In the summer of 2012, an image of a cat, apparently wounded by shrapnel, dragging its hind legs, went viral. Hundreds of people commented on the picture in blogs and on Facebook, saddened, outraged, demanding that something be done to help the creature. Days later, the messages were still coming. The photographers—a group of young people in Syria—managed to locate the cat again and have it treated in a field hospital, publishing a photo as proof. Later they posted another photo of an FSA rebel with a gun in one hand, petting the now-healed cat.
Recently, I went to a downtown Cairo café to meet two young people, Ahmed, 19, and Salma, 28, who are responsible for the photo of the wounded feline. “We don’t have medicine for people but we went and helped a cat,” Salma told me, rolling her eyes. The pair are one half of a four-person team operating a Facebook page, 100,000 followers strong, called Lens Young Homsi, dedicated to documenting—in addition to their cat-photo work—the destruction of the Syrian city of Homs, which has been under siege by regime forces for more than 500 days.
While the international press's full attention only turned to Syria recently, the volume of citizen-recorded media pouring from country is staggering. From the earliest moments of the uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime, huge numbers of Syrians used camera phones to document protests. They documented the security forces opening fire on protesters. They filmed "martyrs" funerals. With the Assad regime now waging all out war on parts of the country, and the opposition shattered into a galaxy of warring factions, citizen-journalists may be the only people who are cataloging the destruction of entire cities.
I recall one day last September watching a YouTube video of three Syrian men digging a tiny child's grave. I was Viewer Number One—the sole audience. "You see," the dead child's father says to the camera, "what is happening to us?"
Ahmed, of Young Lens Homsi, is a quiet student with a scruffy beard. He left Homs a year ago to accompany a relative who needed treatment in Egypt for a gunshot wound. He was unable to return to Homs due to the siege.
Salma is 28, a photographer and filmmaker. Born to Kurdish communist parents in Syria’s north, she was arrested twice during the uprising, once in July 2011 for joining an artists’ and intellectuals’ march against the regime in Damascus.
In December 2011 she was detained at the airport en route to a film festival in Dubai. She fled the country in December 2012. (Because of safety concerns, "Salma" is a pseudonym.)
Salma sits with straight posture, smoking throughout the interview. The two are friendly, joking, but both have a sadness about them. Egypt’s new military regime introduced harsh new visa rules for Syrians. Due to the restrictions and the wave of xenophobia gripping Egypt, both are planning to leave Egypt soon.
The group also includes two photographers, Diaa and Basel, who still live in Homs and roam the city each day. Ahmed and Salma administer the page and handle media and communications with the outside.
Lens Young Homsi began with ordinary people using camera phones documenting early protests against the Assad regime in March 2011. People across Syria spontaneously did the same. Some were haunted by the memory of 1982, when Assad’s father Hafez Assad crushed an uprising in the city of Hama, killing some 20,000 people. The catastrophe was poorly documented, remembered instead through oral history passed from person to person.
“There’s a terror we have as Syrians, because we live under Assad and because we knew what happened in 1982 in Hama,” the Syrian American writer Amal Hanano, told the website Syria Deeply. “When the violence started in 2011, people knew that if they didn’t film it themselves, then nobody would believe what was happening.”
The fact that Syrians are documenting the disintegration of their country is a natural result of a technological shift that places a camera in the hands of almost anyone with enough money to buy a cheap mobile phone. It's a new chapter in the history of the documentation of war—Bosnians and Rwandans did not have YouTube.
Homs has been gutted by more than two years of war. The photos produced by the group these days are melancholy tableaus from a crippled city: deserted streets, children playing among leveled buildings, a spent artillery shell repurposed as a flower vase containing a single rose. The group’s mission is half documentary (Which areas of the city are still standing? Which are destroyed?) and half artistic. “People don't give a shit about politics,” Salma says. “So maybe through art you can do something."
As the regime’s attacks on Homs went through several periods of escalation and more residents left the city, the group began receiving more and more requests from exiled Homsis. People wanted to know if their houses, schools, and businesses were still standing. “We always have to reply to these people, and also to discuss with the team if this area is dangerous,” Salma says. “Sometimes you take the risk, but sometimes it’s too dangerous. You can’t lose a photographer to take a photo for someone who is living in Washington.”
The results of these excursions has ranged from the perilous to the poignant. “Sometimes you take a photo from far away and say, ‘Here, there’s a sniper so we couldn’t go in,” Salma says. Other times they’d find the Free Syrian Army operating in the house. Sometimes all that remained of the houses were piles of rubble. On the floor of one bombed-out house the photographers found a couple’s framed wedding photo. In a musician’s house, they found an FSA fighter sitting in a corner, strumming a left-behind guitar.
But for every touching moment Diaa and Basel captured, they documented a dozen tragic ones. In January the group posted a photo of a brother and sister standing in a sunlit alleyway in a besieged section of Homs. In the image, the boy, Yaseen, is sitting on a red bicycle. The girl, Maryam, is holding a cat. Half an hour later, the photographers reported the two were killed by a mortar shellfired by government forces.