I met Manhal Barish only few times before the revolution, in the Justice Palace in Damascus, where his father had been detained for more than a year.
After each meeting, we gathered in an old coffee shop behind the Justice Palace, where we sat around worn tables lawyers, activists and friends – drinking bitter tea, and exchanging news about developments in Syria and the revolutions in neighboring countries.
My last meeting with him was early on the morning of March 16, the day of a sit-in in front of the interior ministry, where he showed his friends pictures of dozens of Syrian prisoners of conscience – pictures that would be torn up seconds after the start of the sit-in.
Days pass quickly before I find out that Manhal has become a leading activist in his hometown of Saraqeb, in Idlib province, northern Syria, and one of the organizers of protest activities in the city.
Manhal, 31, had been hiding in wheat fields with dozens of other activists since a security forces’ raid on Saraqeb on May 1, when 38 activists were arrested. Here, they prepare for future demonstrations by coordinating with colleagues in Saraqeb and producing protest banners. They also have to manage their daily lives in the fields, cooking food for dinner for example. There’s nothing romantic about it and they’re getting angry. They are far away from their families, children and homes and security checkpoints everywhere make movement difficult and prevent them visiting their loved ones. They also have to be alert to occasional raids by security forces in search of activists.
Grass roots democracy
Saraqeb was one of the first cities to take part in the revolution. It became known for the persistence of its peace protests, although from time to time there were those who called for an armed struggle. Protesters didn’t respond to these appeals and they soon diminished – especially because of the non-violent position taken by protest organizers.
“We talked with people about the dangers of the use of arms, and the response was wonderful, the attitude of the activists with people in the street had a great effect. When an activist, for example, is arrested and subjected to harassment and violence, then is released and continues talking about peace, people will be more persuaded by what he has to say,” Manhal said.
For those coordinating the Saraqeb protests, one of the most important experiences has been witnessing the democracy the activists are trying to consolidate.The protest coordinators were appointed at the beginning of the revolution and some members have been elected several times. In the most recent election last Friday, there were around 160 candidates and their names were announced through loudspeakers. The people were electing a new group of coordinators as the previous ones had resigned because of public dissatisfaction with their performance.
A song for Omar
Several weeks ago, we received a sad e-mail from Manhal, in which he said his cousin, Omar Abdel-Qader, 22, was in a critical condition after being shot in the head. At the time, it was hard to learn anything more about what happened. Only today was I able to ask him about the incident.
“Of all my uncles, Omar’s father, a former political prisoner who died in 2001 of cancer, was the closest to me. I was doing military service when he passed away and couldn’t kiss him goodbye,” Manhal said.
“At the beginning of August, we received information about the release of some detainees, and that they were at the western end of the city. Omar along with some others rushed there to welcome freed prisoners but when they arrived a security forces’ vehicle started opening fire on them. Omar was hit in the head and others were slightly injured.
“When I heard the news, the image of my uncle appeared in front of me. I wished that I could cry but the tears didn’t come. I spoke to the doctor looking after Omar who said he had an eighty per cent chance of survival. But I’m pessimistic about his chances.”
“This young man was chanting all the time in the demonstrations. ,If my voice leaves, yours will stay` he used to sing, a song dedicated to Ibrahim Qashosh who was killed under torture and had his throat cut out. Today nobody is singing for Omar”, Manahal says.
Reunion in prison
Manhal has also experienced the pain of detention, spending more than twenty days behind bars. He was released on a Thursday which he considered good luck – because he could join the Friday demonstrations again the next day.
One of the toughest moments of his detention was when they took off his clothes and put him in solitary confinement without any blankets. “I was cold, freezing to death,” Manhal said.
“There was a security officer who seemed drunk. He came over and poured water over the detainees and refused to stop until the detainees said their mother was a whore.
“I remember my mother before she died; I remembered the last time she looked into my eyes and how her pulse stopped in my hand. I could not tell the officer what he wanted me to say. I wanted to get rid of the torment, but I could not. My tongue was frozen. That monster continued to pour water over me. And I kept thinking about my mother, until he left me.
”After this, he was transferred to the Palestine military security branch and when he was coming out of his cell for an interrogation, he spotted familiar pajamas through his blindfold, and shortly after a voice he recognised whispered his name.
“I was shocked ..it was my brother Shady (who like Manhal had been arrested for activism), and that person in the pajamas was the poet Medhat Qaddor. I knew then that a lot of my friends are in prison …with me,” Manhal said.
Manhal and his three brothers were arrested at different times since the start of the revolution, like tens of thousands of activists and demonstrators. But this could not affect their certainty that they are approaching the moment of freedom.
Mahal’s greatest concern regarding the revolution is the “opposition”, he says. He worries about those who are just looking to gain seats and influence. Other than that, he is very optimistic.
“The revolution will win. I’m not afraid of the Islamists as some are. Most of the rebels in Saraqeb are secular, as long as we agree on the principle of getting rid of the regime, we and the Islamists will have respect [for each other],” he said. He is not afraid of a militarization of the revolution. “There is no mood for arms in the streets”, he says. Individual cases of people who want to take up arms, yes, but these could be controlled.
Among the many memories of the revolution that Manhal shared with me is when the army set out from Saraqeb to attack Jisr I-Shoghor.
“We wanted to prevent the young people from facing the army with their bare chest. And there was this 16-year-old boy, who started crying and screaming hysterically. He said ‘Oh Manhal do you want history to record that the army passed through Saraqeb to kill our people in Jisr al-Shogor and we kept silent? Please let us stand up to them, even if tanks drive over our bodies,’” Manhal said.
“I took him into my arms. He started to cry in my lap and I cried with him. This moment still moves me whenever I think of it. And I now sometimes think that perhaps he was right.”
To get over such difficult moments he tries to think of other, more joyful memories of the revolution. Like that of the day he remembers as the day of being born again.
“It was early April, there was a heavy security presence so it was a real challenge to go out and demonstrate. I was lifted on people’s shoulders around Saraqeb. I started to chant: Peacefully, peacefully. In front of me the security, behind me the Baath party, and I am among my people. My friends kiss me and some elderly people cry. I expect at any moment a bullet in my head. I felt that I was being reborn along with a sense that I could expect death at any moment,” he said.