The civil war in Syria has raged on for four years now. Everyday, images of bombed out buildings, soldiers, and refugees appear on our TVs and we are told the name latest town being fought over. Obama’s latest statement is broadcast to our living rooms but we rarely hear the stories of the people who’s lives have been forever changed by the conflict. Syria has a population of 22 million, and each one of these people has a story to tell.
It is easy to become desensitised to crises such as the one in Syria. Everyday a new death toll is announced and these people’s stories often get lost amongst the geopolitical maneuvering and the frightening factions with alien ideologies. Despite all the coverage, how often do you hear the thoughts, opinions and histories of the people caught up in the conflict?
Naim is a Syrian living in the Netherlands. He was involved in the early protests against the Assad regime and risked his life to bring food and medicine to those most in need. Along the way he lost friends and relatives, and was eventually forced to leave the country he had known since birth to make a new life for himself abroad. This is his story.
Before the revolution I worked in the telecoms sector for an operator called Syriatel. The operator was run by a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, a very powerful man called Rami Makhlouf, he is the son of his uncle.
Due to the ones in power in Assad’s regime, the people had a habit that they have to re-elect him again and again. Syriatel was a company with very old-minded thoughts. The day of the elections they forced us to go and elect Bashar al-Assad, and if you didn’t go you will be fired.
The one who is earning, but is not aligned to that, will struggle. I have my own liberal thoughts – how can I vote for that? So I had to choose whether to practice my values or to say no, I want to secure myself – I want to keep in this position – which I worked very hard for.
My generation grew up feeling they must feel fear, they must never speak publicly. In my opinion that was the greatest mistake, so when I grew up and I was in Syriatel working – I love my company and I love my family – but when they (Syriatel) said stuff like we have to celebrate the re-election of Assad, it felt like a fist squeezing my heart, but I had no choice because all my friends were going to go and I would have been the only one who did not. I would have been fucked. So the fear was living with us always.
Despite my beliefs and thoughts I voted for Assad – twice. Once in 2001 and once in 2007. Every 7 years there are elections but they are not elections. You would go and have a choice of yes or no. If the majority say no, Assad’s party would give another candidate – but that was impossible because Assad was winning by 99.99% always. They faked the results. The ballot papers first passed through the security intelligence and then they give it the ministry of media. This is an institution that does not exist in the west – the ministry of media.
Before the revolution I was an average person – I had my own thoughts but I kept them to myself because I was afraid of being put in jail. I was having fun with my friends and enjoying my life, but in politics I kept my lips sealed.
The combination of these factors reached a point where it exploded. The protests started and stayed peaceful for about 7-8 months. The first time it started in the south of Syria in a place called Deraa. It was shocking for us that it could be possible. It started with a group of children in a primary school. They were very brave children – they were 8-10-12 (years old) and they were effected by what they saw in Tunisia and Egypt. They wrote on the walls of the school “the people want the Syrian regime to piss off”. They (the parents) gathered and made the first demonstration in February 2011. They raised up signs saying we want our children back – we are people of dignity and honour and we refuse to be intimidated. The security forces came and started to shoot at them. That day 3 people died. That was the event that ignited the Syrian revolution.
Soon after, civil activists called all the people of Homs for one tremendous demonstration, and people came. They wanted to bury six people killed in previous demonstrations, and then gather in the central square and demonstrate. There were about 600,000 people and it was the biggest one so far. The security forces didn’t interfere in the beginning because they felt scared. By the direct instruction of Bashar al Assad, the special troops – like marines – came from Damascus to Homs. These troops were famous in Syria for being monsters.
