Kalashnikovs and cameras on the road to Syrian freedom

By Andrea Cesaro and Joris Leverink

The contrast could hardly be more striking; the colourful children’s paintings on the wall and the disorderly stacked board games on the shelves provide a strange, mismatched décor for the horrors Fadi is recounting to us. We speak with him through a translator, and while he is answering our questions in Arabic we have ample time to study his young and handsome face, his bright eyes and most of all his disarming smile — this smile never leaves his face, not even when he shows us pictures of his martyred brothers in arms, their bodies riddled with bullet holes. Above all, it is his smile that leaves us wondering; intriguing us to a point that the only question left in our mind is: “How is it possible for him to keep smiling after all he’s been through, everything he’s seen and all that he’s done?”

Ad.Dar: here we are

It is early evening and we are sitting around the table in Ad.Dar, the volunteer-based community centre for Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Istanbul’s busy Beyoğlu district. Despite the traffic noise drifting in from four floors down and the obtrusive smog-laced summer heat draining us of all energy, the stories of both Karam and Fadi keep us on the edge of our seats.

Karam and Fadi are two young men from Syria, now 22 and 26 years old, who have both left their war-torn country behind. After growing up in the same Damascus suburb and sharing the same dreams of freedom and democracy when the popular uprising started, their paths diverted in the course of the Syrian revolution-turned-civil war. Now they are once again together, united in exile in Turkey’s metropolis.

Where Karam chose the road of peaceful resistance as a humanitarian activist, Fadi set out on the path of war when he picked up arms to join the armed resistance against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This contradiction between their ideologies - between peace and war; between humanitarianism and violence; between cameras and Kalashnikovs - would continue to be the common theme of all our subsequent conversations.

To understand how Karam and Fadi both ended up in Istanbul, working as volunteers, helping their fellow countrymen and refugees to find their right place in this new environment, we have to go a few years back, to the start of the Syrian revolution.

Where everything began

Harasta, one of Damascus’ largest suburbs and the site of alleged chemical attacks by the regime earlier in 2014, had been home to the two young men for many years. At the start of the revolution in the early spring of 2011, the then-19-year old Karam was busy finishing high school and preparing to become an actor. Fadi, 23 years old at the time, was working two different jobs as a nurse, one in a state hospital and one in a psychiatric clinic, dreaming of one day becoming a doctor.

When the first protest occurred in Harasta on March 25, 2011, both Karam and Fadi were eager to join the popular uprisings aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime that has ruled Syria ever since Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power in 1970.

“Actually, for me, I hate Bashar al-Assad, and my whole family hates Bashar al-Assad”, Karam recalls when we sit down for the first interview. “Because we, as Palestinians, we had a bad experience with his father, and with him. We are a political family.”

Now, looking back, Fadi clearly remembers his excitement at the time. During the first protests, dreams and hopes of a new Syria, a new society, inspired him to join the relatively young crowds that took to the streets every Friday after prayers. “We wanted a better life”, adds a friend who joins the conversation. “That’s the main reason we started the protest.”

Ignoring his parents’ warnings that “Assad is not a Mubarak or a Qaddafi, and that he wouldn’t [step] down so easily”, Karam believed that they would occupy the central al-Marjeh square in downtown Damascus in a matter of months. He recalls the tears running down his face the first time he joined a protest, tears of excitement and disbelief that it was possible to pull off something like that in a dictatorship such as Syria’s.

When did we lose ourselves?

Fear gripped the young men when the protests came under attack from government snipers and security forces for the first time. However, rather than having a deterrent effect the violence only hardened the revolutionary spirit of the protestors. Independently of each other, Karam and Fadi both admit that soon after the protests turned violent because of the harsh government crackdown on the weekly street rallies, they lost their fear of death. “We’re gonna die, but we are dying for something. We are dying for our freedom”, recounts Karam with a smile on his face.

Karam, a dedicated pacifist and aspiring human rights campaigner, together with a small group of friends formed an informal and low-profile collective of citizen journalists and activists. Armed with video cameras, mobile phones and notebooks they risked their own lives to document the violence of the regime’s forces towards the peaceful protestors and, later on, the crimes committed by the Free Syrian Army once the revolution had turned into a civil war.

“We’re gonna die, but we are dying for something. We are dying for our freedom.”

At the same time, Fadi put his skills and knowledge as a nurse to good use on the streets in providing first-aid to injured protestors. His neglect for his own wellbeing was surpassed only by his concern for his family. Even after spending over two years on the frontline of the civil war against Assad’s regime, Fadi states that the scariest day of his life was when he almost lost his brother in a stampede after the police attacked a protest in Harasta.

