Syrian activist Ahed Zarzour reflects on five years of civil war and revolution.
When the revolution broke out in March 2011, I was an English language lecturer at Damascus University.
At the time, we knew something was brewing, but could not figure out what it was. Damascus had witnessed several signs of what was to come.
In 2000, when I was a 12-year-old pupil, Bashar al-Assad came to power. Shortly afterwards, Syria witnessed what was then called the “Damascus Spring” – the launch of a number of forums where all issues were discussed.
The problem was that while Assad gave the people some kind of freedom, it was followed by a strong, fatal blow. Political and cultural forums, where Syrians could debate freely for the first time in four decades, were shut down. Where we had once been full of hope and high expectations, we suddenly became terrified.
The years between 2005 and 2011 were very bad in Syria.
I come from a politically oriented family. I’m used to having discussions on politics at home. My father is affiliated with the Socialist Union, an official opposition party, and my mother signed the Damascus Declaration.
I started university in 2005, a time of extreme repression. Though I was not affected by my family’s political views, I tried to read more. I started reading books written by Syrian opposition figures. I had more questions than answers. I used to ask myself, “Why are those young men held in prison?” or “Why was someone like Tal al-Mallouhi, a young Syrian blogger, imprisoned?”
In 2009, I started my own blog, which I later named Nafas (Breeze). I created it in response to Mallouhi’s public trial; she was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison, triggering a major uproar. Mallouhi, who was only 17 when arrested, inspired me to become an activist.
Despite having political discussions at home, I dare not talk politics at the university. Everyone was afraid. Parents would never let their children express their views or even read about politics. The parents were more oppressive than the regime itself, because they themselves faced the regime’s oppression.
My parents had always warned me that such activities must be carried out in secret. Nonetheless, I joined the March 15 protest in Damascus.
I saw how the youth were mobilised on Facebook and decided to join them. On social media, people posted a photo of a girl who was arrested by security forces. Another demonstration was held on March 16 in front of the Interior Ministry, but I did not join this one; I was too afraid.
On March 18, the Deraa incident took place, in which several residents were killed, prompting further protests. I could not believe what was happening.
There were protests in many other cities, including Damascus, Homs and Baniyas. In Baniyas, the protesters even stated their demands in public. To me, it was the most beautiful day ever. It was the real revolution I was dreaming about, because Syrians had never done this before.
I took a picture of the sky at the airport, knowing it was the last time I would look at the Damascus skyline. I was very sad, because I had to leave when my dream had finally started to come true.
After March 18, the Syrian people were silent again. For one week, only the people in Deraa continued to protest. The funeral processions for the murdered residents took place on Saturday and Sunday.
Others followed. The city was surrounded by security forces. The army committed massacres that week, yet people remained silent.
I did not expect people to stage protests the following Friday, but they did, in huge numbers. I cried a lot that day.
People were mesmerised by what had happened in Deraa. Protests were staged in many Syrian cities.
In Hama, the so-called “Hama Spring” took place. People held massive carnivals because the Hama governor allowed them to do so. He was different from other governors; he did not order the security forces to open fire at protesters. The most beautiful pictures of demonstrations came from Hama at that time.
But matters took a turn for the worse. I left Syria in May 2011 at my parents’ insistence, because my father knew I had joined the protest on March 15. He knew how those arrested, especially women, were tortured and abused in jail by intelligence agents.
He forced me to go to Saudi Arabia, where I had a residence permit. I went through a very difficult time and became deeply depressed. On the day I left Syria, I took a picture of the sky at the airport, knowing it was the last time I would look at the Damascus skyline. I was very sad, because I had to leave when my dream had finally started to come true.
Some of my friends were killed. I remember a very dear Palestinian friend, Anas Mushmush, who was killed after being tortured in Hama in September 2012. He had created a video blog. He only wanted to have his own business and live a good life.
After I left Syria, I had the chance to speak under my name. My father let me carry out these activities because he saw how enraged I was.
With friends, I started a blog. My group of friends used to write articles and post them on our groups only, not for the general public. I suggested the creation of a group blog under false names, and we created Kibrit, one of the first blogs that supported the revolution. Many people sent us articles for publication under false names. I was the editor-in-chief for three years.
I was engaged in revolution-related activities 24/7, organising events with people inside and outside Syria. I always felt I still needed to do more, especially as I saw people getting killed for that purpose.
We even created coordination groups for those living outside Syria, raising funds to send to those inside Syria. I focused on media work, as media organisations, including those backing the revolution, did not cover the events in a fair way.
Pro-revolution media personnel were either too elitist or too populist. On the other hand, the youth over-used social media networks, creating divisions and schisms that ultimately harmed the revolution by fostering sectarian divisions or pitting Islamists versus secularists.
The formation of the Free Syrian Army was the initial point after which social media groups and bloggers started to split into secular, Islamist, pro-armed-struggle and anti-armed-struggle groups. Those divisions planted the seeds of sectarianism, which we had previously avoided.
Our slogan was, “Long live the revolution … a revolution of Sunnis, Druze and Alawites!”. Some people did not see themselves as part of any of those rival camps, and I was one of them.
I did not know which side I supported. I felt this was all wrong. They did not know how to find a common ground for dialogue, ultimately harming the revolution.
In 2013, I went to Idlib, Syria, on the anniversary of the revolution. I went for three days and could not stay longer. When asked what I was going to do there, I said I wanted to stand under the barrel bombs being dropped on the city. I wanted to truly live through what other Syrians had been living.
I still dream about going back to Aleppo, though people advise against it because of the danger. I sometimes go to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, because it is close to Idlib and Aleppo.
I miss our house in Damascus. It was in Jobar, which has been destroyed. We have seen pictures of our house, partially damaged, although it was a new house.
Idlib has been liberated. Our house there is still standing. Some of our relatives, who have fled other areas, are staying there.
When we were in Jobar, the regime used to cut phone lines every weekend. The mosque facing our house used to announce the names of martyrs every Friday. I used to see armed intelligence agents pursuing young men in the streets.
I used to sing a song while talking with my friend on Skype:
What a shame! A hail of bullets aimed at unarmed civilians…
How could you arrest little children!
How could you, the son of my country, kill my own children!
What a shame!
It is a sad song. We did not expect this to happen. We were really disappointed.
What hurts me the most is that I am not one of those people sacrificing their blood for Syria. But what makes me feel better is that the children of Syria may live a better, happier life in the future.
The image of the children of Syria reflected on the media, suffering and deprived of everything, is wrong. Children living through these difficult conditions will value life more. They will learn better than we did.