The documentary City of Ghosts (2017) is about the occupation and destruction of Raqqa, a city in Syria, by ISIS. It describes the devastation and atrocities committed against the city through the eyes of several civilian journalists, who are part of a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” Forced to flee to Turkey and Germany after one of their members is tortured and killed, and information about their identities is found on a laptop, the men liveevery dayy in fear that the next day will be their last. Despite the anxiety, death threats and executions of friends and loved ones, they survive by exposing the lies behind the propaganda ISIS uses to recruit; the men continue to distribute information to the outside world. They believe that the war with ISIS that must be won is not that of military strength but of media, a tool they use to send false promises of prosperity in Raqqa, hiding the regime of terror they have inflicted on the citizens.
Even when members of the group escape to Germany, they do not live in ease. The film shows the rise of the right wing in Germany, who hold a rally calling for the return of Syrian refugees to Turkey. Some held banners of the Nazi cross. Across from them was a group of Syrians protesting the Syrian War and advocating for their rights. The tension between the two turned into a skirmish, with police called in to break up the groups. Wherever “Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered” went, there was no place to live in peace. ISIS murdered the father of spokesman for the group, unable to get them in Germany. The video was sent to Abdalaziz Alhamz, who ,as the face of the organization, was at the greatest risk of being assassinated. ISIS called on jihadists to silence him permanently, and the Berlin police offered protection. However, Alhamz refused, choosing to live without protection in solidarity with his comrades and countrymen that did not have the privilege of receiving defense from the wrath of ISIS.
The film was important in showing how anyone, not solely those trained to be journalists, could use the technology of smartphones today to send information about the injustices in their community. Without the modern technology still available, it would have been even more unlikely that images of the torture and the executions of civilians would be sent. ISIS refused to allow citizens to leave and removed satellite dishes in a effort to stop the efforts of the Raqqa to reveal the terror happening within. It also was a reminder of the power of the media to influence public opinion. Whether that was used for evil, such as to lure people to join terrorist organizations, or to spread awareness about ignored communities suffering from oppression, the written word is powerful.
Authoritarians recognize this, and for this reason, have always sought to limit what journalists can say by law or silence them permanently. The work of journalists challenges the propaganda, promising peace and wealth with images, reports of pollution, violence and fear. I am grateful for people such as the men in “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” because to tell the truth and nothing but the truth in the face of repression is an extreme risk to themselves and their family. But they think not of only themselves but the people left behind in Raqqa, whose stories need to be told, even if the price is their lives.
Image Courtesy of Creative Commons