Escape from Syria

By Michael Weiss The story of a young opposition activist who says he had to flee for his life

By Michael Weiss, The Atlantic

A barricade along a road in the port city of Latakia, Syria.

Farid, a 25 year-old Damascene journalist, was sitting with Bashar smoking argileh, Syria’s version of the hookah, when his friend told him, “You should seriously consider leaving the country. It’s not safe for you anymore.”

One of Farid’s many contacts within Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Bashar was a “freelance” IT consultant who helped the regime track down cyber-dissidents. Farid, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution, had heard this warning from him before, usually before Bashar ended up crying in his beer about his complicity with a criminal dictatorship. Farid’s stock response was usually to cajole Bashar to quit the losing side and join the revolution. “You’ll get your own weed farm and a brewery in the middle of Damascus. I won’t let them crucify you for catching demonstrations when Assad falls,” he’d promised. But this time was different; there was a more menacing tone to Bashar’s instruction.

“If you are ever to see your girlfriend again, leave the country. Do you still have people who owe you money?” he asked.

“No,” said Farid. “I’ve got some money laying around.”

“Get out now.”

“I’ll leave when the regime does,” Farid joked.

“Don’t worry about that. The regime is planning to leave in September if things don’t get better, and things will probably get worse in Ramadan. They’re arming all the minorities, trying to spark a civil war like the one in Lebanon. But this one will probably last 50 years.”

Bashar told Farid that, for the last six months, he’d been working for Syrian military intelligence. “They have everything on you, they’ve been monitoring you. They hacked your computer and all your contacts,” he said. Bashar then read from an email Farid had written to a friend abroad. The concern wasn’t that Farid’s laptop had been hacked — a former IT security expert, he found on his friend’s hard drive and removed a Trojan virus and a keylogger script that recorded all his key and mouse strokes — but that his Internet connection had been compromised, exposing his entire digital breadcrumb trail to regime invigilation.

I’ve known Farid for just over two months. We were introduced virtually by a friend of his who’d been following my writing on the Syrian opposition. Farid and I began emailing and chatting online, mostly about the events in his country, but sometimes more informally. “You know what sucks about Syria?” he’d asked me once. “You can’t get McDonald’s fries here.” Farid proved fearless to a degree that worried me. I knew that he was adept at getting or buying information from high-level sources, but I also knew that, as the days and weeks carried on and the protests and government crackdowns escalated, that Farid’s impunity could come to an abrupt end. Freelance journalism was a rarefied industry in “stable” Syria; it is much more dangerous today.

Up until Bashar’s warning, Farid had felt relatively secure as a covert oppositionist in Damascus; a widely traveled and multi-lingual hacker with enough charisma to get regime officials to talk and sometimes leak vital information. Talking to him almost daily over a Google chat connection I now realize was likely being data-logged in some government sub-basement, Farhid told me the story of his flight from a homeland he may never see again. His story is largely impossible to confirm. But the fear, paranoia, and constant threat of death, all common to the experience of Syrian opposition activists, ring true. hint at the enormous challenges and risks facing Syrian opposition activists today.

Farid told me he had relied on people like Bashar to clear his name from the security apprentice’s wanted list. Another source was Riyad, a businessman who’d made his fortune through sweetheart deals with the Assads. Like Bashar, Riyad was given to emotional breakdowns over his work with the regime, but unwilling to flip. At a recent drinking session together, Farid said, Riyad reached under the table and pulled out a handgun and a small bag filled with cash. “You want to know politics in Syria?” he asked. “This is politics in Syria.”

Now Bashar was telling Farid that politics had finally caught up with him. “They killed my superior officer and now I have a new one. I can’t protect you any longer,” he warned.

“So what should I do?”

“Run away. They’ll come for you in 48 hours. They already have a personal surveillance team attached to you. Go to Lebanon tonight. You can get through the border now if you hurry. Your name hasn’t been put on the network yet; the new shift starts at 3 a.m. Then they’ll start searching the files and I can’t erase your name again.”

Nauseated, Farid asked for the check and went to the bathroom to clean himself up. Both men then left together.

Farid says he was suspicious of Bashar. He kept going over the history of cooperation that, either because of the cloak-in-dagger circumstances or because of Bashar’s calculation, could seem at times wildly inconsistent. First information had cost money. Then it was given free. Bashar was also the only one with access to Farid’s computer. Might he have installed the keylogger? Nevertheless, Farid’s warning to flee seemed too sincere to ignore. Farid knew what his pursuers would look like. “Fat, short, bearded men in their mid-30s wearing cheap shiny pointed shoes with cloth trousers, hair pulled back with gel, half bold, coloured pimp shirts, and a sports jacket on top,” he told me “That’s how Alawite security personnel dress.”

