Who/What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz] – cont'd

It was reported this afternoon that the two journalists wounded in Baba Amr quarter of Homs, Syria last week [in the same “Media Center” where Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik died in shelling that their satellite phone use very probably helped target], were “smuggled” out — and that 13 Avaaz activists died in the operation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the effort. Speaking from the southern French city of Montpelier, where he is campaigning for the forthcoming elections, Sarkozy said he was “glad that this nightmare is over”, according to the AP http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_15716/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=ypSDmCoh.

But, a few hours later, Sarkozy retracted his remarks.

It seems that French journalist Edith Bouvier, who pleaded for evacuation from Baba Amr — because her leg was broken in two places, she could not walk, and she badly needed urgent fast surgery — was left behind and had not reached safety in Lebanon, as was previously announced. Only British journalist/cameraman Paul Convoy made it out, overnight, the BBC reported, here.

According to this BBC report, Bouvier’s whereabouts were unknown, though she apparently may have made it out of Homs, all of which is a danger zone under attack.

The BBC also reported that there was no news about the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Before this surprising turnaround, and before Sarkozy’s retraction,
Zak @TheZako commented, with apparent admiration, on Twitter:
“.@Avaaz spoxman on @BBCRadio4: 23 activists were killed during the evacuation of foreign journalists. Crazy, crazy!”

Was it 23? Or, 13?

[@Avaaz Tweeted today that: “Ricken Patel, from #Avaaz, is live on #NSCNN CNN now. “There were over 50 activists in the opp, 23 died”. But an Avaaz press release, below, says it was 13…]

And, who are these Avaaz activists, really?

    Avaaz itself announced here that “a network of Syrian activists coordinated [though a Tweet by @Avaaz says it provided “support”] by the global campaign organisation Avaaz helped the international journalist Paul Conroy escape into Lebanon. He had been injured and trapped in Baba Amr, Homs for six days under continuous Syrian government shelling. The three other journalists Javier Espinosa, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels remain unaccounted for. Avaaz responded to requests from the journalists, their families and colleagues to attempt to evacuate them and worked with over 35 heroic Syrian activists each night who volunteered to help in the rescue. The activists have offered to support in the evacuation every night since Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed by Syrian government shellfire last Wednesday, during which time they rescued 40 seriously wounded people from the same place and brought in medical supplies. Tragically this operation led to a number of fatalities as the Syrian Army targeted those escaping, during their bombardment of the city on Sunday evening. 13 activists were killed in the operation. Three activists were killed by Syrian targeted shelling as they tried to assist the journalists through Baba Amr. While Paul Conroy successfully escaped the city, ten activists died bringing relief supplies into Baba Amr. On the day of their evacuation, over 7,000 people had been forced to flee their neighbourhoods in south Homs in fear of massacres. This operation was carried by Syrians with the help of Avaaz. No other agency was involved”.

The BBC said that “Campaign group Avaaz said it had co-ordinated an operation to free the wounded journalists and two trapped colleagues, and some of the activists involved had died in the process. Avaaz executive director Ricken Patel said the rescue group had been split in two by shelling after leaving Homs, and only Mr Conroy’s group had been able to move forward. Avaaz described the three other journalists – Ms Bouvier, Javier Espinosa, and William Daniels – as ‘unaccounted for’. Mr Conroy was apparently able to walk across the border into Lebanon during the night, but our correspondent adds that the more seriously wounded Ms Bouvier would have had to be carried on a stretcher”.

Javier Espinosa, Middle East Correspondent for El Mundo [Spain], reportedly survived uninjured the same attack killed Colvin + Ochlik, and wounded Bouvier + Conroy. One of his accounts of the situation in Baba Amr was published by The Guardian, here.

William Daniels, a French photographer who was on assignment for Panos photo agency, may or may not have been wounded.

Mr. Conroy’s wife, who had given hell to British Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] officials for their seeming earlier inaction on rescuing her husband, said this evening that she was thrilled. A FCO spokesperson, speaking on “customary condition of anonymity in line with policy” said that “All the necessary work is being done on repatriating Marie Colvin’s body and ensuring Paul Conroy gets to safety. For security reasons we can’t give you any more detail of that at the moment”. This is reported by CBS News here.

The Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ] issued a statement, posted here, from its New York Headquarters that “In all, eight journalists have been killed in Syria in the last four months, CPJ research shows. On Friday, a Syrian videographer Anas al-Tarsha was killed in Homs while filming a bombardment. A week earlier, another Syrian videographer, Rami al-Sayed, was killed in Baba Amr”.

