We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled

Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University, specializing in Middle East politics, has collected the voices of Syrian rebels, activists, ordinary people, and refugees in We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled (2017). She says, “The people with whom I spoke don’t represent all of Syria’s complex religious-political landscape, or those who support Assad. Nevertheless, they’re a population with too few opportunities to express themselves, as politicians and commentators represent Syrians as victims to be pitied or radicals to be denounced.” Pearlman says she “conducted the majority of interviews in Arabic, enabling an interviewer-interviewee connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter.”

The book begins with some of the same historical background covered in Burning Country, the book from which I’ve fashioned parts one and two of “The Syrian Revolution.” Pearlman notes that current president Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, who ruled the country as dictator from 1970 to 2000, used “a foreboding military-police establishment and the Baath Party, operating through thousands of cells and branch offices throughout the country, as instruments of surveillance and control. Schools and state-controlled media taught people what they could and couldn’t say, and compulsory military service gave young men a further dosage of discipline. Political prisoners weren’t only denied due process, but subjected to overcrowding, filth, hunger, disease, and multiple forms of torture.”

Pearlman says that “from March to September 2011, the Syrian protest movement buried some 2,000 dead, yet remained overwhelmingly nonviolent. Eventually, however, citizens and army defectors took up arms – first, in defense of demonstrators and communities, then, under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), carrying out attacks on military targets. Lacking preexisting networks and infrastructure, the FSA wasn’t an organized force so much as a banner championed by hundreds of autonomous battalions. A Supreme Military Council set up headquarters in Turkey but proved unable to wield command and control. Opposition political bodies formed in exile, first the Syrian National Council and later the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, fell similarly short in establishing leadership of the larger freedom struggle.

When rebels pushed regime forces from territory across the country, the regime pounded them with artillery, missiles, airpower, and scorched-earth assaults. Over time, other rebel formations also emerged, many oriented toward an Islamist ideology. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front announced its formation in January 2012, and in April 2013 other al-Qaeda affiliates spawned an even more radical group: the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Both Nusra and ISIS enjoyed funding, discipline, and swarms of foreign fighters that expanded their presence on the ground relative to that of the FSA.

Western governments condemned Assad, but didn’t offer the antiaircraft weapons or no-fly zone requested by the opposition to protect civilians from his assaults. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other private and state sources funded the rebels through disparate channels based on their own interests, promoting competition and confusion. Meanwhile, Iran, Russia, Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement provided the Syrian regime with money, weapons, fighters, and ultimately airstrikes against its foes.

Still, by the summer of 2013, rebels had pushed government forces from 60% of the country, gaining control over large swaths of its north and west. A dramatic battle transpired when rebels launched an offensive to take Syria’s largest city and economic capital, Aleppo. The operation stalemated in the division of the city between its western neighborhoods, which remained with the regime, and its poorer eastern areas, which came under rebel control. In these and other territories that the opposition regarded as liberated, civilians and fighters established democratically elected local councils to govern and provide services to populations struggling to cope with electricity, water, and food shortages, vast physical destruction, devastated economies, rebel rivalries, and ongoing shelling and bombing by the Assad regime and its allies.

ISIS gained attention by imposing brutal rule in the areas that it seized, using such gruesome means as public beheadings. Still, the vast majority of casualties occurred at the hands of the Assad regime. The single greatest killer was barrel bombs, oil drums or gas tanks packed with explosives and shrapnel, dropped on areas that included schools, hospitals, markets, and residential neighborhoods. Government forces also imposed strategies of surrender-or-starve by encircling communities and preventing the entry of food. August 2013 registered a new level of war crimes when sarin gas, carried by rockets that experts insist only could have been fired by the Syrian army, hit the Damascus suburb of Ghouta and killed some 1,400 individuals, more than 400 of them children. U.S. declarations that use of chemical weapons was a red line raised many Syrians’ hopes for decisive intervention. Yet threats of a strike came and went, and when the United States finally did dispatch planes in the summer of 2014, it was to target ISIS, not Assad.

By early 2017, more than half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million had been forced from their homes. Seven million were internal refugees, 4.9 million were refugees in neighboring countries, and about a million were seeking asylum in Europe. Many exhausted their savings to pay smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean by boat. A billion-dollar trafficking industry emerged, maximizing profits by packing throngs of desperate individuals into rickety or inflatable boats, then allowing thousands to drown at sea. Some who instead smuggled themselves overland, like the 71 people found asphyxiated in a truck on a road in Austria, also died en route. The 1.3 million migrants and refugees who made it to Europe in 2015 trekked through countries on foot and by bus, car, and rail – journeys that often imvolved weeks of sleeping on the streets, trudging through the rain, carrying babies, and dodging criminals or arrest. More than a third of asylum seekers went to Germany, encouraged by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open her country’s borders and suspend, for Syrians, the Dublin Protocol stipulation that refugees remain in their EU country of entry. Sweden’s generous asylum policies made it the second top destination, with arrivals peaking at 10,000 a week.

By 2016, Europe had largely closed its borders, leaving some 60,000 refugees stranded in Greece pending either asylum elsewhere on the continent or deportation. The poorer, overburdened countries neighboring Syria also severely tightened restrictions, even as tens of thousands of people languished in sometimes starving conditions on the Syrian side of their borders. Such was the state of the worst refugee catastrophe since World War II when, in August 2016, the United States accepted its ten thousandth Syrian refugee.”

Pearlman concludes her history of the conflict by wondering “what might have been different had we listened to Syrians’ voices earlier,” and saying, “it’s not too late to listen now.”

Part 1: Living in authoritarian pre-war Syria

Hadia, a therapist from Damascus: “You had to get security approval even to have a wedding, and you knew that the garbage man or person selling fava beans on the highway were there because they were intelligence agents.”

Sana, a graphic designer from Damascus: “Teachers taught us that the Palestinian cause was the most important thing: that we had to forget our rights and all the problems in our country so we could fight Israel. My father always said those two things weren’t related – we could stand with Palestine and have a good country, too.”

Ayham, a web developer from Damascus: “The brainwashing process started when you went to school: ‘We love the leader, we love the regime, without them the country will collapse.’ But even to an innocent child the whole system just reeked, it was so corrupt, with bribery and preferential treatment for active members of the ruling party. Everything was handled by how loyal you were to the regime.”