That night there were around 2000 people left and they wanted to sit there forever, until their demands were met. The fourth troops came and you cannot imagine, it was a party of fires. My house was in the line of sight of this event. I have never felt fear in my life like I felt that night. It was the scariest night of my life because I didn’t know what would happen and the sounds of the shooting were very strong and sharp. I could hear everything from my house and I was speaking to my friends and my relatives on the phone. I had had surgery one day before and so I was wounded and in my bed. The shooting lasted for 2 and a half hours and we became aware that there was a river of blood on the streets. The next day, I swear, you could not see a fly on the streets. All the streets, all the shops, all the life just stopped. There was nothing. If you looked out your window onto the streets, there was nobody – it was like a ghost town. As a result of this massacre 1,300 people had been killed. They took the wounded and put them on trucks, and in the trucks they finished them. Then they took them to a rural area out of Homs and they burnt the dead bodies.
Despite that, people kept demonstrating peacefully for the next six months. Of course they were killing everyday, arresting everyday, and killing under torture in the basements. Even so, it was the most amazing feeling of my life. When I saw the demonstrations, and I participated once or twice, the feeling was something I really cant describe. It was the most amazing feeling in my life. I felt human for the first time in my life.
I was scared in the beginning. I was having trouble deciding if I would participate and I always covered my face because people may know me and there were government spies – reporters for the regime. They were paid to write reports about neighbours. If a neighbour or even a relative participated in demonstrations they would give his name to the regime and they would arrest them. It reached a point where even if you had nothing to do with the demonstrations and your neighbour was a reporter, if they hated you – maybe because you had music too loud in your house – he would report you as a participant and this was enough to be in the basement and under torture for months. From just one word written about you. The regime depended on these people.
In the beginning I was scared and after 6-7 months I moved to Damascus. Then I felt shame. I have 2 friends who were killed during the demonstrations and I have a cousin who was killed later on by a direct explosion – a mortar. I asked myself – why am I here? It’s the issue of to be or not to be? Why am I watching and not participating? So I started my participation during the peak, at the time when the regime was killing people.
There were areas where the demonstrations took place and the regime besieged these places. They stopped food and medicine and reaching those areas.
I took a very attractive route amongst my friends and actually, I got lots of new friends during the revolution. These were the best friends I ever made in my life because we had a target. Everyone was working towards this target and so everyone was pure of heart. We dedicated ourselves to trying to bring food and medicine to the areas under siege by the regime. That was very very dangerous.
We were going to areas we didn’t know, we were strangers in these areas and there could be regime eyes there – we didn’t know. We tried to find reliable people who already resided in these neighbourhoods through connections. These people would lead us through the neighbourhoods to the poor families who had no food. Lets say the father had heart disease, or the mother had a common disease like diabetes, we would provide them medicine. These are human cases. That man is sick, he is not participating and he needs medicine or he will die.
There was a huge demand for medicine and in the beginning we relied on our own pockets. We could not provide enough so we were gathering aid from our friends, my mum, my aunt, our friends outside – the ones who are earning good money in the gulf or Saudi Arabia. All the people were very very…not just generous… they gave from the heart. They wanted to contribute so they sent money.
We were also cooperating with some people in the medicine factories to get large amounts of medicine for a good price. Transporting these cartons of medicine was hugely dangerous because if you were caught, you would be investigated. I knew the owner of one company – a very rich guy and a friend in Syria – and because of his position he was covered and his trucks were secure. We relied on him. I would store the medicine in my house – and that was also quite dangerous because if there was a sudden inspection from the regime security forces and they found it, for them you are a terrorist. They knew that this medicine was aid for the areas of the demonstrations.
