Middle East
12:01 am
Fri October 21, 2011

Prominent Syrian Activist Flees, Reveals Identity

Originally published on Fri October 21, 2011 10:30 pm

The Syrian government has barred most international journalists from the country, restricting coverage since an uprising began last spring. In response, Syrian activists have played a crucial role in providing information to the wider world.

One of the most prominent is Alexander Page — an alias that a young Syrian used for his safety. He was often cited by international media outlets, including NPR.

But he recently fled Syria after his identity was compromised and he was in danger of arrest.

I had arranged to meet Page in Cairo, to see, firsthand, the price Syrian activists pay for simply talking to the media.

I knew his voice, but not his real name or his face. He had said that his last interview with NPR had played a role in unraveling his identity to Syria's secret police. He was commenting on pro-government hackers known as the Syrian electronic army.

Now I was waiting outside a landmark Cairo hotel, anxiously dialing my cellphone when a young man approached.

"I'm Rami Jarrah," he said, beaming. This intense young man was the activist behind the alias of Alexander Page, well known to the international media for his impeccable English and precise details of events inside Syria.

Considered A Spy

"They are looking for people who talk to the media; they found out that I was doing that and they considered me a spy," he said, as he began to explain the series of event that forced him out of Syria.

His comments about pro-government Internet hackers, broadcast by NPR on Sept. 25, were noted by Syrian state television, he explained. His remarks were reported in a TV news bulletin, but twisted to benefit the regime.

"They changed that whole thing. And they basically just said that Alexander Page admits to NPR that his page had been hacked by the Syrian government and they basically won the fight," he said.

But the story raised his profile. At first, he thought he was still safe. He had never revealed his real name to journalists, not even to activists in Syria. But he had a contact who discovered that the alias Alexander Page was no longer a safe cover.

"For some reason the Syrian intelligence found out who I was and we just checked coincidentally," he said. "And the person who checked didn't even know my real name. He said, 'Is your name Rami Jarrah?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Leave the country now.' So within about three hours I was at the border."

Still Active In Cairo

Jarrah now works out of an office in Cairo, where he posts comments to Facebook and Twitter.

He took part in demonstrations at the Syrian Embassy in Cairo, where he organized a live stream of the event for the Internet. He participated in a sit-in at the Arab League when foreign ministers met to consider measures to stop the Syrian government crackdown. But his activism has had a price.

He packed what he could and left in a hurry with his wife and daughter for an uncertain future. When the protests began, Jarrah, 28, was a successful businessman with a comfortable life. He left his job rather than join a pro-government rally. He had already become part of a spontaneous protest movement in the early spring, inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

"It's a drug, each time you want to do it again. It's just this drive to be able to say 'freedom,' " he said.

The government's harsh response fueled his rage.

"I did witness a massacre in central Damascus," he said. "And I saw people being gunned down — and at that moment, it was unbelievable. I can't explain it. And to see that and to turn my back is impossible. I think you would be senseless to not want to work with these people."

He is now working in Cairo, sharing ideas and strategies with young revolutionaries from around the Arab world. But he says he feels guilty for leaving others to face the risks on the Syrian streets. The latest news, he says, is of a friend who was shot in Damascus while trying to escape arrest.

"I am depressed every day that people are dying," he said. But, he added, "I'm not depressed in general. Barriers have been broken. People around the world now know that Syrians are not stupid people who don't know that their government is controlling them. I am glad people know that now there is a difference between the government and the people."

Jarrah now gives interviews openly and he will continue to write on the Web under the name Alexander Page.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, host: Moammar Gadhafi was the third dictator toppled by the Arab Spring and the first to meet a violent end. In Syria, a nine month uprising shows no signs of faltering. When Syria's government expelled international journalists to prevent coverage of the protest movement there, a group of Syrian activists relayed information from inside the country to help reporters.

One of those activists was Alexander Page, an alias he used for his safety. Many international media outlets cited him, as did NPR News. And now he's been forced to leave Syria after his identity was compromised, putting his life at risk, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS: Let's begin this story with a meeting on a busy street in Cairo, coordinated by cell phone. I came to meet Alexander Page, to see, firsthand, the price Syrian activists pay for talking to the media.

I knew his voice, but not his real name or his face. His last interview with NPR played a part in unraveling his identity to Syria's secret police. He was commenting on pro-government Internet hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army. And here's what he said in an Internet interview on Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

RAMI JARRAH: People have to see that the Syrian Electronic Army is capable of getting a hold of activists through what they are doing.

AMOS: I waited outside a landmark Cairo Hotel, then a young man approached. I'm Rami Jarrah, he said, smiling, the activist behind the alias of Alexander Page. He had to flee the country after a warning. He was on an arrest list of the Syrian secret police.

JARRAH: And it was just a good thing that I was informed. Last Friday, the house was raided.

AMOS: So you had to get out.

JARRAH: Yeah. I did.

AMOS: Syrian activists can be arrested for simply talking to journalists. Alexander Page had given hundreds of interviews over the Web.

JARRAH: So they basically found out that I was doing that, and they considered me a spy.

AMOS: The NPR interview on pro-government Internet hacking was noted by Syrian State Television, he explained. His comments were reported, but twisted to benefit the regime.

JARRAH: They changed that whole thing. And they basically just said that Alexander Page admits to NPR that his page has been hacked by the Syrian government, and they basically won the fight.

AMOS: The story raised his profile as online activist Alexander Page. He thought he was safe. He'd had never revealed his real name to journalists, not even to activists in Syria. But he had a contact who discovered the alias Alexander Page was no longer a safe cover.

JARRAH: For some reason, the Syrian intelligence found out who I was. And we just checked, coincidentally. And the person who checked didn't even know my real name. He said, is your name Rami Jarrah? I said yes. And he said, leave the country now. So within about three hours, I was at the border.

AMOS: He now works out of an office in Cairo. He posts comments to Facebook and Twitter.

JARRAH: This is the live stream.

AMOS: He took part in a demonstration at the Syrian Embassy in Cairo and a sit-in at the Arab League, when foreign ministers met to consider measures to stop the Syrian government crack down.

Before the protests began, Rami Jarrah was a successful businessman with a comfortable life. But he says he joined the protest movement early. Demanding freedom on the streets of Damascus stoked his hopes.

JARRAH: It's just this drive to be able to say freedom, basically.

AMOS: The government response fueled his rage.

JARRAH: I did witness a massacre in central Damascus. I saw people being gunned down, and I think that moment was - it was unbelievable. I can't explain it. And to see that and then turn my back is impossible. I think you'd be senseless to be able to see that and not want to work with these people or help these people.

AMOS: His work is now outside the country. But he says he feels guilty for leaving others to face the risks on the streets. The latest news: A friend was shot in Damascus while trying to escape arrest.

Are you depressed about how this is going?

JARRAH: I'm depressed every day that people are dying. But I'm not depressed in general. Barriers have been broken. People around the world now know that Syrians aren't just stupid people who don't know that their government is controlling them. And I'm glad that people know that now there's a difference between the government and the people.

AMOS: Rami Jarrah has left his country, but he's not been silenced. He now gives interviews openly, and he'll continue to write the words of that man known on the Web as Alexander Page.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.