Readings — From the June 2017 issue

The Revolution Began

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From We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, a collection of interviews with Syrian refugees that were conducted and edited by Wendy Pearlman between 2012 and 2016. The book was published this month by Custom House.

iliyas, dentist, rural hama

Syria looked like a stable country. But it wasn’t real stability. It was a state of terror. Every citizen in Syria was terrified. The regime and the authorities were also terrified. The more responsibility anyone had in the state, the more terrified he was. Brother didn’t trust brother. Children didn’t trust their fathers. If anyone said anything out of the ordinary, others would suspect that he was a government informant trying to test people’s reactions.

Every state institution re-created the same kind of power. The president had absolute power in the country. The principal of a school had absolute power in the school. At the same time, the principal was terrified. Of whom? Of the janitors sweeping the floor, because they were all government informants.

adam, media organizer, latakia

Tunisians had mass demonstrations and Syrians were like, “Hmm, interesting.” And then Egypt started. People were like, “Resign already!” And then Mubarak resigned. We thought, “Holy shit. We have power.”

Then Libya got in line, and that’s when Syrians really got interested. Because Qaddafi was going to let the Army loose on his people straightaway. We knew that and the Libyans knew that. The Libyans started calling for help, and we thought, “Exactly. This is us.” The international community intervened, saying, “We’ll protect the Libyans.” And everybody in Syria got the message: If shit hits the fan, people will back us up.

Of course we would make sacrifices. Some people would die. But we never thought that we’d have the Army attacking us, because the world would protect us. We believed that the minute international forces set foot in Syria, the whole Army would defect.

walid, poet, damascus suburbs

We started talking about the situation in Syria. We agreed that Egypt was ready for an uprising. We figured that we needed at least five more years of political mobilization and activity before we could reach the stage that Egypt had reached. And then there was a call for the revolution to begin on March 15. And we went out. Just like that: The revolution began. Were we going to say, “Wait, we’re not ready, we need five more years”?

abu thair, engineer, daraa

The first protest was on a Friday. Then there were funerals and demonstrations. On Tuesday night, a sit-in began at al-Omari Mosque. Around three in the morning, regime forces stormed the mosque from all sides. They killed dozens and injured more. They burned holy books and wrote things on the wall like do not kneel for god. kneel for assad.

People in the surrounding villages heard about the massacre in al-Omari Mosque and started coming to Daraa. They entered, calling, “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.” Security forces opened fire on them.

This is how the revolution exploded in the entire province. The government sent the bodies of dead civilians to every village. The funerals began. Each funeral became a demonstration.

mahmoud, actor, homs

I was too scared to protest. I went only once, because my girlfriend wanted to go. In the taxi and then at the demonstration, I thought that everyone was a security agent about to arrest me.

A guy I know got arrested that way. They brought him in for interrogation, but he wouldn’t confess that he’d gone to a protest. Then they showed him a video and asked, “If you didn’t go, who is this?” He turned yellow. In the video, he was in the middle of a demonstration, sitting on someone’s shoulders. It turned out to be the interrogator.

jamal, doctor, hama

It was impossible to get big numbers to demonstrate in Damascus. People were enormously afraid. So we’d mount “airplane demonstrations”: We’d chant for five minutes, then run away.

People came up with alternative ways of showing that they were against the regime. We would agree on a time and place, and then everyone would show up wearing the same color. For example, everyone would come to the same café wearing black. Nobody would say a thing; it was just a way of showing the size of the opposition. Eventually the security forces figured out what was happening and came after people dressed in the designated color.

If we’d listened to our parents, we never would have gone out at all. That generation lived through the Hama massacre of 1982. My generation is afraid — but not like them. I now say to my father, “Why were you silent all those years?” We say this to their entire generation.

sana, graphic designer, damascus

I was very scared on my way to the demonstration. It was night. We put scarves over our faces so the security forces couldn’t recognize us and walked through narrow streets to the square. The square was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands, but we started singing and dancing and jumping. It was a party to overthrow the regime. At that moment I didn’t care about anything else. I was so happy. It was a moment that I will never forget for the rest of my life: standing together with strangers, shouting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

My husband and I agreed that only one of us would go protest at a time. The other would stay home, just in case something happened. He went before I did, and came home crying: “Anyone who doesn’t live this moment cannot consider himself alive.” When I came back from my first demonstration, he asked me how it was. I told him that he was right.

ayham, web developer, damascus

There was a systematic effort to give the movement a bad image. Every time a demonstration passed by a street, the police would run after it and break windows and lights or sometimes spray-paint graffiti. On YouTube you can find a lot of videos of them doing this. The regime would show these images of destroyed property on TV and say, “This is the freedom they want. The freedom to destroy the country, the freedom to disrespect religions, etc.”

