Sandra Bagaria forged an online relationship with the Syrian-American blogger who goes by "Gay Girl In Damascus." She never thought to ask if her name was really Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari or if like a lot of bloggers in countries with authoritarian regimes, it was an alias.
Her blog was so autobiographical, so genuine that it never occurred to her that Amina could be anyone but Amina. But the last few days have left her shellshocked.
First, because on Monday, a person claiming to be Amina's cousin posted a piece on Amina's blog that said she had been detained by the security forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But just as Amina's story got out, her authenticity began to crumble. Along with a profile of Amina, The Guardian posted a picture they say was given to them by Amina, only to find it was really a picture of Jelena Lecic, a Londoner who appeared on the BBC today and said she had "never met Amina. I am not friends with her."
As we reported earlier, we sifted through biographical details Amina posted throughout her "Gay Girl In Damascus" blog and could not corroborate them using public records. We could not find public records that corresponded with whom she said her parents were or records that correspond to the person who claimed to be her cousin.
The U.S. State Department told us the same thing — that they had not been able to verify what Amina wrote about in her blog.
Faced with all of that, Bagaria said, "I'm just as confused as everyone else." Bagaria said she had been corresponding with Amina for the past six months, after meeting her on Facebook. They had become girlfriends, but, she said, she never talked to Amina on the phone and she never talked to any of her family members:
"But, seriously, who's writing me?" she said. "Somebody is writing me and I can assure you it's not me. There's so many Syrian details that I only see someone living there writing about it."
Bagaria, who lives in Montreal, said she and Amina exchanged some 500 emails during their six-month relationship. And it's obvious she's still vacillating as to what she believes.
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe she has all the reasons to be hiding. Maybe she really is detained... maybe there really is someone called Amina in jail."
But then she thinks about Amina's Facebook page:
Bagaria said that Amina posted some 200 pictures of someone who wasn't her. Jillian York of Global Voices posted screen captures of some pictures Amina uploaded to Facebook. They are all of Lecic.
There was one other incident that Bagaria said was odd. She tried to call Amina in Syria but got no answer. Amina said she was at a cafe but was worried that her father hadn't answered the phone. The story turned dramatic after that:
Amina wrote about the incident on her blog. She calls Bagaria her "very, very dear (and, of course, quite gorgeous!) friend in Quebec." Here's how Amina described what happened next:
As I have also been more than a little paranoid since my visit from security services, I decided to use a landline rather than my mobile. So, I went and called him from a public phone. No answer on the home number. No answer on his mobile; he'd turned it off (which isn't that startling; he lets the battery run down all the time).
I decided to call our doorman; he told me that my dad had left, where he'd gone to and that I could call him there ...
And he told me:
They came back for you. This time, there's nothing I can do. Go somewhere and don't tell me where you are. Be safe. I love you.
In that same post, she recounts how she weaved through Damascus, evading the security apparatus she calls "Them" with a capital T, and ends with a heavy paragraph, a literary rooftop scream:
Meanwhile, hopefully, as grim as it may seem right now, the way to freedom has never seemed clearer! Our revolution will win; we will have a free and democratic Syria soon. I know it in my bones. Our greatest age is about to appear and we shall once more amaze the world. We will have a free Syria and a free nation; it is coming soon. The revolution will succeed and we will rise above sectarianism, despotism, sexism, and all the dead weight of these years of bitterness, of division and partition, of oppression and of tyranny. We will be free!
It's that kind of writing — direct and vivid and courageous — that has gotten Amina notice. And when Bagaria thinks about her interactions with Amina, her instinct tells her Amina is real.
"Of course I have doubt," she said. "Of course I have doubt of is it true; what's not true. But, again, I'm quite certain that there's really someone writing. Now, the face she has, I don't know."