Activists who started Syrian revolution mourn dashed hopes

Sunday March 13 2016

A young girl kneels on the side of a road after being detained by Turkish soldiers with other Syrians trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos from Dikili, western Turkey, on March 5, 2016. Migrants have died after their boat capsized in Aegean Sea on March 6, 2016. PHOTO | AFP

A young girl kneels on the side of a road after being detained by Turkish soldiers with other Syrians trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos from Dikili, western Turkey, on March 5, 2016. Migrants have died after their boat capsized in Aegean Sea on March 6, 2016. PHOTO | AFP 

By AFP
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BEIRUT, Saturday

When hopeful pro-democracy activists in Syria took to the streets in 2011, they couldn’t have imagined that five years later they might end up as refugees in Europe.

Using smartphones to keep up with the news from camps and relatives’ homes thousands of kilometres away, they mourn a revolt that gave way to an globalised war.

“When I arrived in Germany, I felt like I was living with an open wound, like I’d lost my soul. I felt guilty for leaving everything behind,” says Jimmy Shahinian, a 28-year-old activist with sharp features and jet-black hair.

“We made a promise that we would change things,” he says by phone from his new home, an apartment he shares with five other young men in Genthin, about 100 kilometres west of Berlin.

Syria’s conflict erupted on March 15, 2011, when protesters massed on the streets to demand the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists took the lead, using Facebook and Skype to organise protests, speak with international journalists, and broadcast clever slogans calling for the regime’s downfall.

Shahinian, a Christian, joined the movement, and was subsequently jailed and tortured.

When the Islamic State group took over his native city Raqa in 2013, he began receiving terrifying death threats.

Smuggled into Turkey in an ambulance, Shahinian became one of nearly five million Syrians who have fled the country.

But even in Turkey, where at least three young anti-IS activists have been assassinated recently, he felt unsafe.

“I had no choice but to leave,” he says.

NEW LIFE

Like most other arrivals in Germany, his first port of call was a camp, where he shared a room with 10 others.

He tries to keep his cause alive by volunteering for a civil society group in Berlin named Citizens for Syria and learning German, though he admits “it is very hard to get used to the new life”.

“I suppose it’s always this way. We sparked the revolution, and the spark is always the first to burn.”

Some, like citizen journalist Yazan, are unable to abandon a cause that they were ready to die for.

Yazan lived through a brutal, nearly two-year siege in the Old City of Homs, once known as the capital of the revolution but now back in regime hands.

He would spend his days snapping photos of children playing in rubble, rebels standing guard, wounded being rushed to dismally equipped field hospitals and cats wandering through ancient architectural gems reduced to ruins.

By night, Yazan would sign into Skype to speak to journalists covering Syria, shedding light on the destruction of Homs and on military developments.

After surviving daily bombardment and eating little more than weeds for months, he has spent the past year in the quiet comfort of his uncle’s idyllic home in Saint Etienne, central France.

Although he lives in a different world, Yazan says the conflict, and its root cause, remain with him.

He spends his nights poring over activists’ Facebook pages, following minute-by-minute developments on the ground.

“In Syria my body was besieged. Here, I am besieged in my head,” says the 30-year-old.

He admits he can’t move on while his father and brother remain among the estimated 200,000 people held in the regime’s hellish jails.

“Here I can eat and sleep in safety. But however hard I try, I can’t imagine the future,” Yazan says.