Aleppo province, Syria - In the darkened basement of a grand villa in the Aleppo countryside, Nadim hunches over a well-worn laptop and scours a long list of names on his screen.
“These are the fighters who have been killed in the past few days,” he says grimly. “We have the names of all the martyrs. Someone has to keep track.”
Here, in the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army’s media centre in the province of Aleppo, a small team of people is busy spreading word of the civil war raging around them.
Many of the grainy YouTube videos of battles being fought in the city of Aleppo come through this room. Rebel commanders often sit behind the desk against the far wall — the flag of the Syrian revolution hung behind it — to record video messages and announcements.
While many Syrians have chosen to take up arms to fight back against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, the people here are making use of the skills gained in their careers prior to the revolution. They are well-educated, smartly dressed and softly spoken. They differ somewhat from the typical image of a rebel with a gun-in-hand, but they are part of the same machine.
Among the team of six who work out of this office is a former wealth manager, a business owner, a trainee lawyer and a defected major from the army.
Nadim, in his early 20s, was studying at the University of Aleppo before the city became a battleground between rebel forces and government forces. “I lived in an area that became a centre of the fighting,” he says. “It became in impossible for me to stay there and be safe, so I came here to help.”
“I would like to go back and finish my studies one day. God willing, that will be soon.”
Khaled, another member of the team, held a lucrative job working in the Gulf, but was compelled to return to Syria and join the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad. “From the beginning of the revolution all I wanted to do was help,” he says. “I started by working with activists in Syria - helping them with logistical things such as transporting things from Turkey. But as things got worse, I began to feel more and more useless being outside the country.
“I had to take a decision about whether I wanted to keep talking about the revolution from far away, or become part of it. So I resigned from my job and came home.”
The people working here are not paid a salary, but they believe in what they do. They live among the fighters, eat with them and often face the same dangers as them. They are fierce in their criticism of some of the actions carried out in the name of the FSA, but insist that the perpetrators are not part of the FSA at all.
“You will meet some fighters while you are here who will tell you that they are with the Free [Syrian] Army,” says Ahmed, who joined the team in the last month. “But the truth is that there are lots of groups who are acting on their own. They have nothing to do with the FSA. These are the ones causing the problems here in Syria.”
Words as weapons
The media centre has been operating in its current location for nearly six months. It’s very existence, just a few miles from the centre of the fighting, is a sign of how the conflict has developed. Early on in the uprising, activists would smuggle videos of fighting and purported regime atrocities out of Syria and upload them from neighbouring countries in an effort to avoid arrest. Now, as the rebels have had some success in holding on to territory, an effective network of centres such as this have been built up inside the country.
The Aleppo media centre has its own Facebook page , YouTube channel and Twitter profile — all of which are used to share news of the uprising. Gruesome videos of the aftermath of a bombing, of FSA fighters celebrating a military victory in front of burned out tanks, photographs of fighters posing in their groups, news of funerals — all of this is produced and shared by the team through their social media network. The team will often see videos of the fighting they have obtained cited by major news outlets.
While this outpouring of media has provided a useful tool for journalists covering the civil war, many have raised concerns about the ability to verify such information.
The team here could best be described the public relations arm of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. As well as managing the Facebook pages and uploading videos, they help to craft the speeches that are read by rebel commanders and write letters on behalf of the military council.
There is also a certain amount of logistical support for the FSA involved in the job, such as keeping track of how much ammunition different brigades have, which inevitably stretches the description of the office as a “media centre”.
As one of the group says: “You need to know what you have before you go into battle.”
The centre itself is underground, but the room rattles from the sound of shells landing nearby. Getting news of the civil war out has become more difficult in recent months as fighting has intensified and the government has increasingly used air strikes on rebel-held areas. Pro-opposition activists say around 5,000 people were killed in the country in August, making it the deadliest month in the 18 month-long conflict. But foreign journalists are still coming to Syria, and the Aleppo media team has been helping them to do so.
Mobile phones scattered on tables around the office ring incessantly during the day. “It is another journalist,” says Khaled, after hanging up on one call. “I have to go and pick them up from Turkey tonight. I’ve lost count of how many are here right now.”
The team takes turns to ferry journalists around the country — finding them places to stay, food to eat and often taking them into areas where heavy fighting is taking place.
The media centre receives no direct funding or support, aside from the few battered laptops on which they do their work, which are provided by the FSA. As a result, journalists visiting the country are asked to contribute to the costs incurred during their stay. The main expense is petrol, and the going rate is around $150 a day.
“We only cover our expenses. We don’t ask them to pay for food or lodgings because it is not in the spirit of the revolution,” says Nadim.
If truth was the first casualty of this war, the team here would no doubt see themselves as the paramedics. The model is by no means perfect, but the videos, pictures and information coming through offices such as this one have ensured that news from Syria — even at its most inhospitable — has gone around the world.
The technology that played such a key role in the Arab Spring has been just as important, if not more so, in Syria — even if the outcome here has differed.
When faced with a choice between using Syrian state television and centres such as this one to gather news, journalists covering the civil war in Syria have often chosen the latter. For as long as the conflict persists, and perhaps for lack of a better option, they are likely to continue to do so.
* The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.