How much more must Syrians pay for their uprising against the Assad government?
Image by Tammam Azzam, Freedom Graffiti II, 2013. Courtesy Ayyam Gallery
Abu Ma’an wrestled with the decision to join the Free Syrian Army for a few months. “I hadn’t been convinced about the armed rebellion,” he explained. “But the regime was addicted to slaughter. From the rest of the world, all we saw was hesitation. They talked about freedom, but did nothing as we died. I realized there was no way to deal with this regime except force.”
The local battalion’s arsenal was so limited that every three members shared a gun. “One person had it in the morning, another in the afternoon, and a third at night,” he said, shaking his head. The other young men in his unit became like brothers. “When someone was killed, you felt like you lost a part of yourself.”
That August, Abu Ma’an’s battalion launched a battle against a regime outpost. He was in the front lines when a tank identified his position. It fired one shell and then another. “Withdraw, withdraw!” his mates shouted as they ran for cover. He sped after them when a third blast knocked him to the ground. He tried to move but could not. Numbness was replaced with a searing pain. He peered through the clouds of dirt and dust but could not see his leg. It had been shattered.
The unit rushed Abu Ma’an to a field hospital and then across the border to Jordan where another ambulance carried him farther into the country. Every bump along the dirt back roads fired a shock through his broken bones. When they arrived, the ambulance opened to reveal Abu Ma’an’s father pacing in the parking lot. He had rushed there upon receiving news. They had not seen each other in more than two years.
Surgeons prepared for amputation. “I can take him to Europe for surgery,” his father pleaded. “I’ll do anything to save the leg.” They stopped him; the outcome would be the same.
Statistics tell us that violence in Syria has left at least 150,000 dead, 9 million forced from their homes, and 9.3 million in need of humanitarian aid. But by the time numbers are published they are already out of date. In the West, the Syrian conflict connotes sectarian war, humanitarian crisis, Islamic extremism, and chemical weapons. It is easy to forget that, for many, this nightmare began with a dream.
I have interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees, and they describe the start of protests in the spring of 2011 as their break through a barrier of fear. They raised their voices against a system that denied them voice. Though initial demands were only for reform, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responded ferociously.
On my first trip to Jordan in 2012, I met displaced Syrians who had endured bombardment and buried loved ones, yet still retained a glimmer of optimism. A grandmother in the Zaatari refugee camp, then just rows of tents in the desert, expected to return to Syria any day. Insisting that I visit her there, she explained how to catch the bus from the Damascus airport to her village and carefully dictated her Syrian landline number.
When I returned in 2013, her village no longer existed. The Zaatari camp had quadrupled to become the fourth-largest city in Jordan, though one surrounded by a barbed-wire fence through which refugees were forbidden to exit. In Jordan, and then Turkey, I found that refugees’ descriptions of Syria frequently ended with the single verb “rah,” meaning to be gone and finished. A father from Homs traced a mental map of his old neighborhood, from the alley shortcuts he took in elementary school to the hospital where his daughter was born. “Rah,” he said, shaking his head. Nothing remained but rubble.
Every few weeks or months, they changed their Facebook profile pictures to that of a newly martyred friend.
Over thick coffee and clouds of cigarette smoke, the fiery young activists who had opened their arms in front of tanks and endured torture in dark prison cells began to express despair. Every few weeks or months, they changed their Facebook profile pictures to that of a newly martyred friend. Increasingly, they pulled me aside to ask, in hushed voices, if I knew anything about opportunities for asylum in Sweden.
Abu Ma’an was a 21-year-old with shaggy light brown hair and a scruffy beard. He looked like a surfer in San Diego, but was from Daraa, the southernmost province of Syria and the birthplace of its revolt. I met him in a hospital room in Jordan. He wore a tank top that revealed a beaded necklace and an athletic build. “I was a champion handball player,” he remarked with the poise of someone much older. He used the phone to order coffee from the hospital cafe, which was how it was done there, and insisted that the deliverer keep the change.
Abu Ma’an used a pseudonym to protect himself from retribution by the Syrian regime; like many young men, he began going by the formula “father of” (in his case, father of Ma’an) when he was still a teenager in his own father’s house.
I would not understand the Syrian revolution, he told me, unless I tried to imagine what it was like to live under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, and then his son Bashar, who became leader after his father’s death in 2000. For four decades, Syria’s security state permitted no dissent. “If they sensed that you weren’t completely submissive, you’d be put where no one would ever find you again,” Abu Ma’an said. Everyone knew someone who had suffered that fate. Citizens had no protection from the everyday indignities and corruption that substituted for law. Abu Ma’an described how a citizen wanting to open a simple shop had to obtain approval from six different security agencies and pay bribes to each. “Two years of profits would go down the drain, and he’d still be under officers’ feet forever.”
