In the wake of the bloodiest day in Syria's five-week-old uprising, we highlighted the ways in which Lebanese human rights activist Wissam Tarif is keeping foreign journalists barred from Syria abreast of developments within the country. As the crackdown escalates, Tarif (pictured above, on left) has continued to issue updates on Twitter while speaking with CNN about deadly clashes between protesters and security forces on Saturday and Sunday, The Washington Post about the resignations of two Syrian lawmakers, and The New York Times and Al Jazeera about hundreds of Syrians who his organization says have gone missing since Friday.
In an e-mail interview with The Atlantic Wire, Tarif provided us with his latest estimates--135 Syrians killed and 221 missing since Friday--but also took a step back from his minute-by-minute updates to discuss his mission in Syria and the methods he's employing to carry it out.
Tarif told us that he gets his information from researchers in Syria who work for his human rights organization, Insan, and from an extended network of family members, friends, colleagues, and ex-students. These people put him up at their homes and apartments when he's in Syria and provide him with transportation when necessary. He said sharing this information with fellow activists is critical: "You spend years building credibility but you can lose it in a second."
Tarif added that being a human rights activist in Syria is "like playing Russian roulette. Phones are not safe. Secret police everywhere. Everyone is guilty until proven loyal to the regime. That makes getting information a very difficult job."
He explained that social media platforms like Twitter help him disseminate information efficiently, but they're tools, nothing more. "The revolution is happening in the street by real people," he said. "We rely on getting information from the real people in the real uprising and we verify it" before distributing the updates via social networks. He tweets in English because foreign journalists--with the exception of a few confined to Damascus--are banned from Syria, and his English is "acceptable." He added that people he doesn't know personally are translating his tweets into Arabic, which "saves me time"--something he says is in short order at the moment.
Tarif originally moved to Syria in 2002. His initial plan, he says, was not to work on human rights but rather to start an institute to teach computer science and languages. "My intention was to establish a life in Syria," he explained. "I love the people; the honesty, modesty and simple way of life." But as his institute, first called LCCI, became more involved in advocacy, it was renamed Insan in 2007. The Syrian authorities shuttered it a few months later and detained Tarif. After "many interrogations in security branches, I was eventually deported from Syria in 2008," he added.
To get back into the country after the Syrian uprising erupted in the southern city of Daraa in mid-March, Tarif says he traveled to Jordan and crossed the border into Syria with some friends without stamping his passport or taking the "usual road." He stayed in Syria--moving between Daraa, Sanamein, Damascus and its suburbs, Latakia, and Tartus for more than four weeks before leaving for Geneva last week to, in part, oppose Syria's candidacy to the U.N. Human Rights Council. He says he plans to return to Syria later this week, though the regime has increased its border control, including blocking entries from Jordan.
Tarif says that while he's been detained before, he does not think what he has done or said compares with the work of other Syrian "heroes" such as the doctor Kamal al-Labwani, the lawyers Mohannad al-Hassani and Anwar al-Bunni, and the writer Ali al-Abdullah. Tarif calls himself a "nobody." With the uprising still in a fragile state, Tarif says Syria has already undergone change because Syrians have shed their fear and are demanding "freedom and dignity." He added that he doesn't trust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and would like to see Assad and his "repression apparatus in a fair trial in Syria ... something that he nor his father ever provided to any Syrian."