City Of Ghosts details perils of being a secret journalist in ISIS-occupied Syria

Using smuggled footage, City Of Ghosts details how Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported from inside the occupied city.
Using smuggled footage, City Of Ghosts details how Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported from inside the occupied city.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

City Of Ghosts follows the lives of volunteers who risk their lives to report on the human-rights abuses in Syria and looks at the emotional toll of their work

The Syrian city of Raqqa, once declared by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to be its capital, was captured by American-backed forces last week.

But former Raqqa resident and citizen journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza, who fled his homeland in 2014 when ISIS took control of the city, has mixed emotions about ISIS' ouster.

The 26-year-old former student of biology, now a refugee in Germany, tells The Straits Times over Skype: "I'm happy that ISIS is defeated in Raqqa. But it was achieved by killing thousands of civilians and destroying 90 per cent of the city... The air strikes were careful about targeting ISIS at first. But later, they didn't care about civilians being killed or houses being destroyed. The campaign could have been better organised."

The online news reports his team, based in Germany, Turkey and Raqqa, had been filing covered the human rights abuses carried out by ISIS. Under its fundamentalist laws, the punishment was often death, with the bodies strung up for public display.

The highly acclaimed documentary City Of Ghosts (M18, 90 minutes), directed by American film-maker Matthew Heineman, follows the lives of the Abdalaziz and others in the team of volunteer journalists known collectively as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

It details how RBSS, using smuggled footage filmed at great risk to the journalists' lives, reported from inside the occupied city.

ISIS have executed several of those affiliated to the group. Despite basing themselves in secret locations within Germany and Turkey, Abdalaziz and his friends live with the constant fear of exposure and assassination.

We will keep reporting, under the occupation of this group. We will report the human-rights violations and do our best to cover what's happened in the city over the last couple of years.

CITIZEN JOURNALIST ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA, on continuing his work as part of the team of volunteer journalists, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently

As the film shows, the executions of loved ones and the daily threat of murder have exacted a heavy emotional toll. But RBSS co-founder Abdalaziz says he is taking it in his stride.

"I'm feeling okay. It's been the same situation for a long time, so I'm used to it," he says.

The dislodging of ISIS from the stronghold of Raqqa might have put a stop to its plan to establish a caliphate in the Middle East, but it should not be forgotten that ISIS is not an army, but an ideology carried on the Internet, he says.

"The ideas move from one country to another, one continent to another. We see them in Libya, Somalia, Egypt. It can go anywhere," he says.

  • BOOK IT / CITY OF GHOSTS (M18, 90 MINUTES)

    WHERE: Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Nov 4, 4.30pm

    ADMISSION: $18, with a post-show dialogue about religious extremism and interfaith tolerance with writers Helon Habila, from Nigeria; and Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, from Singapore, as part of the Singapore Writers Festival.

    INFO: www.anticipatepictures.com

His present worry is that the current occupiers of Raqqa, the American-backed militia group the Syrian Democratic Forces, have committed human-rights abuses in the past and may mistreat Raqqa's already-beleaguered civilian population. They have recruited children to fight, for example.

This is why the work of RBSS will continue, he says.

"We will keep reporting, under the occupation of this group. We will report the human-rights violations and do our best to cover what's happened in the city over the last couple of years," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Perils of being a secret journalist'. Print Edition | Subscribe