The Long Journey of Two Syrian Revolutionaries
“So how many secret police are there in Syria?” Tariq asks me after telling me of the country’s population of 23 million. “I don’t know” I reply. “23 million and 600,000,” he says with a smile, “that includes those Syrians living in Lebanon.”
Getting robbed in a Macedonian forest by members of the Albanian Mafia, sitting in waist-deep water on an over-crowded rubber dingie in the middle of a pitch-black sea, and being threatened by small-town fascists in a make-shift refugee camp in Germany are mere side-notes to Sami’s story.
“I want to talk about the regime” he tells me without pause.
On a late April night last year, Sami and his friend Ahmed came to the central plaza in Izmir, Turkey to meet the rest of the people who would be taking a small rubber boat together across the Aegean Sea. They stood in a loose crowd holding plastic bags with life preservers and their few possessions, half-attempting to seem inconspicuous.
Smugglers would soon hustle them away in small groups via a network of taxis to a dark, narrow alley that sheltered a 15 passenger micro-bus. Almost 40 people were crammed in for the hour and a half long ride to the coastal village of Didem, where the group was dropped off on a dark road and turned over to another smuggler, who had them hide in the forests for hours before they were led to the beach front.
The 9 meter boat they had been promised turned out to be a mere 4.5 meters, so the smugglers took the bags from refugees and threw them into the sea to make room for more and more people, cramming them on top of each other. No one was given a chance to take their valuables out of their bags before they were thrown over, unless they were among the last in line. People lost their documents, passports, phones, and other belongings.
With that, the packed rubber dingie left for Greece, sailing in total darkness. The smuggler jumped into the sea before reaching Greek waters, meeting another smuggler on a jetski to be taken back to shore. Now, one of the passengers would have to take control, learning the weak motor’s mechanics as they moved.
Sami spent the whole terrifying ride with water up to his waist, pinned under another passenger, unable to move his legs. He passed the hours wondering which of his fellow refugees would land on top of him when the boat capsized and specifically how he would drown. Would he be pulled under by a desperate person trying to stay above water? Would he just run out of energy eventually and die struggling to move?
Pregnant women, children, elderly people, and others like Sami sat in anticipation of two very different possibilities. Excitement grew as they approached a lighthouse, but they soon realized it was a ship. Land was still far from their reach.
Finally, and with a powerful jolt, their boat hit the rocks that line the shore of Agathasini, Greece, throwing everyone into the sea. Though they survived the landing, it left the group cold and wet on a breezy night. Nowhere near any sign of human life, they burned piles of cheap plastic life preservers for warmth, huddling together until the sun rose.
With daylight came a new hope as a small boat approached the shore. Inside was a Greek man in a wet-suit, and Sami and the others waved to him for assistance. Seemingly uninterested in their situation, the man jumped into the water by the wreckage of their dingie and a short time later hauled its motor into his boat. Before he turned to sea, the refugees yelled to him for help, and he simply replied by pointing north.
With no better ideas, they followed the man’s suggestions, walking many kilometers until they found another man on the beach who directed them to the police station. Hoping for safe passage, the group was arrested and put in jail for several days before being transferred to another prison with over 800 other refugees on the island of Samos, where they spent ten more days.
A few years earlier, Sami was in his village in the Damascus suburb of Qudsayya, just months into a sudden and surprising revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Like many other Syrians, he was propelled into the movement and found himself searching the many Facebook groups that popped up across the country of self-organized coordinating committees that were planning demonstrations against the repressive police-state that had ruled the country since 1970.
Sami was not yet a political activist when the revolution broke out, but for five years he had been strategically avoiding mandatory military service by failing University. “At first, it was obvious that the pro-regime and the anti-regime… everyone was lying to get support,” Sami tells me. “It was hard to know the truth, but I decided after a few months that I would join the revolution.“
Tariq, seated across from Sami, was there at the very beginning of the revolt, across the city in the al-Jesser al-Abiaad neighborhood. His parents hated Assad and had imbued him with a radical sense of politics which he began exploring long before Syria erupted. Working for two years in Dubai, he had returned to Damascus in December of 2011, just days before Ahmed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in a Tunisian square sparked a flame that spread far beyond his angry home town of Sidi Bouzid.
