There are two types of freedom fighter. Those who use guns and grenades to wage war on their oppressors and those whose heroism is less visible, but just as hazardous. Hussam Eesa is one such white-collar warrior, and the organisation he’s picked a fight with is one of the world’s most deadly: Isis.
To meet the smartly dressed, quietly spoken former law student, it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to be on the militants’ kill list. But Eesa and his fellow collaborators are striking Isis where it hurts most. Working under the noses of the extremists in their Syrian “caliphate capital”, Raqqa, Eesa’s group has waged an underground online war for two years to counter the “paradise narrative” produced by Isis. It’s citizen journalism of the bravest kind.
But it’s come at a cost. Members of their group – Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently – have been murdered and beheaded. Friends and family members have also been kidnapped and killed, their death videos posted online.
But 27-year-old Eesa is undeterred. “Of course our lives are in danger. But we will fight
Isis until we win.”
Eesa is on a flying visit to London to receive a special award from One World Media, which supports independent journalism around the world. A BBC World Service documentary, “Islamic State’s” Most Wanted, has also earned them plaudits (available on iPlayer: go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03qzk9g).
Eesa’s home is now in Cologne in Germany, where he has sought refuge. In 2014, when he became aware he was a target, he first fled from Raqqa across the border to Turkey. A year later, an Isis hit squad tracked the group down and assassinated three of them. “We thought we were safe in Turkey, but in that moment everything changed,” he says quietly and calmly. “Even in Germany I don’t go out at night alone and the sound of motorbikes scares me. I feel at risk every day.”
Still inside Raqqa are 18 citizen journalists who, at enormous risk, are secretly filming evidence of the Islamists’ brutal reign of terror. Eesa’s comrades move from safe house to safe house, in a deadly form of cat and mouse with Isis fighters. The houses have concealed satellite dishes and the group send reports, photographs and films via an encrypted internet connection to Eesa and his colleagues, who post them on the group’s website. These daily reports contain details of executions and floggings and city-wide clampdowns.
The objective is to damage Isis’s own supply line of propaganda. “When they took control of Raqqa in 2014, everything changed,” says Eesa. “The walls of buildings were painted black, the women were forced to wear black, schools were closed and children forced to go to mosques and training camps. So there was no school, no university, no electricity, no water. But because they also cut the internet, no one knew anything about it. Which is why we created Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.
“Yet, today, if young men sit and watch the Isis propaganda videos, they will think, ‘Raqqa, it is like paradise.’ But it is not like that at all. We are describing the reality of life in Raqqa. And that’s what Isis hates – the fact that we have been revealing their total incompetence at running the city. All this showed the caliphate for the lie it was.”
So what does Eesa think of British jihadis who go to Syria to fight with Isis? He screws up his face as if failing to understand the question. In fact, he truly cannot comprehend it.
“I don’t know how they would come to Syria to join this group and fight against Syrian citizens. This is my country. Just imagine that I am coming to London and doing these things. They should not come here to fight. They should stay at home.”
Though a recent offensive on Raqqa by Syrian government forces was driven back by Isis, Eesa is an even greater opponent of the Assad regime: he says it will be the next enemy he’ll lock horns with after Isis is defeated. In 2012 he was arrested by forces loyal to Assad for protesting against the regime, and was thrown in prison and tortured.
“It is not difficult for me to remember what happened, but I don’t want to remember it,” he says now. “They put cigarettes on my neck and on my hand and they hung me from a roof with a rope.” A bribe by his father to a prison officer ensured he didn’t suffer the fate of his cousin who, he says, was killed in a bath of acid.
“All of us have a target and that is to defeat Isis, and then the Syrian regime as well. I miss my country. I have not seen my mother and father for two years. I miss my family, my friends, my university, the food, the river, everything. But we have to do some things and then we can start to rebuild together. All Syrians.”