Tragedy Defines, not deters, Activists

Before Syria’s war began, what Sayid (not his real name) wanted most was to complete his Arabic studies at university and get a good job. Today, his intense work ethic is still what emerges at the forefront of his identity, despite suffering unspeakable tragedies along the way. This may be more common than it would seem among today’s activists and journalists, who remain in Syria at incredible risk to their lives and those of their loved ones.

Sayid’s path began in 2008 in Homs, where he went to university, and where he was when the revolution began. Homs, Syria’s third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus, was once dubbed the “Capital of the Syrian Revolution” after many of its residents joined the anti-regime protests early in the uprising. As the protests began to intensify, particularly in Homs, Sayid’s father begged him to return home, which he did for a time. But he grew restless, wanting to do more with his life. Against his father’s protests, he returned to university. Not long after, he was trying to visit friends in an Alawite (the Shi’a-linked minority sect of Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs) area when he was stopped at a checkpoint. When the guards realized he was from Kafranbel, a center of revolution activity in the rebellious Idlib Province, they beat him and arrested him, despite him having done nothing and allegedly having no connections to the revolution.

Sayid did not make it home for four months. From the very first night, where he was held in a dirty room with a dead sheep and countless other detainees, to the night he was released, he was subjected to torture, sleep deprivation, verbal and physical abuse, and constant fear of execution. He felt that it was a source of entertainment for the guards to beat the prisoners, withhold water, and threaten them with dogs. “We were only given enough food not to die,” Sayid says. His interrogations consisted of beatings, accusations of protest activity, and abuse with electric batons, which only stopped when the guards felt he physically couldn’t take more.

He remembers hearing constant screaming from other prisoners, to include women. There were also boys as young as 11 and men as old as 80 who were being held with them. The psychological torture associated with not knowing when he’d be beaten, for Sayid, was worse than the physical abuse itself, and it continued day after day. The prisoners would be moved around, shuffled into smaller and smaller spaces, until they were so crammed that they had to rest with their heads on the backs of those in front of them, and had no room to stretch or walk. The soldiers would ask for volunteers for beatings, part of the guards’ strategy of torture, Sayid believes. He and others his age, he recalls, would volunteer so that the youngest and oldest of the group would be spared. Sayid remembers and recounts nearly each day of that time, recounting specific details on specific days with clarity and all the minute details included. This experience is clearly at the forefront of his memory, despite being an experience he says he hasn’t shared with many outside his family. He says he doesn’t know why he doesn’t tell his own story, even though he writes about the revolution daily in his work, and thinks, “maybe I don’t want to remember it.”

Sayid never admitted to protest activity at the time, and still maintains today that he hadn’t gone to any protests, nor had any connections to other revolutionaries. School was all he had cared about then, and he strongly believes that he was arrested simply for being from Kafranbel. And Sayid’s story falls in line with countless other similar accounts; many activists have stated that the regime during that time was trying to send a message to those from towns such as Kafranbel and other centers of protest activity.

Sayid’s detention finally ended when a fellow prisoner he had asked to memorize his home telephone number was released, and the prisoner called his father. His father’s connections and money got him released, after a lecture about “learning your lesson” from one of the local prison officials. Sayid laughs, for the first time since we began our conversation, saying that half the town was in his house to welcome him home, and they celebrated him — one of the first to be detained from his town — with gunfire.

After such a detailed explanation of his time in detention, we were more shocked to hear what he did next — he went back to school to finish his degree. Despite “fighting with my dad a lot,” he says, he returned to the regime area and took six courses in one semester in order to graduate. “Psychologically, when I would see a checkpoint I would start shaking. But then I would think to myself, ‘I haven’t done anything with my life, and I just need one semester to graduate.’ I couldn’t accept just sitting at home and doing nothing either. I’m stubborn.” Sayid did complete his degree, but by the time his diploma was ready to be picked up, he couldn’t even go to pick it up. “My father told me he’d kill me himself if I went back to the regime area to get it,” he says, laughing more wryly this time.

Sayid then spent a short amount of time in Turkey trying to get a job, eventually becoming a laborer. But he wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, he says. He describes twelve-hour days of manual labor and scoffs, “Someone like me … I hadn’t even moved a cup of water from one room to another! I couldn’t take it anymore.” When he returned to Syria, he linked up with a cousin and began activist work, using social media to report developments from the war. With limited equipment, they couldn’t do much, but he says, “We would sit in a small garage with a battery, a laptop, and a light. During battles we would go out and photograph.”

Their small group slowly began to grow, and with Sayid’s education, he was able to train others. Today, there are 16 others in his office, and even though they are self-funded, they’re able to offer free training on photography, radio programming, and good journalism. They have a YouTube channel and offer their reporters a monthly salary of about $50 each. “It’s not much,” he says, “but it’s what an armed group would pay.” He believes that someday someone will recognize their work and provide his group with more support. Even though journalism wasn’t his chosen career, he never leaves home without his camera; “I love it more than any single person,” he says.

When this comment about his camera lead us to ask about his love life, he stops for a long few seconds, sighs, and begins to speak again more softly. Stumbling over his words, he tells us about his first love, a girl he met at university. They talked of getting married, but she missed her parents, who lived in a rebel-held neighborhood in Homs that had come under siege by regime forces. Sayid thought that he could help her by arranging a visit for a few hours — his landlord was in the military. The visit was arranged, and they headed for the checkpoint. On the way, she told him she was scared and having second thoughts. He held her hand, telling her it would be OK. When they got there, the guard at the checkpoint, guarding a road into the neighborhood, said only she could go and he would have to wait behind. Sayid said he would wait. She walked a short distance ahead and turned, waving. He blew her a kiss. Then she was shot in the head.

There were snipers on the road, and the guard at the gate hadn’t told them to hold their fire. Sayid reached her, bleeding on the ground, in time to cradle her in his arms and hear her say, “I don’t want to die.” She died right there, and her parents received her body instead of the visit they’d expected.

Sayid didn’t leave his house for a month, lost 40 pounds, and blamed himself. Eventually, he threw himself back to work, and after a time, met another woman. She came to the town as an IDP with her family and stayed at his family’s home for a year. Her family, however, wanted to move to Germany, and even though she agreed to marry him and stay, one day she just disappeared. He hasn’t been able to find her and hasn’t heard from her since, and believes it was her parents’ doing. He is sad about it, but does not seem to hold a grudge, saying he understands their decision.

So today, Sayid works. It doesn’t occur to him to leave Syria or change his profession — “Where would I go?” he says. For him, it seems, he has found his life’s purpose. Despite immense personal suffering and tragedy, he has a community. He works every day with others whose goal is to tell the world what is happening in Syria, and to share his skills with others who might otherwise be fighting themselves. When you listen to him, you hear a man who in the space of an hour, conveys horror reliving his imprisonment, deep shock and sadness at the death of his girlfriend, and immense conviction at the goodness of the work he is doing and his intention never to stop. This sense of his purpose, what he is working toward, is perhaps what enables men such as Sayid to accomplish so much with so little rather than be broken by what they have experienced. While it is an indelible part of who he is, it is not his whole definition.

And with that, he and his camera sign off.