Tariq focuses on the larger picture when he speaks, often removing himself from the story to take a broad look at the social and historical contexts that led to the Syrian Revolution, and to the subsequent civil war. “Protesting against the regime was simply unheard of,” he tells me. “It was not even within our political imagination that we could do anything against the Assad regime.”
For many Syrians, the revolution began in Daraa in mid-February when a group of young students wrote anti-Assad slogans on the chalkboard at their school. The secret police came to the school, seized them, and tortured them in brutal ways – including ripping out some of their finger nails. The families of those students responded with protests in Daraa, and at a sit-in there in March, the crowd, including members of those families, was fired on with live ammunition by Syrian security forces.
Around the same time, Tariq and some friends went to join a protest in solidarity with the attempted revolution in Libya. Running late, Tariq had not yet arrived when the entire crowd was rounded up by the secret police. “I got lucky twice,” he says with a deep breath and a dark nostalgic movement of his eyes.
An anarchist and natural intellectual, Tariq and his circle of friends began meeting at the start of the revolt when they realized it was growing into something much larger. In such meetings they discussed what they would do in the event of an actual revolution, for instance, what of the massive number of secret police who would be losing their jobs and were loyal to Assad? What of the lack of organized political alternatives? Could revolution work in this specific context?
The big protests began in the centers of different neighborhoods, coordinated though Facebook page. Participants wouldn’t know sometimes until the last minute the exact details of a demonstration to avoid state repression. From there, the revolt grew quickly in both numbers and intensity. Though the crowds started peacefully, and at first simply demanded justice for people like the teenagers tortured in Daraa, they grew quickly to call for, as their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia did, the fall of the regime. The regime responded with six months of gunfire that grew into a full-scale civil war.
Sami went to the streets with hundreds of thousands of other Syrians. As the demonstrations surged, so did the casualties, and Sami and others stood daily against the regime knowing they could be the next in line when the military opened fire.
“They started to have these big demonstrations inside Damasus, in Midan.” Sami says, “And we had many in Qudsayya. Those were the really hard ones, you know? You had to run a lot, there were a lot of bullets. Sometimes you had to carry people who got shot and you put them in a car, you didn’t even know who is in the car. The car would drop them off before the hospital so the driver would not be taken by secret police. Eventually, we had hospitals that we made in safe houses in each neighborhood, so the injured would not be taken away.”
At one point, Sami tells me, Syrian forces went house to house in Qudsayya over a two-day period and rounded up 120 people, half of whom were killed under torture. It was normal to hear of another friend or neighbor who had been arrested, beaten, or disappeared. This climate took Sami and Tariq into 2012, when a lot of people started picking up guns to fight against the regime.
The second of Tariq’s lucky moments hit harder for him. Assisting in the relief efforts for a neighborhood that had been bombed by the regime, he was headed to the north side of Damascus to join friends who were volunteering their time and energy there. When he arrived, he found out that all eight of those friends had been taken by the Air Force Secret Police, the most feared unit of the security services.
Tariq’s time was up – he knew immediately that he must leave Syria, fearing his name would soon be known to the secret police and that he would be tortured or disappeared. Two days later, in mid-December of 2011, he booked a flight to Dubai and left through the main airport, hoping he could slip out of the country undetected.
Suddenly, and with little notice, Syria, its revolution, and his family and friends were behind him.
Like Tariq and many others, Sami also has only accidental circumstances to thank for the life he now has in front of him, including run-ins with security forces, beatings, and close calls, but as the protests continued, he kept playing his part. He worked with others in his village helping to paint murals of the flag used by the revolution and of popular slogans against the regime. The army responded with tanks, occupying the village. Sami and his family were stuck in their house for days amidst the gunfire, but at a quiet moment, they managed to flee. Their house, like many others in Qudsayya, was then set on fire by the army.
Sami’s new home would find him in the al-Muhajreen neighborhood, on a street crawling with secret police only a few kilometers from the residence of Bashar al-Assad. There, Sami and his friends would take radios with speakers hooked up to bluetooth devices controlled by their phones and place them inside of trash bags. The trash would be out at the street, and they would turn the radios on, blasting anti-regime music and slogans. They would also pour gasoline in the streets and light it, just to remind the regime that they were hated.
One night in the Spring of 2012, Sami had planned to meet friends to do pro-revolution graffiti on the walls of al-Muhajreen, but he got sick the day before and decided he would stay home. He never heard from those friends again, and to this day he has no idea if they were killed, tortured, or both.
