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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Heroes of darkness come into the light

As City of Ghosts goes on British release, we report on the documentary on Raqqa’s citizen journalists who exposed ISIL’s rule of terror, and the vengeance that followed

A still from the documentary film City of Ghosts (2017) directed by William Heineman that goes on release on July 21.
A still from the documentary film City of Ghosts (2017) directed by William Heineman that goes on release on July 21.

In one scene in City of Ghosts, a documentary film that tells the story of citizen journalists risking their lives in Raqqa, a young Syrian man sits watching an ISIL execution video on his laptop.

Three captivesstand bound and blindfolded, waiting. They are soon joined by their assassins. The scene takes an even darker turn when viewers learn that Hamoud Al-Mousa, the young man watching the horror unfold, is related to one of the men murdered in the footage.

It is his father. And, indirectly, it was his son's actions which led to his execution.

As a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), Hamoud is a wanted man in Syria. When ISIL couldn’t track him down, the group went after his family instead, killing his father first and then his brother.

RBSS began life as a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their home country was infiltrated by the terror group in 2014. Their members - ordinary citizens - paint slogans on Raqqa's walls under the cover of night, distribute anti-ISIL flyers and covertly film the group’s daily barbarities before posting the footage on social media.

City of Ghosts honours their bravery. Directed, produced and filmed by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman, the documentary is released in UK cinemas tomorrow.

It was while Heineman was making his last film Cartel Land that he began considering a new project.

“The plight of Syria was becoming a near-daily part of the news cycle," he says. "I almost obsessively began reading about what was happening with the so-called Islamic State. But I couldn’t find an angle on the story.”

It was after Heineman read an article about RBSS at the end of 2015 that he got the idea to make a film about the activists.

“I was struck by the sacrifices that they had endured as a group. I knew their story could provide an intimate, character-driven window into life under ISIL.

“I followed them in Turkey and then eventually to Europe as ISIL continued to threaten them. I knew that I wanted to juxtapose this present-day journey with the dramatic footage they had captured, and were continuing to capture, inside Raqqa.”

The film’s release comes at a time when ISIL is losing ground in Iraq, with the liberation of Mosul, and in Syria, where its grip on Raqqa appears to be loosening.

In June, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched a multi-pronged assault on the city after securing the surrounding countryside.

United Nations officials estimate between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remain amid “dire” conditions. Those who try to escape risk being attacked or killed by militants, or forcibly recruited as human shields.

At the beginning of this month, the United States-backed Syrian forces breached the wall around Raqqa’s Old City, marking a major advance in the long battle to drive the militants from their self-declared capital.

The footage captured by RBSS – some of which has never been previously released – provides a uniquewindow into daily life in Raqqa.

Heineman says: “The contrast of ISIL’s videos – which proclaim a fully-functioning and prosperous state – with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking.

“In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns.

“Over the year that I spent with the group, I was surprised that the film became so much more than the chronicles of RBSS versus ISIL. The more I shot with them, the more the story twisted and turned into one that also touched on the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”

City of Ghosts goes on general release in UK cinemas tomorrow. It is also available to stream online. For more information, visit www.cityofghosts.co.uk

LIVING IN THE CROSSHAIRS OF ISIL: RAQQA’S MOST WANTED HEROES

AZIZ, 25: CO-FOUNDER OF RBSS

Currently living in exile in Germany, Aziz grew up in Raqqa and was a biology student at the city's university. He became active in the Syrian revolution while a student and began organising protests against Bashar Al Assad's government. After ISIL invaded Raqqa in 2014, Aziz co-founded RBSS to document the human rights abuses committed in his hometown. As a result of his work, he was arrested several times and subjected to torture. Under constant threat from both ISIL and the Assad regime, Aziz was forced to flee Raqqa and eventually sought asylum in Germany. Now based in Europe, he regularly speaks to the world’s press and has recently been a speaker at the United Nations, the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Oslo Freedom Forum, as well as various other foreign policy conferences, to draw attention to the atrocities happening in Raqqa under ISIL rule.

HAMOUD, 23: CO-FOUNDER OF RBSS

Hamoud became active in the Syrian revolution while he was at high school and started filming the protests in the streets of Raqqa. He was later embedded with the Free Syrian Army as they fought to liberate Raqqa from Assad’s forces. When ISIL took over his hometown in 2014, he became a vocal critic of the terrorist organisation and helped to found RBSS. ISIL eventually put a price on Hamoud's head and he was forced to leave Raqqa. After ISIL failed to track Hamoud down, they arrested and assassinated his father instead, later publicly releasing a video showing the execution. A few months later, Hamoud learned that one of his brothers had also been killed by ISIL while another brother has disappeared. Now living in exile, Hamoud is determined to continue his work with RBSS. He recently became a father and named his first child Mohamed, in honour of his own late father.

HUSSAM, 27: CO-FOUNDER OF RBSS

Before joining the group, Hussam attended law school at the University of Damascus. However, he did not graduate as he left when the Assad regime began arresting students participating in the revolution. Hussam instead returned to his hometown of Raqqa and helped to found RBSS. He reported several stories on the ground inside the city and was once caught secretly filming an ISIL execution, only to be released when they failed to find the hidden footage on his encrypted phone. After eventually being forced to flee Raqqa with his fellow co-founders, Hussam now lives in exile in Germany where he continues to write and publish articles via RBSS’s website and social media platforms, on the abuses of Assad and ISIL.

MOHAMAD, 34: REPORTER FOR RBSS

Before joining RBSS, Mohamad held numerous jobs in Raqqa which included a role in the agricultural department, the director of the council rescue services and teaching mathematics in a school.

While teaching, Mohamad learned that one of his students had been arrested and detained for criticising the Assad regime on social media.

That day, he decided to join the revolution and began reporting for local media outlets on the protests against the regime. He eventually joined RBSS as a reporter but was forced to flee Raqqa after ISIL took control of the city. Driven by his love of Raqqa and its people, Mohamad continues to be an active member of RBSS with the hope that he will one day be able to return to his beloved hometown with his wife, Rose.