CBS News also reported here that: “The Syrian opposition group Local Coordination Committees [LCC] and global activist group Avaaz said Conroy was the only foreign journalist to escape Syria. Rima Fleihan, an LCC spokeswoman, said the Sunday Times photographer was smuggled out by Syrian army defectors. The global activist group Avaaz, which said it organized the evacuation with local Syrian activists, said 35 Syrians volunteered to help get the journalists out and bring aid in. Of those, 13 were killed. Avaaz said three were killed in government shelling while trying to help Conroy through the neighborhood and 10 others were killed trying to bring in aid while Conroy was on his way out on Sunday evening … The LCC said other Western journalists are negotiating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to be allowed to leave Syria without having their videos and photos confiscated by authorities. All the journalists killed and wounded in Homs were smuggled into Syria from Lebanon illegally”.

Really, who are these Avaaz activists?

    Liz Sly made an attempt to clarify in a report published in the Washington Post here, which recalled that about ten days ago, “New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack during a strenuous trek out of Syria across the mountainous Turkish border”.

    Sly’s Washington Post piece reported that “The botched rescue [n.b. – of injured and stranded journalists from Baba Amr] Tuesday also underscores the dangers facing the underground networks of activists and smugglers set up to evacuate people injured in government attacks to hospitals in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The same networks carry medical supplies such as blood bags and antibiotics into Syria for use in field hospitals and have been used by journalists to enter the country illegally. Similar but separate networks have also been utilized to smuggle weapons to the fledgling armed resistance movement known as the Free Syrian Army. But most of those active in the medical networks are civilian volunteers, seeking to help Syrians who have been injured during protests and who risk detention if they seek treatment at government hospitals, said Wissam Tarif, a Lebanon-based activist with Avaaz. ‘They are just ordinary guys who did not pick up weapons but decided to evacuate injured people’, he said. ‘Some of them have basic medical training, some can do tetanus shots and provide some medical assistance. Some of them are just guys who can carry heavy weights. They’ve been doing this for a year, and hundreds of them have been killed’. Altogether, 23 members of the network engaged in ferrying medical supplies and injured victims between Homs and Lebanon have been killed since last Wednesday’s attack on the journalists, said Tarif, who has close ties with the network. [Wait – is Sly separating this “network” from Avaaz, or are they identical, or at least overlap?] In the process, they have evacuated 40 injured civilians from Homs. Details of the the ambush and the identities of the dead Syrians were not disclosed to protect future evacuation operations, With the deaths of the activists and the evident discovery of the secret route they had been using by Syrian security forces, the network is now in jeopardy, activists said, leaving it unclear whether the remaining journalists can be evacuated. Efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to negotiate safe passage out of Bab Amr for the journalists have failed”…

Meanwhile the UN Human Rights Council convened in a special session in Geneva to discuss the situation in Syria. High-level delegations were expected to attend. The Syrian delegates walked out in protest early in the session after a UN official told the meeting that “atrocities were being committed in Syria”.

The BBC added that “French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has urged the 47 nations in the council to be prepared to submit a complaint against Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague”.

Who/What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz] and why did/do journalists trust them with their lives in Baba Amr

Who or What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz]?

And, why do veteran combat journalsts working for major news organizations trust Avaaz with their lives in getting into, and when inside, the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, Syria, which has been beseiged by the Syrian army on a mission to exterminate “Islamist terrorism”?

Ahvaaz [Avaaz]:
The name of an organization [a “global advocacy group”, The Telegraph coyly calls them] called Avaaz, has been mentioned as cooridinating closely with journalists covering the Syrian uprising, and in connection with their arrivals in besieged places like Baba Amr.

Their website is available in 14 or 15 languages at www.avaaz.org, here, they are on Twitter [@avaaz], and also Facebook — and they are interested in global matters — the oceans, the Amazon, the internet, and now Syria — identifying themselves as “a campaigning community” with 13 million members.

Their website says: “Avaaz—meaning ‘voice’ in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want … Where other global civil society groups are composed of issue-specific networks of national chapters, each with its own staff, budget, and decision-making structure, Avaaz has a single, global team with a mandate to work on any issue of public concern–allowing campaigns of extraordinary nimbleness, flexibility, focus, and scale. Avaaz’s online community can act like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden, urgent emergency; and a stem cell that grows into whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need”…

UPDATE: Julian Borger reported here in The Guardian on Tuesday night [28 February] that Avaaz was founded in 2007.