When they arrived at Farid’s neighbourhood in Damascus, Bashar stopped into a nearby liquor store, where Farid shopped frequently, for a pack of cigarettes.

“That guy’s an informant,” Bashar said of the owner as he emerged. “No he’s not,” Farid insisted. “The guy who owns the shwarma shop is an informant. This guy isn’t. He’s one of us, he moved in recently.”

Farid’s suspicion had turned to paranoia. His landlord had told him that an Alawite “bookseller” from Lattakia was due to move into the flat next to his. The landlord had speculated that this was likely a cover for Syrian intelligence, something Farid laughed off at the time. When Farid led Bashar up to his flat, the new tenant — a “fat midget,” Farhid called him — was unpacking and cleaningt. Bashar pointed to the neighbor and said, “mukhabarat” — intelligence.

“We closed the door slowly, trying not to make any noise,” Farid recalled. “Bashar went in and turned on CNN and raised the volume. What would I do if they came in through the front door? Should I pull a Spiderman and jump between buildings? Or get my big, ugly orange knife and pull a Rambo? Depends on how many there are, I thought, trying to convince myself I was in charge.”

Farid packed his belongings quickly into a small handbag. Against Bashar’s advice, he also took his laptop, convinced it was clean. He fed his cat one last time, telling the pet he was sorry for abandoning it.

“See you” was all that Farid could manage by way of a goodbye to Bashar, the regime insider who may or may not have been his savior. He hailed a taxi to a nearby station where cars wait to drive customers all the way to Jordan or Lebanon. The price for such getaways is high, but Farid had the cash. At the station, he found a cab and waited for an hour before another passenger, a drunken and singing Lebanese man, joined him to split the fare.

“All I could think about is what would happen if I was caught,” he told me “Will they gorge my eyes out immediately or later? What about cutting my genitals? Rape? Burning? Mutilation?”

Farid switched cabs, as was the custom, right before crossing the border. He reasoned that bribing a Syrian border guard would cost between 2,000 and 6,000 Syrian pounds, or $40 to $120.

“I walked slowly to the passport officer’s booth, trying to act cool and just sleepy since it was past midnight. I could feel electricity churning around my temples,” he remembered. “I’m ready to puke now. I handed the agent my passport. He looked up, pressed a few letters on the keyboard, nodded, then threw my passport across the counter to his colleague. I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m fucked.'”

The other agent told Farid to come closer. Muddled by a fight-or-flight instinct, he responded poorly. “What the hell do you want, scum?” Farid yelled, causing the second agent to curse back. He whined over his paperwork, threw Farid’s passport back at him, and simply walked away.

“It’s been a long night, please forgive him,” the first agent told Farid as he stamped the passport with a Syrian passage seal. Farid got back in the cab, picked up his now-wayward drunk companion, and drove off toward Beirut.

He checked into a no-star motel and slept the sleep of a fugitive. The next morning, he logged onto his computer from the lobby, trying to contact friends outside of Syria. He wanted to get word back to his family and girlfriend that he was all right and not to worry.

Farid later discovered that, after his departure, a friend had come to his flat and found it empty, the door still open. He assumed that Farid had been abducted by the mukhabarat and was probably dead, only later hearing the truth. The landlord still thinks that his former tenant is one of the many victims of the regime. As best as Farid knows, the landlord hasn’t even entered Farid’s flat to clean it out for re-letting.

Now safely ensconced in a neighboring country, trying to decide between moving to London or Washington, Farid says he still isn’t sure whether or not Bashar had his best interests to heart. “A part of me believes that he wanted me to get him in touch with the rest of the activists, especially those in Lebanon, while another part, the bigger part, confirms that this was Bashar redeeming himself — more like avenging himself against a regime that made him lose everything he’d had in just a week.”

“Now I feel useless,” Farid says. “Like I can’t do anything. But that won’t stop me from trying. It’s personal, my war against the regime is personal. Each Syrian’s war against the regime is personal. The regime deprived us of many things, whether it’s economic, social, cultural, political, religious, or whatever. We want justice. And personally, I want revenge, as that’s what justice would be for me.”

The Atlantic