Lately, there has been a debate among Syrians about when the revolution began. Did it start with the “Days of Rage” Facebook page? Or the February 17 protest in Al Hariqa neighbourhood of Damascus? The March 15 protest in the capital for the release of political prisoners? The imprisonment and torture of teenagers in Deraa? All of these events were factors that sparked an uprising that is now one year old. But some seeds of dissent were sown years before.
In 2003, in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, Yehya Shurbaji and a group of university friends who called themselves “The Youth of Daraya” initiated a campaign to fight corruption. They walked into shops and gave out posters illustrating three cases of everyday corrupt acts: paying bribes, running red lights and not waiting in line. They spoke gently to people, explaining how each of us - as Syrian citizens - was responsible for seemingly innocent or even culturally tolerated actions that corrupt society.
The Youth of Daraya believed in social activism, and were inspired by historic examples of non-violent movements. They started a mobile library and distributed books to the community. They cleaned the streets. They screened films about Gandhi in the mosque. People in Daraya at first resisted the young men, but slowly began to embrace their optimistic message. And Daraya began to change.
In 2003, the activists were arrested for organising a protest after the fall of Baghdad. “They were accused of forming a non-registered political group and spreading sectarianism, the usual list of accusations which the regime uses against activists,” Yehya’s cousin Eiad Shurbaji recalls. “They were sentenced from two to five years in prison. Yehya spent a long time in solitary confinement. After three years, they demanded he ask for a pardon and mercy for a reduced sentence in front of a judge. He told them: ‘I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t want to ask for a pardon or mercy.’ So he was imprisoned for an additional two years.”
In 2011, Yehya and his friends joined the revolution following their non-violent principles. He spoke at the Daraya Cultural Centre, asking the community to understand that those we call “shabbiha” - the regime’s “thugs” - are our sons and brothers. He and his best friend, Ghiyath Matar, became known for their uncommon practice of handing out flowers and bottles of water to armed security forces. People asked Yehya: “How is it possible that you would give a rose to these monsters?” He replied, “I’m giving it to myself.”
Yehya and Ghiyath were arrested on September 9. Ghiyath suffered extreme torture and died four days later. He was 24 years old. He died for believing in his message of peace - for giving flowers to the enemy and offering water to the thirsty.
Yehya and his friends’ peaceful war on corruption in 2003 was as brave as the battle of Baba Amr. They were fighting the entrenched regime at its roots, pulling out the weeds of corruption that had become embedded within us.
The Syrian poet and former political prisoner Faraj Bayraqdar explains how the political vacuum and culture of fear that the regime had perfected set the stage for a weak opposition that reflects the regime’s image, complete with strains of egotism, corruption, sectarianism and divisiveness. According to Bayraqdar, an opposition is no more than a microcosm of society and the very government it opposes. His analysis may be hard to accept, but signs of its truth have tainted the revolution.
Today, after months of clashes between shabbiha and mundaseen (“infiltrators”), one word has emerged to unite us: takhween, the act of marking someone who opposes you as a traitor.
It’s not him, it’s not them, it’s us. One year into the revolution, and there is more than enough blame to go around: the exiled opposition’s embarrassingly public bickering and endless internal conflicts; the disorganised Free Syrian Army; fights for and against intervention; splits between communities inside and outside Syria; fractures within society, and not just along sectarian lines. Instead of engaging in difficult, nuanced discussions and embracing differing opinions, we reach for the easiest reactionary responses: name-calling and questioning loyalties. We play our treacherous games, while the Assad regime kills.
Some people say we can’t expect the revolution to adhere to its original principles after the indiscriminate violence and the spilt blood. Not only should we expect it, we should demand it - not in spite of the regime’s violence, but because of it.
People of Daraya - influenced by the youths’ message of peace - began to buy flowers for soldiers. They feared for Daraya’s son, Yehya. On the day he was arrested, security forces paraded him around the streets in an open Jeep, like hunters showing off a fresh kill. Even captured in the car, Yehya was smiling.
“His adherence to non-violence was not a tactical way in order to win the revolution,” his cousin Eiad said. “It’s a principle he’s worked on for over 10 years … and paid the price for it.”
As you read these words, Yehya Shurbaji may be enduring torture or may be in solitary confinement, which in a Syrian prison is akin to being buried alive. He may be dead. Would he think we were worthy of his sacrifice? Is the Syrian opposition in its current form of mass betrayal worthy of one drop of innocent blood, one refugee family or one orphaned child?
The targeted murder and detention of people such as Yehya and Ghiyath, and many others, prove the regime’s calculated strategy to exterminate those who don’t mirror its image, those who are above takhween and those who refuse to let go of the core principles of the revolution: non-violence, non-sectarianism and, above all, self-examination.
Our culture of takhween is killing the revolution. If we have learnt anything from the regime over the last 40 years, we should know what is wrong will never be right; a lie cannot be fabricated into fact; an unjust crime cannot be repackaged as a just act. No number of martyrs, not 10,000, not even a million, changes those principles. To betray them is to betray the ones who sacrificed their lives for Syria. To betray them is to admit we are nothing but traitors to ourselves.
Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer who has published a series of articles on the Syrian revolution in Jadaliyya