Most Syrians lowered their eyes and their voices and tried to get by. Abu Ma’an grew up in a political household. His father held secret gatherings in their home to discuss possibilities for opposition. Attendees would climb over the back fence so no undercover informants spotted them entering the front door. Listening to the conversations, Abu Ma’an developed both a political sensibility and an awareness of repression. “I knew that if I mentioned something at school, that would be my first and last mistake.”
Few allowed themselves to imagine another reality, until uprisings spread across other Arab countries in early 2011. Abu Ma’an was in his final year of high school at the time. Like many Syrians his age, he believed that they could not lose the opportunity to act.
Internet activists called for protests on March 15th, and Abu Ma’an and his friends secretly planned a demonstration in Daraa. One person would whisper the details to a trusted confidant, who in turn told only others whom he knew well.
The day arrived. Would-be demonstrators came one by one to avoid raising suspicions. They found the area teeming with security agents. “People walked away without even stopping,” Abu Ma’an remembered. “The demonstration was quashed before it even began.”
The young activists decided to try again three days later. They chose a neighborhood that security forces typically overlooked and planned to protest after Friday prayers. Mosques were a rare place where people could gather.
Other developments gave fuel to their efforts. Two weeks earlier, security forces had arrested some fifteen children after graffiti appeared on the wall of a local school. Relatives begged the provincial police chief for their release. A cousin of the president, he dismissed them with words most Syrians I met quoted verbatim: “Forget your children. Go home to your wives and make more children. And if you do not know how, bring your wives and we will show you.”
The next day was Friday. In the mosque, Abu Ma’an’s heart raced as prayers concluded. Then someone rose and shouted, “God is great!”
The call to protest was lost on no one. A crowd moved into the street with chants of “freedom” and “dignity.” People watched from their balconies in shock; the only demonstrations they had ever witnessed were those choreographed to praise the president. Within minutes, a march swelled from tens to hundreds.
“It was a feeling of indescribable happiness,” Abu Ma’an said, smiling. “After the fear we had lived with our whole lives, you just couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Security forces opened fire, injuring several and killing two. (A third would die several days later.) “Everyone knew the regime’s history,” he continued, referring to the 1982 crackdown that had razed the city of Hama and left tens of thousands dead. “But we were peaceful and never expected them to kill in cold blood.”
Many who participated would recall those days as the most beautiful of their lives.
The funeral the next day became a larger protest. Ongoing protests that week gave rise to even larger funerals. Word traveled and other communities across Syria held similar demonstrations. Like Abu Ma’an, many who participated would recall those days as the most beautiful of their lives. Voices cracked and eyes moistened when people described their first demonstrations to me. “It was the first time I went out and said no,” a student from the Idlib countryside remembered. “It was like talking from your heart, in spite of everything,” a young mother from Homs said. “It was the first time that I felt like a Syrian citizen,” a thirty-something from the Damascus suburbs told me. A man from Hama insisted that his first demonstration was better than his wedding day. “And when I said that in front of my wife, she refused to talk to me for a month.”
In town after town, unarmed citizens chanted that they preferred death to humiliation. And there, as in Daraa, demonstrations ended in death. Facing regime violence, Abu Ma’an took up what he believed to be the most powerful weapon: a video camera. Syria’s state-run media ignored the events as long as it could, and then blamed unrest on terrorists, traitors, and criminal gangs. “To show the truth, a group of us got organized and started filming everything. We marked videos with the date and time down to the exact minute,” Abu Ma’an said. Their clips, like others coming from throughout Syria, spread online and across satellite networks.
After several weeks of protests, the army laid siege to Daraa. In scenes that would recur across Syria, tanks occupied the streets and cut electricity and water. Snipers shot at anything that moved and plain-clothes militia made terrorizing house searches. Citizens were arrested en masse. Some returned, changed forever by torture. Others were never heard from again.
The community came together in new ways. Grassroots committees formed to sneak food between houses so no one would go hungry. Popular leaders emerged, among them a forty-something engineer named Ma’an. His ability to inspire unity and resilience made him a special role model for younger men and a special threat to the authorities. “The regime targeted leaders,” Abu Ma’an said. “It thought that if it killed them, it would stop people from rising up.”
Security forces followed Ma’an for months before singling him out at a demonstration. He fell after one shot. Subsequent gunfire silenced him forever.
Abu Ma’an and his friends were devastated. They preserved the body with frozen bottles of water and began planning a worthy funeral. But Abu Ma’an’s father intervened. Any show of public mourning would be massive and the government response commensurate. “We don’t want another massacre,” his father warned. Reluctantly, the young men buried the body in secret the next day.