Part 2: Hope disappointed

Adam, a media organizer from Latakia: “When Libya got in line with the Arab Spring, Syrians really got interested. Because when Qaddafi was going to let his army loose on the people, and Libyans started calling for help, the international community intervened. And everybody in Syria got the message: people will back us up. Of course, we’d make sacrifices, and some people would die. But we’d never have the army attacking us. And we all knew that the minute international forces stepped foot in Syria, the whole army would defect. They’d turn on Assad and that would be it.”

Part 3: Revolution

Rima, a writer from Suwayda: “A police officer assaulted someone in Hareeqa, the old market in Damascus, for no reason. In less than five minutes, hundreds gathered and started protesting against the regime. They chanted, ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated!’ A friend at work told me about it. He was so excited. It was the first time in our lives that we saw or heard about anything like that. In less than an hour, videos of the incident were uploaded on YouTube. I watched them and was so happy I cried. It meant that the revolution in Syria had begun.”

Ahmed, an activist from Daraa, says that on March 18, 2011, “there were security agents stationed at our two main mosques. So, my dad’s group went to a small mosque called Hamza wa Abbas. They found no officers there, but they did find the families of the arrested kids. They had a secret signal to get the protest going. After the imam finished his sermon, someone would shout, ‘God is great!’ Others would repeat after him and they’d all walk toward al-Omari, the major mosque. And that’s what happened. The kids’ families joined the protest. They reached al-Omari, and people who were praying there joined. When they saw us marching down the street, others joined, too, and started chanting. They came from everywhere – from houses, the streets, and other mosques. The police, the mayor, and the officer who arrested the kids came, too. They threatened to arrest and kill people if they didn’t back down. But everyone continued demonstrating, and even started to throw stones. The security forces opened fire, and two people were killed. A third was injured and later died from his wounds.

People in Daraa might have gone home that night and tried to find another solution if the regime hadn’t shot and killed people. The next day, people went to the funeral for the martyrs and started chanting against the regime. Demonstrations continued, and security forces killed more people. At that point, we realized that protest couldn’t be turned back. The situation changed from a political idea to a popular movement.”

Muntaser, a journalist from Daraa, said no one expected anyone to participate in the funeral procession for the two martyrs “because of the killing that had happened the previous day. But we went to the funeral and more than 150,000 people attended. People came from all the surrounding villages. We knew that if we didn’t, the regime would come and arrest everyone who’d protested the first day, and they’d all die in prison. So, we entered a road with no return.”

Abu Tha’ir, an engineer from Daraa: “The first protest was on Friday. Then there were funerals and more demonstrations. On Tuesday night, a sit-in began at al-Omari mosque. Around three o’clock in the morning, regime forces stormed the mosque from all directions. They killed dozens and injured more. They burnt holy books and wrote things on the wall like ‘Don’t kneel for God. Kneel for Assad.’ People in all the surrounding villages heard about the massacre in al-Omari mosque and started coming to Daraa city. They entered, calling, ‘Peaceful, peaceful,’ and security forces opened fire on them. One village had ten dead, another five. This is how the revolution exploded all over the province. Each funeral became a demonstration.”

Abu Tarek, an engineer from rural Hama, said he and his friends decided that “on Friday, March 25th we’d have a demonstration, going out from the biggest mosque in Hama. The regime knew that something might happen, so it sent its people to calm things down. The former secretary for the local wing of the Baath Party was at the mosque. He’d been the secretary during the 1982 events. The imam invited him to speak to the crowd, and he said, ‘Nothing happened in Daraa. Everything you’re hearing is lies.’ People started shouting, ‘Don’t tell us what to do! You’re shameful and corrupt!’ Then everyone got up and marched out of the mosque. We walked only three hundred meters before the security forces rushed into the crowd and started beating us. The next Friday, the security forces started beating people while they were still inside the mosque. Despite that, the second demonstration was bigger than the first. All of Hama was saying: ‘We’re going to march.’ I have a cousin who said, ‘This isn’t the right time. There’s no preparation. We’re not organized.’ My response was that the regime was going to prevent us from organizing forever. We weren’t allowed to have a political party or a newspaper or a meeting. I had to get security clearance to invite fifteen people to my house to listen to someone tell stories. The regime didn’t want change. It was in control. It had 500,000 security force officers and the entire economy in its grip. At some point we had to confront it.”

Kareem, a doctor from Homs, said, “March 18th was the first demonstration in Homs. Friday prayers ended and people marched out of the mosque, chanting. Security agents were waiting for them at the gate. They grabbed most of them and dragged them away on buses. The next Friday March 25th, we didn’t think anything was going to happen. And then we heard a loud noise from the street. People were marching from the old city toward downtown. We couldn’t believe it! Others joined, and it became an enormous demonstration. The security forces didn’t know what to do. People chanted for three hours. One of the protestors climbed the wall of the Military Officers’ Club and tore down the picture of Hafez al-Assad. He stomped on it and tore it to pieces. When this scene was broadcast on television, people couldn’t believe their eyes. Fridays passed and each demonstration was larger than the one the week before. On Fridays, security forces filled the main square downtown and set up checkpoints to prevent people from getting there. In response, every neighborhood started launching its own demonstration. Even people who don’t normally pray would come to the mosques to participate in the demonstration. Everyone had confidence that we could overthrow the president by peaceful protest alone.”

Hadi, a shop owner: “In our village in Latakia, it started with graffiti. People went out at night and wrote on the walls in secrecy. We’d wake up in the morning and see slogans like, ‘The people want the overthrow of the regime.’ Later, the phase of night chanting began. In the darkness, people would shout from their windows, ‘God is great!’ The security forces would arrive and everything would go quiet. When they left, everyone would start again.”

Jamal, a doctor from Hama, said, “It was impossible to get big numbers to demonstrate in Damascus, people were so afraid. So we’d mount ‘airplane demonstrations’: We’d chant for five minutes or so, and run away. People also came up with alternative ways of showing that they were against the regime. They’d agree on a time and place, and then 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.”⁠

Rima, the writer from Suwayda, said, “I was in a demonstration. Others were shouting and I joined them. I started to whisper, ‘Freedom.’ And I heard myself repeating, ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom.’ And then I started shouting, ‘Freedom!’ When I heard my voice, mingled with other voices, I started shaking and crying. I felt like I was flying. I thought to myself, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard my own voice. This is the first time I have a soul and am not afraid of death or being arrested.’ I wanted to feel this freedom forever, and I told myself I’d never let anyone steal my voice again.”

