Syrians stage a demonstration on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution in Idlib on March 15, 2021. (Photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Analysis

A Decade After the Syrian Revolution: Accomplishments and Relapses

This time every year, I look at my life and reflect on where I am physically, professionally, personally, and emotionally. 

This year, however, marks the turn of a full decade since the Arab Spring—and a full decade for me as Noura. This year, therefore, is even more sensitive and problematic for me.

I do not know why I feel that this year is a milestone in my life as a woman; as an activist and a forcibly displaced citizen from my homeland.

I am almost 40, and I can feel all these changes in my mind and body. I am not talking here about wrinkles or grey hair, about the fact that I started to get tired more often, or about all the health-related symptoms and increasing need to take vitamins and supplements.

Rather, I am talking about reproductive age, which will soon come to an end for me. How ugly it is to realize that there are always limitations to us human beings–limitations that take away our freedoms. 

The topic here is, of course, not about reproductive age. But not being a mother in my case is strongly connected to the Arab Spring, which is our topic here. And I purposefully chose to start talking about myself as a woman first and foremost before all my other titles. 

Simply put, I have not given birth to date, and probably never will, because I opted to be part of the Syrian revolution and to marry—in prison—a man who was very likely to spend his entire life, and lose it, in prison–which was what actually happened. I do not regret participating in the revolution or marrying Bassel. In fact, these two events are the most important events of my life. I am only anxious about the probability of never being able to experience biological motherhood—even though I do experience emotions of motherhood every day of my life: I have a sweeping feeling of motherhood toward my nephew Ammar, and my niece Masa, who are now in Syria. Their most recent visit to Beirut was more than a year ago. I literally feel torn to be far away from them. And despite the fact that my entire family is in Syria, I miss Ammar and Masa the most.

I also feel like a mom to my dog Zeus and my cat Cici. I feel as if I gave birth to them, and I call them “mama” so often that my family and friends would ask about them, “how are the kids?”  

The most significant feeling I have ever come across is when I felt like a mother to the detainees I used to visit in prison. Many of them would in fact call me “mama.”

My life is passing by as I am approaching the fourth decade of my life alone—single and away from my family and home, as I also continue to witness daily defeats and losses surrounding my homeland and surrounding me.

The outbreak of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt was not only an indicator to the collapse of the entire region but also a source of inspiration for us in Syria. For me personally, it was the motive that got us started on planning. 

I remember we were sitting at a café in Sarouja in the heart of Damascus, thinking of different scenarios for how the revolution would start in Syria, and trying to plan for all risks and possibilities and all the ways the regime would confront us.

Before our plans were formulated, and before our celebrations for the fall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, our revolution broke out in Dara’a on March 18, 2011. From that point on, and after a few attempts across other regions, demonstrations gained momentum and followed in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt.

I was almost thirty in 2011. During my first protest in Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, on March 1, 2011, I heard his voice accompanied by the sound of bullets being fired by security forces at demonstrators.

Is there really such a thing as love at first hearing?

There was a special kind of magic in his masculine and kind voice. 

I entered the room to find a tall young man with his back towards the door, talking on the phone in English and reporting what was happening around us. 

He then turned around and his eyes looked at me–a moment that captivated me forever. As if honey was poured into his eyes, honey that melts away the bravest of hearts…it was Bassel.

A young Palestinian-Syrian man my age; a world-class programmer and a human rights activist in the fields of internet, cybersecurity, and the right to knowledge. Bassel lived most of his life outside Syria but happened to be there when the Revolution started.

A nonviolence advocate, Bassel achieved high international recognition, some during his time in prison. He was ranked, for instance, by Foreign Policy as “one of the top 500 most influential people in the world for 2012.” Bassel was also considered one of the most important programmers around the world, and he was one of the founders of Wikipedia and Mozilla. Many computer programs and applications were named after him after his death.