“The police arrived in ambulances”, he tells us. “When they started to attack the protest, panic broke out and everybody ran for cover.” In the ensuing chaos Fadi lost sight of his brother. After a while he found him lying on the ground, trampled by hundreds of panicked protestors. He picked his brother up and, angry with him for not staying close, he wanted to hit him. His brother, in shock, uttered: “Please, if you want to hit me, don’t do it here!”

What struck us most in these first conversations with Karam and Fadi was their determination, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the freedom of their country. When asked about this, Karam answered: “If you cross the line you feel free and, if you are free, you can do anything you want.”

Humanitarian activism against all odds

When the Free Syrian Army was founded in July 2011, Karam had already acquired some experience as a citizen journalist, shooting videos of the violent government crackdowns on the weekly protests and familiarising himself with online manuals on how to document human rights abuses. From the very start of the armed resistance, it was clear to him that this was not the way to achieve freedom for his people: “Everyone fights for his freedom in his own way, but me, I didn’t believe in this.”

Regardless of his peaceful activities, and his refusal to take part in the rapidly escalating civil war, the regime had nonetheless singled him out as a dangerous individual. One morning in mid-July 2012, he found the military waiting for him at the checkpoint right next to his home. His hands were tied behind his back and his t-shirt was pulled over his face, he was then thrown in the back of a car and brought to the local military base.

For the next two weeks Karam was beaten, humiliated and tortured with electric shocks. Sometimes the guards interrogated him and sometimes the beatings occurred for no apparent reason. As soon as he was caught, all he could think about was his laptop. He had carelessly left his desktop filled with anti-government propaganda, video footage of some of the protests and manuals on how to document human rights abuses. Despite his laptop having been confiscated by the military after his arrest , it was never used as evidence against him thanks to the intervention of a family friend with close links to the secret services.

More than anything else it is the screams of his fellow prisoners that haunt him till this day: “This was the worst thing, to hear the other people being tortured.” Despite suffering torture and humiliation at the hands of his guards, he nonetheless manages to see them as humans, victims of the circumstances, just like him, rather than as monsters who are killing and torturing for the sake of it.

On the night before he was released, Karam ended up having an engaging conversation with his former tormentors. “They started talking to me, like, how is your life, and how is the life outside?” Surprised by this question, Karam replied that rather than him telling them about the life outside, it should be the other way around. When they replied that they had been in this prison, two levels underground, for nearly three months, without any contact with the outside world, Karam realised something important.

“They are like us. They have been here for a long time, so they are prisoners too. When we are together, talking, they were like normal people. We were talking about life, university, families and areas in Damascus. They hated me before, they beat me. And then … an enemy becomes a friend.”

Brothers in arms

Unlike Karam, Fadi lost his hope in a peaceful solution a long time ago and now places all his hopes in the armed resistance: “The government will simply kill everybody if we don’t fight back.”

Fadi learned his lesson the hard way. He recalls one particular incident that took place in the early months of the uprising. Back in Harasta, he and his friends took to the streets and they approached the soldiers who were blocking the road. From a distance the protestors chanted that the people and the military were one and urged them to lay down their weapons. When one of the soldiers smiled at them and gestured to come closer, Fadi and his friends approached. Then suddenly, when the group was in close range, the soldier cocked his gun and fired several rounds into the body of protestors, injuring one of Fadi’s comrades. As he lay bleeding on the streets, it was Fadi who applied first aid, to no avail; the man died shortly after. When asked whether this is the reason why he hates the government, he corrects us: “No, I don’t hate the government; it is something much deeper than that.”

It had never been his plan to take up arms and join the Free Syrian Army, but circumstances left him no choice. After being given up to Syria’s notorious secret police by an old friend for supporting the uprising by applying first aid to injured protestors, Fadi was unable to return to his home. He was left with no choice but to become a “street engineer”, as the thousands of homeless young men roaming the streets of Syria are generally referred to.

“I don’t hate the government; it is something much deeper than that.”

When Fadi was living on the streets, an acquaintance of his with contacts in the FSA suggested to the rebels that Fadi might need some help and that he would be a good supplement to the fighting force. The FSA then came looking for him to take him into their ranks. Being part of the rebel force gave him a sense of security, and in his eyes it had been a necessary move to take care of himself. He was happy because now he was safe. It was at this moment that he realised the time for a peaceful revolution was over and he erased the idea of peaceful resistance from his mind. The time had come to take up arms and fight back.