Amal, a former student from Aleppo, had a similar experience: “Students were in the courtyard of the university waiting for class to start. Someone started shouting, ‘God is great!’ Then others joined in and started chanting, ‘Freedom!’ I got goosebumps. I was with a friend and she grabbed my purse to hold me back, but I moved forward to join the demonstration. My friend kept pulling my purse backward, and I kept moving forward. The purse strap broke, and I merged into the crowd.”

Sana, the graphic designer from Damascus, remembered how frightened she was on the way to her first demonstration. “It was nighttime, and we walked through the streets to the square. It was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands from the left or the right, 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 I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: the moment I stood together with strangers, dancing and shouting to overthrow Bashar. My husband and I had agreed that only one of us would go to protest at a time, in case something happened. He went to a demonstration before I did, and came back home crying, ‘Anyone who doesn’t live this moment can’t consider himself alive.’ When I came back from my first demonstration, he asked me how it was, and I told him he was right.”

Waddah, a graduate from Latakia, said that “on March 25th, we were hoping there would be another protest. My friend went to the mosque in Douma, and I went to the mosque in Muadamiyah. He’d text me a plus sign if there was a demonstration where he was. Finally, I got a text: a plus. From the street, I heard people chanting, ‘With soul and blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!’ We ran outside, jumping down the stairs in excitement, got to the street, and found 2,000 people demonstrating. I started to cry. I was sorry I’d rejected my nationality, insulted these people, and said they were cowards. I thought, ‘You’re my brothers. You’re my people. You’re extraordinary.”

Cherin, a mother from Aleppo: “I encouraged my sister’s children to come with me to demonstrations. I felt that if they didn’t try that experience, they’d be missing the real meaning of life. Even if the revolution failed, those days will never be forgotten. We’ll tell our children that we took a stand. We went out. We spoke out. We shouted. The fear didn’t go away, but this incredible oppression made a young man or a young woman go out and say, ‘God is great!’ And when those words are said, you and two hundred other people are ready to call out, ‘The people want the downfall of the regime!’ Your voice gets louder and you feel intense feelings: You shudder and your body rises and everything you imagined just comes out. Tears come down. Tears of joy, because I broke the barrier; I am not afraid; I am a free being. Tears come down and your voice gets hoarse. Sadness and happiness and fear and courage – they’re all mixed together in that voice, and it comes out very strong. Before the revolution, I thought that Syria was for Assad. It was the place where I lived, but it didn’t belong to me. When the revolution began, I discovered that Syria was my country. As Kurds, we’d thought that we were oppressed and others were favored by the regime. After the revolution we discovered that we were all suffering, that we hadn’t been working together, and that was how the regime was able to dominate us.”

Abdul Rahman, an engineer from Hama, says he’d “always wanted to be an engineer, and got a scholarship to study in Algeria. I was finishing my master’s degree when the Arab Spring started. Our dreams became so near. I finished my exams and booked the first flight back to Syria. I reached Hama at 6:30 in the morning and went out in a demonstration the same day. I felt like I was in heaven. My first shout was, ‘Death before humiliation!’ Everything was happy. Even the stones of the street were happy. I could feel it coming from everywhere. People joined from all directions and the streets moved under our weight as we marched to al-Asi Square in the city center. Women threw rice and candies from the balconies. A sound system played the revolutionary song: ‘Oh shame / Oh shame / And you, son of my country, killing my children / Oh what a shame.’ I felt like a free person. I thought, ‘I’m glad I’m here at this moment. I’m glad I belong to this place.’”

Marcell, an activist from Aleppo, says her “first blog post about the revolution, on March 15th, said that we deserved freedom. I never wrote under a fake name. That was risky, but I wanted all Syrians to know my identity: I’m a woman. And I’m Christian. And I believe that this regime should go. I don’t see Muslims as people who kill Christians. I trust you. Let’s go forward, together. By April I was out in the street. Demonstrations were amazing. There were so many heroes – heroes who never knew how heroic they were. Amazing people who took huge risks to spread leaflets or to bring someone to the hospital. I also did crazy things to rescue total strangers, things that could have gotten me killed. Because we were together, shouting for the same goals. I didn’t want to feel like I had special privileges; that my parents were going to send me to Europe to wait till the revolution was over. If other people were going to get beaten in the streets, I was going to get beaten in the streets. And if they were going to prison, I was going to prison.”

Part 4: Crackdown

Miriam, a former student from Aleppo, says that “if Bashar had only come out in his first speech and said, ‘I am with you, my people. I want to help you and be with you step by step,’ I can guarantee you a million percent that he would have been the greatest leader in the Arab world. He had that kind of potential. Instead, he assumed that the Syrian people loved him, that they didn’t understand anything, and that they’d follow him no matter what.”

Tayseer, a lawyer from Daraa: “Imprisoning people became an extortion trade. Those whose parents were able to pay got out. Those who couldn’t stayed in prison and were done for.”

Abdel-Samed, a business owner from rural Daraa: “They returned the body of Hamza al-Khatib, a cousin of mine who looks just like my son. He’d been tortured. They didn’t leave a spot on his body without cigarette burns. His body was full of stab marks, his neck was broken, and they’d cut off his genitals. When people saw what the regime had done to him, the regime was finished. They realized that the regime is on one side and the people are on another. The only thing our leaders know how to do is kill, and after that, kill again; kill anyone – it doesn’t matter if he’s a civilian or a child. The regime went even further in terrorizing us. It said, ‘We won’t just kill you. We’ll kill your entire family.’ I’ve heard that in some countries the government only arrests the wanted person himself, not his brother or mother or sister. In Syria, the entire family and the entire neighborhood is accused and targeted.”

Adam, a media organizer from Latakia: “The only way they could maintain full control was by reframing the argument from reform to Shia, Sunnis, and radicals. They implemented that policy through their political speeches and military approach. And they imposed it on the ground through all the things that they used shabeeha for: burning Qurans, going into mosques, etc. And eventually things ended up where we are now.”