I fell in love with him, and he with me. We became partners of the revolution. We took part in its activities together: we fought together, we feared together, we celebrated together, we cried together, and we dreamt many dreams together.

We got engaged a few months after our first meeting in an atmosphere filled with bullets, arrests, torture, and nonstop chasing and surveillance. We then scheduled our wedding on the anniversary of our first meeting—on April 1, 2012. 

If I were to show you my marriage certificate, you would see that it is dated April 1, 2012. However, the process that made this happen was neither ordinary nor simple. 

Bassel was arrested on March 15, 2012, two weeks before our scheduled wedding day. 

Till this moment, I cannot determine which was more painful: the shock of Bassel’s arrest itself or its timing. 

At the time I was waiting for him to bring my wedding dress, after the dressmaker made final touches. Everything was there and ready, except for the bridegroom, who disappeared–and how naive I was when I thought he would come back one day…

More than nine months passed after Bassel’s enforced disappearance with no information about his life or location, until he finally appeared in the Damascus Central Prison. No visiting was allowed—but that’s fine, at least I knew he was still alive.

We exchanged letters for a month, after which Bassel disappeared again to what was known as the “human slaughterhouse,” or the Sednaya Military Prison.

I had been wanted by the security forces even before Bassel’s arrest. However, someone in the military investigation unit told me that Bassel made a deal with security authorities to confess to all the arbitrary “accusations” directed to him in exchange for removing all arrest warrants issued against me—something he succeeded in doing.

With a group of friends from all around the globe, we founded the “Freedom for Bassel” campaign months after his first disappearance, a campaign that would become later on one of the biggest freedom campaigns in the world.

This campaign succeeded in saving Bassel from the horrors at the Sednaya Military Prison. A month later, he was returned to the Central Damascus Prison and visits were finally allowed.

He called to let me know. I thought I was dreaming. I went to see him the next day. I took the official visitor’s card that carried his picture, and I told the policeman at the front door of the prison that they mistakenly put the picture of another prisoner on the card–it was not Bassel’s.

The policeman was silent. He probably had heard this comment hundreds of times from other visitors. 

I then entered the lobby designated for lawyers, as I was myself a lawyer. Bassel entered minutes after, which to me was an eternity. I did not recognize him at first sight; only the intuition of a sincere lover was my clue. 

Ten days after this visit, we became husband and wife in an almost secret manner, as we were separated by prison bars. Our parents were present. 

The prison’s administration only learnt about this event from news articles and local and international press, which talked—and continue to do so till this day—about the revolution’s bride and groom who got married inside prison.

Months after that, I was able to legalize our marriage in court and date it April 1, 2012, as was planned. 

I did not want to follow tradition; I wanted to wait my way. 

I would visit Bassel on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays. I remember we had a conflict about the Saturday visits behind the bars: Bassel did not like them because they would make us feel distant, whereas I did because it was at those bars that I spent years of my childhood and adolescence visiting my dad at the same prison.

Since the nineties, I had met hundreds of individuals in that prison—the same prison where my father was forcibly disappeared, and the same prison where Bassel was. This particular prison united me with the two men of my life, twenty years apart. Both my father and Bassel were disappeared by security units and appeared in this prison that permitted me to see them after long absences. My father was arrested on March 18, 1992, while Bassel was arrested on March 15, 2012; my father got out of this prison, while Bassel left us forever. 

The visits were not like anyone would imagine; they were full of risks. The way to the prison was in snipers’ range and under constant shelling, and so too was the prison itself.

I faced death more than once, and two people were killed in the minibus I was riding at two different times by two separate bullets that were probably meant for me.

The visits were not necessarily depressing all the time, though; they were full of flirting, love, and…revolution.

I did not only visit Bassel, either. As a lawyer and human rights activist, I would visit other prisoners and listen to and document their testimonies to help defend their rights and forward their cases to the appropriate organizations and the press. 

