BEIRUT – Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh was reportedly kidnapped today from her office in the suburbs of Damascus, along with her husband and two colleagues. It is still unknown whether she was taken by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Islamist rebels who have been growing in strength in the area – she has loudly criticized both as mortal threats to the revolution.
In some ways, Zaitouneh is a throwback – one of the few internationally-known activists who has remained in Syria since the days when civic resistance, rather than armed revolt, were the uprising’s calling card. A human rights lawyer, she launched the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which meticulously tracks the casualties of the Syrian uprising and provides ground-level reports of the atrocities committed by the regime. She has also spoken out against al Qaeda-affiliated groups’ presence within rebel ranks – her last article castigated the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for allegedly kidnapping a pro-revolution Syrian doctor, saying that the group’s liquidation of human rights activists complemented the work of the Assad regime.
Zaitouneh has been a wanted woman for years, and journalists and activists alike were often astounded by her decision to remain in hiding in the Damascus suburbs. But her presence at the center of the conflict gave her a unique view on the events wracking her country: She and her team were some of the first activists on the scene following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, where they documented the unfolding tragedy. As she reported, several media activists lost their lives from sarin exposure by filming the aftermath of the attack.
Zaitouneh was chosen in 2011 as one of Foreign Policy‘s Global Thinkers, and recorded a video for our annual event explaining why Syrians would risk everything to stand up to the Assad regime. At the time, only 4,500 people had died – a figured that shocked Syrians then, but pales in comparison to the over 120,000 who have been killed today. In just a small sign of how challenging it must have been to conduct her work from the capital’s battered suburbs, the process of sending FP the video turned into a day-long ordeal. The Internet connection where she was hiding was insufficient to upload the video, forcing her to head to another location – where the connection failed again. "I can’t do it, it’s impossible," she wrote to me in frustration at one point.
But in the end, the impossible became possible. Zaitouneh finally succeeded in sending us the video, and her explanation of why Syrians continue to go out to protest played in front of hundreds of people, and have been viewed on the Internet by thousands more. "We face one of the most brutal regimes in the region and the world, mostly with peaceful protests, songs of freedom – chanting for a new Syria and a new future," she said. "Discovering for the first time within decades our voices and personalities, and how it feels to bring down walls of fear as we stand for our beliefs."
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| The Cable |