Borger adds that Avaaz “emerged out of activist groups in the US and Australia, including ResPublica, GetUp! and MoveOn.org. Its founding president is Ricken Patel, a Canadian-British veteran of the International Crisis Group, a global thinktank, and MoveOn.org, a progressive American group. He runs a team of campaigners around the world, with offices in New York, Rio, Delhi, Madrid and Sydney”.

And, Borger added. Avaaz “has taken on a prominent and more physically risky role in the Arab spring, providing satellite phones and other communication equipment to pro-democracy groups in Libya, Egypt and Syria … Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation’s commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world”.

While the first time I recall hearing the name Ahvaaz was in connection with an “uprising” against the Islamic Republic regime installed in Tehran that the Iranian authorities strongly believe was coordinated with the American CIA + British secret services, they also seemed to have some kind of association with the MEK — or, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq = a supposedly “leftist’ movement that was part of the resistance to the Shah of Iran prior to the Iranian revolution, but was then persecuted, and took up arms against the Islamic Republic, when they found an ally in Saddam Hussein who offered them shelter and a base came which they are now evacuating for relocation as refugees around the world, under great pressure.

Ahvaaz, if I am not mistaken [will check] is the Persian version of the name of [CORR: the capital city of Khuzestan, the] Arabic-speaking province [Ahwaz] in south-western Iran, bordering Iraq, the Shatt al-Arab, and the north-western shore of Iran along the Persian Gulf.  It was in the Ahvaaz province that the first clashes in the terrible Iran-Iraq war [end 1979 to August 1989] took place, between the freshly-installed Islamic Republic and a Saddam Hussein backed by the U.S., by all Arab states [officially, at least] and by all the “civilized world”.

Ahvaaz came in big, internationally, in social media more recently at a late phase of the Tahrir Square protests — and though nobody knew who they were, exactly, many otherwise savvy people were enthusiastic to support, if not join, their calls for signing petitions, etc., in support of the Tahrir movement.

Like the MEK, Avaaz seems to be very media-savvy, and have expertise in modern technology.

But, Avaaz is functioning differently than the MEK at the height of its influence. Avaaz is concentrating on social media, and video postings on the internet, as well as their new role of helping “smuggle” journalists into battle zones in closed Syria via routes they have access to in neighboring countries [Lebanon, and possibly Turkey — the Israel government is surely aware of this, but keeping a judicious quiet].

The Avaaz website explains this under the heading, Breaking the Middle East Black-out:

    “Funded by donations from almost 30,000 Avaazers, an Avaaz team is working closely with the leadership of democracy movements in Syria, Yemen, Libya and more to get them high-tech phones and satellite internet modems, connect them to the world’s top media outlets, and provide communications advice. We’ve seen the power of this engagement — where our support to activists has created global media cycles with footage and eyewitness accounts that our team helps distribute to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others. The courage of these activists is unbelievable — a skype message read ‘state security searching the house, my laptop battery dying, if not online tomorrow I’m dead or arrested’. He’s ok, and together we’re helping to get his and many other voices out to the world”

But, in Syria, things are not ok.

[Due to the dire situation, presumably, there is no particular information about Syria, at the moment, on the Avaaz website… UPDATE Yet, Avaaz states, here, that it “has been working with activists on the Syrian Spring since it started, setting up a network of over 400 Citizen Journalists across the country, smuggling in medicines and international journalists to report on the unfolding story and campaigning to ensure that sanctions and political pressure are applied on the Assad regime. The organisation is entirely funded by small donations from its members”.

UPDATE: An article published on The Guardian website last July, here, reports that “Since 2009, Avaaz has not taken donations from foundations or corporations, nor has it accepted payments of more than $5,000. Instead, it relies simply on the generosity of individual members, who have now raised over $20m. Much of this money goes towards specific campaigns. This year, $1.5m was raised to supply cameras to citizen journalists throughout the Arab world; as a result, much of the footage currently coming out of Syria was filmed on equipment provided by Avaaz”. The BBC picked up and rewrote this today, reporting rather lazily, here, that “Avaaz says it is independent and accountable because since 2009 it has been wholly member-funded”.]

