Middle East

Syria activists undeterred by death and disillusionment

Clouds over the Douma district of Damascus (10 March 2014) Image copyright Reuters

On 15 March 2011, protesters took to the streets in the southern Syrian city of Deraa - but within weeks the peaceful calls for freedom turned violent amid a bloody government crackdown. Three years on, the conflict shows no sign of ending and has become a grim way of life for those living through it, as Lina Sinjab reports from Damascus.

The sun is streaming through gaps in the rainclouds in the sky above Damascus.

The fresh breeze that fills the air with the fragrance of Damascene rose, the sound of the trickle of water in the bed of the parched Barada river, and the colourful blossom on the trees all herald the start of Spring in the Syrian capital.

The streets are bustling with cars, people going about their businesses and children are going to school, just like in any normal city around the world.

It would be easy to forget that you are in a war zone, were it not for the checkpoints and increased military presence on the streets.

Life in government-controlled parts of Damascus is nevertheless surprisingly normal.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption In the suburb of Babila, south-east of the capital, signs of the conflict are impossible to miss

Though the sound of distant shelling no longer distracts them, residents of the city's central districts are still burdened by the war and know how fortunate they are.

They are fully aware of how different life is for people living in more peripheral areas of the city and elsewhere in Syria, particularly those areas under rebel control.

Radical shift

Maya is an undercover filmmaker in Damascus.

She gave up her job so that she could document what is happening in Syria.

Image copyright AP
Image caption People took to the streets in March 2011 saying "Yes to freedom" and "No to violence"

Three years ago, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began, Maya was among the first women to take to the streets calling for change.

She was detained after taking part in a silent demonstration in central Damascus where women held up banners calling for freedom and denouncing the killing of peaceful protesters.

Sitting in a cafe in the capital, drinking herbal tea and playing with her curly blonde hair, Maya recalls the first days of the revolution.

"We were filled with hope and determination that our moment had come," she says.

"Despite the security threat and the fear of detention or death, we never stopped being creative and finding different methods of peaceful resistance."

Maya laughs as she tells me about what she and her fellow activists got up to.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption With neither side able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other, the conflict has reached a stalemate

"We used to add red dye to the fountains of Damascus in the middle of the night to remind everyone about the bloodshed in the country. We flew balloons in the sky with 'freedom' written on them.

"We even dared to point spotlights that shone the word 'freedom' on the presidential palace, and set up speakers in main squares chanting the revolutionary song, 'Yalla Irhal, Ya Bashar' ('Come on Bashar, Leave')."

But those days are gone.

Maya has been to rebel-held areas several times to document the situation there, but she says that what she has witnessed has nothing to do with what she and her fellow revolutionaries have been demanding.

"There are radical Islamists who want to turn Syria into an Islamic state with a radical agenda," she explains. "They are forcing women to wear the hijab and sometimes the niqab, like in Raqqa, which has been taken over by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The tactics of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist rebels have caused widespread concern inside and outside Syria

Maya believes the many rebel groups operating in Syria have been compromised by corruption and internal power struggles. Extremists who do not hold the same views as most Syrians have been forced onto the country by regional powers, she says.

'Starve or surrender'

Today, more than 2.5 million people who have fled abroad have registered as refugees with the United Nations. Another million, mostly middle-class and educated Syrians, are believed to have fled the county but not registered.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history

More than 6.5 million others are internally displaced and three-quarters of the population is expected to be in need of humanitarian assistance by the end of 2014.

About 300,000 are currently struggling to survive in areas besieged by government forces, some of them for many months on end.

The government appears to be implementing a policy of "starve or surrender". And it is working.

In the Old City of Homs and several parts of Damascus, including Muadhamiya and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, civilians under siege have forgotten about the call for freedom. They are now only calling for food.

In other parts of the country where there is a rebel presence, or merely areas that at one stage revolted against President Assad's rule, government warplanes regularly drop barrel bombs and fire missiles, destroying neighbourhood after neighbourhood and killing mainly civilians.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The government has been condemned for its seemingly indiscriminate bombardment of rebel-held areas

Civilians in some areas are trapped "between two evils", says one activist in the northern city of Aleppo, which has been divided into opposition and loyalist-controlled sectors since mid-2012.

"The barrel bombs are coming from the sky and the radicals killing us on the ground."

Civil society

Maya leads a normal life in Damascus.

She attends music classes, and regularly goes out for dinner with her friends.

They also go bowling at a mall that is constantly filled with shoppers and families throwing fancy birthday parties for their children, or organise film nights and book clubs to entertain themselves.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Residents of Damascus have tried to maintain some semblance of normality in their lives

But she and many others like her are still determined to continue pushing for change.

Civil society activists are operating in secret in an effort to prevent Syria's social fabric from being shredded and to help those in need across the country.

They have established networks to provide humanitarian aid, educational and physiological support for children and women traumatised by the war - including many living just a stone's throw from the centre of Damascus.

Yet many of those peaceful activists end up in prison or detention centres, where they are all too often tortured to death.

'We have to continue'

As its third anniversary passes, the conflict in Syria seems to have reached a stalemate.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Bashar al-Assad has been dropping hints that he will seek re-election later this year

The Geneva II peace talks broke up last month without producing the long-awaited political solution heralding the transition to a democracy.

In fact, some of the opposition delegates who took part in the negotiations have been designated as terrorists and had their properties confiscated by the government.

Meanwhile, President Assad's second seven-year term of office is coming to an end and there are now campaigns and rallies urging him to seek re-election.

"We have to continue in every possible way," Maya says defiantly.

Though she has lost many close friends in government attacks, she is resolute.

"Our dream of a free democratic Syria has not been achieved yet, but change is on the way and will find different ways to end dictatorship".

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