June 11, 2013
In Syria, peaceful demonstrators frustrated
This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
Khalid Walid spends most of his days drinking coffee and smoking French cigarettes on a dusty Aleppo street corner. With the war shutting down the local university, he no longer attends classes.
The paralysis that plagues Walid, 21, is a far cry from the passion that gripped him and others when the protests in Syria erupted in March 2011. Back then Walid was at the forefront of many of the demonstrations, whipping up the crowds with a bullhorn and rhythmic chants.
As Syria's once peaceful revolution has become a military inferno, however, Walid and other peaceful activists have been crowded out and relegated to the sidelines. Today it is the fighters and the networks that supply them who are at the forefront of the battle.
Things were not always so gloomy for Walid. As the international media hungered for information early on, the engineering student was eager to provide it. A Syrian expatriate group provided him and others with a video camera and satellite Internet equipment. Soon Walid was filming Friday demonstrations, uploading them to the Internet and talking to Western politicians and non-governmental organization (NGO) officials.
"It was great. We were filming, editing, and being interviewed," he told The Media Line in broken English. "We were getting word of the revolution to the world."
But when fighting gripped Aleppo last summer, Walid's role changed dramatically. Documenting protests was no longer so chic. Walid and his cameras were sidelined in favor of the rebel fighter and his Kalashnikov. "The fighters became more important than anyone," Walid laments. "Everyone wanted to help them, with food, gas, or beds. They needed supplies and the population provided them."
Today, with the peaceful protests a distant memory and the continual shelling a constant reminder of the daily war, Walid has little to do.
"It's just as bad as before the revolution," he says as a friends drives by, saluting Walid by honking his horn. "Maybe things are worse now with all the new problems. I don't know; it's just not the revolution we expected."
Others share Walid's laments. Amal Basma, 19, was quick to latch on to the revolutionary fervor spreading through the Arab world in 2011. The Arabic literature student at Aleppo University gathered her friends and relatives to march in protests. Soon she was organizing women's groups to make posters and coordinating with revolutionary leaders to bring dozens of women to the street demonstrations.
"I saw what was happening in other cities and other countries, like Egypt and Libya," she tells The Media Line in her cousin's cramped apartment in Aleppo's Haydariyya neighborhood. "I had to do something for my people."
After rebels liberated the northern border crossings in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, she and other like-minded women travelled to Turkey, where Western NGO activists gave the women courses in organizing and political awareness. "I learned more than in 19 years in Syria," she says, pulling on her head scarf. "I made so many friends and was so eager to come home and teach others."
But soon after her return to Aleppo, she was forced to put aside her pen and bullhorn. "The protests stopped," she complains. "No one was interested in marching anymore. It was all fight, fight, fight."
The activists' complaints are just one critique of what they say is a revolution gone awry. With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army (FSA) locked in a stalemate with government forces, Al-Qa'ida jihadists pouring in from neighborhood countries and looting and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their once pristine revolution.
"We had so much hope when we began protesting," says Mazin al-Masri, 28. But today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists. What can we do? Throw stones at both sides?"
That is a sentiment prevailing throughout rebel-controlled Syria. The hope and optimism of the revolution's early days have been replaced by growing gloom and despair.