Dara’a activist recalls horror and exhilaration of rising up against regime
I always enjoy asking young people who participated in the earliest demonstrations about how they overcame their fear and faced the monster of aggressive repression, which until then was considered a real miracle.
And even more so when it comes to the case of a young man from Dara’a, the city which sparked the revolution, and in particular from al-Jiza, the south-east of the city, which became famous after 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was arrested and killed under torture.
Mohammed is in his early twenties. He remembers the first demonstration that took place in Jiza as a reaction to what happened in the city of Daraa at that time.
“The number of participants was low, maybe 150,” he recalled. “We came out very spontaneously and stayed about two hours in the demonstration in the hope that more people would join us. But in the end we were not more than 400 people. The chanting [at that time] was that people wanted to reform the regime.
“It was the first time in my life that I spoke this way. I felt fear, so we did not speak up much during the chanting. But I also felt that I hear my voice for the first time. After the demonstration ended, we could not believe what we had done. In fact, even today I cannot believe the situation we are in now, when 10 people became 100, and those became 1,000, the sound gradually became higher and chants were rising.”
As he remembers it, the start of the demonstrations was completely spontaneous. On hearing the news of what was happening in Dara’a, young men flooded into the streets. But after a while, he said, things became more organized, with a group of young people who took charge of coordinating the protests of Jiza, a group in which Mohammad is active.
For several months, the army and security forces surrounded Jiza, like other areas of Dara’a. Day and night they raided houses – either of activists in the demonstrations or random houses in order to intimidate people. Not to mention the brutal way in which they detained many people.
One of those arrested was beaten with the butt of a rifle, breaking two of his ribs, says Mohammed. “And then there was the stealing and looting,” he added.
“But the most provocative of all for us was the message left by the elements of the regime at the end of this party of repression. Throughout the town they had written on the walls slogans such as ‘You’re the disease and we are the medicine. If you come back [to protest] we will come back. And our return will be tough. No god but Bashar.’”
Once the military had left, the task of the youth of Jiza would be to replace those words with phrases like, “Syria is free. Leave, Bashar. We are waiting.
”However, relations between the people of Jiza and the army were not always bad.
“Many of them were respectful and easy to deal with because they sympathised with us”, Mohammed said. “But they could not do anything. Who refuses to obey orders would be executed. Some of them when they took our identities at the checkpoints apologised and asked us to forgive them. And we forgive them. But others we don’t even consider as Syrians anymore because of their violence and abusive words towards us.”
Despite the siege and ongoing raids, mass demonstrations in Jiza continued.
“I didn’t care about dying,” Mohammed said, adding that in fact he often despised himself for staying alive when he saw loved ones and friends shot dead by security forces.
When towns and villages came out to lift the siege of the city of Dara’a on April 29, “the wounded were my brothers and my neighbours and my friends. It was the only time I cried in my life. I cried until I almost collapsed,” he recalled.
While I apologise for forcing him to relive those moments, he told me he remembered little else, although later he added, “There are things that cannot be shared.”
Today the mood in Jiza oscillates between optimism and fear mixed with anxiety. “But you don´t notice the fatigue and fear in this area like in other places,” said Mohammed. “Just sometimes people would get frustrated: when less people show up at a demonstration, or when disagreements within the opposition become public. When they argue between themselves and appear not united, they forget that with each dispute more people die or disappear.”
In Jiza, as in other places, the idea of a militarisation of the revolution has started to enter the minds of some young people. Mohammed insists “we began peaceful and we want peace until the end. But after every massacre, you hear voices that consider militarisation the only solution to stop the massacres. How long can we bear the crimes that are happening?” he wondered.
He asked me if I ever witnessed a massacre in my life. I knew the reason behind his question. “Dozens of wounded, dead around you, blood, pain everywhere and people dying in your arms – whoever had to witness such moments naturally thinks about getting armed,” he said. “And not all people are university graduates or educated. But we know that no weapon would have been enough to face the tanks [of the army] so those ideas vanished quickly.”
Mohammed personally hopes for an Islamic state in the new Syria, but he says that all Syrians will determine the shape of the future country; the future that all Syrians dream of, despite a lack of confidence that they will live to witness it.
“When I leave my house, I don’t expect to come back. And when I sleep I imagine I will wake up to voices breaking into my house. Arrest and death live with us moment by moment,” he continued.
Of course, despite all the suffering and pain, the youth of the revolution also lives moments of pure happiness.
“The happiest moment since the beginning of the revolution for me was the first day of Eid”, Mohammed said. “We laughed with all our hearts while we were chanting, “We designed you a new chair, made of Teflon, not iron. Bashar, leave now!”