Sami remembered the time he was arrested and beaten, and the dark thoughts that accompanied his time in jail. He knew he would not get lucky twice – it was time for him to leave Syria for good. He began planning his escape.
Tariq was unable to find work in Dubai or to bring his family there. There were unspoken rules to rid the United Arab Emirates of Syrians like him, and besides, he was not interested in being yet another underpaid, exploited migrant worker in the country’s hyper-capitalist economy.
In those two months, Syria had slipped further into civil war, and many of Tariq’s friends had stayed to participate in the continuing protests. He decided to go back home and see things for himself, flying through Beirut and paying a bribe to get himself across the Syrian border. There, he found a country divided in many pieces, where the revolutionary hopes had vanished from any popular dialogue and were being replaced by a culture of revenge.
He tells me of the twenty-two of his friends that were killed in the demonstrations, and of the stories brought back by other friends from the front lines of the revolt.
For Sami too, this is when things started to change in the streets and civil war appeared clear on the horizon. Various groups took turns looting the leftovers of his old house, from the regime to the Free Syrian Army, taking furniture and anything else of value. “People became kings of the streets,” he says. “They got guns and then they would just go and rob the houses, they would do whatever they wanted.”
“I think they wanted to create a monster,” Sami tells me in reference to the regime and the Islamic State. “So the regime could save us from the monster.”
Twelve days after arriving from Beirut, Tariq again left Syria, seeking temporary employment in Istanbul to prepare for his next journey. A few months later his parents managed to flee to Egypt, only days before their house was bombed by the regime, looted, and set on fire.
In early September, Sami too found his way to Istanbul, where he worked as an Arabic-interpreter for a company showing wealthy tourists from the Emirates and Qatar around the city. Among over a million Syrian refugees swelling the country’s work-force, Sami was not alone as a source of cheap labor for the Turkish economy.
Still hungry for a revolutionary movement, when the first anniversary of the Gezi Park uprising again ignited in Turkey, Sami joined Turkish friends in the streets. “That was my first time being tear gassed” he tells me to my surprise. “They didn’t gas you in Syria?” I ask. “No, only live bullets. They just fired at you with bullets in Syria. I know how to run from bullets, but not from gas,” he says with a smile.
Early last year, Tariq contacted a smuggling network operated by the Georgian Mafia and arranged a trip via a rubber dingie which was to meet up with a small sail boat further out at sea. The smuggling operation would take him across the Aegean Sea, through Greece along the “Balkan Route,” and into Germany.
As soon as they cast off from Marmaris, Tariq’s group was spotted by the Turkish Coast Guard and chased into shallow waters, where the dingie’s motor broke. In the end, the Coast Guard was paid in bribes by the smugglers, and the sail boat was able to come pick them up, taking them almost 100 km across the south Aegean to Rodos, Greece.
Tariq describes this as the worst trip of his life. Smugglers crammed the refugees into the haul of the boat through a very small hole. “We were actually pushing people in who could not fit,” he tells me. Tariq tried to hide on the deck, but he was discovered and ended up the last one inside. He spent the seven hour journey at sea sitting on top of the motor, breathing in all of its exhaust, vomiting and fainting repeatedly, and expecting to die.
When the boat landed, Tariq and his friend Ahmed made their way to Athens before trying to to get themselves a plane ticket from the small island of Santorini, hoping they could pass through the airport there without being suspected. But Ahmed, who had accompanied him since Dubai, was discovered right before takeoff, and soon Tariq too was removed from the plane. The two were arrested, taken to the police station, and subsequently imprisoned in several jails on various islands before being released.
The Georgian mafia contacts worked out in Athens, and the network assisted Tariq and the others in his group in a journey by foot, bus, and train through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, where Tariq was bounced around several refugee camps. Ahmed, who had survived the long boat ride, the arrests, the border crossings and everything with him since leaving Turkey, decided to stay in Germany and try his luck there.
Now alone, Tariq decided to take his fate once again into his own hands. He left the camp one night and booked an online ride-share to the Netherlands, which eventually led him to his current home in that country’s largest refugee camp, in the eastern city of Nijmegen.
