Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Syrian conflict that erupted on March 15, 2011 has not only altered the political map of the region, it has also transformed the lives of the young men and women who joined the movement against the regime calling for freedom and dignity.
Every one of them has a story to tell about their life under the regime—and their life since the revolution.
“The Assad regime imposed upon us the reality of a vicious circle, one where our aspirations never went beyond working to make just enough money to survive,” one young activist, Abu Jaafar Al-Homsi, said of the experience of being a young Syrian before the uprising.
“We have long desired this revolution,” he says.
After the conflict erupted, many artists, engineers, novelists and physicians volunteered to train opposition activists to work in the field to help the injured or cover the facts on the ground, to alleviate and document human suffering in a professional manner.
One of them was young Damascene film director Basil Shihadeh, who used his skills to work with the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of local groups that documented the early protests using social media and other methods, to film the human rights violations of the Assad regime. That footage was subsequently broadcast online for the world to see. He was later killed during the fighting.
But Shihadeh’s story is not necessarily the typical background shared by activists.
Many of those who have become prominent figures in the revolution have not even completed high school. A fair number of them are even illiterate.
Hassan Jazarah, the commander of the Ghuraba Al-Sham Brigade, who was executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was transformed from a melon seller and greengrocer into a commander of an armed brigade by the Syrian conflict.
According to one of his activist friends, Jazarah belonged to a poor family and used to sell fruit and vegetables “on a battered old cart.” He participated in the peaceful protests of 2011, and then took part in the armed conflict to become one of the most well-known members of the Syrian opposition.
Badawi Ghaffar Al-Mugharbel—now known as Abu Jaafar Al-Homsi—is also one of the revolution’s most prominent activists. A young man only in his twenties, he comes from a poor family from the Bab El-Sebaa area in Homs, a city which is now seen as the seedbed of the uprising, earning the appellation “the capital of the revolution.”
As a child he hated school, and eventually got expelled for trading his school books for items to sell, such as fireworks and perfumes. Today he is a journalist and media activist, making appearances on countless news channels and media outlets, helping tell the Syrian revolution’s story to the world.
After being expelled from school, Abu Jaafar traded home electronics equipment from a small shop in his neighborhood. But “at the age of 19, I went to Saudi Arabia after all the doors were closed in my face.”
Then the Arab Spring erupted, with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt toppling the once seemingly invincible regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak.
“I was certain then that it was time for the Syrian revolution,” says Abu Jaafar. “So I bought a telephone, contacted some friends—most of whom were later martyred—and returned to Syria. We began our protests and filmed all our activities, documenting them in audio and video for the world to see.”
During these early days of the revolution, before the violence intensified and forced activists to take up arms, “our first weapons were the Internet and Facebook pages.”
But when violence broke out, Abu Jaafar volunteered for the night raid unit of the opposition’s army intelligence corps. Over a harrowing 18 months, he saw first-hand the violations and torture conducted by Assad’s soldiers. Speaking of those days, he says: “Those who went in were considered missing; those who came out were reborn.”
Abu Jaafar first came to prominence at the beginning of the uprising on the Syrian Al-Mashreq TV channel, where he spoke of a “revolution of rage” that was about to erupt.
“The burden of working as a journalist and an activist is heavy and huge,” he says. “But I have become fond of the camera. I trained myself to use advanced cameras from using simple mobile phones cameras. I am now able to use them all.”
“War teaches you,” he adds with a smile.
Abu Jaafar decided to tell the stories of Syrians suffering under the regime via audio and video, conducting the interviews while masked—not because of his fear of the regime, but in order to protect his parents, who found out about his work when they saw him on television during an interview.
“[Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid Al-Mouallem has accused me of being a liar and a hypocrite because I documented the violations of the Assad regime against my family and neighbors in Homs. The city has been totally besieged; arms and food are not allowed to come in, not even medical aid,” he says.
Going from Homs to Hama, we meet young activist Abu Ghazi sitting in front of a computer screen following the events and documenting the clashes. He was never interested in human rights or political activism before the revolution; he was studying abroad as an engineering student, and was fascinated by computers. After the revolution started, he returned to Syria, and today he is a journalist.
“The violations against the protesters and the arbitrary arrests of our innocent young men and women forced . . . [us] to write and learn news editorial skills, to become an important source of information,” he says.
“I started participating in protests and did not miss a single one until I became wanted by the regime’s intelligence. So I disappeared for a while and continued to work on the Internet. I met some international journalists and learned from them; I started playing the role of the alternative journalist. We became accustomed to a journalistic routine and experienced the repression of liberties. Today, the camera lens is the eye of the citizen.”
“The Syrian people’s fear of the regime and its military aircraft has forced them to stay silent about the massacres that affect them.” This has hindered field journalism, he says, and has fostered a lack of trust regarding those reporting what is happening. “Some people think they are being exploited in order for their stories to be sold to international news agencies for a lot of money.”
Abu Ghazi never dreamed of writing or of using a camera, but “the scenes of murder, blood and injustice in every corner of Hama forced me to confront the regime, which has no mercy for its people.” He sees that the time has come for Syrians to break what he calls the “barrier of fear” and the “wall of silence,” which have now lasted 40 years.
“Three years [have passed] and work continues to topple the regime relentlessly—but it’s tougher for those directly involved than for those on the outside.”