Love in the Time of Syrian Revolution

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A story of two young students, torn apart by one of the world's most brutal regimes and reunited by the uprising against it

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A member of the Syrian opposition takes refuge in a storehouse near the border with Turkey. (AFP/Getty)

When Farah said goodnight to her boyfriend one evening in January 2007, she had every reason to expect to see him the next day. Though she'd only been dating Omar for a month, the two students at Syria's Damascus University already shared a special connection. Their first date had been over coffee. Soon, they were wearing matching clothes. "See you tomorrow," they told each other that evening. But that "tomorrow" would not come for five turbulent years.

When Farah called him the next day, Omar did not answer. She looked for him in the dormitory and asked his friends, but no one would tell her where he was. She began to suspect that Omar, who was several years older and claimed to occasionally "travel," had been playing games with their relationship. "I was angry, hated him a lot, and did not forgive him," she recalled.

What she only learned later was that, in the early hours of the morning, eight Kalashnikov-wielding mukhabarat state police had arrested Omar in an Internet café where he had been chatting on MSN with a Syrian opposition member outside the country and e-mailing reports on detained students to international human rights organizations and Western embassies. At the time, Farah didn't know he was involved in opposition activities, which had gotten him arrested before. Omar had so internalized his awareness of the regime's reach that he'd kept this part of his life even from her.

"He never told me that he had been arrested, but I noticed that he had ideas [that were] anti-regime from his speech," Farah told me after we first met in Istanbul this past February. "But in general he was a cold man that did not express everything to me." His demeanor could be so cool, she said, that she and her friends would teasingly call him "Iceman."

Omar was released from the feared Sednaya prison in 2008, having completed most of his three-year sentence. He looked for Farah, but she no longer lived in the university dorms, and he'd kept touch with few mutual friends who might be able to help. His time was also short. State security forces had kept his identity documents, which would only be returned when he reported for compulsory military service. But Omar had resolved to never join in service of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. He needed to go underground and assume a new identity, and quickly, even if that meant leaving Farah behind. 

Five years later, peaceful protests calling for Assad's ouster turned to an armed uprising, with at least nine thousand killed so far, according to United Nations estimates, and opposition leaders calling for international intervention. For better or worse, Syria's uprising may never have become what it is without the dedication of activists like Omar, and later Farah, who sacrificed for years, putting everything on the line to resist one of the world's cruelest regimes. But their story also shows the perseverance of common human bonds even in the most trying circumstances, and the ability of Farah and Omar to rediscover their love, despite the turmoil that has permeated every layer of Syrian society, in one small but symbolic victory over the regime that would keep them apart.

In 2000, when Assad inherited power after his father's death, he was touted as a reformer, and it looked like it might even be true. Political discussion forums and opposition media were founded. The so-called "Damascus Spring" began.

"When he became president I was 14-years-old," Farah remembered. "I thought, he's young, not in [the] army so that's good. And some things [with] the al-Baath Party really changed. For example, we didn't have to say 'al-Assad forever' every morning, and I liked that a lot."

The openness did not last. "Other people started to have a political life," said Habeeb Saleh, a member of Assad's ruling Alawite religious sect and participant in the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a reformist discussion group. "They started to join, they started to discuss. The regime got scared."

In March 2004, members of Syria's Kurdish minority rioted, tearing down statues and other symbols of the regime. The military sent thousands of military troops backed by tanks and helicopters. "The Kurdish revolution in 2004 and how security dealt with that is what made me hate this regime," Farah said. "That he's ready to kill his people or make Arab and Kurdish fight each other to stay [in power]."

This was when Assad "started to think he was God," according to Ayman Abdel Nour, a former friend of Assad's who thought he could help reform the ruling Baath Party from within. "In 2001, he could approve [reforms] in one day or two. Then he started to delay."  

In 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri led the Syrian military to withdraw from Lebanon, international attention on Assad's regime grew, even as it clamped down tighter on opposition, closing clubs and discussion forums and jailing dissents. Opposition forces inside the country -- a motley assortment of intellectuals, writers, and artists -- managed to come together with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, based abroad, to sign an agreement called the Damascus Declaration.

"Some of those opposition members could fill up a micro bus and others could fill a pull-man," explained Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who edits the blog Syria Comment. "No one could mobilize more than this. And they were tired. They did not have any young people. They were mostly middle-aged. They had no connection to the youth of Syria who were deeply unorganized."

The Bush administration provided "rhetorical support for the opposition in Syria and democracy," said Andrew Tabler, author of In the Lion's Den. However, this support decreased after Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah. The U.S. saw Assad as a possible interlocutor in the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Miraculously, he managed to forge working relationships with the U.S., Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah all at once.

"We knew from the beginning that he is close to Western powers," Farah said, echoing a widely held belief (despite much evidence to the contrary) here that Assad is a covert friend of the U.S. "I didn't expect anything from the West at that time. Now I feel that the West is just watching and tries to give to both sides, I mean regime and opposition."

"This was his golden time," said one long-time opposition member.

As the longed-for "Damascus Spring" turned to the so-called "Damascus Winter," a talkative Omar in his early 20s, originally from the southern city of Daraa, became active in the opposition. When he wrote culture articles for state newspapers only to see them heavily censored, Omar decided to create his own unlicensed newsletter.

The day after distributing the first edition around Damascus, police knocked on his door. He spent two weeks in jail before a relative who is also a senior government official called to have him released. "The next time, I won't help you," the relative said, Omar recalled. His mother, horrified, pleaded with him to focus on college and said a government job might await him after graduation.

