For the international symbol she has become, Ala’a Basatneh’s path as a social media activist started remarkably modest. The Syrian-born student (1992) had only sixty Facebook friends when she decided in 2011 to support the Syrian revolution from her American home more than 6.000 miles away. ‘I wasn’t active on social media at all,’ she says. ‘I would only go on Facebook to post a song or to chat with a friend.’
Watching how the Assad regime detained and tortured 15 boys for scrawling revolutionary slogans on a school in the remote city of Daraa, turned her into a fulltime activist almost overnight . ‘When I saw those mutilated children I couldn't be sitting around anymore, watching idly.’
Her number of Facebook friends has since swollen to more than 2.000. Ala’a, who came to the States when she was six months old, spends her days coordinating demonstrations, mapping escape routes through Google Maps, connecting people on the ground, posting videos and translating eyewitness accounts. Skyping with activists for up to twelve hours a day, she has become a vital intermediary between citizen journalists and international media outlets such as CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Three years of the most savage fighting the modern world has seen has taken a toll on her friends. Six months ago, Ala’a noticed that a lot of activists were picking up arms and joining the Free Syrian Army. ‘They felt they weren’t accomplishing anything with their cameras. In the beginning I didn't understand, but they are only human.’
The sheer desperation of the situation has affected Ala’a as well. In May 2012, her friend Bassell Al Shahade, one of Syria's best-known citizen journalists died in the city of Homs. ‘When Bassell was killed I felt hopeless. I wanted to physically do something.’ She started collecting donations from doctors and decided to deliver them in person to the people in need.
She flew to Istanbul, crossing the Syrian border illegally through a minefield. Visiting a makeshift clinic she witnessed the Assad regime dump barrels of explosives from an airplane, pulverizing six buildings. ‘Seven people died that day, only yards away.’
The experience hasstrengthened her resolve, even though she increasingly feels isolated. ‘There are times when I get very pessimistic. But when I see the pictures of children suffering and women dying, I can’t help but keep going.’
By Jeroen Ansink