On Monday, this blog was one of the first to spread the world of the abduction of Syrian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf, author of A Gay Girl in Damascus. A post on AGGID, purportedly written by Arraf’s cousin Rania Ismail, reported that two men bundled Amina into a car with a pro-regime sticker. A few hours later, a new post appeared, reporting there was no progress in the search for Amina. Then the blog went silent.
Come Thursday, however, very little remains of the stark and gripping tale that spread around the globe only a few days earlier. Try hard as they might, no journalist, diplomat or activist turned up anyone who met Amina in person. Despite her alleged double US-Syrian citizenship, no family members have made contact with State Department to plead for her case, even after the American consulate in Damascus took the unusual step of commenting on her blog and requesting family members to come forward. Even the woman described by many outlets as Amina’s girlfriend admitted she never met her in real life, and a day later the activist group with whom Amina was supposed to be meeting when she was abducted said it never met her nor knew anybody who did. The final blow was delivered by Londoner Jelena Lecic, who announced, through a publicist, that all of the photos of Amina released to date were her own.
Yesterday it was still tempting to look for holes and cracks in the Lecic story: No new photos were released by the publicist who initially spoke to the media, Kim Grahame of Just News International; the Just News International agency had only the most rudimentary of websites, a rather modest conduct for a PR company and in dissonance with its boastful motto of “servicing the world 24/7”; neither Grahame nor JNI had any web presence whatsoever outside the Amina affair; the agency’s owner and Grahame’s partner (according to Facebook), Julius Just, had recently befriended Lecic on the social networking website; and so on and so forth. All this gave ground to at least a vague suspicion the whole thing might be a black-op carried out by hired guns on behest of the Syrian regime, a kind of an extrovert take on the harrowing moment in Orwell’s 1984 when the torturer tells the dissident, “you do not exist”. But last night, Lecic appeared on Newsnight; and it’s become quite impossible, within the realm of sanity, to deny that the Amina photos were Lecic’s indeed.
So who is who? Is Amina, in fact, the devoutly dressed and actively pro-LGBT rights Rania Ismail? Peering over the borders of said realms of sanity, is she, concievably, Lecic after all? Is she a Syrian or pro-Syrian activist studying in the University of Edinburgh, to which an email exchange of hers has been traced? (As a side note, most Syrian activists use proxy servers; it’s not for nothing that when the Assad regime opened up Youtube and Facebook as the Arab Spring rumbled toward Syria, it also banned searches of the word “proxy.”)
My colleague Yuval Ben-Ami offers on his blog his own experience of hunting down the real people behind a suddenly vanished Internet persona – although the setting was nowhere near as dramatic and the stakes were nowhere near as high. He concludes with the following sentiment, which I can’t help but echo myself:
This is my secret hope: that whoever is responsible for this blog is safe and sound, and has simply put together the final text (written by a “cousin” of Arraf, who also doesn’t seem to exist) as a way of staying safe. I pray that everything written on this blog was true, except the word “girl” and that last, scary post. Finally, if it makes things easier for “Amina”, I pray that we will never find out who she was.
And for myself, I would just add that the shock of Amina’s disappearance yanked us out of what has become a routine – a ghastly routine, but a routine nonetheless – of indeterminate clashes and massacres coming out of Syria. It seems fairly plain that the fate of the Arab Spring, at least for this round, will be decided not in Libya- where it became a much less appealing civil war – but in Syria. The slow, lacklustre response of the international to Assad’s butchering of his own people may well mean that the Arab Spring will stop at the Damascus gates. The energy and outrage generated by Amina’s story, be it true or not, need to be used to apply popular pressure to Syrian embassies and business interests around the world: Not just for the safe release of the blogger, whoever he or she or they may be, but for the resignation of the Assad regime.