Later, when outside critics faulted the rebellion for its lack of unifying leadership, they would not remember Ma’an or the innumerable local leaders like him. Abu Ma’an honored his memory by taking his name.
From March to September 2011, the protest movement buried some two thousand dead, yet remained overwhelmingly nonviolent. Eventually, people took up arms. First, they focused on protecting demonstrators; then, under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, they carried out attacks on military facilities. The regime responded with tanks and mortars, and later rockets and airpower. Most casualties were civilian.
Abu Ma’an’s father went abroad for a conference that fall. Expecting arrest if he returned, he settled in Jordan. Abu Ma’an entered the University of Damascus as a German literature major.
Open protest on campus was unthinkable. “The regime presence was so thick, it felt like the inside of a security force barracks,” Abu Ma’an said. Instead, he and his classmates printed revolutionary leaflets and scattered them in the air before fleeing for cover. Once they organized a demonstration that lasted two minutes before it was beaten down by the loyalist student union. “It was an enormous accomplishment,” he said with a grin.
Whenever possible, Abu Ma’an returned to Daraa to continue his media work. “We thought that if the world knew that we were dying, they’d stand with us,” he said. He managed to evade security forces for weeks until they finally spotted him filming a demonstration. Officers came to his house to arrest him, but he was not there. They nearly detained his brother before he managed to convince them that the family’s Play Station was not a device for broadcasting.
A wanted man, Abu Ma’an began sleeping under a different roof every night. “I was living like Ibn Battuta,” he laughed, referring to the medieval explorer known for his tireless travels. He went to lengths to avoid the checkpoints where soldiers checked citizens’ identity cards against the lists of those being sought for arrest. On one trip home to Daraa, a sympathetic bus driver allowed Abu Ma’an to pose as the assistant who gathers passengers’ IDs. Abu Ma’an hoped the officers would neglect to ask for his own. It worked.
Near the end of December, though, luck ran out. Abu Ma’am crossed paths with some officers and was immediately taken to the local security branch. He was beaten until he could not sit upright. “The slurs against my mother and sister hurt even more.”
Interrogations ensued. “My hair was gelled in spikes and I was wearing fashionable clothes,” Abu Ma’an recalled. “The officers judged that I was the kind of guy who would break under pressure.” He did not. After a few hours, the officers threw him into an underground cell that reeked of more unwashed bodies than he could count. “The other prisoners rushed to me and started grabbing at my shirt.” He had put on cologne that morning, and they were overpowered by the smell of something that reminded them of life.
The next day Abu Ma’an and other prisoners were transferred to security headquarters. “Filthy people from Daraa must be cleaned,” officers said as they ordered the men to the showers. A single bar of soap passed from hand to hand under the cold water. Any prisoner who emerged late faced another beating. No one was late.
Bombing had become so routine that children could distinguish the type of incoming missile by its sound.
Abu Ma’an settled into a new cell. Prisoners coped with overcrowding by organizing themselves into shifts; some sat while others slept on the bare floor. The ones sleeping lined up on their sides, head to foot and shoulder to shoulder.
Eight days passed before Abu Ma’an was called for interrogation. He spun a web of falsehoods about his innocence. He explained that dozens of people share his given name, and the government was surely looking for someone else. He swore that his father was not an oppositionist who had gone abroad for politics, but a famous engineer building shopping malls overseas. And besides, he insisted, he was just a student living in the capital. Just ask “Falafel As You Like It” in his neighborhood, or Abu Ali, who sold cigarettes on the corner.
The interrogators believed him. He was released twenty days later, but not before missing his exams and losing all credit for the semester. He moved back to Daraa, where he was a witness to the waves of forced displacement that would eventually turn nearly half of all Syrians into internal or external refugees. Bombing had become so routine that children could distinguish the type of incoming missile by its sound. Abu Ma’an’s mother and younger siblings left to join his father in Jordan, lest one lost school year become two.
“People were dying and nobody was doing anything to help,” Abu Ma’an said. “We realized that we could only depend on ourselves.” Losing confidence in media activities, he started to work with the displaced, and then shifted to medical relief. From the beginning of the uprising, injured persons who went to state hospitals were arrested or killed, their injuries viewed as evidence of having participated in demonstrations. In response, communities established makeshift field hospitals. Abu Ma’an began working at one such hospital, a converted home overseen by two doctors, both still medical students.
The more the regime cracked down, the more the rebellion militarized. Some fighters, many of them non-Syrians, began calling for an Islamic state. The al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front formed, followed by its more radical breakaway, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The latter’s brutal imposition of its ideology convinced Abu Ma’an that the revolution was now fighting oppression on two fronts.
