We can’t tell you where Hussam and Rania live, but we can tell you they used to live in Syria’s capital, Damascus.
Hussam was a creative director at a small marketing company he founded with a friend. Rania was the morning host for a radio station owned by the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Then came the protests all around Syria. Then came the phone call.
“The radio station called me, at home, and they said, ‘Rania we have to say the truth,'” Rania says.
The “truth,” they said, was that there were no protests and no demonstrations in Syria. Rania maintained it wasn’t her job to talk about politics on the air, but her bosses persisted.
They went through her Facebook page and printed it out. They saw she was sympathetic to the protesters. Her own colleagues started interrogating her.
“They told me, ‘You have to tell us the truth: Are you with the regime, or are you against the regime?’ Because if you are against the regime, we [are going] to deal with you in a different way,'” Rania says.
They said they’d treat her like they treated her friend, another journalist who was arrested.
A New Voice
Human rights groups say thousands of activists have been detained in Syria and many have been tortured in jail. Hundreds have died in custody, their bodies later returned to their families with clear signs of beatings, burns and bullets.
Rania quit her job and fled the country as did most of her family. She, her brother and a small team of activists launched an Internet radio station at the end of last year called New Start Radio.
In the mornings, the radio station does news, mainly reports from citizen journalists positioned in hot spots around Syria. Much of the time, there are no traditional journalists there to tell the story.
Instead of the parade of video footage of the dead and dying on TV, Rania says the language used in these radio reports makes listeners feel the news and empathize.
“Imagine that now there are 25 families that have been killed. There are now 25 mothers [who] will sleep today without their sons,” she says. “Imagine today that there are so many men [who are] sleeping on the streets because they have no more homes.”
Rania says she hopes not only will Syrians outside Syria get the news, but Syrians inside Syria will get the information as well.
In Syria, the state-owned or state-controlled media claim there are no protests, only armed terrorists. Meanwhile, Arabic satellite TV channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya increasingly focus on the violence between armed opposition fighters and government soldiers in cities like Homs.
Starting From Scratch
For much of the day, New Start Radio plays music, slogans, poetry, skits; all of them about revolution, freedom and dignity. There’s an old-time feeling to it all, as if it is trying to re-create a world that never existed.
The radio site only reaches a few thousand people. The real goal, says Shakib al-Jabri, another Syrian activist who’s founded a newspaper, is to get on the FM dial.
“We need to set up radio stations on the border and broadcast into Syria,” he says. “I think this would be a very powerful way to get our message through.”
Turkey and Jordan have tentatively agreed to let the Syrian exiles set up these radio towers. But al-Jabri says official approval has not yet come through.
He says the problem with all these media projects run by Syrian exiles is that there is no clear, unified vision. That’s mainly because they’re new at this stuff.
In other countries, opposition activists worked underground for years before the fall of dictators. But the young Syrians have never worked with the kinds of institutions that could help them with funding, training and equipment. So they’re starting from scratch and doing it themselves.
Still, as they light another cigarette and stir another coffee, Rania and Hussam say they hope the fact that Syria’s uprising has taken so much longer than the other Arab uprisings is teaching Syrian activists how to organize.
“We have to build a new country,” Hussam says, “and it’s a long, long and hard way to make a new country.”
Lava Selo contributed to this story