Mariam, a Syrian activist and contributing writer for SalamaTech, tells her story of her journey to defend a peaceful revolution and leverage technology to spark change in her country, amidst the backdrop of the Syrian regime’s online surveillance and violent crackdown.
Since the first calls of freedom launched by activists and demonstrators, Syrian activists were forced to use pseudonyms to avoid the brutal regime crackdown that Syrians know too much about. Engaging in peaceful, but revolutionary action is considered a crime in Syria, which may very well lead to death for an activist. Facebook became the space where Syrians met to coordinate, debate, share news, and document the events of their revolution and the violations committed against them by the regime. At the onset of the revolution, Local Coordination Committee (LCC) Facebook pages, administered by peaceful and grassroots activists, provided the outlet for Syrian activists to communicate with the world and with each other.
Although Syrian activists knew that the Syrian regime was brutally cracking down on dissent in the streets, what many did not know at the time was that the regime was also waging war against activists in cyberspace. Regime cyber agents infiltrated cyberspace and surveilled activists’ online activities, in order to monitor their communications, compromise their activities and support the regime to suppress the revolution and strangle its proliferation.
One day, I saw a link on the page of a trusted friend; the link claimed to be a link to video footage of female prisoners being tortured in the regime’s prisons. My younger sister was arrested because of her civil activism, so naturally, I was anxious to to hear news regarding her whereabouts. I clicked on the link and a page appeared and asked me to log in to Facebook in order to watch the video. At the time, I was unaware that this was a phishing scam that aimed to compromise my credentials, so I logged into my account to see the video. As a result of my actions, my Facebook account password was compromised by hackers, who then rushed to disable my administrator privileges for the LCC Facebook page that I managed. The hacker sent me threats and blackmailed me online. He read through the many messages I had exchanged with friends and relatives, he was able to discover my actual identity, and he knew that my sister was detained. The hacker requested a sum of money, and in exchange, he claimed he would not report me to the Regime’s security apparatus. I did not submit to his threats of blackmail, so he reported me to the Syrian authorities. I was summoned by the Syrian National Security division, and asked to report to the branch in person. My friends and family advised me not to go because the fate of activists who run these pages is usually death in the Regime’s prisons.
I decided not to report to the National Security Division, and instead, went into hiding. I communicated with someone to help us restore the LCC Facebook page, but our work was already exposed, and my name was put on the lists of wanted persons at Regime checkpoints.
In the meantime, a violent military crackdown had already erupted in my town, in order to crush revolutionary dissent. My town was completely besieged by the Regime’s forces, who bombarded the town with intense shelling. Following such a violent and bloody military campaign, an armed resistance took form in my town, in order to protect the inhabitants. Local residents began to flee the town, but I could not leave because I would have to pass through the Regime’s checkpoints where my name was on the ‘wanted list’. Instead, I opted to stay in my town with my husband and children.
During the Regime’s violent campaign, my town transformed into a battlefield and my family and I were forced to leave our home and take refuge in an underground shelter. We fortified the shelter by putting sandbags around the windows and entrances, in order to protect us from the damage caused by heavy shelling. Days passed and many residents moved to safer places. Following the intensification of the armed resistance, the Regime began dropping destructive barrel bombs on the town and life became even more impossible under conditions of siege, shelling and imminent death. Food became scarce, and we were without heating, fuel and medicine. Schools were destroyed, and barrel bombs indiscriminately claimed lives.
I always thought I would die in my town; I was born there, I lived there, rebelled there and took the first breath of freedom there. However, the situation became so unbearable that I had to abandon my home, my town and my revolution.
One evening, my family and I set off to Lebanon after secretly arranging our journey with some friends. It was a difficult journey through the rugged mountains, as the Regime’s army surrounded the city from all sides. We had to cross over to Lebanon, which was equally dangerous in light of Hezbollah’s involvement in the war, alongside the Syrian Regime. We finally arrived in Lebanon and we were in relative safety, but we had lost everything.
By not protecting my personal information and activities online, I made a seemingly small mistake at the beginning of the revolution. I now realize the extent of that mistake; for two years, the repercussions of that mistake prevented me from escaping a town completely under siege and forced me to face hunger for many long months.
 In order to protect the author’s identity, a pseudonym has been used.
 A Lebanese militant group, political party, and ally to the Syrian Regime.