LONDON – The founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, rages at the “hypocrisy” of the international community in focusing on chemical weapons and overlooking the “endless bloodbath” in war-ravaged Syria.
Day after day, from a base in the drab central English city of Coventry, the exiled Abdurrahman and his volunteers have counted the human toll of Syria’s civil war ever since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
“In Syria, out of more than 120,000 people killed, 500 were killed with chemical weapons. Are these more horrendous deaths than the others?” the moustachioed Abdurrahman asked in an interview in London.
Abdurrahman, who is in his 40ss and wears a dark suit, gestures feverishly with his hands to show his frustration and disgust at the situation. “Nothing has changed at all. The clashes continue. Blood continues to be spilled and the intensity of the conflict increases,” he said, speaking in Arabic through a translator. “With the focus on chemical weapons, we forget about the daily deaths of the Syrian people by shelling, tank fire, gunfire, car bombs, mortars falling on civilian areas.”
President Bashar Assad last month offered to give up Syria’s chemical weapons in a Russian-brokered deal aimed at staving off a possible Western military strike.
But Abdurrahman says that according to his figures, the conflict is still killing 4,000 to 5,000 people a month, from soldiers, militia members and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to rebels, jihadis and civilians.
The Observatory’s gruesome tally is followed by all major international news organizations and by foreign governments, with journalists increasingly staying away from Syria because it is too dangerous.
“The regime commits dozens of atrocities every day,” said Abdurrahman, but he added that the other side is also responsible for war crimes, as al-Qaida-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Al-Nusra Front try to establish an “alternative dictatorship.”
Many of the pictures and videos of the conflict that the Observatory has collated on its website are so gruesome they are almost unwatchable.
‘We document, verify and report’
From dawn until late at night, Abdurrahman is glued to the telephone. When there is a major incident, he will deal with two calls at the same time, a phone to each ear.
During his interview he took some 20 calls, while his phone pinged constantly with the sound of email alerts.
The former businessman has been exiled from Syria since 2000 and set up the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in 2006. He says the organization has “230 activists within its structure — teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, as well as news provided by more than 5,000 people across the country.” They include officials from the Assad regime, soldiers, rebels and jihadis, he says. Six of them have already been killed.
The Observatory has to sift the facts from propaganda and disinformation. Accuracy is vital, given accusations from some quarters that the group is, variously, a Qatari mouthpiece, an agent of Western powers and a part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Our objective is to release the truth about what is happening in Syria. We document, we verify and we report,” Abdurrahman said. “Our only agenda is defending human rights and reaching a democratic state.”
He says they have to be as accurate as possible in compiling the details of the violence, whether it is a deadly blast in southern Deraa province, a rebel assault on Aleppo’s central jail, fights between rebel groups, the burning of Catholic churches or the destruction of a statue deemed idolatrous by the Islamists.
‘I have two children — the Observatory and my daughter’
In recent months Abdurrahman says he has had to step up security.
“Because of the constant threat by jihadists, by the regime militias, by the regime itself and by warlords, I had to take extra precautionary measures.”
With his work for the Observatory taking up most of his time, he has left his day job of running a clothes shop to his wife. His family life has also suffered.
“I don’t have time. My wife takes care of the shop. I don’t have time for my daughter, who is 7,” he said. “I have two children — the Observatory and my daughter. Possibly, she was neglected.”
“I might look like I haven’t had much sleep and I have all kinds of illnesses, but our suffering is nothing compared to the sufferings of our people in Syria,” he added.
Born in Baniyas to a Sunni family, the Assad regime locked Abdurrahman up three times for links to Amnesty International before he finally fled.
“Since I was young, I have always dreamed of democracy and freedom from oppression. Hopefully one day I will see that.”
But the immediate future is bleak, he says. “If the situation continues, if there’s no changes, I see only civil war. I see Somalization and a new Afghanistan.”