The scissors screech along the cardboard; glue smears along the underside of the sheets of paper. With frequent glances at their plans, Baraa and Canaan construct a model of the Homs clock, which has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution. The two young activists are preparing for the March 15 demonstration commemorating [the beginning of] the [Syrian] uprising. In another corner of the room in north-eastern Paris, Abu Naem* is writing a play, the first for this student in bio-physics: the imaginary trial of Bashar al-Assad.
One year ago, Baraa, a young architect from Damascus, participated in the very first demonstrations against the regime. “I had talked about it with my friends but, while they agreed in principle, none of them wanted to come with me because they were afraid. I too was afraid. We know the Syrian system; we know its brutality”. On March 15, he went alone to Hamidieh Souk, the market in the heart of [Damascus’] historic Old Town. As he approached, he heard cries of “Hurriyeh! Hurriyeh!” – freedom – ringing out from the archway of the souk. Baraa joined the protesters…
The same day, Sami watched the news with his family in Jaramana, a city shared by Christians, Druze and Iraqi immigrants, located ten kilometers southeast of the capital. The young, 26-year-old doctor, with long eyelashes and laughing eyes, had heard of a demonstration planned for March 15, but he chose to stay at home that day. “In Syria we live in the shadow of a regime that has dashed all hopes of freedom and democracy. I did not go to the demonstration; I was afraid. But when I saw it on TV, my family and I were very happy. It was the first time in many years that Syrians had done something for Syria!”
Back in the room [in Paris], the Homs clock is taking shape under the scissors. Canaan is pursuing his studies in France and has not returned to Syria since the uprising began. On February 18, 2011, a hundred people demonstrated in Damascus against police brutality. “When the first demonstration took place on February 18, I told my mother, ‘it’s going to begin in our country, like in Egypt and Tunisia.’ She did not believe it for a second. Then on March 15th I called her in Homs to tell her, ‘You see? And now it’s going to continue!’ What a pity that I was not in Syria!”
For his play, Abu Naem has already assigned the roles. The great Canaan will play the Syrian President. “He has a talent for imitation,” smiles [the author]. “When he does Bashar, you feel like you’re really listening to him!” The young man with fine features remembers his concerns on March 15: “Before, I was not sure that the Syrians, too, would rise up. Above all, I was not sure that we could hang on… or that I could hang on, in any event.”
On March 15, dozens of Syrians demonstrated for freedom. About thirty were charged with “undermining the prestige of the state”. The next day, while participating in a second demonstration, Baraa was arrested. He was held for slightly less than a month in prison, at the Mezzeh military airport southwest of Damascus.
In Deraa, in the country’s south, the police opened fire. The first casualties of the revolution fell. On Friday, March 25, a “day of rage” was organized and demonstrations dotted Syria, from Latakia, the northern coastal town, to Baniyas, Homs and Hama in particular. As the city of Deraa went up in flames, Damascus remained calm. Meanwhile, Baraa was still in detention, and being tortured.
He was released on April 14, before his family had even managed to ascertain whether he was still alive. “The first moment I realized I was really out was when, in getting off the bus, I felt the sun and saw people walking down the street. That first night, I did not sleep; I was waiting on my balcony for the sun to return.”
Upon leaving prison, Baraa continued to participate in the Syrian uprising, in the demonstrations in Damascus and on the internet. Sami, the doctor, led a double life. During the week, he pursued his medical specialization in a government hospital; on weekends he treated injured protesters in a mobile hospital northeast of the city. His patients were primarily young people between the ages of 20 and 35. During the month of Ramadan, he was arrested and tortured for two days. “What did I risk? Almost everything! Even my life, because doctors are accused of smuggling weapons to the Free Syrian Army; the regime is very suspicious of us.” It was a member of his extended family that ‘took care’ of him [during his time in prison].” He was very shocked that someone from his own family could be among the protesters. He wanted to teach me a lesson and beat me with cables, but I left after two days, probably thanks to him.”
[Where does Sami get] the strength to continue? “Since the beginning, since the first demonstration, we are always expecting it to be the last. You can be killed, or arrested – or both. Nobody knows how things will end; but [for now] it continues, and the joy of shouting the word “freedom” grows stronger. I think that is reason enough to take all these risks,” Baraa sighs.
Baraa, photographed by Majd Eid. Baraa, Abu Naem and Sami (this is not their real names) have had to leave Syria. They currently live in France.
The article was translated from French by Erin O’Halloran.