From the new January-February 2014 issue of News & Letters:
Chicago–About 150 people braved freezing rain to hear Syrian revolutionary activists Razan Ghazzawi and Raed Fares speak here. The evening was made more poignant by the knowledge that earlier in the day 62 members of the Free Syrian Army had been killed attempting to lift the siege of Homs. We began with a moment of silence to honor them and all martyrs of the Revolution.
Razan is a well-known blogger from Damascus. Raed is an organizer in Kafranbel, responsible for the weekly signs that have become famous around the world. Here they speak for themselves:
Razan: I wanted to talk briefly about my work. I actually started writing my blog before the Revolution began. It’s easy to find someone like me, who blogs in English. Western media can deal with that. But there are many others who are not known. When I was first detained, it was with 15 other amazing women who got no notice.
If there was no revolution in Syria, I almost feel like there would be no reason for me to exist. You don’t get tired of it. Revolution is what brought us together, as Syrians, for the first time.
In liberated areas, people are out of jobs. They have a lot of spare time but very few resources. We have doctors, lawyers, engineers, but they haven’t been able to practice. There was a culture of bribery under Assad. Even the jobs that existed weren’t taken seriously.
Schools need books. Arabic, basic English, storybooks. A lot of people in liberated areas aren’t thinking long term now. You here in the U.S. have time to think and plan. We can communicate the situation on the ground.
In Syria there isn’t time to do that. Not even to mourn for lost friends. Things are very different when you’re outside.
Raed: We wrote on one of our banners: “It’s a Revolution that’s going on in Syria. Please understand us.” Kafranbel is a small city of 30,000 people that was unknown before the Revolution.
We suffered 50 years of oppression under the Assads. People here, and in all of Syria, felt like we were in prison. When the Arab Spring started, we first began making protest signs. The first protests in northern Syria were in Kafranbel, May 5, 2011. The regime responded by treating it as an occupied area–burning houses, killing people; 1,700 soldiers closed down the civilian infrastructure, attempting to destroy it.
On Aug. 12, the Kafranbel Free Syrian Army formed and started fighting. They pushed Assad’s army out of town. We changed our signs from “Occupied Kafranbel” to “Liberated Kafranbel.” Assad still terrorized us from the sky, though. One day I saw an old woman and two children martyred by the bombs. I could smell the blood.
Last Thursday the regime bombed the bazaar. Twenty-six people died. There was one 50-year-old woman who was completely gone. We only knew she was a martyr.
Why do they call Kafranbel the “light of the Revolution”? Because we are organized. That is key. We started out with only three people, then, when we grew to 15, we designated different tasks. We held the first democratic election in Free Syria.
One of the earliest things we had was a media office. There was myself; Ahmad, the artist who draws the banners; and one person who was in charge of the equipment. We got donations and started a bureau for handling them. Not just one person, but a team.
We also opened a bureau of human statistics to keep track of people killed, houses burned, and so on. After 50 years of the Baathist regime we were learning to take care of ourselves. After all the lies we’ve been taught there’s probably a little of Assad in each of our heads. We need to work on bringing ourselves together.
We publish a human rights journal. We broadcast a daily news report, as well as a two-hour daily show devoted to women’s issues and a Muslim program. We also have a children’s show of songs and stories. We put mail buckets around town for kids to write in suggestions for what we should talk about.
There is a women’s center where women can learn skills and study English, and also a women’s journal. On Dec. 28, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda affiliate) went into the Kafranbel media center, ransacked our offices, and kidnapped colleagues. The next day they came, too. They especially objected to the women’s program.
This stirred the young activists. They coordinated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and stood up to ISIL. The FSA has been pushing ISIL out.
Through everything we keep protesting and organizing. There is hope! When you’ve seen the light you can’t go back to the darkness. What kind of Syria do we want, though? Democracy will take a lot of work. How will we do it?
We hope that Americans will see the Syrian Revolution for what it is. We aren’t terrorists. We aren’t sectarian–we work with Christians, Alawites, and Druze against Assad. All groups have stepped up to be non-violent activists, just like us.