I moved to Damascus in 2012. Many families migrated to Damascus because Homs was not secure, it was under fire. Within 5 days, 70,000 people from Homs moved to Damascus and most of them were poor people. Don’t think that the rich areas in Syria started the demonstrations, they came from the poor areas, from the people who are banned from having bread and essential daily needs. We did our best to provide for the people who needed it. Damascus was not at the time a war zone. There were of course demonstrations, oppression and arrests, but there was no FSA (Free Syrian Army) there at that time. So we tried to provide food and medicines, as well as money for renting. Families came with a certain amount of money and could not afford to rent for more than say, one month – housing in Damascus was very expensive. We were able to collect a considerable amount of money. Sometimes in my house I had about 100,000 US dollars. I would call my friend in Dubai and say we have these people and we need at least 5000 US dollars. can you collect it from your friends? I told him once that we had 70 families from Homs and that they have no shelter. He would get the information to a rich business man and tell him
there are 70 families on the street and immediately they gave us 20,000 US dollars. We provided them all with at least 1 month of residency. We also had to secure their food and medicine. Many people were doing the same.
We started this in July and I was focusing on some neighbourhoods in Damascus where we knew that the migrants went to. Then gradually things started to evolve in Damascus and the FSA arrived in the city. It started again – wherever there is a presence of the FSA the regime started bombing with rockets and bombs. If you are there you are under real danger. Of course, the regime stops all the water, electricity, gas and other services. Many people stayed in these areas because they didn’t want to leave their houses. They said ‘where will I go? I could die in the street but no, I will die in my house’. Otherwise they were unable to leave the area because the regime put snipers there who would shoot anyone who was trying to get out – regardless, women, children, if you moved you would be shot. Gradually things became more dangerous.
I was residing in a safer area but in October 2012 my area started to be subject or mortar bombs. Al-Nusra started to emerge at the end of 2012, and they announced themselves in December 2012. My area in Damascus was full of regime spies, and there were some very famous small shops that were run by reporters. Their mission was to see people who were demonstrating against the regime, to talk to them and get them to talk. They would ask what happened yesterday and if you provided details they knew you were involved. Maybe you heard the information from one of your friends, but even so they (the security forces) would come to you, drag you out, and torture you to confess to something you didn’t do. And you confess under torture – ‘yes! I gave money’ just to stop them torturing you.
Around my area there were around 7-8 shops like this and they caused too many people to be arrested and killed. All the people of my neighbourhood hated them. Al-Nusra decided to get rid of these reporters. They sent cars full of C4 and bombs and I cannot forget that day. That night I was with my wife. I was sitting on the internet, just checking what was going on with the news, and a huge explosion happened. I used to keep my window open to protect myself from the pressure of explosions – if you keep it closed the glass will be crushed because of the pressure wave. Even so, I felt my blood pushed to the front of my body, it was horrible… horrible, the most horrible sound I have ever heard in my life. My whole body shook and my wife was knocked unconscious. it was horrible. We were scared all night, wondering what happened. I felt the explosion in my house – the walls shook and I thought the house would collapse. The next day we discovered what happened, there was an explosion 300 meters away from my house because one of al-Nusra’s men had driven a car full of bombs into one of the groceries shops. He killed himself and there was no grocery shop after that.
One month later, about 6-7 of these explosions had happened around my house and my family was very worried about me. My mum was calling me everyday and saying ‘please get out of Syria, please come here or go anywhere’. I was happy though. I was satisfied and, despite the dangerous life, I was feeling peace and enjoying life. The end of my life in Syria came when a mortar bomb dropped 60 meters in front of my living room. It was 6am and I woke up like I’d had a heart attack because of the sound. You are sleeping and then… something unbelievable. Its horrible. It will make you feel terror, real terror. I saw the black smoke in front of my eyes and I told my wife, that’s it. That is too much and I think we should move. I made my decision in November. I gathered all my stuff and in December I drove to Jordan. The 18th December was my last day in Syria – I will never forget that day, it was awful for me. I moved to Jordan for 3 days – my parents resided there – and afterwards I traveled to the U.A.E where I tried to find a new job. Of course I kept supporting the revolution by sending financial aid to the people I know. I keep doing that, even after two years of frustration and disappointment.
This is the first part of a two part article. In the second part Naim will share his opinions on the conflict, the reaction of the international community, the appearance of groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra, and his hopes for the future of Syria. Click here to read part two