The Current

'Show the truth': Citizen journalists report on life under ISIS in new film

The City of Ghosts documentary chronicles the struggles of citizen journalists in Raqqa through the camera lens as they fight ISIS.
Abdel-Aziz Al-Hamza in a scene from Matthew Heineman’s documentary, City of Ghosts. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios/IFC Films)

When ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2014, it "changed everything" says Abdel-Aziz Al-Hamza.

​Before ISIS arrived, Al-Hamza was a college student, and says Raqqa "was like any city in the world. We used to go to the schools, to the gardens.  It was really normal life," Al-Hamza says.

"After ISIS came, they changed it to the black city —  the ghost city — we can't live there." 

That "ghost city" became the headquarters for ISIS, and its citizens were held hostage. ISIS controlled all the information going out of the city and portrayed it as a paradise.  Any opposition to that image was shut down. 
Abdel-Aziz Al-Hamza, co-founder of RBSS, says there have been many ISIS attacks 'focusing to assassinate one of us.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios/IFC Films)

"ISIS didn't let anyone to report or to cover anything — only their own media offices," Al-Hamza tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti on the difficulty reporting what was happening inside Raqqa with the outside world.

"We decided that we need to let the people know about the truth of ISIS and the truth of life in Raqqa," he says. So Al-Hamza and his friends decided to fight back from this oppression by setting up the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). The members of the group took greats risks to surreptitiously document the ISIS atrocities in Raqqa including videos of public executions that became common place the city.

"[The] shocking execution we've seen in Raqqa, it pushed us more and more to complete our reporting — to show the truth."

At least two RBSS members have been killed in their fight against ISIS and many other members have had to flee Raqqa and settle abroad to continue their work.

"We tried to fight with our cameras, our pens.  The situation in Syria forced us to become media men," Al-Hamza says in a new documentary called City of Ghosts that features the work of RBSS by director Matthew Heineman.

The film charts the life of the members of RBSS, who as they are threatened by ISIS, are forced to flee Syria and Turkey for safe houses in Europe.  Despite the dangers, the RBSS continues to document the human rights atrocities committed by ISIS in their hometown. 

According to Heineman, the propaganda war between RBSS and ISIS is important because it reveals "the hypocrisy of ISIS functioning as a fully-functioning state, a heaven for Muslims, a safe place to come to."

"Obviously RBSS is showing the reality of what's happening there.  The horror that the citizens live with every single day," Heineman tells Tremonti.

City of Ghosts director Matthew Heineman says the propaganda war between RBSS is important to reveal 'the hypocrisy of ISIS functioning as a fully functioning state.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios/IFC Films)

In 2015, Al-Hamza and his colleagues at RBSS were awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.  That accolade comes at a heavy personal price for Al-Hamza who says, "right now we are in our mid-20s. We should be in some universities, having fun at bars and parties, but instead of that we are fighting ISIS. So it changed our entire lives."

Despite the personal risks to their lives, the members of RBSS are committed to keep doing their work until they win the battle with ISIS.

"Right now we have a revenge.  We lost families, friends, colleagues and we are fighting for them."

​Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry.