Syria's Civil War

Six years on: The price of saying 'no' to Assad

Al Jazeera speaks to three Syrians whose lives have been forever changed since the 2011 uprising began.

'The dream of freedom is too powerful, even for barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and rampant torture to break' [Reuters]

Beirut - Since March 2011, around half a million Syrians have been killed, and more than half the population displaced from their homes. The war in Syria has had ramifications far and wide, and has affected millions of lives. Hundreds of thousands of families have been divided across continents, with countless lives lost at sea.

But beyond the numbers, lives have been changed forever. 

Three Syrians talk to Al Jazeera about the early days of the revolution, and what has happened since. 

Diala Brisly, an artist, originally from Damascus, currently living as a refugee in France
I began painting murals for children in refugee camps in Lebanon [Courtesy of Diala Brisly/Al Jazeera]

'I lost hope the day I decided to leave Syria'

When the protests first started in 2011, we were very romantic, it was so dreamy for us - Syrians - to do this. But I never went to a protest without feeling scared. The Syrian troops were very, very violent. It was not easy. Sometimes protests would only last five minutes before we had to disperse, but it was important for us to do this, to keep up the pressure.

When you look at things in a rational way, I don't know how you can be hopeful about the future of Syria. But I look at the Palestinian people as an inspiration - they still resist.

We wanted to make trouble for the government all the time. They were arresting people and torturing people all the time, putting some areas under siege, shelling, just because the residents had protested. We didn't want them to think they could get away with it.

We thought if we protested, and after the regime had reacted in such a violent way, that the UN and everyone would say Assad was a criminal. But we were shocked … no one cared. The English language media kept talking about "sectarian strife", but we had no idea what they were talking about.

I began buying medical supplies to be distributed around the country, but it became increasingly dangerous to do so. The security forces were throwing people in jail for doing this, claiming they were assisting "terrorists."

I lost hope the day I decided to leave Syria.

I first went to Istanbul, where I soon became very depressed. I questioned the entire point of political activism, and everything we had done. I also felt so guilty. Other people were stuck in Syria, or they had chosen to stay, to keep resisting.

'Through painting, we can help children imagine their own world and live it,' says Brisely [Courtesy of Diala Brisly/Al Jazeera]

I felt guilty because I was still alive, because I didn't resist more. I always had friends who were arrested, and I had never been. I felt guilty because I had an easy life. I needed to break out of this mood, so after a while, I went to visit Syrian friends in Lebanon. There I began painting murals for children in refugee camps, and teaching art workshops.

We really can't change their lives or take them out of these camps. But we can help them imagine their own world and live it. When children see colours, on their face, on their clothes, they always tell me, "put more colours, more colours", because they have no colour in their lives.

Now I am in France, where I applied for asylum. I needed stability. I have been granted 10 years of protection here.I am still sending murals to the camps in Lebanon, and I have been working with the White Helmets on an educational booklet for children, about safety and landmines - 95 percent of the work I do is still focused on Syria. 

When you look at things in a rational way, I don't know how you can be hopeful about the future of Syria. But I look at the Palestinian people as an inspiration - they still resist, they focus on education. They do not give up.

Mohammad Shbeeb, originally from Aleppo, is now living as an IDP in Idlib province
'We had no freedom or any space to do what we wanted, or even to say whatever we wanted to say' [Courtesy of Mohammad Shbeeb/Al Jazeera]

'We were only seeking our freedom, our dignity and our rights'

I will not talk of a war, but of a revolution.

For anyone who lived in Syria before 2011, it was impossible to think that any revolution or uprising would ever happen in our country. The idea of a revolution seemed like a fiction. The regime was so strong and controlled everything in the country through military rule.

But then after the Egyptian revolution started in January 2011, and protests in Tahrir Square ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak, suddenly there was hope in Syria. There were some initial attempts to protest in February 2011 - not even against the regime, but just asking for some reforms - but they were unsuccessful.

It's really hard to describe the feeling of being forced to leave. I really felt like I was losing my soul.

