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Thousands follow 'A Gay Girl in Damascus'. Now she is missing, writes Liz Sly in Beirut.
WHEN Amina Arraf began blogging from the Syrian capital about life, politics and being gay in the Arab world, it was February, the Arab Spring was in its first bloom, and the prospects of an uprising in authoritarian Syria still seemed remote. She appeared to have only an inkling of how profound the coming upheaval would be.
''I live in Damascus, Syria. It's a repressive police state … But I have set up a blog with my name and my photo. Am I crazy?'' she asked in one of the first posts on her English-language blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. Arraf, 35, a Syrian American who was born in Staunton, Virginia, went on to describe her conviction that change is inevitable in Syria and her desire to play a part in it. ''I have to begin by doing something bold and visible,'' she wrote. ''I can because I'm a dual national and have benefits of politically connected relatives.''
Her relatives, whose connections she did not explain, have been hoping her US passport will help ease her passage through the black hole of Syria's prison system. Nothing has been heard of her since she was seen being bundled into a car by three armed men in central Damascus on Monday evening.
However, some in the blogosphere have questioned her claims, noting interviews with news organisations, including CNN, have apparently been by email or audio Skype, rather than in person. The New York Times blog The Lede commented: ''Although it remains possible that the blog's author was indeed detained, and has been writing a factual, not fictional, account of recent events in Syria, readers should be aware the one person who has identified herself … as a personal friend of the blogger … has now clarified that she has never actually met the author.''
If her detention is confirmed, Arraf will join more than 10,000 people who have been plucked from their homes or from the streets since the Syrian uprising began 11 weeks ago.
A posting in April propelled her to fame. Titled ''My father, the hero'', the post recounted how her father used stern words to dispatch two members of the security services who had come to her home to detain her.
Citing President Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher, who is leading the crackdown on the protest movement, her father said: ''They will not live forever, they will not rule forever, and you both know that. So if you want good things in the future, you will leave and you will not take Amina with you.'' The men left.
The post received more than 430,000 views and was reported around the world.
When security services reportedly returned to her home, they found she had been in hiding since early May. When Arraf was seized on Monday, she was on her way to meet another Syrian activist, raising the possibility that she had been betrayed.
According to a posting on her blog by a relative on Tuesday, her family has been unable to find out which of the 18 branches of the security services is holding her.
As word of her capture rippled around the web, some sceptics questioned whether someone who had grown up in the US and returned to Syria only last summer could truly be said to speak for the Syrians battling to overthrow their regime.
Others speculated that her American passport would protect her from the worst of the horrors endured by many other Syrians who have been detained.
However, as the day wore on, still others tweeted, using #amina, as to whether she existed in the real world.
Andy Carvin, a journalist with National Public Radio in the US, and a debunker of internet hoaxes, who spent the day trying to verify Amina's bonafides, tweeted: ''My greatest fear is that we're going on a wild goose chase re #Amina's identity when it's very possible she's being brutalised.''