The transformation from nurse to rebel fighter didn’t occur overnight. After his first combat experience, in which the FSA attacked a village close to Harasta where government soldiers had killed a number of civilians, Fadi collapsed in tears as soon as the fight was over. In the attack his close friend had been killed and as soon as the adrenaline stopped rushing through his veins, his fears and emotions got the better of him. Still, as his career as a rebel fighter progressed and he saw more and more of his friends and brothers in arms being killed, he became increasingly convinced that he was doing the right thing.

Now, whenever he fires his gun, the only thing that fills his mind is the wish an enemy dies every time he pulls the trigger. Over the course of time he grew into his new role as a combatant and a killer. “I want to keep on fighting”, he states, after explaining that he is prepared to go back to the battlefield, “My goal is not to die, but if I do, it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

Leaving Syria behind

In the course of the civil uprising that slowly but surely turned into a civil war, both young men became more convinced that the different path each of them chose was the only right one. Fadi, who hadn’t been particularly religious before the conflict, became more and more influenced by the Islamic narrative of the resistance. With death lurking around the corner every time he entered the battlefield, he sought refuge in religion.

Over the course of his two-and-a-half-year career as a rebel fighter, he has switched between rebel factions several times. Sometimes he left a particular group because they were too radical in his opinion and another time he wasn’t allowed to carry his gun as a medic, which was enough reason for him to pack his bags and move on to the next group. After several dangerous and exhausting fundraising missions to Jordan, Turkey and Egypt as a representative of one of the fighting factions, Fadi finally left Syria for Istanbul in the summer of 2014. Were it not for the unbearable pain in his feet caused by a congenital disorder, that forced him so seek professional medical assistance, he wouldn’t have left his comrades behind.

Karam had already fled Syria in the final months of 2012 after a disconcerting experience in the province of Idlib where he had helped set up a social centre; both the FSA and the local branch of the Al-Nusra Front had put a price on his head for his unwillingness to cooperate with either of them.

Now, sitting around the table in Ad.Dar, both Karam and Fadi answer with a decisive “no” when asked, if given the chance, would they have done anything different in the past three years? Both young men continue to dream of a free Syria, where the people can live together in peace and have control over their own lives.

“My goal is not to die, but if I do, it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

As much as violent conflict incites hatred and xenophobia, it equally facilitates the creation of unlikely alliances and the formation of uncommon friendships. Fadi despises the likes of Karam — meaning those who refused to take up arms and left the country — just as much as Karam rejects everything that Fadi stands for: armed struggle, religious-inspired resistance and a belief in violence as a means to achieve peace.

However, regardless of their differences, the two men enjoy a close friendship and nurture a deep respect for each other. The fact that on a personal level the two men connect with each other goes to show that there exists no inherent difference between them. External forces left them on opposing sides of the resistance against Assad’s regime, but not personal dispositions on matters of violence and resistance.

Many dreams of freedom

In their own specific ways, Karam and Fadi dream of a liberated Syria, and to be united with their families once again. Neither has a clear idea what this liberated Syria would look like, but for Karam the ability to fulfil your dreams is more important than anything: “Life means that you have a dream. But for the [Syrian] people, they have many dreams, but they can’t pursue them, so this is not real life.”

Meanwhile, Fadi’s smile is still glued to his face. He explains that his reason for smiling is because he still has hope for his country, but more intriguingly, he admits that even on the battlefield he never ceases to smile.

“I smile because I got used to the situation, to the sound of gunfire, RPGs and bombs. Even if one of my friends dies in the fighting, I feel sad, but after that I will smile because I know this friend got what he wanted, what we all want: shahada (martyrdom).”

Struck by a plethora of feelings ranging from disbelief to admiration, we realise that for precisely this reason, the Syrian conflict will not come to an end any time soon. Over the course of more than three years of war, countless young men like Fadi have changed from nurses, fruit-sellers, high school graduates and actors into smiling militants and aspiring martyrs.

For these changes to be reversed, a “simple” end to the fighting won’t do: not before every single one of them has found his personal liberation or alternatively has achieved their goal as a martyr, either for their faith, freedom or motherland.

If our conversations with Karam and Fadi have taught us anything, it is that any simplified explanations of the situation are among the first casualties of any conflict. Modesty is key in reporting on the stories of those involved, it is not for us to decide who chose the right path. We have attempted to put a face on the humans behind the headlines, to tell the story of two ordinary young men whose lives were turned upside down when forces beyond their control started to shape the world around them.

Image credit: Garry Knight via Flickr Creative Commons

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