Kareem, a doctor from Homs: On April 16th, there was a vigil in Homs. An officer came to clear it, but people didn’t respond. He started shooting, and 17 people were killed. People moved the casualties to the hospital where I was working. The scene was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my life. The next day there was a funeral for the martyrs in which thousands of people participated. When the funeral ended, people were still angry, and wanted to do something. They started shouting, ‘To the square! To the square!’ At Clock Square, in the center of the city, people gathered and more joined. They chanted, gave speeches, and when night came decided to sleep there. There was a feeling: This is an opportunity that we shouldn’t lose. This is our square and we should stay here until the regime falls. Security forces gathered near the sit-in and decided to storm it. Negotiations were ongoing between the regime and some representatives of the people. And here the regime betrayed us. Home in bed three kilometers away, I woke up to a sound that I thought was heavy rain. I went to the window and realized it was bullets. Security forces were attacking the square. People were being slaughtered. I called the hospital and asked them to send me an ambulance. What I saw on the road from my house to the square was extraordinary: All of Homs was in the streets: people running, afraid. Security forces opened fire on the ambulance, so it wasn’t possible to move a single injured person. Only one or two wounded people managed to escape and make it to the hospital. We just sat there and cried. The next morning, the square had been hosed down with water. There was no trace of anything. All that remained were the bullet holes in the buildings. This was the turning point in Homs. After that, people felt that there was no going back.”

Abdel-Samed, business owner from rural Daraa: “In the beginning, things were spontaneous. People were just angry. Later, we saw that people needed to get organized. Coordination started from the second week. Leading figures in the community, and anyone with drive and an eagerness to contribute, gathered together, dividing themselves into groups to deal with specific tasks. Some worked in media, some organized demonstrations, some wrote the speeches that were delivered there, and some worked on slogans. Demonstrations were being shown on TV to the world, so we needed to send the right message. Each village started having meetings. At the same time, we communicated with people in other towns and villages who were doing the same thing.”

Abu Tha’ir, engineer, Daraa: “During the first few days of the revolution, we weren’t careful, and we brought the wounded to government-run hospitals. In the morning, we’d take an injured person to the hospital with a gunshot wound in his leg. That night, we’d return to find him dead with a gunshot to the head. Guys would die and they’d force their families to say that they’d had been killed by terrorist gangs. So we created field hospitals. A friend of mine donated his house and transformed it into a place to help the wounded. There were doctors and nurses, and young women and men volunteered to help. If the regime caught them, it would kill them. Sometimes when people arrived they were already dead. Sometimes people would die in front of us, and we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have bandages to stop the bleeding.”

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 spray paint graffiti. On YouTube you can find videos of them doing this. Then they’d show these images 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. My brother and the committee at his university started some YouTube channels where they produced videos that said we wanted freedom of speech and the release of political prisoners. We wanted to get rid of the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, which says that the Baath Party is the ruling party of the state.”

Mustafa, barber: “I’m from Salamiyah, which had a big effect on all of Syria, showing people government propaganda wasn’t true. Daraa, a predominantly Sunni city, was demonstrating; Baniyas, a mixed city, was demonstrating; and Salamiyah, a city of minorities known for its leftist tendencies, was demonstrating. We all had the same slogans, the same political principles, the same demands for freedom. It wasn’t Salafis or foreign agents challenging the regime – it was a revolution.”

Part 5: Life in prison

Shafiq, graduate from Daraya: “The routine was one beating in the morning and another in the evening. We got to use the bathroom twice a day. You had until the count of ten to run in and out; if you didn’t finish in time, you got hit. We worked together to share food, because there was never enough. Everyone in the cell was equal: the engineer, the doctor, whoever. Young guys would try to take beatings for the older ones. After ninety days in prison, I was brought to court. Because of the regime crackdown, not many people were demonstrating anymore. We put a lot of effort into trying to get them moving again. We’d throw leaflets and then run away. We’d launch balloons. We’d post pictures of political prisoners around town, writing that this person was arrested because he asked for your freedom.

One day I crossed paths with security officers again. They threw me in a car and took me to the intelligence services. They kept hitting me, saying, ‘You were in prison and then went back to protesting? Didn’t we teach you a lesson?’ All the old memories started flooding back. The first time I was arrested, I had no idea what was going to happen. The second time was harder, because I knew what awaited me. The beatings didn’t stop for four days. And then, suddenly, an officer said, ‘That’s it, you can leave.’ He sent me home. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later, I saw security cars outside my house. A friend with contacts found out that they were waiting for friends to visit me so they could get them, too. If they didn’t manage to get them, they’d come back to arrest me again. I messaged my friends that they should stay away. And then I left for Lebanon.”

Omar, playwright (Damascus): “I was forty-five days old when my dad was imprisoned, and ten when he got out. Our relationship was always a struggle. As a kid, I didn’t understand how prison had destroyed him psychologically. Then I got arrested. There are things that you just can’t communicate in words – the torture, the killing, the children…Once, the guard grabbed 13-year-old Mohammed by his waist and pounded his head on the door. He came back to the cell crying and lay on my stomach, calling me ‘Mama.’

The two things you feel most inside prison are despair and hopelessness. Despair because, all of a sudden, you’re cut off from everything. You feel like an animal; no longer human. Hopelessness because you can’t understand anything. You can’t do anything. Sometime after I was released, I was talking with my dad. I asked him how he was able to become normal again after having been in prison so long. He looked at me and said, ‘Who told you that I ever became normal?’”

Part 6: Militarization

Aziza, school principal (Hama): “The American and French ambassadors attended the 500,000-person demonstration in Hama. They were welcomed with enormous enthusiasm. Women and children and men took to the streets and kids carried olive branches and flowers. You can’t imagine the amount of joy and hope. People thought Western countries supported them. My husband is from Homs and became a protest leader there. Violence was becoming intense in Homs, but they still had chants like ‘One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!’ When the situation worsened, they chanted, ‘O Alawites, we’re your family. The house of Assad does not benefit you.’ In Rastan, a town in the Homs countryside, most residents are religious Sunni Muslims. My husband went there to express condolences after a lot of people were killed. He told them, ‘They want to split us along religious lines. But religion is for God and the nation is for all.’ The people of Rastan repeated after him, ‘Religion is for God and the nation is for all!’ The more people tried to address the issue of sectarianism, the more violent the regime became. It sent shabeeha to do house raids. They’d kidnap young women in front of their parents. The men said that they needed weapons to defend themselves. I urged against this, saying, ‘They’re trying to force you into killing. Do you have tanks or planes? They have an army created to fight Israel. You don’t stand a chance.’ They’d say, ‘We’ve been patient. We’ve endured and endured, but they’ve ripped our women from our hands. How can we sit by and do nothing?’”

