CITY OF Ghosts is an extraordinary documentary that should be watched by anyone alarmed by the rise – and continued threat – of Isis. In other words, by everyone.
Directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, 2015), it centres on the good people of Raqqa in Syria as they rally against the Bashar al-Assad regime in response to the Arab Spring of late 2010.
Initially overjoyed by the prospect of a people’s uprising across the Middle East – and in particular against Assad – their rejoicing is soon quelled as the regime’s troops fire indiscriminately on protesters.
Worse is to follow as amid the chaos Isis and its army of jihadists take control of Raqqa and impose a regime even more hideous than Assad’s.
The documentary focuses on the work of a group called ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a small band of extremely brave people determined to shine a light on the horror that unfolds as Isis tightens its grip on the city situated close to the Euphrates (a shot of a heron standing against the backdrop of the river acts as a poignant counterpoint to the unfolding horror).
Having fled to Germany or Turkey, these individuals use social media – and informants within Raqqa (braver than brave) – to tell the world the truth about what is happening to the City they love. Not just about the regular beheadings, crucifixions and executions (issues that Heineman does not shirk from showing) but the food and water shortages that make surviving in the City a living hell – and make a mockery of Isis’s claim (perpetuated by social media propaganda) that life in Raqqa is all honey and no sting.
The group do this in constant fear of their lives. They are issued with regular death threats and pictures are posted on the internet indicating that Isis knows where their ‘safe houses’ are located. Protection from the German police is declined.
Harrowingly, the documentary shows one of RBSS’s founders – Hamoud-al-Mousa – sitting in a barren apartment somewhere in Germany and watching a video of his father’s execution at the hands of Isis. An execution designed to strike fear into Hamoud and every member of RBSS.
Hamoud’s response is extraordinary. ‘I watch the video a lot. It gives me strength,’ he says. His brother Ahmad Mohammed was also murdered at the hands of Isis as were other RBSS members – including Ibrahim Abdul Qader and Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim – and Naji Jerf, a Syrian journalist who inspired RBSS members to carry on with their work. And carry on they do to this day.
The documentary is at its best when it shows a Raqqa citizen defiantly spray-painting a wall at night – ‘death to Isis’. There is also a video recording of a masked informant within Raqqa updating RBSS on what is going on within the City. Such reports trigger an annoyed Isis into ripping down the City’s satellites in an attempt to stifle any independent news coming out of the City.
In amongst all the scratchy phone calls, posting of video material smuggled out of Raqqa and endless smoking in soulless rooms, there is the occasional lighter moment. Playful snowball fights (in Germany), joyous dancing and emotional airport reunions. Set against this, they take part in a counter-rally against German Nationalists calling for immigrants to leave. Nationalists who are unable to distinguish between the likes of RBSS and those terrorists who drove a truck through a Berlin Christmas market in late 2016, killing a dozen people.
RBSS’s work has been widely acclaimed as the documentary acknowledges. It shows RBSS member Abdalaziz Alhamza graciously – and modestly – receiving the International Press Freedom Award in 2015 from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. Wrapped in a Syrian flag, he receives the accolade before a room of individuals dressed in black ties and flowing gowns. A far cry from the horrors of Raqqa.
Heineman has come up trumps (no pun intended) with this documentary. But the real heroes of this must-see piece of work are the citizen journalists of RBSS (past and present) who to this day continue to ‘fight’ for Raqqa’s freedom.
A freedom that maybe they will soon win as Isis comes under attack in Raqqa from the Syrian army and other forces loyal to Assad. Or maybe not. One tyranny replaced by another. Evil replaced by evil.
Watch this documentary. If you are on twitter, I urge you to follow @Raqqa_SL
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