Daraa was an impoverished, neglected provincial city in Syria’s southern farmlands, a predominantly Sunni Muslim backwater far from the country’s more cosmopolitan towns.
However, in March 2011, it was the first to erupt in opposition to President Bashar Assad’s authority. Syria has been engulfed in a civil war since Assad’s decision to suppress initially peaceful protests, which has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced half of the population, and sucked in international military interventions that have carved up the region.
On the tenth anniversary of the demonstrations, The Associated Press spoke with activists from Daraa who risked their lives to join the street marches, only to be tortured and exiled as a result. Since they are unable to return home, they continue to support a cause that they believe can still win amid Assad’s military victories.
Daraa is back under Assad’s control after a decade of bloodshed, but only for the time being.
The birthplace of the uprising still feels like it’s perched on the rim of an active volcano, riddled with resentments, ravaged by an economic crisis, and rife with armed groups trapped between Russia, Iran, and the army.
Early in 2011, as Arab Spring uprisings toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s security services were clearly concerned.
Officers in Daraa summoned recognized activists and cautioned them against doing anything. Small demonstrations erupted at first, but police soon quelled them.
Then graffiti started to appear in the area. One in particular caught everyone’s attention: “Your Turn Has Come, Doctor,” a reference to Assad’s father, Hafez, who was an ophthalmologist before inheriting power. Daraa’s community exploded in rage when the boys who wrote the graffiti were apprehended and tortured.
Protesters marched from mosques on March 18 and were greeted by armed security vehicles. Security forces opened fire with live ammunition outside the city’s main Omari Mosque, killing two demonstrators and injuring at least 20 others.
They were the first to pass away in what would turn out to be a decade of death.
That bloody day, Ahmed al-Masalmeh, 35, the owner of an electronics store, was at the Omari Mosque. He was assisting in the organization of demonstrations by taking in residents from nearby villages. He continued as rallies rose and more “martyrs” died. When security forces opened fire on demonstrators who were attempting to toppling Hafez Assad’s statue in Daraa’s main square, he assisted in the evacuation of the injured. That day, eight people died.
Al-Masalmeh had wanted troops to simply use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. He believed that in this day and age, Syria’s rulers could not get away with what Hafez Assad did in 1982 when he killed thousands of people to put down a rebellion in Hama.
With social media and satellite stations, we felt the planet had become a small village,” he told the Associated Press. “We never expected the level of murder, cruelty, and animosity among the people to exceed these heights.”
Nedal al-Amari, a university student in Damascus, witnessed the March 18 carnage on TV from his home city.
Al-Amari, who had just turned 18, was the son of a Daraa parliament member, and it was through his father’s connections that he had obtained a position at the capital’s university to study acting.
Al-Amari hopped in a car and drove down the highway, arriving home in time to join in.
His father was displeased.
His father told him, “If you think this regime will collapse because of a scream or millions of screams, you know nothing about this regime.” “To stay in control, it is willing to turn over every stone in this country.”
The admonition from his father was ignored by the teenager. It was the talk of an older generation crippled by terror after Hafez Assad’s violence in 1982, he thought.
The youth will not be intimidated.
Al-Amari, who spoke some English, took up a camera, set up two laptops, and set up a media center with his parents. It was one of the first of many that sprung up around Syria, bringing the conflict to the attention of the rest of the world.
He recorded the marches as well as the security forces’ deadly assaults on them. He saw dead bodies for the first time. It changed him, he said, giving him a sense of fearlessness reinforced by his fellow activists’ camaraderie.
The bravado will turn into a traumatic experience.
Daraa was stormed by the army on April 25, 2011. Assad’s inner circle had lost all hope of finding an agreement.
Al-Amari and his colleagues were apprehended within days.
The first thing al-Amari was forced to do in custody was kneel on the floor and kiss a photograph of Assad. Then came the constant torment routine. Guards beat and electrocuted inmates, but they were also forced to torment, beat, and ram metal objects into each other’s anus.
“You will be tortured while being forced to torment others,” al-Amari said.
His parents didn’t know where he was for four months, until al-Amari was beaten so badly that he almost lost his sight. He was taken to a military hospital, where he was spotted by a cousin who worked there. He was soon released and dumped on the ground.
More than 120,000 people have gone missing in government custody over the course of the war. Thousands are believed to have died as a result of the torture. Hundreds of thousands of people are still missing.
Al-Amari emerged a tormented and battered spirit. He recuperated for a month at his family’s half-bombed home, with his mother sleeping next to him to keep him company.
Meanwhile, armed opposition groups rose up in reaction to the crackdown. One of them included Al-brother. Amari’s
Al-Amari retrieved his camera and resumed coverage of the fights. He threw caution to the wind and revealed his true identity. As the violence rose, so did the sectarian fever between a mostly Sunni Muslim uprising and Assad’s administration, which is focused on his Alawite minority.
“My apprehension turned into enmity and hate. “I despised Shiites and Alawites,” al-Amari declared.
When four of al-cousins Amari’s were arrested in Damascus, it became apparent that the family would bear the brunt of his actions. His father slapped him across the face, furious and terrified, and told him it was time to leave. Since then, no one has heard from the cousins.
Al-Amari left Syria on December 22, 2011. He arrived in Turkey after many years in Lebanon. From there, he joined the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in small boats on perilous sea journeys from Turkey to Greece in 2015.