Why should journalists trust Avaaz with their lives, as Marie Colvin did?

And, why are French photographers and filmmakers working so closely with Avaaz? [Are French photographers just more passionate and curious about the world? Or, do they have some kind of official backing?…]

If Avaaz is behind the recent quantum leap in improvement in the filming and video streaming of protests throughout Syria — particularly the dancing protests highlighted in our previous post — they deserve a lot of credit for their skills.

By comparison, the MEK, before it was labelled by the US as “terrorist organization”, a label which they have been fighting, used to function less as “local fixers” who can boost a foreign correspondent’s impact and reach, and more as an effective pressure group which was in regular contact with members of Congress and other governments, as well as everyone’s editors — and if a journalist didn’t seem enthusiastic about publishing their news, they would threaten to go to one’s editors. They implied that they could promote journalists’ careers — or of having them black-listed, and fired … Like other powerful and effective lobbies, the MEK traded in influence, and was feared.

More to follow later…

Marie Colvin: "Our Mission is to Speak the Truth"

Described with rough affection on Twitter this morning as one of “the most badass journalists of all time”, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, an American working for the Sunday Times, died in war this morning —
in a shelling on a “Media Center” or “safe house” in the Baba Amr district of Homs, where some 28,000 civilians are reportedly trapped while a sustained Syrian Army offensive against “rebels” has continued “without mercy”, as she said, for days.

Intensive shelling started some two weeks ago.  The Syrian Army is reportedly using large mortars on the civilians trapped with fighters from the Free Syria Army [said to be composed of Syrian military defectors].
Marie reported that Syrian Army snipers are posted all around the perimeter of the area now being shelled, so it is very difficult and dangerous to go in or out. Supplies of all kinds are dwindling in the siege.

Yesterday, Marie said in a Q+A aired on BBC: “I watched a baby die”.

Killed with Marie was 28-year-old French photographer Remi Ochlik, whose work is posted on his website here, and where he wrote about himself: “In 2011, Remi photographed the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the uprising and war in Libya”. Ochlik stayed behind in Homs when a staff photographer for a French publication was pulled out because of the dangerous conditions.

Yesterday, Syrian blogger/journalist Rami al-Sayed [“Syria Pioneer”] was killed in Baba Amr while working to report the fighting on the internet. “He was one of the first activists who risked their lives and braved sniper bullets to film the protests in Homs. Rami also set up a channel to live stream the anti-regime demonstrations and the army’s assaults on the city. Rami never admitted he was the one behind the channel but whenever his colleagues told me he was ‘out’ or ‘busy’, I was sure to find a live feed on his channel”, according to a post published here, which was picked up by the NYTimes blog, TheLede.

In all, as of today, some 13 journalists have lost their lives in the fighting in Syria.
Marie and Remi were killed today, and at least three other journalists were wounded in the same attack this morning, just after they had uploaded video and photos, and filed stories — leading to the growing suspicion that sophisticated electronic methods had been used to track and target the journalists.

The Telegraph reported in an updated article bylined by Gordon Rayner, Nabila Ramdani and Richard Spencer
that a group of journalists “were fired on as they tried to flee a makeshift press centre that had suffered a direct hit from a shell. Witnesses said they were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they emerged from the ruins of the press centre, which was next door to a hospital. Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said they had been ‘pursued as they tried to flee the bombardment’ … Before the building was attacked, Syrian army officers were allegedly intercepted by intelligence staff in neighbouring Lebanon discussing how they would claim journalists had been killed in crossfire with ‘terrorist groups’ … Hours before she died, Colvin had given interviews to several broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN in which she described the bloodshed as ‘absolutely sickening’. She also accused Mr Assad’s forces of ‘murder’ and said it was ‘a complete and utter lie that they are only targeting terrorists…the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians’. Sources in Damascus confirmed that Syrians, including Mr Assad, would have been able to watch Colvin’s broadcasts – a fact that could have sealed her fate. Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Colvin in Homs last week, said they had been told the Syrian Army was deliberately going to shell their media centre, which had a limited electricity supply and internet access thanks to a generator. Mr Perrin said: ‘A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told “if they [the Syrian army] find you they will kill you”. I then left the city with [Colvin] but she wanted to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place’.” This account is published here.

Earlier, makeshift clinics and medical personnel were reportedly targetted in Baba Amr.

Continue reading Marie Colvin: "Our Mission is to Speak the Truth"