[Marxism] Behind Syrian War Casualty Data Is One Busy Man
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 9 14:39:54 MDT 2013
NY Times April 9, 2013
Behind Syrian War Casualty Data Is One Busy Man
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
COVENTRY, England — Military analysts in Washington follow its body
counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The
United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of
civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news
organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures constantly.
Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its
founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates
out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street
in this drab industrial city.
Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Mr. Abdul
Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria,
disseminating bursts of information all day long about the fighting and
the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary e-mails about
protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics
All sides in the conflict accuse him of bias, and even he acknowledges
that the truth can be elusive on Syria’s tangled and bitter
battlefields. That, he says, is what prompts him to keep a tight leash
on his operation.
“I need to control everything myself,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, a bald,
bearish, affable man. “I am a simple citizen from a simple family who
has managed to accomplish something huge using simple means — all
because I really believe in what I am doing.”
He does not work entirely alone. Four men inside Syria help to report
and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground, a
network rooted in Mr. Abdul Rahman’s youth, when he organized
clandestine political protests. But he signs off on every important
update. A fifth man translates the Arabic updates into English for the
organization’s Facebook page.
Mr. Abdul Rahman rarely sleeps. He gets up around 5:30 a.m., calling
Syria to awaken his team. First, they tally the previous day’s casualty
reports and release a bulletin. Then he alternates between taking media
calls — 10 on a slow day, 15 an hour for breaking news — and contacting
He transmits his last e-mail around 9 p.m. and continues monitoring news
reports and YouTube videos until at least 1 a.m. But urgent news
developments frequently disrupt that schedule.
Recently, for example, rumors of the assassination of Col. Riad
al-Assad, a founder of the rebel Free Syrian Army, erupted about 11 p.m.
Mr. Abdul Rahman stayed up contacting activists near the eastern city of
Deir al-Zour until 5 a.m. before confirming that the colonel was very
much alive, but had lost a leg in a car bombing.
In March, when rebel forces near the Golan Heights kidnapped 21 United
Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines, his phones rang incessantly.
“I wanted to shatter my mobile,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, who often sports
a cellphone on each ear.
He said his ultimate goal was to hold accountable those responsible for
Syria’s destruction. Focusing on human rights will eventually bring the
country a better, democratic future, he said.
“We have to document what is going on in Syria,” he said, because each
side is trying to “brainwash” the people to accept its version of
events. “The country is headed toward destruction and division,” he
added. “We have to try to preserve what hasn’t been destroyed.”
Mr. Abdul Rahman, who founded the observatory in 2008 to highlight the
plight of activists arrested inside Syria, faces constant scrutiny over
He has been called a tool of the Qatari government, the Muslim
Brotherhood, the Central Intelligence Agency and Rifaat al-Assad, the
exiled uncle of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, among others. The
Syrian government and even some rebels have accused him of treachery.
“Rami’s objectivity is killing us,” said Manhal Bareesh, an activist
from Saraqib who knew him before the war. But he and other activists in
Syria credit him with working hard to document all the cases, and not
hesitating to document potential war crimes.
Alexander Lukashevich, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry,
once described him to the state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency as a man
with “no training in journalism nor law, nor even a complete secondary
(In fact, he graduated from high school and studied marketing at a
Mr. Abdul Rahman’s toll for the Syrian conflict just passed 62,550,
somewhat below the United Nations figure of more than 70,000. March was
the deadliest month yet, with 6,005 deaths, he said, more than the
combined total of the uprising’s first nine months.
“I think our numbers are close to reality, but nobody knows the entire
reality,” he said. “I make sure nothing is published before
crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed.”
The ultimate toll, he said, may be twice what has been documented, given
Syria’s size, the number of skirmishes and communications problems.
Activists in every province belong to a Skype contact group that Mr.
Abdul Rahman and his aides tap into in an effort to confirm
independently the details of significant events. He depends on local
doctors and tries to get witnesses. On the telephone, for instance,
speaking in his rapid-fire staccato style, he asked one activist to
visit a field hospital to count the dead from an attack.
With government soldiers, he consults contacts in small villages, using
connections from his youth on the coast among Alawites, the minority
sect of Mr. Assad, which constitutes the backbone of the army.
Mr. Abdul Rahman has been faulted for not opening his list up for public
access online, but the NGO world gives him mostly high marks.
“Generally, the information on the killings of civilians is very good,
definitely one of the best, including the details on the conditions in
which people were supposedly killed,” said Neil Sammonds, a Mideast
researcher for Amnesty International.
The intense workload has taxed Mr. Abdul Rahman’s family life. Amani, 6,
his only child, springs from bed without so much as a “Good morning,”
said his wife, Etab Rekhamea. “She asks, ‘What is the news from Syria?
What is the news about the Nusra Front?'”
Mr. Abdul Rahman spends so much time locked upstairs in his tiny study
that Amani figured out how to Skype him from the living room. Once when
he agreed to a picnic, he showed up carrying his two cellphones and his
laptop. “He has taken a second wife,” his wife said with a groan.
Mr. Abdul Rahman grew up in Baniyas, on the Syrian coast, but would not
speak for the record about his family still there, lest that bring
further unwanted government attention.
His exposure to politics started at age 7, he said, after his family’s
landlord hit his sisters for sitting on the building’s roof. Neighbors
who saw the altercation refused to testify because the landlord was an
Alawite with a brother in military security.
Mr. Abdul Rahman owned a clothing store but secretly wrote pamphlets
denouncing unfair privileges granted to a few while most Syrians had to
line up for basic goods like a few rotten tomatoes. Born Osama Suleiman,
he adopted a pseudonym during those years of activism and has used it
publicly ever since.
When two associates were arrested in 2000 he fled the country, paying a
human trafficker to smuggle him into England. The government resettled
him in Coventry, where he decided he liked the slow pace. His main
regret is having to drive 30 minutes to Birmingham for a decent Arab
Money from two dress shops covers his minimal needs for reporting on the
conflict, along with small subsidies from the European Union and one
European country that he refuses to identify.
The war has dragged on far longer and been far more destructive than he
ever anticipated, and for the moment, he said, his statistics are as
much a tactic as a resource.
“The truth will make people aware,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said. “Hearing the
number of people killed every day will make them ask the government,
‘Where are you taking us?'”
Hala Droubi contributed reporting.
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