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.

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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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