Abed, defected officer (Palmyra): “We were four officers in the Syrian army, who used our credentials and freedom of movement to help the demonstrators. We distributed humanitarian aid and food and medical supplies to areas that needed it. The revolution started in March. Civilians and rebels started using arms in August. I told them from the beginning that the regime wouldn’t go except with force of arms. Like it or not, you have to use weapons. Every day there were peaceful demonstrations and five to ten people would die. We weren’t going to get anywhere that way. And if you wanted to wait for world public opinion to support us, forget it. We needed to forget that myth.

By the end of 2011, things started tightening around us. It was as if the other officers suspected us. The regime’s maneuvers kept failing, so they had the feeling that people were helping the insurgents from the inside. At that time, my assignment was away from the base. One day the commanding officers sent a young lieutenant to tell me to report back to their office. I asked him why they didn’t communicate with me directly. I asked the lieutenant if I could use his mobile, and as soon as I put my hands on the phone, a text message arrived from the commander who’d sent for me. It said, ‘Keep your eyes on Abed, we’re coming to get him.’ I replied, ‘Received,’ erased the message, and returned the phone. Then I took my bag and got out of there as fast as I could. The next month, I left the country.”

Ashraf, artist (Qamishli): “If international powers had intervened at the beginning, it wouldn’t have reached this point. Or at least if a no fly-zone had been enforced, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad. The problem isn’t that the world did nothing. It’s that they told us, ‘Rise up! We ‘re with you. Revolt!’ Turkish president Recep Erdoğan declared that the bombing of Homs was a red line, and President Obama said chemical weapons were a red line. People were encouraged to stand by the revolution because they thought they had international supporters. And when the regime crossed these lines and there was no implementation of these threats, the population was left in a state of desperation. It understood that it could count only on itself.”

Abdul Rahman, engineer (Hama): “We liberated Hama with numbers, not weapons. Each neighborhood made its own checkpoints to block regime forces from reentering. I’d been saving money to marry my fiancé, so I was caught in a struggle between my personal life and my desire to get a gun to protect my people. There was a list of guys waiting to obtain a weapon, and I was not at the top. I hadn’t done military service like the others, so I lacked experience in handling arms. On July 31st, the regime started to shell the city at 6:30 in the morning. You could smell gunfire and hear the shudders. People started to block the streets with rocks. In our neighborhood we had nothing but three pistols, two AK-47s, and one hand grenade. We started filling Molotov cocktails, thinking we were strong enough to stop anything. The sounds of engines came closer and closer, and then suddenly, boom! They shelled us. We were twelve people at our checkpoint; seven were killed, and five, including me, slipped away with injuries. Our neighborhood was weak, and our defenses broke down.

The first day of the siege, Hama showed some resistance. The second day there was no resistance. Regime forces invaded, killed 309 people, and withdrew. The third morning there was hard shelling. I woke up and found my sister crying and my mother reciting her will. They wanted to flee. I’d refused till then, but finally agreed. Everyone was running from Hama although nobody knew where. We made it to Damascus, where I waited fifteen days. When I returned to Hama, there were army checkpoints everywhere, photos of Bashar al-Assad, and big machine guns. I walked around and saw writing on the walls, like: ‘There is no God but Bashar,’ and ‘Assad, or we’ll burn down the country.’ People continued to try to carry out small acts of resistance to show the military we were still there. It was around that time that the idea of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerged. I was still waiting for my turn to get a weapon when my cousin learned that I was on the wanted list. For the next month, I slept in a different bed every night so I wouldn’t get caught and arrested. We kept waiting for some good news from other cities – victories or assistance that would alleviate the pressure on Hama. My cousin told me, ‘You’re wanted on the provincial level, but not yet at the level of all of Syria. There’s still time. If you’re going to flee, you should do it now.’ All of my dreams were in the revolution. I wasn’t a coward and I wanted to complete what we started. But somehow my family convinced me to leave. On September 15th, I wrote slogans on the walls for the last time: ‘Free Hama’ and ‘Tomorrow will be better.’”

Andel-Halim, fighter (Homs): “I joined the FSA as an accountant, supervising funds and supplies. Our group grew, and when we were about 150 people, we started going out to battles. I was shot in the leg and my parents wanted to get me to Turkey for treatment, but I refused to leave. I loved what we were doing back then. We were like brothers – more than brothers, actually; it was like we were one person. Then the army entered Homs, saying they wanted to inspect houses for terrorists and leave. But they never left – that’s how the siege began. Civilians started fleeing, but we stayed. For the first two or three months, we ate everything in the houses that residents had abandoned. Of course some families didn’t flee. Our mission was to protect them and protect ourselves. When the army attacked, we’d attack back. There were battles and people died. Reinforcements came to our area through underground sewers, bringing supplies and help. The first six months were mostly good. Then we ran out of fuel for our cars, and there was no electricity, except for one generator per battalion. We thought we could stay like that for a month or two, but the situation lasted two years. The doctors in the field hospital took care of us as much as they could, but there was no medicine. The operating room wasn’t even sanitized. If someone got shot in the hand, they’d have to amputate. Same thing for an injured leg, foot, or eye. Real hunger began, too. Everyone would go out and collect leaves and plants. People who knew how to cook would boil them in water, adding spices and bouillon cubes. They did their best to make the meals seem varied and plentiful, but at the end of the day it was just grass. In the beginning we didn’t feel the loss of nutrients, but by the last three months of the siege we could hardly walk.

In the beginning the FSA didn’t have commanders and conscripts. We were just a bunch of friends. Then dollars started flowing into the commanders’ pockets. The good ones got killed or pushed aside, and the bad ones became more powerful. They had heating and hidden food rations. They even cooperated with the regime army to get cigarettes. Things became like they used to be under Bashar. There were informants among us, too, for the regime or the FSA leadership. By the end, I was just waiting for death.

Then a deal was made to evacuate us from the old city to the countryside on May 24, 2014. The Homs governor and the army were present. Our bodies were weak, but we were filled with dignity. We had defended Homs to the best of our abilities. I hoped that I’d put something forth for God and for my parents. I said goodbye to everything. I lived two years in this area and it became a part of me, like my hands or my eyes. I looked at Homs and thought, ‘I’m not going to see her again.’ And it’s true, I’m not. She’s gone now.”

