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After discovering the video, HRW’s Syria researchers passed it along to their satellite imagery expert. By matching stills from the video with satellite photos, the analyst identified the bombed town within days. It’s called al Dabaa, HRW says, a village just north of Al-Qusayr, a rebel-held city that has been the site of heavy fighting in recent months. HRW is now asking its Syrian contacts to visit al Dabaa to determine whether anyone was killed in the strike.
In interviews with the Forward, HRW officials described the methods by which the organization has continued to obtain information from inside Syria as conditions have worsened. Those methods include covert visits to Syria by HRW researchers, interviews with refugees outside the country and contacts with sources inside.
Traveling inside Syria involves serious risks. In August, HRW researchers Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang were visiting a hospital in the rebel-held city of Aleppo when rockets fired from government aircraft flattened a house two buildings over, killing residents. The hospital itself had been bombed by government jets days earlier in a clear violation of the laws of war. “We think they might have been aiming at the hospital,” Solvang told the Forward.
Neistat, a lawyer who has worked as a journalist in Russia, wears a hijab when inside Syria to try to blend in. Solvang, who holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, is Swedish. “To some extent, they tried to dress me up,” he said. “I had a couple of people who told me I looked exactly like their Syrian cousin, but I wasn’t quite convinced.”
The two take extensive security precautions in the country, encrypting digital information they carry and trying to transcribe and destroy written notes as quickly as possible. That is partly to protect the researchers, but mostly to protect the sources who cooperate with them.
Those sources have been cultivated over many years. “We’ve been working on Syria for so long; I’d been doing it for six years when the uprising started,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s Beirut-based deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division. “We already had contacts with quite a few activists and had been able to establish trust and assess accountability over a few years.”
Whatever the risks run by Neistat and Solvang and other HRW staffers who come into and go out of Syria relatively quickly, they’re minimal compared with those faced by some of the in-country sources.
“They want to get their story out,” Houry said. “They realize that by talking to us, the victims in their region, their area, will get a lot more attention.”
That attention can come quickly. Houry said that sources had been describing cluster bombings in conversations for some time, leading the group to ask for videos of the bombs. The videos HRW eventually obtained, refuted the Syrian government’s denials that it was using the banned munitions. The videos’ release led to wire stories reprinted around the globe.
“We’re definitely not cowboys,” Houry said. Still, he said, “There’s no zero risk in this job, and definitely no zero risk in a place like Syria.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@nathankazis