Portrait of an Activist: Razan Ghazzawi, the Syrian Blogger Turned Exile

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Handout / Reuters

Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi speaks during a conference on youth journalism in Cairo in May 2011

On July 18 Razan Ghazzawi, a Syrian blogger and media activist, was in the city of Douma, 45 minutes outside the capital, when she received a call: Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, dug in in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, needed someone who could set up a remote Internet connection. So she and two other activists went in a taxi, circumnavigating military checkpoints, to join the fighters.

Days earlier, Syria’s armed opposition launched an unprecedented assault on the government, which they dubbed Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake. The operation peaked with a bombing at the national-security headquarters in the capital, which killed four top officials, including President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law. The regime was already striking back, sending helicopter gunships, tanks and snipers after roaming bands of lightly armed rebels.

“I went down there with a taxi driver who we trusted but I don’t know why and how,” Ghazzawi says. “FSA revolutionaries secured our entrance, and I was welcomed as a media expert. I explained I’m not. I’m just a blogger with a laptop and 3G,” she says, referring to her wireless Internet link.

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Ghazzawi, 32, is a short, trim woman with large brown eyes. At the time of the Damascus battle, she was the only widely known antiregime blogger writing in English under her real name from inside Syria. She had already been detained by the government twice for her activism since the Syrian uprising began, once for two weeks after being held at the Jordanian border and a second time for 22 days after a raid on the office of her employer, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. She left Syria for Sweden in October 2012.

While the majority of news reports from Syria consisted of information stitched together by journalists outside the country and attributed to unnamed “activists,” Ghazzawi was a verified source reporting live from the firing zone, and doing so at great personal risk. “I was the one who uploaded the videos. I was the one who was giving all the information to certain media figures,” she recalled, speaking recently at New York University.

In addition to giving interviews and relaying information to the opposition Local Coordination Committee, she also wrote on her blog. Her dispatches from that July day are a combination of grim updates on the fighting combined with the odd details of life under siege.

“Update 11:17 p.m.,” she writes in her last entry of the day, “Clashes [continue] near regime checkpoints. Two people were injured, their injuries are not critical, they were hit by snipers.” She later signs off with this warm note: “I am having dinner now with citizen journalists and photojournalists, we’re eating tomato and mortadella. Come join us.”

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At one point during the shelling, a rebel fighter, likely a Sunni, made an insulting remark to an Alawite activist, a paramedic. The commander of the battalion overheard him, and with the shells exploding outside, he gathered his men and delivered a scathing denunciation of sectarianism. “We are Syrians and we are fighting the same enemy, and we are one people against this criminal regime!” Ghazzawi remembered him saying.

Ghazzawi was born in Florida in 1980 to a Palestinian-Syrian doctor and a Syrian schoolteacher. Her current tour of North American universities, which coincided with the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, was her first visit to the U.S. since the age of 1. Her family lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years before returning to Syria. After completing a bachelor’s degree in Damascus, she enrolled in a master’s program in Lebanon. Her thesis dealt with the short stories of the Iraqi-Jewish author Shimon Ballas, who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. “I planned to do my Ph.D. in the same field before the revolution,” she told me in an online chat recently. “But I guess I have to let it go.”

Before the uprising, Ghazzawi blogged on subjects ranging from the lack of free speech in Syria to LGBT rights to the challenges of being a vegetarian in Lebanon. She wrote in support of the opposition protests in Egypt in April 2008, which are now seen as a precursor to the uprising in that country. For years she was a steadfast, if controversial voice within the Syrian blogging community, according to Yaman Salahi, a Syrian-American civil rights attorney in Los Angeles who organized Ghazzawi’s American tour. “She was definitely one of the more vocal people who provoked a lot of discussions, but that doesn’t mean people agreed with her,” he says in a phone interview.

In political conversations, Ghazzawi brings a burning intensity and a set of views that often cut across the ideological lines of the Syrian conflict. She is an opposition activist but criticizes opposition leaders. She is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause who began her blogging career writing during the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, but now criticizes Palestinian and Lebanese groups that have sided with the Syrian regime. “Even Hizballah. They don’t really care about Palestine. All they care about is political power,” she tells TIME in an interview at a Brooklyn coffee shop.