We always faced this question: What is the freedom you’re calling for? So we tried to define it. We wanted freedom of speech. We wanted release of political prisoners because we knew that they were potential leaders. The regime puts all the leaders in prison, and then comes and says the movement has none. How do you expect there to be leaders when you arrest them all?

ashraf, artist, qamishli

The problem is not that the world did nothing. It’s that everyone told us, “Rise up! We are with you. Revolt!” The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdo gan, declared that the bombing of Homs was a red line, and President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. And when the regime crossed these lines and no one intervened, the population was left in a state of desperation. It understood that it could count only on itself.

khalil, defected officer, deir al-zor

I was a colonel serving in the 4th Brigade. We were sent to put down demonstrations in Darayya and Moadamiyeh, in the suburbs of Damascus. The commanders told us that we were fighting armed gangs. I knew this was false, but these were military orders, and you don’t debate military orders.

For the first two weeks, we used batons, and Air Force Intelligence officers and snipers would shoot from behind us. By the third week, they gave us orders to open fire at demonstrators’ legs. If they approached within two hundred meters, we were supposed to shoot to kill.

The first time I saw a demonstration was like ecstasy. My heart was with the people from the beginning, but if the Army knew you were going to defect, they’d kill you. Before I could defect, I needed to ensure the safety of my wife and children. Once I did that, I fabricated a scenario to make it seem as though I’d been kidnapped, and then I disappeared. For a while, it wasn’t clear to the Army whether I’d been captured or had defected. Then the regime came to my house in Damascus. They stole what they could and burned the rest. They did the same thing to my family home in Deir al-Zor. I’m not crying over the loss of the houses. The point is that I have nowhere to go back to.

amin, physical therapist, aleppo

I found myself working in a camp for the internally displaced. I had the idea that I was going to help people. But I realized that, three years after the start of the revolution, people didn’t care anymore. We’d approach a patient, saying, “We want to treat you so you can walk again.” He’d say, “I’m finished. I just want to die.” Or there would be kids, and we’d tell them, “You need to get an education.” And the children would say, “I don’t want to be dragged around in a wheelchair anymore. The other boys make fun of me.” There was one child from the camp with polio. He used to come and say to me, “When I was a little kid . . . ” He was only ten years old.

Every time someone dies, we say we need to continue, we need to continue. But continue what? We’re coming to a dead end. I saw so many of my friends die in the revolution, and friends in my Army unit when I was still doing my compulsory service. They were so young. I’d open my phone and look at my contacts and only one or two were still alive. They told us, “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to Martyr. ” That way, if you got a text from that number, you knew that someone else had gotten hold of the phone and might be using it to entrap you.

I’d open my contact list and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr.

um naji, mother, yarmouk camp

We should have left when the blockade was partial, but we never expected it to become complete. I lived under the siege for nine months. We had food stored at home, but time passed and we ate all of it. Armed men or regime agents raided the shops and there was nothing left for civilians. We had money, but there was nothing to buy. Instead, my husband would collect grass and leaves and we’d fry them in olive oil. Later we couldn’t even find grass. My four kids would lie on the floor without the energy to speak. They were starving to death in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

yousef, former student, rural hasakah

I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when the Islamic State showed up.

Syria’s oil is located in our area, in the eastern part of the country, and the Islamic State recognized how valuable it was. They took over our village and regime planes backed them up. The regime bombed the rebels and the people, not the Islamic State. Now the Islamic State has all the oil in the area. It has the weapons, the wheat, everything.

Islamic State militants aren’t aliens, as some people describe them. They’re regular people. They’re an organization like other organizations. There were many men ready to fight the Islamic State. Women, too. We could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons. No one supported us. Instead the U.S.-led coalition started bombing. Two months ago, twenty-seven people in my village were killed by coalition planes while waiting in line for bread. Air strikes have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and the Islamic State doesn’t have planes.

sham, relief worker, douma

The Army wasn’t supposed to bother the Red Crescent. But some days they’d take an injured person right out of our ambulance. We couldn’t open our mouths.

Once, soldiers detained my friend’s team. They lined them up against the wall and shot my friend in the head. We followed him to the hospital and waited. When a person came and told us my friend was dead, I fainted. Another friend carried me away and a third treated me. The two of them were later killed.

When the intelligence officers arrested my husband, Munir, for the third time, they said, “Everything is fine. We’ll keep him for only an hour.”

That hour lasted a year and a month. For the first five months, I didn’t know if Munir was alive or dead. He disappeared and that was it. Every lawyer told me, “We’ll get him out.” But they were lying so I would keep paying them.

That August was the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. In the streets you saw people frozen in their cars, suffocated to death. My colleagues told me this was the first time that when they picked up corpses, there was no blood. I got news that the gas had spread to the prison. I was so scared for Munir that I thought I would die.

Meanwhile, someone connected to the regime told me that if I paid enough, he’d get Munir out of prison. I paid, so Munir was released.

Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We’re the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this whole thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.

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