On the eve of the second anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, I watched a single video: footage of an early expression of resistance recorded in central Damascus on March 15, 2011. After watching thousands of videos for the last two years — protests, funerals, destruction, bombs, and countless corpses — I was surprised that this video was as difficult to watch as the horrific ones. It’s a video that accidentally recorded an act of unparalleled bravery: one voice that pierced 41 years of a nation’s voluntary silence.
The scene opens in the bustling Hamidiyeh commercial center. In the background, men’s robotic voices thud like war drums, “With souls. With blood. We sacrifice for you, ya Bashar.” With each moment, the deafening beats grow louder. Another crowd forms out of what had appeared to be random pedestrians. Their words “silmiyeh, silmiyeh” (peaceful, peaceful) mesh with the men’s chant. The demonstrators arrive to our vantage point and as the new crowd joins in, they replace Bashar’s name with “Souriya.” With souls. With blood. We sacrifice for you, ya Souriya.
One woman appears in the frame. She yells, “It’s coming nearer to your Abu Hafez,” referencing the season of revolutions that had ignited in the region. Syria’s flag is proudly draped over her shoulders like a cape. The bright red pops in the muted sea of black, brown, and gray. She carries the only flag in this demonstration. This is not surprising, as the mob is chanting for a person and not a country. The mob’s chant represents the typical fear, submission, and humiliation of Assad’s Syria.
Moments later, the crowd breaks apart and she slips off the incriminating flag and slips on her sunglasses as a few thugs surround her, pulling her out of the march. She screams, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to,” walking away from them back into the demonstration. But they pull her out again. She screams, as a few women try to hold her back, try to save her from her own voice, “Freedom, in spite of your Bashar.” The people around her begin to chant “peaceful, peaceful” once more. She walks away, waving her flag in defiance, calling “Where are the men? Where are the men?” Then, “peaceful, peaceful” switches to “freedom, freedom.”
We are left at the intersection where the two groups have split into different directions. But as the video ends, only one chant can be heard, a chant that has become a roar, “Allah, Souriya, hurriyeh w bess!”
People reference multiple starting dates for the revolution: February 17, March 6, March 15, March 18. But all of them began with a moment like this one. All of them began with a voice.
The day after this event, Suheir Atassi and a group of protesters stood in front of the courthouse in Damascus demanding for the release of political prisoners. They were in turn imprisoned for their dissent. Two days after that, on a Friday, a protest emerged from the Hamzah and Abbas mosque in Daraa demanding that their tortured children be released from prison. Two men, Mahmoud Jawabrah and Hussam Ayyash were shot dead by security forces. The day after that, more men were killed while burying the revolution’s first martyrs. And the day after that, there was a protest to protest the funeral deaths. And the day after that there was a funeral for the people who were killed in the protest the day before. More violence and more deaths. More deaths and more violence. And here we are, two years later with over 70,000 dead, over a million Syrian refugees, and a country that has become a landscape of destruction.
Some people talk about the heavy price of the revolution. Some people talk about their fears of the future as if a viable, secure future under Assad’s rule is even possible. And some people ask, “Was it worth it?”
We have all lost. Sometimes it seems we have gained nothing but loss. Sometimes, even we watch the bloody videos and silently wonder, “Was it worth it?” It is the weakest question to ask; the question of despair.
Would you dare ask that woman “Was it worth it?” or “Is this the freedom you want?”
That voice lived within us. We hid it and never dared to speak it aloud. Not because we feared the unknown, on the contrary, we feared the known. Dissent meant torture, exile, death. That dormant voice became words spoken aloud in the street and scribbled on a school wall. Words that broke the fear. Words that became actions and actions that ended with rivers of Syrian blood.
That woman’s voice represents all of ours. Each of us knows the specific moment when our voices joined hers. For some, the moment arrived later than others. For some, the moment never arrived, as relentless fear still grips their vocal cords. And for thousands of Syrians, that voice cost them their lives.
Rami Jarrah always reminds me, the ones who start revolutions are not the ones who see them through. Maybe that is the greatest unknown that we should have feared. That good will eventually be broken. That hope will eventually die. That what we will be left with is less than what we had when we started. But then, I remember this video and imagine the courage of one woman’s voice against a sea of cowardly ones. I remember so many Syrian voices: the tortured man whose final words were, “my wife is my crown,” the boy who was shot in a protest and fell into his father’s arms saying “Forgive me, dad,” citizen journalist and martyr Mohamed Masalmeh, who declared that he was blessed to be one of the first protesters in Daraa, and Raed Faris, the Kafranbel artist, who said after Jabhet al-Nusra took over their town square for a recent Friday protest, “Let them take the square. The real square is where we are.”
There is no real celebration this year. There is no joy. The regime killed it many months ago. There are no more expectations. The Syrian political opposition killed those many months ago as well. There is no waiting for the world to act. We know that this is an unfair battle that Syrians will fight while everyone else watches in silence.
All we have left is what we began with: sheer awe at the resilience and determination of the Syrian people who despite their orphaned revolution and against all odds still stand shoulder to shoulder in now unrecognizable streets with nothing but their voices, their flags, and their chant: Freedom.
What is left is hope. And the knowledge that they will be there tomorrow and after tomorrow and the day after that … until the end.
I hope that the woman from Damascus is still alive. I hope I will meet her one day and tell her: Thank you for freeing our voices.
March 15, 2013, Aleppo, Syria