Sami also ended up in Germany after a similar journey through borders, police stations, and unknown forests. With a less organized smuggling route, Sami pieced together various contacts to head north. Unlike Tariq, Sami crossed borders by dodging them, worried that he would be stopped and forced to live in a country like Hungary, where a far-Right, racist, and harshly anti-refugee government presides.
At one point, his group of a dozen Syrians was trailed through the forest in Macedonia by a group of Albanian mafia men. Relaxing by a stream after a long walk, the group was ambushed and fought back. The fight ended only after one Albanian man pulled a pistol out and the Syrians relented. The mafia made off with 10,000 Euros – all of the refugees’ smuggler and food money.
But the group kept on, eventually walking across the Hungarian border. Spotted by police, a chase ensued through the streets of a small border town before they were all caught and, once again, arrested.
Sami and the others were taken to Budapest, where they joined a few hundred more refugees who had met a similar fate. The group made a protest inside their facility, demanding to be released and to be allowed safe passage further into Europe. For whatever reason, the authorities decided to take the trouble-makers and organizers, like Sami, and drive them to the border of Austria.
Germany was a short trip away now, and Sami, like Tariq, was processed through many different camps before he walked out and boarded a train bound for the Netherlands, where he first met Tariq and other revolutionary exiles like him.
Though they expected at many times to be among the Syrian dead, neither Sami nor Tariq expected to stand among the one million refugees who entered Europe last year, part of the largest movement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Now, caught in a system of refugee camps and bizarre restrictions, the two wait for word from European authorities on their claims for refugee status.
Nijmegen’s refugee camp is on the far outskirts of town, surrounded by kilometers of forests. Started as a makeshift-campsite, it now hosts countless box containers and three large “social spaces” with a total of one foosball table and four TV sets in them. Inside, crowds gather to watch football matches or to socialize in small groups on a large, empty, fluorescent-lit floor.
For their first year in the Netherlands these refugees are not legally allowed to learn the Dutch language, “so they don’t grow too comfortable in the country,” they have been told. Tariq says it’s because they don’t want refugees like them to to find work, “bother” locals, or be able to start building a sense of community.
Those who can speak English are able to make their way around town easily, finding new friends and places to hang out, have a meal, or at least, have a space outside of the camp to consider their situation. Others stay closer to the camp, living a quiet, boring life of waiting for some unknown future.
Tired of the situation, in October of last year, Sami, Tariq, and others in the camp started organizing a series of protests against their conditions, demanding to know when their cases would be heard. They marched into town with local supporters, held a sit-in outside the camp, and launched a hunger strike. One man cut himself in protest, posting photos on social media to rally attention. The latest protest, another march to the center of Nijmegen, was held on February 15th.
According to Tariq, some improvements have been made, and some cases are now being heard. The rest still wait.
Though many revolutionaries have found each other, most Syrians in the camp rarely discuss politics, Tariq explains. The heavy divisions pushing the country further into the horrors of civil war are silently avoided, exposing an atmosphere of both regret and responsibility. For Sami and Tariq, the regime that pushed them into exile remains a topic to be discussed, emphasized, and challenged.
Something struck me almost immediately about these two men; both broadcast something like hope. As we talked further, I realized it was something deeper than that; pride. A pride that I have never experienced. When they speak about their journey to Europe and of their brushes with death, they do so knowing that they stood on the right side of history, that they did exactly what they would want themselves or anyone to do in their situation; they stood and pushed forward when the Arab world was trying to rid itself of the regimes and dogmatic political doctrines that oversaw the repression of their generation.
Though they carry trauma and scars from Syria, and while their families and friends are scattered, dead, or in prison, neither regret their role in the Syrian revolution.
But Sami and Tariq have hope as well, a hope in knowing that perhaps the revolt in Syria will be a building block toward some better future. It had to happen, they stress, and once it had started, they had to push it as far as they could.
Such hope does not come from blind faith, but from knowing that something could work, from a sense of potential and possibility. That is what Tunisia and Egypt taught the world in late 2010 and early 2011, and it’s what drove people like Sami and Tariq to the streets of Damascus a month later. They live now knowing that they were among the millions who tried.
Things don’t always look the way you think they will, the three of us agree, rolling cigarettes in a smoke-filled anarchist bar in central Amsterdam. When the revolution began, there was no turning back. And though they were defeated in the streets, disappeared in prisons, and driven out of the country, it wasn’t without reason.
“There’s a difference between losing and failing,” Tariq says.