Access to the specifics of the prison was easier for me than for my fellow lawyers, simply because the prison’s administration had known me since my dad was a prisoner there. And to be fair, they were respectful to Bassel and to me—witnessing affection between Bassel and me was also something that they longed to see. 

In the three years Bassel was in that prison, I was able to visit more than 400 prisoners. I was the only visitor to most of these prisoners as they knew nothing about their families that were under heavy shelling and under siege. 

I was the one to secretly bring in chocolate, cigarettes, medications, drawing kits, and books to them.

Bassel and I built an entire world inside the prison.

Bassel disappeared again in 2015. And in 2017, I came to know that he was executed days after his final disappearance.

I was banned from visiting the prison again because visits became dangerous for myself after exposing all what happened. 

In 2018, I was forced to leave Syria. That was not the worst thing that happened to me, though. The worst was that I had to continue my activism from abroad after more than 15 active years in Syria. 

I did not surrender despite the dozens of times I collapsed and the hundreds of times when my desire for life was nonexistent. 

I founded a community where I belong: NoPhotoZone.

This was a dream come true and a shared idea between Bassel and me since 2011: an organization that provides legal support to detainees, the forcibly disappeared and their families, and sheds light on their suffering. Bassel’s detention slowed this dream temporarily. 

As I mentioned earlier, I left Syria in early 2018 because of all the threats and arrest warrants. I left to Lebanon, and the plan was that I would move to Britain within six months because I had secured a grant for a master’s.

On the first Mother’s Day I spent in Lebanon without my mother and with the company of the mothers and wives of detained and missing persons, I made a radical change of plans. I turned the grant down (to many, this was a stupid and reckless decision) and founded NoPhotoZone in Lebanon. 

I not only act as the founder and CEO of NoPhotoZone but also perform activities with families of detained and missing persons. Women make up a majority of these families, as those most targeted for detention and enforced disappearance are men.

We offer legal support and a variety of legal capacity-building programs, particularly in relation to the rights of detainees and the rights of these families, with a specific focus on women. We also provide a safe space to share our experiences and emotions and to learn how to deal with our continuously bleeding wounds in the absence of our dear and beloved men who remain in the unknown and the uncertain.

I believe that it is my duty to pass on what I have learnt to these amazing women so they come to the spotlight and become the center of attention and the only true representative of their suffering, needs, and demands in all international forums. That is because they are the true owners of their cause and should be the true makers of their decisions.

I can fully and honestly say that my work for NoPhotoZone is almost the only reason for me to keep living. I feel among my family in the company of these women and their daughters and sons. 

We cover most areas in Lebanon where Syrians are largely present, and we provide our services to anyone who lost someone in Syria, regardless of nationality, region, sect, or political affiliation. In fact, one of the things I am most proud of is that we were able to gather women who stand with and against the regime, which is rare to happen in the Syrian context. Many of these women developed friendships.

At NoPhotoZone, we look for what connects us. And what connects is the sense of loss. 

We are currently preparing to expand our activities to Turkey. One day, we may start operating across different regions in the world. My dream is for NoPhotoZone to become an international organization that serves all detained and missing persons in the world.

We undoubtedly have difficulties related to funding and facilitating our work in the countries in which we are active, but we try our best to deal with all these challenges.

We still have a long and difficult way to go. But, with love, faith, and belief in this cause, we will be able to reach our goal.

Lastly, and on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, with all its positives and negatives, its accomplishments and relapses, I would like to reveal that I have lost and won…succeeded and failed… hoped and lost hope. But I will surely not let ten years of sacrifice go to waste. I have no choice but to continue down the road to freedom, justice, and civil rights. And if I could go back in time, I would make the exact same decision of being part of the Syrian revolution, of achieving my own revolution.

I have suffered the loss of Bassel, my family, and my homeland. I have not seen my wedding dress to date, and my only concern is to do all I can for NoPhotoZone to go on no matter what it takes, and to reach every single woman who is suffering because of the loss of her beloved one, hoping that I would heal her wounds.