Nearly everyone with whom I spoke agreed. One Free Syrian Army officer, under death warrant by both the Assad regime and ISIS, expressed it in terms I heard repeatedly. “We are against Assad because he is a tyrant,” he said, looking around himself instinctively to make sure no agents were listening in. “We will not accept another form of tyranny to take his place. What gives these foreigners the right to come to Syria and tell us that something is against Islam? But how are we supposed to fight them?”
Most Syrians I met not only denounced jihadists, but were also convinced that the regime itself was facilitating their rise. “Assad released extremists from his own prisons so he could have extremists he could then claim to fight,” a man from Aleppo insisted, summarizing what I heard from others. Eventually, investigations led many Western analysts to the same conclusion.
Abu Ma’an’s disappointment with the international community was palpable. Iran and Russia gave the Assad regime money, weapons, and fighters without which it might have collapsed. Western governments condemned Assad, yet did not offer the arms or no-fly zone needed to protect civilians from his assault.
At the same time, competing patrons from the Gulf and elsewhere backed hundreds of disparate rebel battalions, which in turn fueled their power struggles on the ground. The single greatest problem of the revolution, I heard again and again, was “political money.” Rebels could do nothing without funding, but many donors used their leverage to advance interests other than the revolt’s bottom-line objective of ousting Assad. Syrians I met were adamant that greater centralization of external support was the best strategy for unifying the Syrian opposition.
Rebels managed to push regime forces from swaths of the country, including parts of Daraa. But the regime continued to bomb these areas, and sometimes found other ways of striking. “However possible, it wanted to convince people to stop protesting,” Abu Ma’an told me.
One Friday in January 2013, worshippers were exiting a local mosque to gather for what was expected to be a large demonstration. Suddenly, two booby-trapped cars caused a huge explosion. Bodies were blown into the air. Some landed on nearby roofs and balconies.
By chance, Abu Ma’an was not at the mosque that day, but working at the hospital a few hundred blocks away. The smell of blood wafted up the street. “It was terrible, unimaginable,” he murmured. “Blood. Limbs. Fragments. Fragments. People became mere fragments.” He continued, “People came pouring into the hospital. They had their insides coming out, they lost pieces of themselves. There was nothing anyone could do to save them.”
The doctors distinguished those they hoped they might rescue from those they could not. There was no time and no other choice. “They were separating the wounded into categories, and that’s when I lost control,” Abu Ma’an said. “I’d thought I was strong enough to take it, but I just started to scream. I felt weak in my knees, like I couldn’t stand up. I wanted to wash my face. I wanted water. I went into the kitchen, but even that was filled with bodies. I stepped outside for air, but the regime was shelling the entire area.”
“You lose even the fact that you used to be a person.”
Standing in the doorway, Abu Ma’an saw that no direction offered mercy. There was no alternative but to fight it out. He breathed for several moments and then returned inside to continue providing first aid. He came upon a man whose body was so pierced by shrapnel that he was surely paralyzed. His heart had stopped beating and the doctor had cut open his chest, taking the heart into his hand to pump it manually.
“Stay strong,” the doctor shouted, hitting the patient to slow his slide from consciousness. “Keep living! Stay with me!” The doctor yelled louder. He was duty-bound to do whatever he could to save the life, but it was too late.
Abu Ma’an’s face brightened when he remembered the uprising’s exuberant beginnings. “What we lived those days can never be repeated,” he said. “We felt like we were doing the greatest thing in the world. But all that has disappeared. You lose even the fact that you used to be a person.”
Our conversation took place a few days before a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburbs in August of 2013. In its aftermath, US declarations raised many Syrians’ hopes that decisive intervention might at last end their nightmare. Once again, they were disappointed. Another winter set in. Communities blockaded by Assad’s forces watched their loved ones die of starvation. 55,000 photographs of maimed, skeletal bodies pointed to crimes against humanity in Syrian prisons. Syrians had long known about the regime’s systematic use of torture, a friend told me; their fear was that an image might be of a person they loved and hoped was still alive.
“Was the revolution a mistake?” a man in the crowded hospital room asked Abu Ma’an. “Should people have never risen up?”
The silence was tense. “If we knew that we’d succeed in the end, I’d sacrifice my blood and soul,” Abu Ma’an finally whispered, “but without that…” He paused before continuing. “We know that freedom has a price, but maybe we’re paying a price higher than freedom itself. There is always a price for freedom. But maybe not this much.”
Abu Ma’an stretched the stump of his thigh toward him to keep the circulation going, an exercise he had learned in medical relief. I asked a last question: “Is it too late?”
He answered without hesitation, “Of course not.”
Wendy Pearlman is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East studies and assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada (Nation Books, 2003) and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
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