Three months ago, Mujahid a-Sharqi ran out of patience. A citizen journalist on a mission to expose Islamic State crimes in his home province of Deir e-Zor, he could no longer stand life under their rule.
A-Sharqi first began collaborating with Syria Direct in early 2014 but cut off communications about three months ago.
The journalist, originally from a village in the eastern countryside, smuggled himself out of Deir e-Zor, since the Islamic State now bans anyone under the age of 40 from leaving. He landed in regime-controlled territory in the far northeast province of Al-Hasakah. But high prices, unemployment and harassment from regime intelligence services for coming out of IS territory led a-Sharqi to turn back and take his chances trying to re-enter Deir e-Zor.
Not surprisingly, a-Sharqi was arrested by the Islamic State shortly after returning to the province.
“I was forced to complete a 40-day sharia training course and then they released me,” says A-Sharqi, referring to his disappearance from social media.
A-Sharqi was released because IS did not discover his work as a citizen journalist, which today is more dangerous than ever. Earlier this month, IS executed four citizen journalists accused of working with the foreign media. Surprise raids on internet cafés, where fighters burst in, ordering patrons to take their hands off their keyboards and then going through their files and browsing histories, are now the norm.
Despite the enormous risks, “we have a strong conviction that we must expose” the Islamic State, a-Sharqi says.
The activist is prepared to give his life for that conviction. Here, he tells Ammar Hamou why.
Q: Social media is reporting that the Islamic State (IS) has executed several citizen journalists in Deir e-Zor. Do you think this step will allow the group to conceal what is occurring in the areas under its control?
I don’t think IS has or will succeed in silencing us. All the journalists in IS territory know that their fate will be death if IS captures them. At the same time, we have a strong conviction that we must expose the group’s crimes.
Exposing what is happening in Deir e-Zor is worth me sacrificing my life because IS is committing its crimes against my friends and family in Deir e-Zor.
Q: As you are reporting from inside Deir e-Zor, has IS’s recent execution of citizen journalists made you change your behavior and what security measures have you taken?
IS’s policies have forced me to avoid public places as much as possible and limit my internet usage. I only go online for short periods of time and only if the general atmosphere at the internet café and around it feels safe. After I finish using the internet I hide my Facebook and Messenger before leaving the café.
Q: Have you had any run-ins with IS fighters while reporting from inside their territory?
It’s impossible to recount all the dangers we face. Once I was working in an internet café when a Kia Rio parked carrying IS fighters parked out front. The fighters entered the café and started collecting peoples’ cell phones. Luckily my phone had stopped working that day. They tried unsuccessfully to turn it on several times. If they had been able to turn it on and search its contents there’s no doubt I would have gone where nobody comes back from. In that same incident they took one young man from the café and I haven’t heard from him since.
Q: In your opinion have Deir e-Zor’s citizen journalists succeeded in their mission? Have they been able to report the suffering of the people of Deir e-Zor?
For us, all we can do is continue to record and report on what is happening in Deir e-Zor. However, the reality is that there is no response. There has been no real action to save us and end the suffering of the people here—not from the Syrian National Coalition, the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat a-Nusra. Today we are ruled by Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians, and the people are the victims.
-Reporting by Orion Wilcox