BERLIN — Since the conflict in Syria began more than two years ago, the country has intermittently plunged into cyber-darkness. But activists in Europe and in Syria are using innovative means to stay online and to stay in touch with loved ones.
Since the civil war began, the nation's weak communications infrastructure has been made worse by government shut-offs aimed at choking the insurgency.
"After the Revolution, people started using the Internet more intensively," explained Hozan Ibrahim, a Syrian activist who escaped from the country after being tortured by the Assad regime. He's now based in Berlin.
"They wanted to participate. Not in the activism, but to learn about what was going on. The number of Facebook profiles, for example, have doubled three or four times. Same with Skype and e-mail and so on," he noted.
Hozan Ibrahim said 3G is available in some areas under the control of the regime. And, Syrians living along the country's borders with Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are using 3G networks from those countries to gain access.
Foreign Internet providers have installed more towers on Syria's borders to accommodate the onslaught of new users. Still, access is proving expensive for many Syrians.
"They can't of course use Syrian sim cards. There's no coverage in the majority of the areas, and the roaming costs are expensive. And the problem with Turkish phones or sim cards is that they are only operating on devices that are registered in Turkey. That makes costs double, since people need to buy a new Turkish phone," said Ibrahim.
Government surveillance of cell phones is another problem. But some activists have found a way around this. "Usually activists are buying sim cards with the ID cards of dead people. Or just using the cards of people who aren't there - either emigrated or dead," Ibrahim said.
But Sami Ibrahim (no relation to Hozan) of the Syrian Network for Human Rights said safety is still a major concern for activists like him. He is on the ground in Homs and Damascus, and said the government is hacking his members' cell phones and Internet accounts. "Our servers are attacked every two or three days by Iranian technology or by sources in Russia," he explained. "We are able to protect our servers. But sometimes our servers are hanged - we are unable to send information. But we have good technology."
Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch in Lebanon said her group's servers have also been attacked. "There clearly have been cyber attacks that have been initiated from outside of Syria. Human Rights Watch has also been subject to these attacks, as has been well reported. I can't confirm though whether there have been attacks originating from Iran or in Russia," added Fakih.
Sami Ibrahim said one of the biggest threats to activists is when Syrian government forces torture them and force them to hand over their Skype and Facebook contacts' lists. "This happened with one of our members. They arrested his wife and his son - his son was three years old. They pressured him to open his Skype account and Facebook page, to see with whom he was communicating," he said.
The activists told VOA that Syrians have access to international broadcasters like CNN, BBC World Service, and Al Hurra, but listenership is limited by power cuts of up to 14 hours a day. Activists said what they need most isn't satellite phones or hardware -- because some Western governments have provided the activists with satellite phones and other hardware, but what they really need is credit to help them meet the soaring cost of the devices they already have.