Escape From Syria

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

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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.

Presented by

Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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