Abu Firas, fighter (rural Idlib): “For every action there is a reaction. When the regime is killing in this way, people become what we call jihadists and you call terrorists. I swear to God that I have nothing but respect for you regardless of your ethnicity, religion, or nationality. But when my sister is arrested and they rape her, I have no problem entering any place in the world with a car strapped with explosives. Because no country in the world is paying attention to me. Not a single one is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights I should have as a human being.”

Khalil, defected officer (Deir ez-Zor): “I was a colonel serving in the Fourth Brigade and we were sent to put down demonstrations in Daraya and Muadamiyah. The commanders told us we were fighting armed gangs. I knew this was false, and 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 was able to do that, I fabricated a scenario to make it seem like I’d been kidnapped. They arrested my father and brother. 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 ez-Zor. I’m not crying over the loss of the houses. The point is that I have nowhere to go back to. They offered a reward to anyone who could provide information on my whereabouts and a bigger one for anyone who killed me. I moved around from place to place at night. At the same time, I began working with the FSA. Then the Nusra Front emerged. In June 2012, I went to talk to them. I said, ‘This is a popular revolution, why don’t you use the revolution’s flag?’ They said, ‘That’s the flag of the infidels. We’re raising the flag of the Prophet.’ I said, ‘Bashar let you go so he could say he’s fighting terrorism.’ They replied, ‘God willed that this should be done.’

We each went forward with our work separately. We in the FSA would attack a regime position, force the regime to withdraw, and move on to the next regime position. Nusra would come along behind us and take control of the point we’d just liberated. We were focused on fighting the regime while Nusra was looking to occupy territory. Most of Nusra’s fighters were foreigners – Saudis, Qataris, and Tunisians. The FSA had more men, but received little aid. We could afford to give fighters only a one-time payment. Nusra gave its fighters monthly salaries and top-quality weapons. It also distributed bread to people to try to win their support. People took it because they were hungry, but the first opportunity they had to go out and protest against Nusra, they did. Then ISIS emerged. It also paid people to join its ranks, and had plenty of weapons, and ammunition. Raqqa became the ISIS headquarters. There was no battle; the regime just handed it to them and left.

We’re against Assad because he’s a dictator, and we won’t accept another dictator in his place. What gives them the right to say something is blasphemy? ISIS killed a German doctor working in a field hospital, saying he was an infidel. This man had come from abroad to treat injured people. If that’s infidel, let’s all be infidels.”

Husayn, playwright (Aleppo): “The FSA launched its attack on Aleppo, and the city became divided between regime and liberated areas. The FSA took over the poorer neighborhoods – more than half the city. As revolutionary activists, the most important thing we could do was offer people an alternative to the regime. We had to provide food, shelter, and services. We had to create a new system. Building on that idea, we held elections for local councils to represent Aleppo city and all of Aleppo province. The elections was the first of their kind in Syria. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. I invested all my political experience in it, because I believed that we had to make it work. We wanted to build real institutions that could develop the state. The main competition was between us revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was very organized and had a lot of money. We had only words. We walked around neighborhoods all day long, talking about our goals and principles. People still appreciated us back then. Later, money and relief aid started flowing in, and they stopped caring. Now if I went and talked to them about the revolution’s values, they’d kick me out. At that time, there were thousands of abandoned homes in Aleppo. The armed battalions simply took over empty houses. We activists insisted on getting permission from the rightful owners. A man from Aleppo who was working in Saudi Arabia donated his house for our use, and it became a beehive of activity. More than thirty of us slept on foam mattresses, and took turns cooking and cleaning. One guy was rich, so he’d buy kebab. Others were poor, and could only afford to make eggs.

Whenever people went to pray, I’d keep doing whatever I was doing. No one ever pressured me to join. They knew I was secular, but they treated me with respect, as an old man who’d left his family to help the revolution. There wasn’t religious extremism at the beginning. It took time and effort to get people to become extremists. I think the impetus was from outside the country, and money and weapons were the main drivers.

We created the first movement against Islamization after Islamic groups killed a 14-year-old who used to sell coffee on the streets. Three Islamists – an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Syrian – wanted to take coffee and pay the boy later. He told them, ‘Even if the Prophet Mohammed came, I wouldn’t give it to him on credit.’ The Islamists considered that blasphemy and killed the boy. It was around that time that ISIS arrived in Aleppo. They started kidnapping journalists and activists. There were few of us left by then, but we organized a sit-in in front of ISIS headquarters. After an ISIS car followed us home and blocked our taxi, we began working in secret. When I could only oppose ISIS by living in a neighborhood protected by a violent warlord, I decided to leave Syria. I no longer had a purpose for staying.”

Kinda, a Druze activist from Suwayda: “By 2012, the FSA, Nusra Front, and other groups had emerged, and there were ugly incidents. My sister and I met with a few friends and came up with a wonderful idea. Four of us would wear white bridal dresses with veils to send the message, ‘Enough! End the killing.’ I told myself that if I died wearing that white dress in protest, I’d die on Syrian land with pride. The rest of the world would know we’re not terrorists.

The preparations took about 25 days. We had a party the day before we went out. We decorated with jasmine flowers, as people do for weddings in Damascus, and we prepared signs. One read, ‘I’m 100% Syrian,’ another, ‘Syria is for all of us,’ and a third, ‘Civil society calls to end all military operations on Syrian land.’ The next day we went down to the Midhat Basha market, wearing black abayas over the wedding dresses. Friends met us in the market, then dispersed into the crowd with the plan to come together once the protest began. On the count of three, we took off our abayas, put on the veils, raised the signs, and stood there for about seven minutes. We were four brides in the middle of the market, and we brought it to a standstill. It was a wonderful scene, by far the most beautiful day of my life.

Then we started walking. Store owners came out to watch us, and everyone was silently filming with their cell phones. I said, ‘Why aren’t you ululating for Syria’s brides?’ and the crowd went crazy ululating and clapping for us. An elderly man began to cry, and people were saying, ‘God bless you. You’re the heroes of Syria.’ A security force member came, gun in hand, and told me, ‘Take that sign down and don’t cause problems.’ I raised it even higher.

