One revolution is not enough
Many people may not believe that, in the midst of this barbarism meted out to the Syrian people by their ruling regime, the survival of a space for other feelings than anger and pain is possible. In fact, there are still people that face the gun with flowers. This may seem, at first glance, exessive in good faith if not say utopic. But the rebels look at the matter from another perspective; they hope that the revolution shall change much more than the regime.
Since the beginning of the protests, the Coordinating Committee of Daraya, in the country side of Damascus, included in its agenda the initiative of carrying roses to the demonstrations. A rose for each demonstrator. Youth committees are those who adopted the non-violent struggle. Because, they had some previous experience in this regard within the so-called Daraya group. In 2003, many of them were arrested because they made a campain for cleaning the city, and distributed tracks in wich they wrote slogans against bribery, called for peaceful demonstrations, made silence protests against the occupation of Iraq, and other activities which were not familiar at all at that time in Syria.
However, I still cannot explain how the Committee succeeds to convince the demonstrators to carry roses. It is still for me, an unexplainable scene that goes beyond the dramatic events of all the surrounding violence, where every time, the demonstrators were faced with batons, live bullets and tear gas.
Yahya Shurbaji, a prominent field leader in the city, says that Daraya itself is in need of flowers… The revolution is an occasion to change, and we are also changing…
At the beginning, he says, some young people wanted to confront the security forces in charge of the supression of the manifestations with stones. And it took a lot of debates, and controversy even, to convince a majority of enthusiastic young people that the confrontation with the security forces can only be gained by resisting and not by attacking, and that the first obligation of the movement leaders is to keep the protest movement on the right path so that it does not deviate to where the regime is pushing it, meaning to civil war or counter violence. This is why Yahya and his colleagues even tried to exclude the use of certain words that may suggest a violent struggle, such as the word "rebels", wich is used in Libya, and insisted to use instead of it the term "youth of the revolution" like in Egypt. Of course, a lot of discussions are taking place among young people about certain practices, such as throwing stones or burning tires as a protest symbol, possibly distorting the peaceful character of the manifestations. For Yahya, and despite the fact that such practices do not conflict with the peacefulness of the revolution, he stands firmly against it. He says that he looks at it as an act of provocation against the young soldiers, who are mostly under the age of twenty and are performing their military service, and are under the permanent stress of their superiors, isolated from their families and communities since several months. So, when they see smoke and fire, they may feel that they are within their battle field.
One of the youths who recently served in the security forces, describes how it became a personal matter for the soldier that is confronting the demonstrator. So when a demonstrator insults his mother, that he has not seen for months, he becomes enraged. In any case, says Yahya, neither the stones nor the burning of tires, prevent the arrests.
Despite their commitment to this peaceful practice that marked the Syrian Revolution until now, many of them do not believe in it as a principle. But many of them see it as a tactic that serves more than anything else the goals of the revolution. Therefore, Yahya’s objective is to build, what he calls, a peaceful extremism that would preserve a place in the middle if things went out of hand in the future, if the regime insist on shedding blood.
But the most interesting remains the change at the personal level that was experienced by many of the youth of the revolution during the past few months.
Most of the protesters in Daraya are young; many of them used profanity during the demonstrations, and are easily provoked, according to their comrades in the Coordinating Committee. In fact, who can withstand the provocation of the “Thugs (Shabbiha)” in a conservative and religious city like Daraya when they use terms as “O people where are your women”? But with the help of the field activists of Daraya, a significant change has taken place in many of the young demonstrators. And in spite of time constraints, the pressure of the security forces and the fast moving events, discussion continues to play a major role within the city’s Coordinating Committee, helping to exclude certain practices and to consolidate others.
For example, as Yahya noted, in one of the mourning tents which was held recently for one of the martyrs of the city, young people were more enthusiastic to the statements made by activists and dissidents on Democacy and Civil Rights, rather than those made by clerics who were prevailing before the revolution. Some young men were "reckless", people that you are ashamed even to greet them, they did now became comrads and destiny partners, a lot of their bad and not acceptable behavior disappeared, Yahya said. Some who were advocating responding by stones in case the security forces attack the demonstrators, came out with the initiative to provide water and flowers to the army and security forces.
This has been applied several weeks ago, when the area where the manifestesions usually occured has been cordoned off by large numbers of military and security forces. Young protesters began to assemble near them with water bottles and roses with leaflets that read "We are all Syrian… Why do you kill?" At the line that separates the two groups, the soldiers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets. The young protesters retreated a few meters back, one of them (called Islam) took the responsibility of delivering the message to them. So he started talking to them through the line of water and roses about the peaceful revolution and its goals, which shall not harm them as soldiers nor any one else. The soldiers were confused at the beginning. Shortly after, they began to collect the leaflets that the demonstrators threw to them and to read these leaflets, while the demonstrators were chanting "The Army and the People are united". Then the soldiers began to collect the bottles of water from the ground. And, when one of them tried to shoot again rubber bullets at the demonstrators, his friends stopped him. And at the end the soldiers were waving to the demonstrators who were leaving quietly!
