10 Years On, Syrians Have Not Given Up
A survivor of regime atrocities explains why the international community must act.
This March marked 10 years of the Syrian revolution. Syrians still remember its beginnings—joyful chanting in the streets and hope of a democratic and free future. Today, a large part of the population has fled or been detained in government prisons. The last bastion of hope is Idlib, a province in northwest Syria, the final stronghold of the Syrian opposition and a refuge for internally displaced Syrians. It is also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main target for continued air and artillery attacks. The bombardment has aimed at schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets. Assad views capturing the province as the last obstacle before he can declare a military victory. And if the international community continues to neglect Syria, that brutal goal is what he will achieve. But the people of Syria have not given up—10 years in, they continue to protest.
I still remember March 18, 2011—the day I joined one of the first peaceful protests in my hometown of Bayda, on the Syrian coast, at the age of 15. My eagerness to join thousands of friends and neighbors singing and dancing for freedom in the streets was indescribable, until suddenly, the first shot rang out. Assad’s security forces started shooting at the protesters. The blasts coming from the guns overwhelmed the sound of our voices, as blood drenched the roses still clutched by those who fell to their deaths.
Today, at the age of 25, I, like millions of other Syrians, have been displaced from my home and have lost so many loved ones I can no longer count them. As the director of detainee affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and as a survivor of torture at the hands of the Assad regime in Syria’s prisons, I hope that my story will touch the hearts of the American people. A decade has passed since my arrest for taking part in a peaceful protest in Syria. A decade has passed while the world remains a bystander to the genocidal massacres unfolding in my country.
I remember standing blindfolded in front of the interrogator in a prison torture chamber; without my sight, I could merely hear and feel my surroundings, expecting a punch to come at me from any side. “America? Israel? Al Qaeda?” I realized they were asking me whom I was spying for. As a traumatized kid, all I could think to say was, “I am just a child—I’ve never done anything like that.” They struck me, and I woke up later with no conception of how much time had passed. The officers tied me to a chair, removing my blindfolds for the first time. On the other side of the room, I saw my cousin Bashir hanging by his wrists from the ceiling across from me. They said to me: “The less you tell us the more we torture him. How many officers have you killed?” While we were both innocent, I knew that my silence would cost me my cousin. I could not bear to hear him scream, so I fed them false confessions. After half a year of detention, I learned that Assad’s forces had decimated my village and slaughtered my family. They murdered my father, who had taught me to swim and ride a bike, and who took pride in my academic accomplishments. They murdered my brothers, with whom I had shared a room for so many years through good and bad.
Miraculously, I was smuggled out of prison. As I struggled to stay alive over the next 10 days, I discovered that my mother had survived the massacre in our hometown and paid a costly bribe to smuggle me out of prison. I made my way to Idlib in northwest Syria. Despite the perpetual aerial and ground strikes conducted by the government with Russian and Iranian support, it was the safest place for me to go. There, I knew I would be cared for and far from regime detention centers. During my time in Idlib, I was welcomed and supported by Syrians from all around the country who had also fled the regime. On the street, the play of children was frequently interrupted as they scrambled for cover anytime they heard a plane. The sky was and continues to be a constant source of danger. At the time, I was still suffering from tuberculosis, but the regime had stripped Idlib of all resources, including medical infrastructure. It wanted the people of Idlib—me, the children, the kind individuals who helped me—to suffer. To give up.
After reuniting with my mother in Turkey, my 10-year old brother and I began the perilous journey across the sea to Europe in 2015, along with hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees. Sweden gave me and my family refuge, and today I am in the United States, advocating on behalf of the millions of Syrians fighting for their freedom. The United Nations continues to fail in protecting Syrian civilians and in bringing a resolution to the conflict. These failures cost me my father’s and brother’s lives, but I have faith in the ability of the U.S. president and secretary of state to make amends for the international community’s failures in Syria—and to save other fathers and brothers. The Syrian Emergency Task Force has outlined clear policy recommendations for the United States, which include pursuing a political transition toward inclusive and democratic governance as per United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, working to prevent more mass atrocities and support civilian infrastructure in Idlib, and stepping up deterrence and accountability efforts through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. We, as Syrians, have suffered because we aspire to become a free and democratic nation. Our plea and hope is that the American people and their representatives can help stop the atrocities and end our “never again” moment.
Lucy Jeffries, a policy research analyst at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, contributed to this essay.