The humanitarian crisis in Syria is devastating. Aleppo, the country’s largest city and cultural hub, has been transformed into a battleground, as multiple rebel forces (a few Islamist, others local and nationalist) war against Bashar al-Assad’s militia. In the midst of absolute destruction, civilian lives are being caught in the crossfire. To counter the rebels, Assad’s forces are fighting hard. The United Nations reported that Assad’s militia had murdered 82 civilians “on the spot” (including women and children) on December 12.
In a desperate plea, civilians, activists and journalists who were stuck in the city began sending a deluge of “final messages” on social media. The videos depicted how devastating the situation really was. Residents described manic scenes of watching people killed; of bodies strewn everywhere; of children starving. These descriptions are narrated amidst a roar of shellings. In a video, one man said, “What is happening in Aleppo is a catastrophe in all the meanings of the world. What is happening is bigger than the brain can imagine. There are corpses on the streets. We have dozens of killed and wounded.”
The advent of social media has given citizens a mic – a platform to speak and voice their views. In the past, people relied heavily on the legacy media (which has often been accused of proliferating propaganda) for information on wars that were taking place in regions miles away from their own. People’s perceptions were built and steered by what the media reported, what it left out and what it included. Today, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are empowering civilians in war-torn countries to reach out to the world on their own, allowing them to provide an uncensored keyhole view into how things were unfolding on the ground, sometimes even in real-time.
Lina Shamy, an activist in Aleppo posted a video yesterday saying, “To everyone who can hear me, we are here exposed to a genocide in the besieged city of Aleppo. This may be my last video. More than 50,000 of civilians who rebelled against the dictator al-Assad, are threatened with executions or dying under the bombing. With no safe zone, no life, every bomb is a a new massacre. Save Aleppo. Save humanity.” From another part of the city, a man posted a recorded statement: “This may be my last call. I hope it will have a small impact for decision makers in the world. To stop this hostility. To stop these killings. To stop the war.”
That unfiltered communication of Syrian civilians managed to have some impact, as ceasefire was declared between the rival forces yesterday. However, as the news about the rebel forces admitting defeat and surrendering Eastern Aleppo to Assad’s government spread, the agreement of peace was simultaneously breached by the regime forces. Assad’s militia continued to indiscriminately shell the city. It led journalists like Bilal Abdul Kareem to post a video immediately, imploring the international media to stay engaged with what was happening on the ground in Aleppo. “I need people to continue to contact their governments,” he said. “We were successful by the people staying engaged, but it appears that the moment people disengage, the sounds of war are stoked again. From what I’m completely understanding, rebels are ready to surrender the city and to move out of the city, provided the civilians could go, and there appeared to be a firm agreement in place. Why we were continuing to be shelled is not clear,” he said.
What is remarkable is that in the midst of a bloodbath, people in Aleppo continue to have access to the Internet. Despite the airstrikes, despite the monumental infrastructural damage, civilians are able to Skype, communicate via Whatsapp and Tweet, while posting real-time Periscope videos. How is that possible?
Back in 2011, ‘Syrian Revolution’ began as a civilian movement – an angered response to the imprisonment of a group of teenagers who had written anti-establishment graffiti across walls in Daraa. The arrests had spawned multiple protests across the country, forcing Assad’s regime to suppress them. In June 2011, under Assad’s dictatorship then, Syria experienced a total shutdown of the internet.
Over the years that followed, Syria has gone off and on the internet radar several times. However, since then, Syrians figured out alternative means to access the internet by routing the connection via Turkey. In Aleppo, however, as the war between rebel forces and Assad’s militia escalated, the city went offline in 2013 when it lost the Turkish transit to the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. Since then, Aleppo has faced internet blackout on an on-and-off basis. Of late, the residents have internet access by relying on unofficial microwave connections into Turkey and VSATS, which are small satellite terminals.
As Assad’s forces continue to destroy Aleppo, unabashedly flouting the ceasefire agreement, we don’t know till when the city’ residents will have access to the internet. As the war continues to destroy Aleppo, it hasn’t been able to shut down the internet – the latter perhaps is the only reason why Aleppo, even though on its last leg, hasn’t entirely collapsed.
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