Yahya and his friend drank this "peaceful" water, but what is sure is that this day many of the protesters returned to their homes convinced that such approach may give some results. This day the number of people arrested was very small and there were no injuries.
On next Friday, Islam Al-Dabbas (that is his full name) insisted to overcome the separating line and to offer directly his flowers to the soldiers and security agents. His intention was to achieve a kind of convergence, say eye to eye contact, between the young protesters and those that came to oppress them and kill them. A contact which may break the psychological barriers and allow the other to see what is not allowed to him by the regime, its propaganda and lies. A state of things that is very dificult to check on the ground, because the orders given to the soldiers is to shoot fire from distance and to avoid any direct human contact with the demonstrators, a contact that should be only by arms. And the result was that Islam disappeared between the security elements and they arrested him. Until this day he is still under arrest at one of the cells of the Air Intelligence.
This story of Islam drew my special attention, because I was thinking that the demonstrators who advocate for peaceful demonstration may re-examine their approach when they may face personal pain. But this was not the case, because the arrest of the father of Islam several weeks ago, did not dissuade him to continue what he began. Yahya says that it is better to be killed than to be a murderer… But even if we get away from this conviction, his allegiance, from the beginning till the end was the victory of the revolution, and he does not see that if people defend themselves this can increase the chances of success of the revolution.
It seems to me that Yahya is to some degree a dreamer, and accordingly he is not an example that can be generalised, but rather an exeption among some few exceptions. I do not hide, that I cannot be neutral when I look to his experience and his companions’ experience. Since the beginning of the revolution, I have dealt with dozens of groups that are active in the field. And it is true that most of them adhere to the practice of the peacefulness of the revolution. But, at the intellectual level, and in many ways, this practice is still the same as it was in Syria before the revolution! And this is very natural indeed. It is contrary to Yahya’s belief that revolution must change our views about every thing, beginning from religion, to society and politics… He says that the revolution should be achieved first within us before it is achieved on the ground. The speech of the mind and love is strongly present in his revolution at his personal level. So he blames the intellectuals and dissidents because they are not doing what should be done by talking to the people on many issues, because they need a new speech. A speech that should be constantly renewed during the revolution.
Daraya was able to transfer partially its experience and vision to some other areas in the countryside of Damascus. On the Friday which was named "Your Silence is killing us", for example, the demonstrators of El Tall, inspired by the experience of Daraya, and after disussing the matter with them, distribute water and dates to the soldiers. One of the coordinators of the Committee of Daraya says that the regime, through the escalation of the repression and its provocations, wants to push the demonstrators to violence, as well as to mislead the military and security people on the real goals of the demonstrations and its participants. “This is why we had to react. So we offer them water because at noon they are thirsty, and candies because they are hungry and because of their low material status that does not allow them to buy food at their own expense!” One hour of the beginning of the demonstration, the demonstrators went to where the security forces were standing. They prepared themselves to attack the demonstrators who took the initiative to sit in front of them on the ground. And all across the road, the demonstrators put bottles of water, on each of them a piece of Ajwa (pressed dates) and on its cover writen "we are all Syrians… Why do you want to kill us??? Happy Ramadan…" And during that time, the demonstrators adressed the military and security forces through speakers in terms full of love and peace saying that “as a gift to you today we shall end the manifestation earlier so that you can rest!” Then they cried slogans saying that "Army and People are One", and then they sang the Syria national anthem, and ended the manifestation peacefully. “One of the security men was collecting the bottles of water and the dates. We still don’t know if they distribute them to the soldiers, or destroyed them!”
The Coordinator says:”The experience was amazing indeed, especially because when we put the idea forward for discussion it was greatly disapproved by some young people at the beginning. And it took a lot of discussion and debate to convince them. Some argued that especially the security services have closed their hearts from the people, and that it is useless to try to adress them by any mean. In fact this proved to be wrong”, he says. There were many cases where the security agents helped some of the demonstrators to flee. And in all cases, he says, whenever there was a greater response from the army and the security to such initiatives, it helped to consolidate this approach within the young people.
Many people may find it strange to talk about the experience of Daraya and El Tall, at this particular time, where the violence agains the people has reached its peak, at a time when moments are filled with words of anger and pain. But I think that this experience by itself is a spotlight that makes the future less severe than we expect it to be. Talking here about love, and about change, not only at the level of the regime, but to a certain point at the level of what the regime has devasted within us, means that we are aware of other things that we need to revolt against before and after the fall of the regime. Those people are still not a majority, they are still an exception. But, for the first time maybe, the exception is beautiful.
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* A Syrian lawyer and activist.