For the past 20 months, a barrage of footage from Syria’s catastrophic civil war has blasted out from activists inside the country, day after day, hour after hour, shot on mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube, unedited, unfiltered and intensely violent. Designed more to push hesitant world leaders into action than as an exercise in journalism, most of the pictures show dead or severely injured civilians and fighters, and are so gruesome that they are virtually unwatchable.
Unwatchable, that is, unless your job is to count the dead.
For nearly two years, much of that grim work has been taking place in a highly improbable spot, some 2,000 miles away from the front lines: The spare bedroom of a house in Coventry, in the British Midlands, a town which is better known for its soaring cathedral than soaring casualty figures. There, a man who calls himself Rami Abdelrahman, the pseudonym of Osama Suleiman, a Syrian émigré to Britain who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has been holed up in front of his computer monitor, telephones buzzing on his desk, focused on one daunting (some might say impossible) task: Tallying up the corpses. After watching countless hours of videos, including of dead bodies, aerial bombing, bleeding children, screaming mothers, and pummeled cities, since March 2011, Suleiman says he has come to one conclusion: “If we continue like that we will destroy all of Syria. You will see a new Somalia in Syria,” he says in a phone interview with TIME.
The potential for an all-out Somalia-style collapse seemed to dip on Sunday, when Syrian opposition groups announced in Doha that they were forming a new unified organization, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Led by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate imam from the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus who fled Syria last July, the coalition is aimed at giving Western and Arab governments their first credible partner since the uprising exploded, to which to begin funneling financial and military aid to rebel groups, in a desperate attempt to even out the odds on the battlefield. Al-Khatib flew to the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Monday to try to nail down formal recognition for his new organization. Recognition from the 22-member League could be crucial in positioning the new coalition to take over once President Bashar Assad’s regime finally collapses (assuming Syria’s fractured opposition can hold together that long) much in the way that Libya’s National Transitional Council did after long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed in October last year. “This will be an answer for the international community that all the time asks us to be one party,” Rima Fleihan, a spokeswoman for the new organization, told the BBC.
But from his peaceful perch in Coventry, the Syrian Observatory’s director remains dubious. Perhaps that is not surprising, for a man who spends his days closely watching the bloodletting across Syria. He says he has long since lost track of all the battles that have pitted regions and neighborhoods in lethal tit-for-tat killings, ravaging countless communities in its wake. After months of watching the deaths pile up and desperation deepen, he says he has learned to hold his hopes for democracy in check, if not to shelve them altogether. Abdelrahman, he tells TIME, is a name he adopted back in Syria as a government opponent during the 1990s, and he is still interviewed under that name on television. When I ask him whether he is looking forward to finally returning home to a free Syria once peace returns, the activist, who is 42, laughs and says, “You are dreaming. You will finally see democracy in Syria, but it will not happen in my lifetime.”
He says he counts only those dead whose names he can verify, or whose deaths seem solidly confirmed, and says he is in constant contact with a network of activists and medical personnel across Syria, who act as a kind of proxy reporting service in the midst of the chaos, as he tries to keep track of the actions not only of regime forces but of rebels too.
That has made him a target of death threats by both sides, each of which suspects him of betraying its cause.
In a measure of Syria’s splintered politics, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has itself been under dispute for months, with another Syrian émigré, Mousab Azzawi, claiming to be the true head of the organization. For a while, there were two websites under the organization’s name, belonging to each man. In a public letter last January, Azzawi and seven other Syrians claimed that Suleiman/Abdelrahman had links to the Syrian president’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, and could not be trusted. In response, Suleiman blasted his critics, saying they were attempting to discredit him, and appealed to journalists to ignore them. He tells TIME he has owned the website’s domain name, syriahr.com, since 2006, as well as syriahr.net, and dismisses all Azzawi’s charges as groundless. “They tried to break my credibility, saying I am not really for human rights,” he says.
