world. He had decided to set out to a small town in Damascus that was under attack and was murdered there by government forces. He died with his camera in his hand.
As long as this war continues, the dangers to activists will not go away. In the past few months alone, we witnessed a barbaric reminder with the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.
I knew James and Steven, as journalists and as friends. Just before his last trip, I urged Steven not to go to Syria. But he followed the urge to do something, to witness the stories of people trapped and isolated by war. For his courage, Steven was killed.
It is painful to me that the video of Steven’s murder was used as a weapon. Those perpetrating abuse know the power of video as well as we do – which is why the activist with a camera always has a target on his or her back.
[pullquote]”Honor is not retrospective. Honor is a commitment to the future. We want all activists to be safe — but we do not want them to stop. We are honoring them so that we can help them continue forward.” [/pullquote]
But I am inspired by the millions of people who take that risk anyway – and who as a result turn us all into witnesses.
Over the past two years, WITNESS has provided media activists working inside Syria and in the border regions with the knowledge and skills needed to continue their work. By providing expertise around how to make safer and better media, WITNESS has been a steadfast partner to hundreds of activists who are getting these essential stories out while working under horrific risk. For this we are deeply grateful.
I want to close with a reminder of what it means to honor someone. Honor is not retrospective. Honor is a commitment to the future. We want all activists to be safe — but we do not want them to stop. We are honoring them so that we can help them continue forward. Thank you.