I was in the fifth grade when school officials ordered all the teachers in my school to end the day early and march with us through the streets of Damascus singing songs of admiration for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Coming home from the all-day rally, I was looking forward to sharing my insight to my father – a successful army officer – that our president had big ears like a monkey. He didn’t laugh with me. Rather, my father slapped me in the face and taught me a lesson I will never forget. He said, “The walls, windows, doors – everything you see, smell or feel around you, everything and everywhere – have ears. You can hear your words when you are talking about the president, his friends, or politics. They can even hear your whisper. “I was 10 years old when I was first introduced to dictatorship.
Ten years later, when I was 15, the thrones began to tremble on December 17th, 2010. The Arab world awoke to news that a 26-year-old Tunisian was burned to death after authorities banned him from trading vegetables in the city – his only source of income. His name, Mohamed Bouazizi, would be remembered as one of the martyrs of a new revolution in the Middle East.
At a time when most people believed that the Arab dictators could not fall, Tunisian street vendors and their supporters gathered in demonstrations, forcing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country. The Tunisian people defeated their dictator, who had ruled Tunisia for over 23 years, after 28 days of demonstrations – and with minimal bloodshed. The victims were largely due to the brutality of the police. The Tunisian people rose and demanded freedom, which started a new phase in world history, the Arab Spring. Shortly after the Tunisian movement began, people in Libya, Egypt and Yemen also rose up.
My family watched the Egyptian revolution on television as millions of people marched for freedom. I remember my father whispering to me, “Could we see these great demonstrations in Syria too?” He was excited but was afraid to say it out loud. The walls could still hear whispers.
Eventually the Arab Spring reached Syria. It started after 15 young children were arrested after they wrote on a wall, “Your turn, Doctor,” which was interpreted as an anti-Assad message. The children were captured and tortured by intelligence officials: they were beaten and their fingernails were torn off. Among the children was Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who died under torture and was butchered by Syrian prison guards. Within a few days, the reaction of their families and the people of their city caused a storm that soon reached my hometown of Baniyas and sparked our own revolution.
My father drove me to the demonstrations himself. Although he was still only whispering, I understood that when he drove me to the protests, he was telling me that now was the time to take a step forward because every step back would mean death. We were afraid, but there was joy in the souls of all who joined the demonstrations. I remember my excitement. I felt like I could jump and touch the sky when we said, “Oh, freedom!”
Little did I know that in just a few years I would be in jail while my father and brothers were being murdered in the same living room that was once filled with our excitement as we watched the demonstrations across Syria on our TV screens. Like more than 500,000 other Syrians, my family members would become victims of the Assad regime and the wars that followed. In my hometown of Baniyas and in my village of Bayda, there was a massacre in which the regime wanted to commit ethnic cleansing of the Sunni people in the Alawite majority area.
In every conflict there must be winners, losers and victims. The Arab Spring, whether you think it was successful or not, taught the Middle East the difference between dictatorship and leadership. At least it has freed people’s minds by showing them the beauty of calling for freedom after years of tyranny. It has also shown the West that the Middle East is open to democracy and change, and has proven to the Arab regimes that violent repression is not a solution, just a desperate delay.
The Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni people managed to get rid of their presidents, but they failed to overthrow their regimes. Now, after 10 years of suffering and loss, people are facing the same struggles as before. In Tunisia, motherland of the Arab Spring, the 2014 democratic presidential election was a source of hope, but it soon turned out that much of the same systematic corruption remained. Since the beginning of the revolution, Egypt has ousted two presidents to get a new dictator: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Today, 11.5 percent of the population in Syria has been killed or injured since March 2011, and more than 12 million – more than half the population – have been internally or externally displaced. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, almost 100,000 Syrians have disappeared during that time, mainly through the Syrian regime.
The Assad regime, with the help of Russian and Iranian allies, has managed to retake most of the parts of Syria liberated by opposition forces and has gathered more than 4 million people – most of them children – in the small town of Idlib, the last stronghold of the opposition who are fighting for their daily survival.
Opposition groups have had to survive by relying on sponsorship from other countries like Turkey and Qatar, which have their own ideas about what Syria should look like and have shaped the way these groups work – which led them to turn each other’s focus on the real enemy. In 2014, the Islamic State established itself in Syria and soon became the greatest threat to the Syrian revolution. The militant group did not hesitate to use its resources to kill opposition forces. It has shifted the focus of Western countries from the brutalities of the Assad regime to the brutalities of terrorist groups. This has created a lack of hope and trust in the Syrian opposition groups, and all that is left today is the hope that people had when they went to the first demonstrations in early 2011.
When millions of young Arabs grew up during the Arab Spring and learned how corrupt their governments are and the dangerous security services that protect them, they had the opportunity to engage with people they disagree with for common ground . You have developed a new idea of what the future should look like. They will continue to fight until they are freed for the sake of those who died, fled or tortured under the control of the regime.
Millions of refugees have fled their countries to seek safety in Europe. Today tens of thousands of them study in universities and thousands stand up for freedom and democracy and stand up for equality, dignity and human rights. They managed to achieve new successes that contribute to the future of the region and are shaped by their life in Europe.
I wanted to take part in the first demonstration to prove myself to my father. Changing my father’s perception was my first revolution, but after 10 years I ended up in a bigger place. Like the estimated 215,000 other Syrians who have been arrested, I have seen the regime be in its darkest places. When I came to Europe, I got my first impression of democracy. I’ve experienced freedom. I could talk without having to whisper. If the Syrian revolution had ended in less than a month, as in Egypt, we would not have learned so much about freedom, democracy and human rights. Ten years of unrest will make the Syrians the most capable people in the Middle East to rebuild their country in the future. We will not make the same mistakes as in other countries that have freed themselves from their dictators but are still trapped in corrupt systems.
We were tortured, killed, and forced to flee our homes. But we are not broken. We haven’t lost our hope and our will to change. Even if we had the opportunity to go back to the time before our revolution, the time before the killing and torture of our families, loved ones and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, we would still choose to break the cage of fear that we have been through Imprisoned for 40 years. We would still choose to sing for democracy under our skies. The revolution that we started was the first step on our long journey to freedom.