While reporting on the uprising turned conflict in Damascus, I was called up for military service by the regime, forcing me to swiftly flee. Unexpectedly I found myself a refugee in less than 24 hours.
Although I left my home, the conflict in Syria has never left my thoughts. The need to be close to my country and stay by the side of my fellow Syrians in this critical time pushed me closer and closer to Syria’s borders. The conflict has already claimed the lives of 150,000 people.
As I crossed the northern border and into territory controlled by one of the most powerful Free Syrian Army formations battling the Assad regime, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of liberation. For three decades, I was born and raised in a Syria which offered its citizens no political rights. Returning marked the first time I was able to speak about local politics without an intense fear of retribution by the secret police. Before political activism carried the fear of disappearance into one of Syria’s notorious political prisons.
"I felt overwhelmed by a sense of liberation"
Freedom of speech is an unthinkable joy: the true sense of security inspired by a basic human right. A security that comes from an empowered community and emerging civil society which is taking the lead in governing its constituencies and managing services. The warm greeting and smile from fighters minding checkpoints provide a sense of protection. Under the regime, checkpoints in Damascus were an intimidating presence, threatening civilians if they disobeyed.
It is ironic to feel safe in restive areas when multiple times a week people are exposed to air strikes and shelling in or near residential areas. However, citizens have become inured to these attacks. “Every day we wait for barrel bombs to drop on us,” a young relief worker said to me, smiling. “If they don’t drop in due time we get worried.” Indeed it is a Faustian bargain some have struck—exchanging their physical security for the pleasures of freedom.
Aside from the poor security conditions, there is lack of nearly all the basics for living. This includes shortages in drinking water, food, electricity and lack of all means of communication including internet and mobile phones. Many residents in the liberated areas believe that the lack of essentials and regular bombardments are a punishment imposed by the Assad regime for living in rebel-held territories.
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Meanwhile life goes on and the nearly daily shelling continues while the world looks away. Viewing the conflict from a close distance one can see that multiple wars are simultaneously taking place inside Syria: one is a struggle for political freedom and social justice fought by Syrian fighters, another is a war of conquest fought by global jihadists namely the Islamic State, better known as (ISIS). In addition, a proxy war with geopolitical and ideological dimensions manipulated and supported by regional and international powers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Russia.
However, the human cost of all these battles fall onto the Syrian people. The tragic effects of the violence encompassing the country are already too hefty to bear, particularly for the most disadvantaged segments of population. The sorrow-stricken face of an aging IDP widow sitting by her tent staring into the clear sky, gives a glimpse of the toil the war has already had on Syrians. “I have nobody to look after me now, I have three sons but they’re all out there fighting, they used to visit me every month and give me pocket money. I haven’t seen them for a couple of months now,” she said wiping away tears.
"The plight of hapless Syrian civilians often goes uncovered in the international media"
The plight of hapless Syrian civilians often goes uncovered in the international media – coverage of the Syrian conflict has been mostly focused on extremists fighting dictatorship in a proxy war. However, people’s suffering and an entire generation of young people and activists striving for better life and sharing the values of the free world are ignored.
It was the Syrian youth who peacefully protested in the first place and demanded social change and more freedom but their struggle has been co-opted into a larger war, one they have nothing to do with. Syrian activists were unintentionally the trigger of the conflict by defying the brutality of the secret police and keeping up peaceful protests and democratic activism.
However, most of them now live as refugees around the world. As a refugee myself I feel that it is not only the current proxy war that has marginalized me from my country’s future, but also the media coverage that has ignored us.
On top of the human cost Syria has suffered for the past three years, comes the deprivation of celebrating the nascent freedom being born in certain parts of our country. This has been the greatest loss of my generation.
Abed al-Dimashqi is the pseudonym for a Syrian freelance journalist.