These citizen journalists risk their lives to report from Raqqa

Starting with the Arab Spring and fight against Syria’s Assad regime, through the brutal takeover by the Islamic State, a group of citizen journalists has been documenting life inside Raqqa under deadly circumstances. A new documentary tells their story. Matthew Heineman, director of "City of Ghosts," and Abdal-Aziz Al-Hamza, one of the group’s members, join Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.

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    The battle to dislodge ISIS from its makeshift capital, Raqqa, in Syria is intensifying, as U.S.-backed militia press the offensive.

    But, for years, a group of citizen journalists have documented life inside the city. Their work started when the uprising began in 2011 against Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. And it continues today under even more deadly and dangerous circumstances.

    Jeffrey Brown has their story.


    They call themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

    And last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded the group its International Press Freedom Award.

    Their story is now told in a documentary titled "City of Ghosts."

    And joining me is the film's director, Matthew Heineman, and Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, one of the group's members.

    Welcome to both of you.

    ABDUL-AZIZ AL-HAMZA, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently: Thank you.


    Aziz, I want to — you and your friends and colleagues are not fighters. You were not journalists before all of this started.

    In your own words, what are you? How do you describe yourselves?


    Before the Syrian revolution, before all what happened in Syria, I was a normal teenager who was studying biochemistry.

    So I had nothing to do with politics. Even my family had like no political background. So I was as any college student anywhere.


    And then, when this started, you and your friends felt you had to document it.


    The way how the Syrian regime and ISIS prevented the international media organizations to come and cover what's going on, it was like kind of a duty to cover the atrocities of both of them.

    So we decided first with our mobile phones to film the demonstrations. At our own, we developed our skills to document what the human rights violations against the people.


    So, Matthew, many stories are told about Syria, why was this the one you wanted to tell?

    MATTHEW HEINEMAN, Director, "City of Ghosts": You know, I was really fascinated by this war of ideas, this war of propaganda, this information war between ISIS on one hand and RBSS on the other.

    ISIS uses these slick, almost Hollywood-style videos to disseminate fear across the world and to attract followers and proclaim a safe haven, a paradise for Muslims.

    RBSS and the work of Aziz and his colleagues totally counter that and show the extraordinarily awful human rights violations that they're committing almost on a daily basis. And, you know, that's what initially drew me to the film, but the film became much more than that to me.

    It became a — ultimately, it became a story of them fleeing, being forced to flee from Syria, to Turkey, and Turkey to Europe. It became an immigrant story. It became a story of rising nationalism in Europe. It became a story about trauma and the cumulative effects of trauma, so it became much more than that.


    All right, let's take a look at a clip that shows a little bit of the work of your group.

  • MAN:

    We are made up to have two groups. The internal group is in Raqqa and is made up of around 17 correspondents. The internal group's mission is to film, photograph and deliver urgent news.

    The primary mission of the external term group is to communicate with the group inside.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Rashidi, go to the door. A girl is going to bring you stuff. She is wearing a deep red head scarf.

  • MAN:

    The internal group then sends us the information.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    There's a big airstrike in the north from our correspondent Iyan Issa

  • MAN:

    We, the external group, then distribute it to the world.


    So, Aziz, the film mostly, necessarily, spends its time with you and your colleagues who are outside Raqqa.

    But those who are inside, who we just saw, how are they able to do their work? And what kind of dangers do they face?


    So, they are like — in every second and every moment they are like in a dangerous and a risky situation.

    So, they could be killed by ISIS, the airstrikes, the shelling. But they are risking their lives daily to show the reality of what's going on.


    Matthew, you and I talked about your last film, which was really around the border area in the U.S., and the way you told that story, sort of embedding yourself into the violence. This is a little different. Tell me how you made this film.


    Yes, so this was a different experience for me.

    I was forced to — I wasn't able to go to Raqqa. I would be killed instantly. And so I started filming them in Turkey after they were forced to flee, after some of the members of their group were killed.

    And the sort of through-line of the film is basically me with them as they are escaping from safe house to safe house, ultimately landing in Europe.

    You know, I think these issues of ISIS and Syria are so often relegated to headlines and to stats, and I really wanted to put a human face to this topic.


    What is the situation now? Of course, the battle for Raqqa is going on, and we read about airstrikes, civilians being hurt.

    What's the situation for your colleagues?


    For the people of Raqqa, so they are suffering not only by ISIS, by the airstrike of the international coalition.

    At the same time, the Russians are still bombing the city, the Syrian regime. So, everyone is like bombing the city. The local are besieged between all these sides. The condition is the city, the services are like so bad.

    Everything is getting expensive day after day. People are missing like many things for their necessary lives. And many people were kind of trying to flee the city, but the land mines — so it's a horrible situation.


    With the outcome in Raqqa still so uncertain, do you know whether you will be able to return or to what kind of city you will be able to return to?


    I hope that one day, I will be able to return to Raqqa, to my city.

    So that's the reason why I started this group with my colleagues, so to fight for our city, to be able one day to go back and lead the rest of our lives in Raqqa and Syria. So, I don't want to be like a fugitive anymore.


    Matthew, what do you hope people take from this, from your film?


    Bombs are not going to fix ISIS.

    This ground war that we're fighting is not going to end ISIS. ISIS is an idea. And we have to fight this idea with the same tools that they're using.

    And so I think, you know, we, as a global community, we, as the United States, we as journalists, have to figure out ways to combat ISIS' ideology, ISIS' extremist ideology, not just with guns and bombs, but with words, with campaigns like the amazing work that this group is doing.


    All right, the new film is "City of Ghosts."

    Matthew Heineman and Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.

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