The whole protest lasted about half an hour before a full security detail arrived on the scene and detained us. They kept demanding, ‘Who are you working for?’ and tried to scare us by threating to give us to the jihadists to be raped. We saw older men, barefoot and kneeling on the floor, and guys cuffed and hanging from rods. After a while, they took us away for interrogation, one by one. This lasted from three in the afternoon till eight the next morning. Then they took us down to the cell. Every day we’d hear the shots of executions. We got sick and got lice. My sister was on the verge of death. I beat on the door and cried, ‘I don’t need my sister. She will die for the sake of Syria, but you will be held accountable.’ They were afraid because we were from a religious minority, and the next day a doctor came.

We stayed in prison for two months, then were released on a prisoner exchange. After I got out, I went back to Midhat Basha market and asked the shop owners about the bride incident. One said, ‘Yes, I remember. They arrested them.’ I told him I was one of the brides, and he hugged me and started crying. He said, ‘Do you know what happened the next day here?’ He told me there was an old man who used to sell children’s toys, displayed on a table. The day after our protest, he cleared everything off his table and put up only four dolls dressed as brides.”

Part 6: Living War

Rana, a mother from Aleppo, said, “My family lives in the countryside, and I didn’t see them for six months. Then when I finally went to visit, they bombed those areas too.”

Amin, physical therapist (Aleppo): “Every time someone dies, we say we need to continue. But continue what? We’re coming to a dead end. I saw so many of my friends die. I’d open my phone and look at my contacts, and only one or two were still alive.”

Jalal, photographer (Aleppo): “The regime has turned us into monsters so it can justify killing us. Syrian society has been shattered – bring any family together today, and you’ll find four or five empty chairs. I once photographed a barrel bomb that killed three kids as their father sobbed, ‘I left them for an hour to look for a safer place to live. I came back and they were gone.’ I have four kids, and the whole purpose of my life is to guarantee their future. So I imagine this man who loses his kids and completely understand if he turns into a monster.”

Kareem, doctor (Homs): “Imagine that you find your own neighborhood looking like Hiroshima. A strange calm, as if you’re in a theater. Silence. Only the tweet of sparrows…”

Yousef, former student (rural Hasakh): “I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when ISIS showed up. Syria’s oil is located in our areas in the eastern part of the country, and ISIS recognized how valuable that is. They took over our village and then moved to take Deir al-Zor, which has the largest oil reserves. Regime planes backed them up. They bombed the rebels and people, not ISIS. There were many men and women ready to fight ISIS, and we could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons – no one supported us. Instead, the U.S.-led coalition started bombing us. Two months ago, 27 people in my village were killed that way, waiting in line for bread.

It’s airstrikes that have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and ISIS doesn’t have planes.”

Hakem, engineer and pharmacist (Deir al-Zor): “I lived under ISIS rule for a year and a half. ISIS forced us to pay taxes or face punishment and to come out and watch them cut off people’s heads. I have a list of the names of civilians killed when Russian and Coalition planes started bombing.”

Marcell, an activist from Aleppo, said she recognized the problem with ISIS “when a Jordanian fighter gathered children in the street and said he’d pay a dollar to each child who threw a rock at me because I wasn’t wearing a headscarf. Back then there were few of them and they didn’t have enough power to arrest me directly. None of the kids threw a rock, but their parents warned me, and my friends and I changed houses ten times. Then an ISIS fighter from Belgium stopped me on the street and said, ‘You can’t look like that here. This is Islamland.’ I said, ‘No, this is Syria.’ When our exchange got tense, FSA fighters came and intervened. After I was stopped several more times and five or six of my friends had been kidnapped, I left for Turkey, crying like a baby the whole way.”

Sham, who was part of a Red Crescent emergency response team in Douma, says regime soldiers sometimes took injured people out of their ambulance. They also shot three friends from another team. She and her husband Munir fled the country after he was released from prison on condition of leaving immediately. “Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We check the news every second to see who’s been killed and who’s still alive. Believe me, if the world had helped us from the beginning, we never would have reached this point. If I died this second, I wouldn’t care, because I’ve reached a point in my life where I hate everything. I’m disgusted by humanity. We’re basically 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 thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”

Part 7: Flight

Ghassan, an artist from the Khan al-Shih refugee camp: “In 1948, my grandfather left Palestine. The family settled in the Golan Heights and started over from zero. In 1967, Israel entered the Golan; we had to leave and again started over from zero. We eventually moved to this camp, because it’s a poor area, and we could afford to buy land and build a house.

In 2011, I was 38 and had four children. The camp was besieged, and the FSA was using it as a base for its operations. The regime bombed civilians to get them to force the FSA to leave. There was a huge battle, and I got displaced with my wife and kids. My brothers went to Germany, but I didn’t want to leave. I felt like I couldn’t go to Europe and start over. The things I’d achieved in Syria might not have been great, but for me they were huge. I’d built a business, I had my name, my reputation, and my dream of an education. Leaving Syria meant losing everything and starting from zero again.

I finished my first year at Fine Arts, and my wife and kids managed to join me in an area where I’d started renting an apartment. Months went by. Design requires you to do a lot of work from home, but I couldn’t, because we had no electricity. I took leave from university, sold my car, and bought a different one that I could use as a taxi. My business had stopped, and work as a taxi driver was steadier. I enrolled my kids in a new school and drove them there in my taxi. Every kilometer there was a regime checkpoint. Three times soldiers asked for proof of my 12-year-old son’s age. They wanted to know if boys were old enough to do their mandatory army service. I thought, ‘What if he gets stopped at a checkpoint when I’m not with him? They’ll never believe he’s 12.’ I decided we needed to leave; I couldn’t take risks with my kids’ futures. When I sold all the equipment in my office, I felt like I was selling a part of myself. The only thing I kept from Syria was my paintbrushes and pens.”

Um Khaled, a mother from Aleppo, said, “Our house was bombed and collapsed on top of us. We spent a year going from place to place inside Syria. We spent all the money we had. My youngest daughter Hayat, who was in first grade, would wake up screaming with nightmares from hiding in bomb shelters, and finally my husband said we had to leave. He wanted to stay, because our eldest daughter was staying. She’s married and has four kids.

So we left and came to Lebanon. We found a storage space where we could live. It had no water, no electricity, nothing, but it was a place for us to sleep – me and my children, my grandchildren, and one of my sons-in-law, who was sick with liver disease. I’m a housewife and have no experience working, but I found work in a factory. Then I got news that a plane dropped a bomb and killed seven people. My husband was among them. They sent me a photo of his burial so I’d believe he was dead.

