Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Jordan has become a haven for many activists, to the growing concern of the Jordanian government.
The country attracts many activists who fear reprisals by Hezbollah should they go to Lebanon, but who equally do not wish to connect with the Syrian National Council in Turkey, as they worry that it is too closely aligned to conservative religious movements.
Yet there is an undeniable sense that the activists in Jordan wish to stay under the radar despite their growing numbers: if their presence is felt too much, they fear that the Jordanian government will change its open-border policy, threatening the safety of not just the activists but the thousands of refugees who have also sought shelter there. For this reason, the names of all those interviewed for this article have been protected.
Activists are keenly aware that they are being watched by the Jordanian secret service. “They ask you to come in to see them regularly, for reasons related to your security” explained S, “so they’ll ask questions about whether you feel you’ve been followed or if you feel in danger, and this is clearly for your own protection. But then because they’ve got you there, they start with questions that help them, like who you’re associating with and why.”
Jordan is continuing to weather a growing anti-government movement which was sparked by the Arab Spring in 2011, and there are fears that allowing it to become a known centre for revolutionaries will both destabilise the country and compromise its tenuous diplomatic relations with Syria.
“It’s not easy to be active in public about Syria in Jordan,” says S. “If you talk to the media about Syria and say where you are, you will be questioned by the secret police and asked not to give away your location. If you want to protest, you need to tell the authorities in advance. There have been occasions when, during demonstrations in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, protestors tried to enter the building, so the Jordanian secret police held them for a few days.”
Keeping in contact with those still in Syria and sharing this information with as many as possible forms the backbone of any activism for those now in Jordan. Still, “it’s not so easy for those inside Syria to talk to those who’ve escaped,” S continues, “because if they’re wanted by the security forces then their parents phones will be tapped. This is already the case for all international calls to and from Syria. When the security services want someone, they arrest a member of their family, so they obligate them to go and get them so they can arrest them.”
As such, the internet provides the primary lifeline between those who have fled Syria and those still inside. Even though most use routing software or browsers such as UltraSurf or Tor, there are still enormous risks. “Many people inside were arrested because the regime could hack their e-mails and profiles,” explains ‘S’, “which is why you have nicknames on Facebook and fake e-mails. Even on the ground, most activists use nicknames.”
Pro-revolution websites within Syria are automatically shut down, but information flourishes through those outside the country with connections to those still inside publishing websites that compile snippets of information from those inside, such as Syrian Revolution Digest. Facebook is the main social networking tool for sharing information, possibly because the structure of the site provides a degree of protection against hacking.
Even so, obtaining media to share is not without risks, even for citizen journalists. “If they [the Syrian police] find a video of a protest on your mobile phone for example, you’re probably dead,” says S.
New Start, a prominent pro-revolution radio station based in Jordan, hides its location even from the Jordanian authorities. “We talk about the human needs in Syria, focusing on areas like Homs, Damascus and Aleppo where there are many problems, plus broadcast the news,” explained “N”, who set up the station. “To do this, we make contact with Syrians inside and publish it online. We couldn’t do this inside Syria. We don’t have the internet access and it would be way too dangerous.”
New Start, which broadcasts via internet livestream, was recently contacted by the online provider that hosts the channel to inform them that the feed they use to broadcast had “experienced a series of attacks” against its host server.
The provider has claimed to be able to block the attacks and to be taking measures to ensure that this incident does not reoccur, but there are no guarantees for its security. When N and the other radio station workers contacted the provider to find out precisely where the attacks were coming from, they received no response.
The debate raging among the activists both within Syria and beyond is about how violence has become central to resistance on the ground, an element that looks to be the largest force shaping the direction of the country. Few activists seem willing to denounce the use of violence, which was initially employed exclusively to shield peaceful protests from being fired at by pro-Assed forces, but has now has become a pillar of the resistance strategies — some would argue justifiably.
Nonetheless, non-violent protest is continuing, although it carries heavy penalties: all protests expect to be fired on with live ammunition. Another activist, “B”, spoke of how one female protestor became famous almost overnight after standing in front of the parliament building holding a sign saying: “Stop killing, we want to build a home for all Syrians”. The use of the slogan has spread to become something of a meme, although now anyone seen displaying the sign showing it is arrested.
The suppression of any information linked to the uprising is total. “One of my best friends was constantly going out at night to graffiti the walls with pro-revolution graffiti,” said S, “he was arrested a month ago and we have no idea where he is.”
“Because of the way that we were raised and our culture, Syrian people reject the idea of outside intervention. Change has to come from within Syria,” insisted “H”, an activist who has now returned to Homs.
Whatever form this change comes in, it is clear that it will be fuelled through the lines of communication between those within Syria and those who have managed to escape successfully. It could be said that the greatest strength of the Assad regime has been its ability to censor media and communications, especially that which shows the atrocities it is now committing against its own people. As such, free speech and open communication are not just tools to expose this or to drive the uprising forward, they are in themselves revolutionary.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. She tweets at @_Ms_R