Blog The untold story of how one man's idea saved countless Syrian lives
Alaa Basatneh September 20, 2018

The untold story of how one man's idea saved countless Syrian lives

“Are you carrying Facebook on you?” shouted the soldier at the checkpoint. My friend Mohammad, 18, burst out in laughter. The soldier became furious and confused. He took out his rifle and hit Mohammad with its stock in his chest. “Now, tell me!” he screamed. “What is this thing Facebook you are using to protest?”

Mohammad, not wanting to give out information about his Facebook account, told the soldier at the checkpoint, “Facebook is a little box. Protesters carry it to know each other and communicate. I don’t have one, you can search my backpack.”

The soldier, completely oblivious to what Facebook was, bought the story and let him go.

In 2011, Syrian citizens started to plan protests and vigils throughout the country using social media platforms to demand change and end corruption in the government. That generation of protesters was ten steps ahead of the government and the soldiers at the checkpoints. But it didn’t take long for the Assad regime to get educated on social media platforms and block them from being used by Syrian citizens.

Aside from blocking access to social media platforms and western news outlets, the government attacked protesters on the streets with live ammunition and bullets. Citizens were being killed for peacefully protesting in search of change and for organizing grassroots movements against a 40-year-old regime.

I met Mohammad online during the early days of the Syrian Revolution. He was a freshman in college and had a goal of becoming a computer engineer. During one of our Skype calls with fellow activists, I remember him messaging me: “Salam, I see you are in the U.S. Can I use your Apple ID to download some apps?” I recall thinking, who has the guts to ask for someone’s Apple ID login?

The Syrian government blocks Apple’s website in an effort to make it harder for activists to download and use encrypted messaging apps. I figured that if he was determined enough to ask, he was likely desperate. So I gave him my login information and he was able to download WhatsApp and other free apps. We joked all the time, thanking Apple for sparking a friendship.

Two months after that Facebook checkpoint incident, Mohammad was detained during a protest in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. He was taken to prison and handed a paper and pen by prison guards. “Write down your Facebook username and password,” the soldiers demanded. After denying that he had a Facebook account, Mohammad was placed in a small cell and electrocuted. He then had a bucket of ice cold water thrown at him.

After he regained consciousness, the guard demanded once again. Mohammad gave in and wrote down his login information. After going through his private messages and Facebook groups, the Syrian intelligence agents were able to get the names of Mohammad’s friends who had helped him organize peaceful protests.  My name was on the list.

Being 6,000 miles away in Chicago, I wasn’t spared from death threats from the Syrian regime. Days after Mohammad was detained, I received the first death threat in my Facebook inbox.

“This message is targeted to you, you traitor, we now know of you and everything you have been up to. We are waiting to make an example out of you in the airport.”

The message, written in Arabic, shocked me for days. I was 19-years-old, confused, and afraid to speak out—at least initially. But that did not stop me. I reported it to Amnesty International and continued my activities aiding protesters in the translation of banners and organizing protests on the ground through social media platforms from thousands of miles away. I was fighting for their freedom.

Mohammad was eventually released after 4 months of constant torture and detainment for peacefully protesting against the government. He was ordered to sign a non-disclosure form, promising not to speak of his imprisonment and not to protest again.

That, also, did not stop him. Freedom, and a change of regime, was his focus—his mission, his life. Mohammad and I came up with a procedure. All activists who trusted us gave me their login information, and as soon as one was detained, I was able to log into their accounts, change their passwords, and deactivate the account. That would limit the Syrian intelligence from getting to the rest of the protesters online. The fact that I was out of reach of Syrian soldiers was the key to having this process work successfully.

A few weeks later, I had a huge database of usernames and passwords. I felt that weight on my shoulders. People’s lives in Syria depended on me. I was online, 24/7, waiting to help whenever needed.

Because of the time difference, I would get calls at 4 am Chicago time. People would tell me that so-and-so has been detained and that I needed to intervene and help change their passwords (within minutes) before too much damage was done.

With that burden, I knew I had to make sure I was smart in accessing my data and being safe online. I trusted Hotspot Shield’s app from the beginning of the Syrian revolution to secure my presence online, keep me anonymous, and let me work on protecting others who are on the ground fighting for our freedom. They also relied on Hotspot Shield to safely communicate. There were many hacking attempts on my accounts, but thankfully, none were successful.

Mohammad was able to flee to northern Syria, where he proceeded to fight for freedom and organize protests in Aleppo. He continued documenting these protests and sending the footage to media outlets in the west—making sure that the world knew what was really happening in his country.

In August 2013, Mohammad was shot and killed during a protest by a sniper. He was a friend who cared about change, about freedom, and about activism. He and many more will forever live in my memory. Thanks to Mohammad and his ingenious strategy, I was able to play a part in saving countless lives from the Syrian regime. His determination to keep fighting for what he believed in, despite the threats against his life, inspired me to continue the work we’d started.
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Alaa Basatneh
About Alaa Basatneh

Alaa Basatneh is a human rights advocate and writer focusing on demolishing xenophobia. She is the protagonist of the award-winning documentary #ChicagoGirl.

View all posts by Alaa Basatneh
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