Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
March 18 is the day the first activist was killed by Syrian government forces, at the beginning of 2011’s wave of pro-democracy protests. Unlike earlier government-led killings like the 1982 Hama Massacare, YouTube and Facebook made it impossible for president Bashar Al Assad’s regime to hide its crime. This time, the rest of the world could see what had happened in my country. But whether they wanted to or not was a different question.
For foreigners, Syria has since become infamous, a nation embroiled in a civil war that brought chaos to the Middle East, mass immigration to Europe, and encouraged the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL).
But that is not what Syria means to me. People often forget, or perhaps they do not want to remember, how everything started. But I remember. Born in Damascus and raised in Jableh, March 2011 isn’t merely a date. I lived it. For days, peaceful demonstrations across Syria called for democracy and freedom. Protesters stood against the government and asked for justice—and for this, they were punished.
I remember the first time I was shot at. It was late Sep. 2011 and I was taking part in a demonstration in the Damascus suburbs with my good friend, Omar. At the time, many of these demonstrations were being organized on Facebook. We did not know the person we were demonstrating for—a young man shot and killed by a government sniper—but we didn’t need to. We were there to show our solidarity.
I remember the shirt I was wearing—black, as a sign of respect. Within ten minutes, government police showed up. It was the first time I would see protesters being killed. It could easily have been me, but I was lucky; I chose the right corner in which to hide. From my vantage point, I could see six men cut down by police. One was looking at me, when the bullet hit his back and he fell to the ground.
Even then, my body was shaking in anger, not fear. I told myself that everything was being filmed. I believed there was no way the world would keep silent in the face of such obvious brutality.
So we kept demonstrating, and waited for the world to come to our aid. But nobody came. Not even after hundreds of thousands of my countrymen died at the hands of the government. Not after photos and video offered inarguable proof of the massacres, the torture, the pain.
I am just one of millions of Syrians who have witnessed death. I spent most of my early twenties photographing the front lines. Each time I left home, I was not sure if I would return safely. But safety had become the least of my worries, because our faith in the cause was that strong. Five years later I am alive, yes. But I am as angry as I was so many years ago, when I watched the death of a man whose only crime had been to speak against injustice.
Eventually, other Syrians who had witnessed crimes and lost family members decided to stand up for themselves. Together with defectors from the Syrian Army, they created what we would later know as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and what the rest of the world would know as Syrian rebels.
Our uprising was not destined to be a peaceful one. Perhaps that is why the world turned its back on us. They figured it was an internal conflict, that we were bringing the violence upon ourselves. We were called terrorists and rioters, and left to face the thugs of the Assad regime on our own. Many villages were destroyed; mothers were burnt alive in front of their children; and women were raped in punishment.
Just imagine if Eric Garner’s supporters were met with live bullets and tanks.
Outside of Syria, people share photos of children in Idlib and Aleppo, playing among the ruins of their houses—evidence that we, as a people, endure. They are supposed to be hopeful images. But these photos are evidence of a generation that has lost its innocence, that will never be normal. Remember this, next time you see a mother holding her son in a rubber boat somewhere in Europe, risking everything so that her child can have a “normal life,” whatever that means. She doesn’t want her child to be a poster boy for an aid organization flier or donor meeting; she wants him to live long enough to finish middle school.
Five years later, the fight for democracy in Syria has become another faceless struggle, like that of the Palestinian people. The regional conflicts and political realities are too complicated to follow or understand. Our struggles and deaths have become condensed and summarized, just another stack of papers, another file the next US president will have to deal with. Maybe.
For much of the Western media, Syria is not a story unless it involves ISIL. Terrorism is sexier than widespread, unabated human suffering. For others, Syria is a teachable moment, an opportunity to swing by the border and take selfies with refugees, to lecture about democracy and freedom. And then leave.
But for us, Syria is a country—and a cause—to which we have sacrificed everything. The statistics you read, quickly, on your way to work are not just random numbers for us. My mother is one of those numbers. I wasn’t even able to bury her. I avoid looking at her picture now; the pain is too much to handle.
With a stamped visa on my passport, I escaped to the US to start building a new life, surrounded by love and support. When you have no home to return to, you have no choice but to succeed.
For those who died, we survivors keep the faith. And yet, my heart hurts. After five years, my countrymen are still in the street, still marching, still chanting the same slogans from 2011, still promising justice for every single death.