By Khaled Soubeih
Agence France Press
BEIRUT: When he fled his native Syria, where for years he had been an underground activist against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Shaheen dreamed he would finally fight his cause out in the open.
But in neighboring Lebanon, the journalist today finds himself hiding yet again.
“We thought that moving to Lebanon would provide us with more freedom of movement and expression,” said Shaheen, 30, who requested his real name be concealed.
“So it came as quite a surprise when we found that the Lebanese are even more afraid of Syrian intelligence services than the Syrians themselves,” he told AFP at the home of a friend in Beirut, where he has lived since escaping his country in March.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon under massive international pressure following the 2005 murder of Lebanese ex-premier Rafik Hariri, ending 29 years of military and political domination over its smaller neighbour.
But Damascus continues to hold major stakes in Lebanon through its allies in a Hezbollah-led coalition – a fact which has not gone unnoticed among Syria’s cyberdissidents.
“Even though the Syrian army withdrew, since moving here, when I call my peers in Lebanon, they always say ‘our phones are tapped, watch out,’ and ‘look, we have Hezbollah here’,” Shaheen said, in reference to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militant group.
Like several of his fellow peers, who hail from all confessions and classes, he says he has received threats for his online activism in Lebanon.
It was after one of his personal friends was arrested, two weeks into the protests, that Shaheen sought refuge in Lebanon, which has long prided itself on its freedom of expression.
Shaheen had been summoned by Syria’s notorious intelligence bureau for a “cup of coffee” – a phrase widely used to refer to interrogation over political activity.
“We had been questioned several times before, but this time we decided that we would no longer be able to continue to fight our cause unless we left Syria,” Shaheen said.
“But we cannot stop now, no matter what,” he added. “We owe it to those who are risking death and torture back home, who are brave enough to turn out for every rally.”
In Beirut he has been involved in gathering footage of rallies across Syria and organizing them into daily reports for websites and other media.
Mujab Samra, another Syrian activist who is now based in Beirut, spends most of his time networking with the press and media organisations in Lebanon in a bid to stimulate interest in the uprising back home.
Today, the 32-year-old says he is most disappointed with Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah, “a symbol of resistance” in the Middle East. He even fears passing through towns where “parties loyal to the Syrian regime” hold a presence.
“We have opened our hearts and our homes to Hezbollah, we have spoken out in support of their cause, and yet today they are attacking our revolution and calling us traitors and infiltrators,” Samra said.
“How can the party support freedom in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain and stand against it in Syria ... when the root of these revolutions are one: tyranny, oppression and injustice?”
Shaheen, meanwhile, says that even in Lebanon his worst fear is not death, but detention and torture.
“The only things I fear is torture, for I do not know how much I will be able to bear,” he confessed.
The Lebanese army has reportedly detained several Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon via illegal border crossings in the country’s north.
International rights group have voiced concern at the arrests, with Human Rights Watch calling for the release of all those in custody.
But Syria’s cyberdissidents are determined to keep fighting for freedom in their homeland, which for 48 years has been ruled by the Baath party.
“We have no choice. We either keep fighting or we accept that our children will be ruled by the children of Bashar al-Assad, as our parents lived under Hafez,” Bashar’s late father, Samra said.
Massoud Akko, a 28-year-old Syrian Kurdish activist, is banned from travel in his native Syria. He managed to escape to Lebanon one year ago and today continues his activism from Norway.
“Our cause today is to restore dignity to all Syrians, no matter who they are, and to build our future with our own hands, the hands of the people, as in any civilised country,” Akko said.
Abed al-Hindi, a 28-year-old Christian from Damascus, fled to Lebanon in 2007 before moving to the United States, where he today works with cyberdissidents.org, an organisation that promotes online activism.
“What every Syrian dreams of today is a state that is fair to all and has as its priority the safety and interests of its citizens,” Hindi told AFP.
And like Shaheen and Mujab Samra, today, his own dream is to return home.
“Syria was living in silence, and that terrible silence is now broken,” said Shaheen.
“We are halfway there,” added Samra. “The state has unleashed all its might, and still the protests are emerging from the heart of Syria, are breaking every siege imposed on them.”