But Omar, like so many other Syrian opposition activists before and after him, only grew more resolved after his first stint in prison. "They broke the fear inside me," he said. "All the time you are thinking, [prison] is like darkness. When you pass it, the fear becomes less."

He distributed another newsletter and was arrested again. When released, he joined a group of friends who ran a licensed newspaper. This time, it was about one month before he was arrested for his critical articles about the government and for his growing association with human rights groups that reported regime abuses. This was when he first experienced torture. Guards used a cable to beat him and slammed a door on his hand, breaking it.

After his release, Omar volunteered with the loose network of human rights organizations and lawyers who had assisted in freeing him. The regime tolerated the organizations, apparently because they could be touted as a sign of reform but did not criticize loudly enough to pose a serious threat. Omar's role was to secretly gather information on people detained by the regime, describe the charges against them, and find out if they were tortured in prison. Then he would e-mail the reports to human rights groups abroad and to foreign embassies.

He was angry, he told me. He had been tortured, his family virtually deserted him, and classmates informed on him. He wanted to "hurt" the regime. Compiling the reports were one of the few ways he could use its crimes against it.

"That's the maximum that we could do," Omar said of the reports. "There was no revolution. You were alone."

When Omar met Farah, she, like most Syrians, was working neither for nor against the regime. He cared for her, but knew that bringing her into his activist world would put her unfairly at risk. So, when he disappeared, she had no way to know what had happened. "She was upset because she thought I had left her with no words," Omar said. "She was a person upset for the wrong reasons." He had thought of her often while in prison, writing about her on cigarette papers, torturing himself with thoughts about how close by he thought she must be. But the regime's jail made that distance insurmountable.

After being freed in 2008, Omar worked for two years to secure a passport and passage out of Syria. Yet, once he was abroad, in Cairo, he had no idea what to do with himself. "I became a loser," he said. "I was sleeping all the time." He found work as an English teacher. When mass demonstrations broke out across North Africa and the Middle East in January 2011, he returned to Syria. 

The protests began slowly, but grew. The torture of children in Daraa that April "enflamed" rural Syria, which has a large youth population and was beset by high commodity prices, drought, unemployment, and growing poverty, according to Landis. "Daraa is a region where the regime has ignored and failed," he said. "Idlib is the same, going down to Homs." Daraa's discontent boiled over in April, when it had some of Syria's first regular, large-scale protests.

Daraa is also Omar's hometown, and his destination on returning to Syria. He uploaded videos of the subsequent crackdown to YouTube and gave phone interviews to international media, living for two weeks in a cave near the Jordanian border. When security forces began hunting activists and pressuring his family to turn him in, he fled to Turkey in June. Jordan was closer, but considered unsafe. 

Farah knew nothing of Omar's life as an activist, his time in prison, or his struggle to find meaning until, four years after their last conversation, she flipped on the London-based Syrian satellite news station Barada TV and saw an interviewer discussing Syria's burgeoning revolution with her one-time boyfriend. "It was a shock to see him on TV," Farah said. "I was happy to know that he is a real activist and I said to everyone that he is my boyfriend, although me and my friends called him a bastard before and it was illegal to mention his name in front of me. But his attitude towards the revolution made me forgive him."

She found him on Facebook and, after a flurry of messages, two-days later, decided to come to Turkey.

Because Farah is on a government "no-travel" list, it took her three months to make her way out of Syria. She arrived in Istanbul by bus from the Syrian border on a snowy evening last February.

Omar was waiting for her. He had worked all through the previous night, making phone calls and writing reports. Her bus was late, arriving as several others pulled into the station. Omar walked between them, trying to see which was hers.

Farah appeared suddenly. "She was in my face, staring at me in the light," Omar said. He picked her up and held her.

Though no longer in Syria, Omar was assisting international media covering the revolution, and pressuring Western diplomats to provide direct support. He's faced a new set of challenges in Turkey, and says he's been disheartened at times by the divisions weakening the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which Omar did not join, and by Western diplomats' preference for talk over action.

"I knew it would take a very long time, but I expected international intervention," he said. "Because we thought it was time for the international community to take steps against the regime. They have a reason: the guy is killing people on the street."

He expressed dismay at the uprising's slide into an armed conflict and the growing presence of jihadist groups fighting the regime. "It's the regime's game. The international community's silence has pushed the mess to this state."

Still, staying up all night drinking coffee and smoking as he worked, his two phones rang constantly, Omar realized that a first victory against the regime had been won: in the eyes of the international community, and many Syrians, Assad's legitimacy was lost.

"You know, I am an exile, I lost everything. I lost my house, my family," he said, slumped on my couch in Istanbul this May, following a meeting with diplomats.  

"But now, people know that the regime is just a bunch of thugs ruling a country."

His reunion with Farah was a victory of its own, an act of defiance against a regime that would have denied him everything, and an affirmation that they had something worth fighting for.

When I spent some time with them in Turkey, they hung from each other and shared food in restaurants, as couples do, as if no time had passed. And yet, for all the force of their love, it had taken an uprising to bring them together. 

"For me, he is the love of my life," Farah said. "Sometimes we stayed together 10 hours a day. He was nice and does everything for me."

Still, it seems that their fate is tied to Syria's. After two months together in Turkey, Farah returned to fight the regime from inside the country. Omar, now a regular point of contact for diplomats and journalists, knew he would be most effective from outside. In their last days together in Istanbul, they got engaged. Neither could say with any certainty if they would ever see the other again.

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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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