Hamoud al-Mousa wears a sleek black suit as he holds the 2015 International Press Freedom Award that was given to him and the dozens of other reporters behind citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). When a photographer attempts to get a smile from him at the award ceremony—offering a cringeworthy “you’re so serious, my friend”—al-Mousa remains stone-faced. Later, we learn his father and brother were assassinated by ISIS.
Located in Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates and about two hours south of the Turkish border, Raqqa was a sleepy town until 2013, when it became the first city to proclaim freedom from the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Less than two years later, the city’s revolutionary momentum came to an abrupt halt when it was captured by ISIS, becoming the organization’s center of operations. City of Ghosts, the latest from documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), recounts the concise but heady history of ongoing resistance in Raqqa—and examines why the men at the forefront of RBSS opt to fight ISIS’ arms with their words.
For 26-year-old RBSS spokesman Abdalaziz “Aziz” Alhamza, engaging in political activism was born from necessity. “I never expected to join the revolution against the Assad regime,” he explains in City of Ghosts. “I spent my time partying and causing trouble. But I grew up fast. The Syrian revolution changed us.”
Armed with a Samsung camera phone, the stoic al-Mousad was catapulted into movement, documenting Raqqa’s uprisings to fill in gaps of news coverage. These gaps, he says, are the result of deliberate isolation tactics implemented by ISIS. Meanwhile, former high school math teacher Mohammad Mosaraa witnessed the arrest of one of his students—an event that inspired him to trade teaching arithmetic for reporting. Even with a disdain for grammar, he was moved to speak on behalf of those who can’t.
Together, al-Mousa, Alhamza, and Mosaraa work alongside the RBSS team of roughly 18 reporters who operate inside and outside Raqqa. Internal reporters cautiously record footage and provide facts to correspondents like Alhamza, al-Mousad, and Mosaraa, who then use social media to spread the news internationally.
The 2014 death of RBSS journalist Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim pushed the group of young activists to adapt their security measures to meet ISIS’ technological advances. When Ibrahim was kidnapped and killed after being found with smuggled material on his laptop, correspondents started using spurts of satellite internet to quickly send encrypted files before wiping the evidence from their devices.
Strings of murders have continued to follow RBSS. Even in asylum, it turns out, the men are not safe. The death of Naji Jerf, a Syrian reporter and documentarian who led guerrilla classes for the group on the foundations of citizen journalism, reinforced their perpetual state of fear. After Jerf was murdered in broad daylight in Gaziantep—the Turkish city bordering Syria in which RBSS sought refuge—many members of the group were forced to flee even further, into Germany.
Now living in German exile, City of Ghosts finds the group still searching for a sense of safety and security. Despite arriving in their new country with optimism, death threats from ISIS are coupled with hostility and Islamophobia from their new neighbors. At an anti-refugee rally in Berlin, City of Ghosts captures images of Syrian demonstrators carrying signs that say “Aleppo is burning.” They’re met with German chants demanding deportation. As a pale, middle-aged woman films the rally—using a sticker-covered phone that reads “fuck refugees”—Alhamza attempts to keep the peace.
Gripping scenes like these are frequent in City of Ghosts, providing rare, humanizing glimpses into the kind of Syrian war stories that aren’t typically heard. Whether faced with xenophobia or violence, RBSS remains fervent in the belief that bombs alone will not suffice in combatting the ideologies of ISIS. With every graphic account reported, the group reveals the inaccuracies of ISIS’ propagandist media and challenges further indoctrination. In an era of “alternative facts,” the hope is that in risking their lives to document the atrocities in their home city, RBSS’ truth will speak louder than fabrication.