*Content warning: Contains themes of physical violence and torture*
Words by Oliver Mizzi
To think about Syria is to think about conflict, refugees, and death. At least that is what has been ingrained into Western perceptions of the now 10-year war. But there’s another side to Syria. It’s not just a war that turned 10, it’s a revolution that turned 10.
Whilst war has become a reality in the country, it existed and unfortunately intertwined itself with a revolution that came before it. Remembering Syria isn’t just about remembering conflict, refugees, and death, but it is also about remembering the attempt of Syrians to attain dignity, freedom, and a better kind of life. Forgetting such things undermines the sense of tragedy that revolves around the country today.
The revolution emerged at a time of regional revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Many Syrians like Nour Ahmad (pseudonym) watched how Egyptians toppled long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, a phenomenon that followed from Tunisia’s toppling of Ben Ali. For her: “when Egyptians started protesting I started paying attention, their revolution opened my eyes to the possibilities of something similar in Syria”.
Something similar did in fact start to emerge in Syria. There was growing anti-regime sentiment, and in the southern city of Darra, the regime had arrested a group of schoolboys for spray-painting anti-regime slogans. One such slogan said, ‘It’s your turn, doctor’. The doctor in question was Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist. Torture followed their arrest, and for many Syrians, torture was an all too real prospect that fed into a wall of fear that had stopped protests emerging earlier.
Kholoud Helmi, grew up on such stories. An old blind lady she once knew had lost her eyesight from weeping so much. Her son had been taken by the regime whilst collecting his university graduation papers, only being released after 23 years; 2 years after his mother had died. People knew of the consequences of protesting. To say the words ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ “before 2011 was like a suicide” says Mazen Hassoun. Yet the events in Darra ensured the slogan would be adopted.
The incident in Darra provoked a crisis. The torture of schoolkids, and the regime’s dismissive response towards their parents, provoked a protest on March 18. The regime fired on protestors leading to the first martyrs of the revolution. Many people, including Bassam Barabandi, “hoped Assad will listen to the people and act in a different way than Yemen and Libya[n]leaders did at that time… but we were dreaming and did not think we’ll face a nightmare”.
In a speech to parliament on March 30, Assad blamed foreign enemies that worked to undermine Syria’s stability, and stated “The Holy Qur’an says, ‘sedition is worse than killing’, so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country”.
Not only did this set the tone for the regime’s response to protests, it expanded the crisis in Darra nationally. For Mazen, who was 15 years old and living in Raqqa at the time, watching protestors chanting for dignity and freedom, only to be fired upon, ensured he joined protests too: “There is no motive stronger than that to make you do something. So, I went out to [the] streets and started organizing protests with some friends”.
Kholoud felt the same: “To hear people protesting in the streets for the first time in your life calling for freedom, democracy and supporting other Syrians in other cities raided by the regime was remarkable”.
Yet for Nour, the dangers were too real: “as a minor my father actively discouraged me from doing as little as liking pro revolution Facebook pages let alone participate in an actual protest that would get me arrested in Assad’s torture dungeons in which my fate would be similar to Hamza”.
Hamza Ali al-Khatib was a 13-year old schoolboy from Darra. Tortured by the regime, his body was delivered to his family bruised, with markings of cigarette burns, gun shot wounds and genital mutilation. At the time of his detention in late April, Darra was under siege by the regime, and his death was one of hundreds.
Even though repression increased, so did civil activism. Across Syria protestors sang songs in defiance of the regime, and in solidarity with other cities. Songs such as “Come on, leave Bashar”, or “Oh Homs, we are with you till death”, and “The Ba’athists went crazy when we asked for freedom” were all sung in various protests.
Witty songs were just the tip of the iceberg. A strong civil society began to emerge from the revolution. Muzna Dureid – still at school in southern Damascus – was amongst those that participated in the revolutionary councils and organised protests. Two of her uncles, and three of her cousins had been arrested by the regime during the early protests. They too had been beaten whilst detained.
The town of Darayya, located just outside Damascus, gained infamy for its grassroots activity. Not only had the town offered roses to the Syrian army that were deployed during early protests, it was infamous for its grassroots services such as schools, hospitals, soup kitchens and an underground library. Even the armed opposition were under the control of the revolutionary council – something that was unique in opposition-held Syria. Kholoud was a member of the revolutionary council, and co-founder of the local newspaper Enab Baladi.
Darayya would be the victim of a regime massacre in August 2012, and was besieged that November, witnessing heavy shelling, airstrikes and barrel bombs. The regime recaptured the town in August 2016. Kholoud’s brother has been detained by the regime since May 2012, and brother in law since September 2013. Since being displaced from Darayya, Kholoud still participates in revolutionary activity, campaigning for human rights, and continuing to publish Enab Baladi.
Regime brutality forced many to flee. Muzna fled after one of her uncles was killed during a protest. Her brother was detained twice for helping injured protestors. One of those was at the airport before taking a flight out of Syria. In exile, Muzna co-founded the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, and from her residency in Canada, is a Liaison Officer for The White Helmets.
Nour fled Syria because her family supported the revolution and as a result, had been hounded by the regime. Bassam was working at the Syrian embassy in Washington DC when the revolution occurred. He left in 2013 and founded People Demand Change Inc. He lost everything he had in Syria.
Mazen was from the first regional capital to be liberated from the regime – it had been taken by Syrian rebels in March 2013. He continued to participate in revolutionary activity, and one day, after painting democratic slogans on Raqqa’s walls, was injured in a Regime airstrike. He fled Raqqa after the city was captured by ISIS in January 2014. ISIS was known for targeting Syrian revolutionaries. He is now a Journalist based in Germany.
Although the revolution is on the backfoot, many believe there’s no other option. For Bassam “the revolution is like [an] historical auto correction”. For Nour it restored her sense of national pride; for Mazen, his desire for dignity and freedom. For Muzna, it allowed her to reclaim her rights as a young woman. For Kholoud, it was “a re-birth”. “Once I read a novel for Khaled Al Husseini entitled: The Kite Runner and in it, the co-hero says once: ‘For you, a thousand times over’ and I can fully say, for this call for dignity and freedom, a thousand times over”.