The real-life Scheherazade of the siege

Lina Sergie Attar, Syrian writer and CEO of Karam Foundation, writes about Nivin Hotary, an activist from Eastern Ghouta.

Nivin Hotary. Picture from her Facebook page.

She writes a daily diary on Facebook from an underground, make-shift shelter in Eastern Ghouta which she calls “the prison.” She spends the days and nights there with her neighbors and their children. They hide from the bombs that have been falling around them now for weeks. She writes about the suffering of the people. She writes about the dead. She records scenes of life and survival. She tells stories about the children in the shelter who have grown up under siege. One 4-year-old boy in particular captures her attention and so he captures ours as well. One day, fed up with hiding, the boy packs up his school satchel with his only possessions, a broken pencil and a few papers, and he announces to the group of women “I’m leaving!” They ask him, “Where are you going?” He replies, “To be displaced again.” On another day, when the circling warplanes pause their bombs, the boy’s mother takes him outside for some sun and fresh air. He comes back with news, “I saw them in the sky! One was black and the other white. The planes have eyes, and they were watching us.” On another occasion, she asks the children about their thoughts. One child says, “If I ever go back home, I will never be afraid to sleep in my room alone again.” The terror of airstrikes, bombs, and death, has redefined the meaning of fear for everyone, even the children.

Nivin Hotary is our modern-day, real-life Scheherazade of the siege, weaving tragic testimonies from the frontline of genocide in Syria. Every night, we log on to read about their day. What did they do? What painful news did they endure? What did her daughter Maya say today? What memories did they share? Every day, the death count goes up as the aerial bombardment continues. Every day, the siege’s noose tightens. Every post by Nivin links us all in a web of agony and shame. Her texts renders every reader accountable for absorbing stories that cannot be unheard. She signs off with the number of days they have been in the basement: night 1, night 7, night 12, night… Thousands of readers from across the world check her page daily, not only to hear the news from the shelter, but to make sure that they have survived. We count with her, night 17 in the shelter. Night 18 in the prison. Night…

In the “savior” world of aid and development, telling stories of people living in despair and tragedy is often infuriatingly called, “giving voice to the voiceless” or “words for those who have none.” Women like Nivin shatter this narrative. In fact, her unflinching accounts make it shamefully clear that we are the ones who have become voiceless to express their tragedy.

We live in a time when the most vulnerable defy death to speak truth and world powers have silenced themselves (literally.) From the underground shelters of Ghouta — buried beneath the ground with no fresh air, no sun, no food, nothing but people waiting for the bombs to stop, waiting to return to their homes — more dignity and power than we can ever imagine radiates out into the world.

A few days ago, as we near the seventh anniversary of the revolution, Nivin wrote that there isn’t one specific day or place that started the Syrian people’s uprising against the Assad regime. She described a silent revolution that has lived for decades inside each and every Syrian who experienced injustice and humiliation. (That is all of us.) She said it’s now our responsibility to not allow the spark of the revolution to be extinguished in Ghouta.

Nivin is an activist, a writer, a mother, a survivor, a warrior. Her clear voice of truth from the underground defies the entire world’s silence in the face of genocide. She is my voice. She is my words. She is my power. For her and the precocious 4-year-old boy, we must vow to keep the spark of the revolution alive and blazing with our demands for justice, dignity, freedom, and peace for Ghouta and Syria.

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