By Ben Gilbert
Some Syrians fighting against the Assad regime aren't in Syria. They've fled across the border into Lebanon to escape possible persecution.
Syrian human rights groups estimate that at least 400 people have been killed in the unrest. And hundreds more have been arrested, including activists and their families. One of those who has left is activist Rami Nakhle. As tanks rolled into the town of Deraa Monday, he was busy gathering and relaying information from an apartment in Beirut.
"Deraa got invaded this morning by the fourth division of Syrian army," read Nakhle, who receives nearly up to the minute reports. "There was 10 tanks [that] entered the city, with heavy shooting, and now smoke's all over Deraa and people of Deraa are in their houses afraid to get out."
A TV in the corner of the room shows Al Jazeera broadcasting video from Deraa. Tanks sit in the street and an ominous black smoke cloud rises over the city. Nakhle sits opposite the TV on a blue couch, staring at the computer on his lap. An open carton of cigarettes sits near an empty pot of tea. The 28-year-old Nakhle is a Syrian activist, and a human news aggregator, working from a safe house in Beirut.
"Every day our network is getting bigger," Nakhle said. "Sometimes you find 20 person online, sometimes 50. When events really big, during Friday, you can find 50 from all over Syria, each one calling friend on ground and he's updating us."
Communicating with the news media
Nakhle said young activists are using the Internet and cell phones in areas where they are still working in Syria. In places like Deraa, where the Internet and cell phone service are shut down, activists have distributed satellite phones and modems to upload videos and communicate. Nakhle then uses Facebook, Twitter and email to send information out to journalists.
As he talks, Nakhle fields calls from satellite TV channels and from CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC. He does interviews, or connects journalists to eye witnesses on the ground in Syria.
The news media have largely been barred from entering Syria to report on the ongoing protests, and the government's violent response to them. The thankless, unpaid job, has consumed Nakhle's life. And endangered it; which is why he's here in Beirut.
"They will arrest me and torture me to admit about all my friends, so I prefer to go out and continue working than still be in jail," Nakhle said.
Three years ago, while living in Syria, Nakhle started a Facebook page calling for reforms in Syria's government, under an assumed name. His activities are illegal under Bashar Al Assad's iron-fisted dictatorship. Syria's secret police caught on to Nakhle's activities. So he fled three months ago to Lebanon. He was smuggled across the border by men on motorcycles. The secret police haven't left him alone though. A few weeks ago they posted on his real Facebook page.
Threats from the secret police
"They wrote a comment, 'hey Mr. Nakhle, we got you; you are in Lebanon. If you do not announce you are resigning from the Syrian revolution before today, midnight, we will go and kidnap your sister.' That's what they said in public," Nakhle said. "You can imagine the private message. In private, they said 'we're going to rape your sister, your mother.'"
The threats were empty: his family remains unharmed. But the secret police also threatened to hunt him down in Lebanon. He says every knock at the door makes him nervous. He even has an escape plan if they appear to take him away.
But, Nakhle said he doesn't have time to worry; he has too much work to do.
On the TV screen, Al Jazeera shows video of gunfire in the streets of Deraa. A witness said the army is firing on women and children. With casualty numbers rising, and the regime increasingly on the ropes, Nakhle said this will be a decisive week in Syria.
"I believe it's the worse thing that the Syrian government can do," Nakhle said. "They are burning their last card. They are firing on people, ready to kill everyone in street. But this situation won't last if we manage to hold on and hold on, and survive from this huge attack; I think we will make it. But if they manage to crush it now, in this week, we will know if they crush it or if it will survive."
Nakhle said he doesn't know what happens if the revolution is successful. He dismisses anyone who suggests that the fall of the regime would lead to sectarian strife. He said anything is better than the current, oppressive government.