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15 March 2017

“I couldn’t have believed the world would just watch“: Six years on from the Syrian revolution

On 15 March 2011, Syrians gathered in the old city of Damascus. They hoped for change. 

By Julia Rampen

On 15 March 2011, shortly after noon prayers, a group of a hundred or so Syrians began walking through the narrow streets of old Damascus.

The protestors called for an end to the emergency laws that had been in place for nearly 50 years, and the release of political prisoners. The immediate spark for their anger was the case of schoolchildren in the southern province of Daraa, who had been beaten and tortured for scribbling anti-government graffiti on a wall.

The marchers were scared, but hopeful. It was the height of the Arab Spring – a month earlier, Egypt’s authoritarian President, Hosni Mubarak, had been forced to resign. Bashar al-Assad, who had recently inherited the dictatorship from his father, was seen as a reformer.

Six years on, Assad is vilified around the world as the dictator who bombed his own people with chemical weapons. More than 55,000 children have died. As the conflict grew more bitter, the moderates who demanded human rights were eclipsed by Islamist fighters and the nightmare of the foreign jihadis, the Islamic State.

On the anniversary of the protests, Syrians share their stories:

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“I couldn’t have imagined that with all this technology people could watch and not act”

When we received the news from Daraa about how kids were tortured to death just for painting some words on walls, that was it – everything changed and there was no going back.

I didn’t think the people would move, but they did, and it was a moment I had waited all my life to see. It was as if time had been frozen, and finally started moving again.

From the first day, Assad’s supporters were chanting: “Either Assad, or we will burn the country.” We knew they weren’t joking, but still, I would never have imagined that it would be like it is today on 15 March 2017.

If someone had come to me in 2011, and told me that this is what will happen – millions of Syrians will live under siege for more than four years, that towns like Daraya will be emptied, that my friends will disappear for years and I won’t know if they are alive or dead, that I would have to leave the country – I wouldn’t believe that. It would have exceeded my imagination.

I knew that under the previous President, Hafez al-Assad, there were huge massacres that no one outside of Syria heard about. But I couldn’t have imagined that with all this technology and “power of the media” people could watch and would not act. That these sieges could happen under the eyes of the world.

Six years ago, I was reborn. Four years ago, I was killed inside by all the cruelty I had witnessed. When I walked to the centre of Damascus, I felt the ground shaking under my feet and I knew that the bombs were falling on my besieged friends, two kilometres away. It was an indescribable feeling – I wished to disappear from the world.

Then, two years to this same day, I was reborn again, when I and a group of photographers started the project Humans of Syria. I started to hear stories I had never heard before. Creativity, heroism – it existed and it was still there. I felt I didn’t have the right to give up while people were out there, still trying. So I stood up, and since that day I have been doing everything I can to make the world see them, look into their eyes, and hear their stories.

May thousands of pure Syrian souls rest in peace, may the prisoners be freed, may the siege be broken, may the wounded be cured, and may the world wake up!

Marvin Gate, founder of Humans of Syria

“I went directly to the demonstrations – there was hope at that moment”

I was walking in the old city in Damascus when the first demonstration started. All my family and my close friends began to call me, as they knew I was in the same area. They were afraid as they knew I was revolutionary-minded and keen to see a regime change. They feared I would follow the demonstrators, and they were right.

As soon as I heard about it, I went directly to the place of the demonstration, but there were a huge number of policemen in place, so I could not get any closer. I was worried about being arrested.

There was hope at that moment. I believed that Assad would step down after a few months.

A Syrian journalist now working in Sweden

“My father had to dodge bullets on the way to the pharmacy”

I was living in Homs when the uprising started, doing my final exams to become a doctor. We were all surprised that someone had dared to go out and protest – maybe even more surprised they weren’t instantly killed or shot. At least that was the case for the first two months.

Four months later, it became violent. My father couldn’t go to his pharmacy without bullets passing over his head or near his car. When the pharmacy was hit for the second time, we decided to move to Damascus. This turned out to be a very good decision, because a few weeks later Homs turned into a war zone.

Damascus was so calm, it was as if we were living in another country, at least for the first two years. I didn’t have any intention to leave Syria, and I’d started my Masters degree. But that all changed with time. At last, I was so fed up I took the only way out that was “opened legally” for Syrians – to move to Germany.

Most of my friends were already in Damascus, or abroad, and the remaining few I visited in 2012 in Aleppo. That was the last time I saw most of them.

A doctor from Homs, now living in Germany

My friends went missing one by one”

In 2011, I was a student at Damascus University, and I remember how my friends were missing one by one. They were arrested.

The protests in Syria in March 2011 were started by young, open-minded, educated people who wanted democracy, freedom of speech and equality. Those people are now dead, arrested or have fled Syria, and the revolution has been claimed by extremist Islamic groups.

A former Syrian student now working in the UK