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She is also a leftist who has assailed those in the international left who were hesitant to back the uprising because of Assad’s perceived opposition to Israel and the U.S. “I don’t feel those leftists are leftists,” she says. “I think they’re drawn too much into the academy and the ideology about it, without being authentic about it.”

The blogger’s detention by the Syrian regime made her a prominent figure. Amnesty International declared her a “prisoner of conscience” after she was held at a border post en route to a conference in Jordan in December 2011. Following her first arrest, she was charged with a range of offenses, including “membership to a secret organization which aims to change the economic and social status of the state” and “[conveying] within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation” and “weakening national sentiment.” She was also accused of violating a law that bans “participation in a riotous demonstration.”

Her two periods of imprisonment were also an experience that changed her as a person. After being held at the Jordanian border, she told me, she was transferred first to a prison in the restive town of Deraa, then Damascus’ Adra Prison, and at one point was held in a detention center in the Kafr Suseh area of Damascus, where she was confined in windowless, roach-infested rooms with dozens of foreign domestic workers who were sexually abused by the security officers. “The officers there are, what do you call them, pimps? They’re mafia pimps. The girls inside are domestic workers. They work for Syrians. They’re coming from Sri Lanka, from Ethiopia from Thailand. And they’re trafficked.”

“Once I was in the Ethiopian room. The second day I was in the Thailand room. And they were actually punishing me. That’s why they put me in the Thailand room. I think there were actually 50 in the Thailand room,” she says. “The girls have blankets on, and every day they cleaned the room. They worked together cleaning the room.”

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She emerged from her second period in prison and had trouble readjusting to the everyday violence of life in Damascus after being isolated from it for 22 days. She had trouble remembering things. She began seeing a psychiatrist.

Fleeing the country was also disorienting. “When I went to Sweden from Damascus, I was shocked at the colors,” she says. “There were a lot of colors. The green is green actually. The sky is blue. In Damascus it’s not like this. In Damascus the sky is gray. The sounds, the airplanes, every single day you hear airplanes — the helicopters, actually, because it was not airplanes at that time. So your body and your senses have been accustomed to certain things.”

Despite her outspokenness, Ghazzawi is also self-effacing to a fault, and she has been uncomfortable with the international attention that came with her arrests. She is critical of the way the international media elevates the voices of English-speaking activists like her. “I was not fearless. I am still not fearless. I wrote in English because they [the regime] don’t read English. Those who are fearless are those who write in Arabic, and they write in their real name,” she says, bringing up bloggers like Hussein Ghrer, who has been jailed for over a year after writing under his own name.

“I’m not here as a representative of the people or the revolution,” she said in a March 12 speech at NYU. Ghazzawi is right in the sense that she is just one person navigating the cataclysm in Syria. But this is also where she excels, as a solo narrator guiding her readers through the history crashing all around her. In spite of a death toll now estimated to be as high as 90,000, she fiercely rejects the characterization of the situation as a sectarian civil war and insists, rather, that it is an ongoing popular revolution.

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There is a core of human emotion and self-disclosure in many of her posts. In one essay, she writes about the pangs of guilt many activists in Syria have over their inability to “do more” for the uprising. “This feeling of guilt never leaves our souls, no matter what we do, no matter how many times we get detained, we still feel we could do much more,” she writes.

In another piece, titled “And You’re Still Dead,” published after she left Syria in December 2012, she writes a letter to her friend Bassel al-Shahade, a popular young filmmaker who was killed while filming in Homs the previous May. Al-Shahade, who was 28, had been pursuing a master of fine arts at Syracuse University on a Fulbright scholarship, but returned to Syria to document the uprising. “Ever since you died,” she writes, “I am becoming this expressive person. ‘I love you,’ is what I keep telling people.”

She ends the essay, “No one will read this long post, right? But it’s for you Bassel. Be patient with me, I still can’t believe you’re dead.”

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