Everything in Syria was bad. The education was poor, and our universities could not compete with the universities of the world. Assad's family controlled everything. We had no freedom or any space to do what we wanted, or even to say whatever we wanted to say.

After protests in Deraa on March 15, when schoolchildren were arrested and tortured in prison, we had the first real protest in Aleppo, on March 18. One of the people arrested on that first day was my friend. He was later killed by a regime sniper in late 2013.

But initially we really felt that our revolution would soon reach victory, maybe in days, or weeks, or months. We were only seeking our freedom, our dignity and our rights. We were expecting that the world - that the US, EU and other countries - would help us end Assad's rule. But unfortunately, the opposite happened.

I started to lose hope when the regime began killing peaceful protesters, and the whole world kept watching. And I completely lost all hope when the regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta in 2013, killing thousands.

The whole world just kept silent and just took the chemical weapons and didn't even punish the regime. Like when you arrest a criminal who has killed someone, and you take his gun and then just let him free to kill someone else with a different gun. At that time, I totally lost any hope that help would come to us from outside. I remained in Aleppo until the regime retook the whole city in late 2016.

It's really hard to describe the feeling of being forced to leave. I really felt like I was losing my soul. I felt like the whole world was against me and my revolution. I felt broken, like I was losing myself. I was totally broken.

If you look at what is happening on the ground, the regime and its allied militias are advancing. But for some reason, I still think that, eventually, the revolution will be victorious. I don't really know why I think that. Perhaps it's because it is the right thing. Or maybe it has something to do with my faith.

Rafif Jouejati, a Syrian American, was living in the US when the uprising began, now active in the opposition's Local Coordination Committees
'The dream of freedom is too powerful, even for barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and rampant torture to break,' says Jouejati [Courtesy of Rafif Jouejati/Al Jazeera]

'One day we will experience a transition away from the Assad regime'

In March 2011, I was running my thriving management consultancy business and raising two young boys. I was quite unconnected from the Syrian American community and did not maintain much of a Syrian identity. My family visits to Syria were limited to once every year or two.

But when the revolution began, I was overcome with pride in the activists for daring to stand up to the Assad regime's corruption, tyranny, and dictatorship. I finally realised that I had a Syrian identity, and I felt compelled to join the movement for freedom, dignity, and democracy.

I, and many other like-minded Syrians, are stunned by the international community's utter paralysis in the face of Assad's genocidal regime.

At first, I was terrified to become involved. I had family members in Damascus and the horrors of Hama were still in my memory. As the daughter of a Syrian career diplomat, I knew very well that my involvement would be perceived by the Assad regime as outright treason.

I began translating news for the LCC, along with other team members, and gradually took on more responsibilities to support the secular, nonviolent opposition. We were positive that the regime would collapse within months. First, we thought three months, then six, then surely it would not last more than a year? And then the stark reality began to sink in as we realised that Assad supporters truly meant it when they said, "Either Assad or we burn the country."

I worked with a large team of activists and experts to develop the Syrian Freedom Charter - a statement of what the Syrian people want in their future country. It was a way to attempt to combat the creeping desperation and maintain a forward-looking outlook.

I am now writing a book about the original goals of the revolution: freedom, dignity, and democracy. It's a story that has largely been ignored by the media, and the larger narrative.

I felt that by writing a book and focusing on the Freedom Charter, I could impart the sense of hope Syrians had, and continue to maintain, that one day we will experience a transition away from the Assad regime (and other dictatorships that might try to replace it) to achieve freedom for all.

I, and many other like-minded Syrians, are stunned by the international community's utter paralysis in the face of Assad's genocidal regime. I have no idea how far the regime and its backers will go to wipe out every single person who opposed Assad. But having said "no" to Assad, having broken that wall of fear, having seen my fellow Syrians suffer the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II, I do know one thing: we will not go away.

The dream of freedom is too powerful, even for barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and rampant torture to break. You see, with more than half of Syria's population displaced or refugees, new generations of free Syrians are beginning to take the lead in the opposition, and they will never forget.

Source: Al Jazeera News