August 7, 2014

Will Syria Be Saved By Robots?

Once, Ahmed Haidar was targeted and tortured by the Syrian government for trying to buy a rock n'roll album, now he's diligently at work on his latest project: a robot that rescues sniper victims on the streets of Syria's urban war.

“The son of my cousin was walking to work and was shot by a sniper. He didn’t die. He lay on the ground for five days and nobody could help him, so he lost a lot of blood and he died.”

Story after story of lives that could have been saved forced Ahmed Haidar to act. He dreamed up Tena, a robot designed to rescue sniper victims. In Syria’s urban warscapes, where snipers shoot to wound their victims, rescue missions become life-or-death situations. Often many lives are lost in the effort to save one. Tena is about to change all that.

Haidar’s robot has been in production for more than a year now. As parts arrive in the Turkish town of Kilis, he and his team of four test the robot’s abilities and refine her design. The robot is named “Tena”, after a Finnish woman Haidar “fell in love with for an hour” on a plane once. While Tena’s prototypes are being made of whatever parts are available, her final design will incorporate the body of a bulldozer covered in titanium. When she’s completed, Tena will be able to retrieve wounded people and place them on a stretcher inside an armoured compartment before moving to safety. The device will be remote controlled from a range of five kilometers.



Photo by Ben Taub for Vice

Haidar’s commitment to preserving life has put him in direct confrontation with opposition groups as well as the Assad government. When he balked at the suggestion to arm Tena, Haidar’s family inside Syria began receiving threats. He arranged to have them smuggled over the border into Turkey. They brought him clothes – he’d escaped with a suitcase full of suits and had been wearing them for five months straight. Haidar consistently refused to cave to opposition demands that he arm Tena, and use her as aweapon as well as a rescue machine. “To me it would be like saving a soul to kill another,” he said.

When he’s not working on Tena, Haidar spends hours watching videos online of attempted rescues. He sympathises with a man trying to use metal rods to roll a woman with a serious head injury to safety. “He is trying to give a soul to the metal — to make it do what he needs it to. This is what I do for a living. These videos inspired me.” The need for Tena becomes clear after watching just one of these videos. On the website Haidar set up to crowdfund his project, under a tab titled “Why Tena”, he lists no fewer than seventeen. Each one is dated and captioned with a location and a short summary in English.

Before the crisis, Haidar was a computer engineer and teacher in Aleppo. He was detained and tortured twice by the Assad government: once in 2004 for trying to buy a rock album called “The Road to Freedom”, and again in 2008 when he received a letter stamped “ISL,” and the government accused him of being an Israeli spy. His second detention lasted forty days, during which he was subjected to several kinds of torture. “They wanted the names of 10 spies,” Haidar remembers. “I told them David Cohen (a famous Israeli spy) but the reply to that was ‘Nice try, sunshine.’” Haidar’s father had to sell three houses to pay for his release.

When the peaceful protest movement began, the Syrian government recruited Haidar. They offered him a position with the Syrian Electronic Army, the group infamous for hacking organisations like the BBC, Human Rights Watch, and Anonymous. At one of their underground facilities, Haidar recalls seeing technology capable of monitoring more than 8,000 IP addresses per second. “They observe everything!” he said. “Whatever you type they can access it. This is why the internet became so slow in Syria, especially once the revolution began. Everything is being screened for keywords, and even phone calls.” When a violation against the state was detected, the government would locate and arrest the person responsible.


Photo by Jodi Hilton for NPR

Haidar immediately went into hiding and joined a group of hackers known as The Pirates of Aleppo. The group was often called upon by activists to clean up Facebook pages of people who’d been arrested. “We would remove anything anti-government and replace it with pornography. It got the best reaction. The guys would be investigated for a few hours, maybe a little torture but nothing major. Then they’d be released.”

In collaboration with other hacker groups across Syria, the activists managed to hack government websites, personal pages of government officials, and live television broadcasts. The hactivists’ most famous stunt was announcing that Bashar al-Assad had decided to resign “for the good of the people”. Haidar was tried twice in absentia for his cyber activity. Both times he was sentenced to death for “insulting his majesty.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – his two death sentences, Haidar has no desire to return to Syria anytime soon. “Not at least for another 10 years. That’s how long it will take for Syria to get back to normal. After that I’ll let future Ahmed decide.” In the meantime, he continues to focus on construction and funding for Tena in the hopes that she will soon be in action on the streets of Aleppo.

Find out how you can support Ahmad and Tena.