comscore The man behind the casualty figures in Syria | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

The man behind the casualty figures in Syria


COVENTRY, England » Military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures.

Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.

Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Abdul Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria, disseminating bursts of information about the fighting and the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary emails about protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics and details.

All sides in the conflict accuse him of bias, and even he acknowledges that the truth can be elusive on Syria’s tangled and bitter battlefields. That, he says, is what prompts him to keep a tight leash on his operation.

"I need to control everything myself," said Abdul Rahman, a bald, bearish, affable man. "I am a simple citizen from a simple family who has managed to accomplish something huge using simple means — all because I really believe in what I am doing."

He does not work alone. Four men inside Syria help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground, a network rooted in Abdul Rahman’s youth, when he organized clandestine political protests. But he signs off on every important update. A fifth man translates the Arabic updates into English for the organization’s Facebook page.

Abdul Rahman rarely sleeps. He gets up around 5:30 a.m., calling Syria to awaken his team. First, they tally the previous day’s casualty reports and release a bulletin. Then he alternates between taking media calls — 10 on a slow day, 15 an hour for breaking news — and contacting activists.

He transmits his last email around 9 p.m. and continues monitoring news reports and YouTube videos until at least 1 a.m. But urgent news developments frequently disrupt that schedule.

Recently, for example, rumors of the assassination of Col. Riad al-As’aad, a founder of the rebel Free Syrian Army, erupted about 11 p.m. Abdul Rahman stayed up contacting activists near the eastern city of Deir al-Zour until 5 a.m. before confirming that the colonel was very much alive, but had lost a leg in a car bombing.

In March, when rebel forces near the Golan Heights kidnapped 21 U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines, his phones rang incessantly. "I wanted to shatter my mobile," said Abdul Rahman, who often sports a cellphone on each ear.

He said his ultimate goal was to hold accountable those responsible for Syria’s destruction. Focusing on human rights will eventually bring the country a better, democratic future, he said.

"We have to document what is going on in Syria," he said, because each side is trying to "brainwash" the people to accept its version of events. "The country is headed toward destruction and division," he added. "We have to try to preserve what hasn’t been destroyed."

Abdul Rahman, who founded the observatory in 2006 to highlight the plight of activists arrested inside Syria, faces constant scrutiny over his numbers.

He has been called a tool of the Qatari government, the Muslim Brotherhood, the CIA and Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled uncle of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, among others. The Syrian government and even some rebels have accused him of treachery.

"Rami’s objectivity is killing us," said Manhal Bareesh, an activist from Saraqib who knew him before the war. But he and other activists in Syria credit him with working hard to document all the cases, and not hesitating to document potential war crimes.

Alexander Lukashevich, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, once described him to the state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency as a man with "no training in journalism nor law, nor even a complete secondary education."

(In fact, he graduated from high school and studied marketing at a technical school.)

Abdul Rahman’s toll for the Syrian conflict just passed 62,550, somewhat below the U.N. figure of more than 70,000. March was the deadliest month yet, with 6,005 deaths, he said, more than the combined total of the uprising’s first nine months.

"I think our numbers are close to reality, but nobody knows the entire reality," he said. "I make sure nothing is published before crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed."

The ultimate toll, he said, may be twice what has been documented, given Syria’s size, the number of skirmishes and communications problems.

Activists in every province belong to a Skype contact group that Abdul Rahman and his aides tap into in an effort to confirm independently the details of significant events. He depends on local doctors and tries to get witnesses. On the telephone, for instance, speaking in his rapid-fire style, he asked one activist to visit a field hospital to count the dead from an attack.

With government soldiers, he consults contacts in small villages, using connections from his youth on the coast among Alawites, the minority sect of Assad, which constitutes the backbone of the army.

Abdul Rahman has been faulted for not opening his list up for public access online, but the NGO world gives him mostly high marks. "Generally, the information on the killings of civilians is very good, definitely one of the best, including the details on the conditions in which people were supposedly killed," said Neil Sammonds, a Mideast researcher for Amnesty International.

The intense workload has taxed Abdul Rahman’s family life. His only child, Amani, 6, springs from bed without so much as a "good morning," said his wife, Etab Rekhamea. "She asks, ‘What is the news from Syria? What is the news about the Nusra Front?"’

Abdul Rahman spends so much time locked upstairs in his tiny study that Amani figured out how to Skype him from the living room. Once when he agreed to a picnic, he showed up carrying his two cellphones and his laptop. "He has taken a second wife," his wife said with a groan.

Abdul Rahman grew up in Baniyas, on the Syrian coast, but would not speak for the record about his family still there, lest that bring further unwanted government attention.

His exposure to politics started at age 7, he said, after his family’s landlord hit his sisters for sitting on the building’s roof. Neighbors who saw the altercation refused to testify because the landlord was an Alawite with a brother in military security.

Abdul Rahman owned a clothing store but secretly wrote pamphlets denouncing unfair privileges granted to a few while most Syrians had to line up for basic goods. Born Osama Suleiman, he adopted a pseudonym during those years of activism and has used it publicly ever since.

When two associates were arrested in 2000 he fled the country, paying a human trafficker to smuggle him into England. The government resettled him in Coventry, where he decided he liked the slow pace. He says his main regret is having to drive 30 minutes to Birmingham for a decent Arab restaurant.

Money from two dress shops covers his minimal needs for reporting on the conflict, along with small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify.

The war has dragged on far longer and been far more destructive than he ever anticipated, and for the moment, he said, his statistics are as much a tactic as a resource.

"The truth will make people aware," Abdul Rahman said. "Hearing the number of people killed every day will make them ask the government, ‘Where are you taking us?"’

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