Suleiman’s appeal to the media seems to have worked. These days he is the “the go-to guy” for those looking for death-toll figures on the Syrian conflict, according to Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who runs the Syria Comment blog. Landis stresses he has “no clue” about which Syria Observatory argument is correct. Still, he believes Suleiman’s work provides an essential service, while Western and Arab governments are grappling with how to back the Syrian rebels. The death tally, Landis believes, is “the only indicator we have in terms of human rights violations of how bad the situation is. Everyone is clamoring for foreign intervention on the presumption that it could make something better.” The data about casualties, he believes “is the only way we have of knowing that.”
Suleiman’s Syrian Observatory is not the sole source of data about Syria’s casualties; the London-based Strategic Research and Communications Center, a research organization on Syria, also provides a daily tally of attacks and deaths. Sunday’s email from the SRCC listed 83 deaths at the hands of Assad’s forces, “including eight women, five children, and 24 rebel fighters.” But as the months have gone by, the default reference for many media organizations has been the Syrian Observatory, which is credited by some for its attempts to report both sides’ abuses and suffering—rare in this conflict. Monday’s New York Times cited the Syrian Observatory report from Sunday, saying that “at least 17 people, including several children, were killed when government shells fell on the village of al-Quriyah.”
Unlike in previous wars, in Syria, U.N. organizations say that it is impossible for them to count the dead. Last January, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay explained the UN was abandoning the effort, after counting about 5,000 dead, which, she said at the time, “should really shock the international community into taking action.”
Ten months on, Suleiman claims that the death toll has risen more than eight times that amount. While he has not added up the grand total—the figures change hour by hour—he says more than 26,596 civilians have been killed, although that figure includes between 4,000 and 5,000 rebel fighters. In addition, he has counted about 9,445 dead Syrian regime forces, and a further 498 people who could not be identified. The figures, large as they are, do not include perhaps thousands of Syrians who have vanished after being arrested, some of whom might have since died.
Born and raised in a Sunni family living amid Christians and Alawites in the Mediterranean seaside town of Baniyas, near the Russian Naval base of Tartus, Suleiman says he first became politically aware when he was seven, after a dispute erupted between his parents and their Alawite neighbors, who had told them they were not permitted to use the building’s rooftop terrace. Shortly after, Syrian intelligence officials burst into his parents’ home and beat his two older sisters. “When you see that,” he says, “you start asking questions.”
Yet even after his early exposure to the regime’s abuses, Suleiman says he never intended exiling himself permanently from Syria. After being arrested three times over the years, he arrived in Britain in 2000, by coincidence on the day President Hafez Assad died. The former president had chosen as his successor his young, British-educated son Bashar, a sure sign, Suleiman hoped, that change was on its way. “I thought okay, maybe in a few months I’ll go back to my house and my life,” he says. “Now, no way. The Syrian regime will kill me.”
Suleiman believes he is the only person systematically trying to include Assad’s fallen soldiers, and regime supporters, in the overall death toll of the war. He claims he’s doggedly tried to pursue all sides of the conflict. Earlier this month, he reported that more than 20 Syrian soldiers had been captured and executed by rebel fighters at point-blank range, in one of the worst violations of opposition forces so far seen in the conflict. That drew immediate fire from anti-Assad groups, who threatened him in emails. “Some people said to me, ‘you cannot report this or we will kill you,’” he says. “I said, ‘if you are not happy don’t commit war crimes.’”
Despite such bravado, he says he feels increasingly nervous about his personal security, even in Britain, and says he fears also for the safety of his wife, who runs the family dress shop in Coventry while he devotes his time to counting the dead. Their daughter, 6, is named Amani, Arabic for “desires,” in reference to the couple’s hopes for a bright new Syria, which they had when their baby was born. Now, Suleiman says he is far more cynical, and that at this stage, “there is no person I can see who I want as Syrian president,” once Assad goes. Until then, he hopes he does not get added to Syria’s mounting death toll.