That was three years ago. Now we’re 18 people sleeping in the storage space: my four married daughters, my three sons-in-law, their nine children, Hayat, and me.”

Safa, a mother from Homs, is also in Lebanon, where “life is terrible – a neighborhood of shacks, lack of hygiene, germs making the kids sick. The roof leaks, and the tap water is so polluted you can’t even use it to wash vegetables.

Lebanese won’t work for less than $20 a day, so bosses fire them and hire Syrians for $10, which leads to tension between poor Syrians and poor Lebanese. The UN used to provide $30 per person. Then they announced that they ran out of funding. One woman had little children and they kept telling her to wait in line to apply for help. It was such a humiliation – they’d leave her to wait for hours in the sun, saying ‘tomorrow,’ or ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Finally, she poured fuel on herself and set herself on fire – right there, outside the UN building.

There’s nothing to protect us – no state, no government, no law, no human rights. Animals have more rights than we do.”

Bushra, a mother from al-Tel says that “kids today don’t think about going to school in order to get a job someday – they think about getting a job in the hope that someday they’ll be able to go to school. Or they think about living in a real house. One day I took my young daughter with me to a women’s center, and after living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and floors. She said, ‘Take a photo of me next to the wall!’”

Abdel-Aziz, a teacher from rural Daraa: “The Zaatari camp in Jordan is a dead area. They found a place in the desert where not even a tree or an animal can live, and they put the Syrian people there. The other day we saw a butterfly in the camp. Everyone got so excited, we were shouting at each other to come and look at it. It must have really lost its way if it wound up here.”

Sadik, a vet’s assistant from rural Suwayda told about trying to reach Europe from Turkey: “There were over 40 of us in an inflatable boat built for ten. We found ourselves to be Syrians, loving and caring for each other, even though we were all from different parts of the country. I was sitting next to a mother and her three kids from Zabadani. The father got stuck on the other end of the boat, and there was no way he could move closer to us. I held the kids during the journey and took responsibility for their safety. We were all Syrians, all one family.”

Nur, a beautician from Aleppo, said that when the dinghy arrived, her husband looked at her and said, “‘Should we go back?’ I responded, ‘To where?’

In Greece, we started walking. My husband carried our son the entire three-week journey. I held our daughter by the hand. We went from Greece to Macedonia, and then to Serbia, Hungary, and Austria before reaching Germany. Everyone along the way tried to make profits at our expense. Days were flaming hot and nights as cold as ice. My feet bled and all I wanted to do was sleep. But once we started, we couldn’t go back.

Once when I was waiting for an appointment at one of the state agencies, I met a journalist who told me, ‘The most important thing is that now you’re safe.’ I told her, ‘We haven’t come looking for safety. We’re not afraid of death. Our problem is life without dignity.’ If we’d known what was in store for us, we’d never have come. But we did, and now we can’t return. There’s no way back.”

Yusra, a mother from Aleppo, had a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son when “the events began. People started going out in demonstrations, and then the shooting started, and the bombing. When my two-year-old would hear the explosions, he’d go completely still, staring with his eyes wide open. It took him a long time to learn to talk.

We smuggled ourselves to Jordan and stayed there for two years. There was no work and we spent all the money we had. I took my two kids and my nephew, and we entered Turkey. Smugglers took us from one place to another. We’d walk up and down hills at night to get to the boats, but the police kept catching us. We finally got on a dinghy, and after two hours arrived in Greece. We went by bus to Macedonia, then walked for 29 days. By the time we got to Budapest, the kids were in a terrible state. Their clothes were wet, and they had diarrhea.

I’ve been in Germany for a year and a half now, and I don’t regret a thing, even if I’m still living in this refugee shelter. The kids are going to good schools, and I’m starting to learn to read.”

Kareem, the doctor from Homs, wonders “why the world has so little sympathy for people dying in Syria. It’s as if the blood that circulates in our veins is of lesser value. Syria is just a chessboard for great powers to settle their accounts. Our family is scattered. My parents and one of my brothers are in Qatar, another brother is in Egypt, and another is trying to get to get to Germany. My son spent the first years of his life in Homs stuck inside because of the curfew and the bombing. He had no contact with anyone but his parents and grandparents. He was two years old when he saw another child for the first time. He went up to him and touched his eyes, because he thought he was a doll.”

Imad, a former student from Salamiyah, doesn’t have “any dreams or plans for the future. I hardly think an hour ahead. Return to college after all these years that I haven’t been able to get my degree? I don’t have the patience to start again.

Media has tied the revolution to terrorism. If a Syrian asking for asylum says he was with the revolution, European authorities ask if he interacted with terrorists. You feel like you’re being accused of something. It’s easier just to say that you’re running from war, and in this way the truth of the revolution gets buried. And that alone is a crime against everything that’s happened.”

Ahmed, an activist from Daraa, is in the U.S., waiting for his application for asylum to be acted on. “Since the last election,” he says, “everyone is scared, thinking, ‘If they kick us out, where will we go?’”

Part 8: Reflections

Ghayth, a former student from Aleppo, says, “We worked so hard for the revolution, and it was so innocent. Then it turned into a war, and everyone got involved in stealing it. Good leaders were assassinated, and the FSA was reduced to a matter of funding. We would prefer to stay in our country. If you don’t want refugees, help us make peace in Syria.”

Adam, age 29, a media organizer from Latakia: “We opened a Pandora’s box – we had this innocent, childlike desire to see what was inside it. We thought we’d get a present, and what we got was all the evil in the world. I completely understand why someone would join ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Assad regime or the Kurdish groups – you’re in dire need of a narrative that can justify this futility, this suffering. Otherwise, it’s too painful. I think I’m too old to dream now.”

Husayn, a playwright from Aleppo, asks, “If everyone who participated in the dream of a free Syria leaves or gets killed, who’s going to build Syria later? I have hope that there are still people inside the country who’ll want to build it. Half of those living under regime control don’t support the regime. But the conflict doesn’t belong to us anymore. Syria has become an arena to settle scores, and there’s a lack of agreement about what we need for the future. I know some people fighting the regime want to control my life. But we can argue about that later – first we need to bring down the regime…We’ve accepted the fact that we need to make our dreams smaller if that’s what it takes to keep dreaming.”



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