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“I’d rather be killed than be a killer”: How the Assad regime erased peaceful protesters

On 22 July 2011, a young Syrian protester approached regime soldiers to offer them roses. He was not seen again.

At the start of Syria’s popular uprising in 2011, a group of young activists from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, became known for their philosophy of non-violence. They protested with flowers and offered bottles of water to the soldiers. The flowers represented peace and the water symbolised keeping the flowers alive, enabling the idea of peace to grow. Many of them were arrested, and subsequently disappeared, by President Assad’s security and intelligence forces in the first months of the revolution, including protest leaders Yahya Shurbaji and Islam Dabbas. Ever since, their families and human rights groups have campaigned for their release. In July this year, their families were informed that they died years ago. These men who carried roses sacrificed all for their dream of a free Syria. The story of their lives must outshine the tragedy of their deaths.

Ahmad Helmi and Islam Dabbas were best friends. They went to the same school, played football and video games together, and in their later teenage years spent hours wandering the streets talking late into the night. Ahmad describes Islam as clever, charismatic, mischievous and a natural leader.

When the Arab Spring began, the friends closely watched protests unfold abroad. Islam, 21, was studying architecture at university and hungry for the revolution to come to Syria. When protests broke out in Tunisia, Islam believed that change in his own country must be close, but Ahmad disagreed, arguing that Tunisian citizens had more freedom of expression which made civil action more likely. When protests spread to Egypt, there was a rising hope that Syria could follow.

In early February 2011, there were calls on Facebook for a demonstration in Damascus. Islam’s sister Hiba vividly remembers that morning. She was making a sandwich in the kitchen and her parents were drinking coffee in their room. Islam called Hiba to their parents’ room and declared that he had something serious to tell them. He said that he was planning to join the demonstration, but made it clear that he was not asking for their permission because he’d already made his decision.

“My parents and I were shocked,” Hiba recalls. “I immediately started crying. Then my mother started crying and begged him not to go. She warned him ‘You will be arrested, they will torture you, they will kill you in the prisons, no one will hear about you’.”

Islam’s father didn’t try to change his son’s mind, but urged him to be careful. The whole family was upset and fearful. Islam explained that he wanted to go to create change and live in freedom and asked his family to pray for him. When Islam went to the bathroom to wash the tears from his face and fix his hair, Hiba asked him, “Let me take a photo of you in case I don’t ever see you again.” She took his picture.

Islam Dabbas

That first protest in the Damascus square didn’t materialise. Islam travelled there with friends but the square felt emptier than normal. Ahmad remembers Islam confessing that he felt two competing fires burning inside him that day, one of fear and one of anger. He feared being arrested, detained and possibly killed. But he was also angered by the thought that the Syrian people might fail to seize their opportunity for change.

Weeks later, Islam attended other protests in Damascus, including one on behalf of Syria’s political prisoners. For decades, those who challenged the Assad regime – that of both President Bashar al Assad, and his father Hafez al Assad before him – found themselves brutally punished with torture and imprisonment. Islam and others like him dreamed of a country in which they could express dissent freely and campaign for political reform. Islam was then at the forefront of the first small protest in Daraya, knowing the eyes of the security forces were watching. “Islam made the first shout for freedom in Daraya,” Ahmad tells me. “He later described this as the moment of flight, the moment of lighting the flame, when he broke with everything that had gone before and became part of a larger spirit.”

Islam was committed to peaceful protest and non-violence from the very beginning. He believed in it deeply, both as a principle and a strategy. The regime had guns, he argued, but if people fought back with guns, then the regime would bring tanks, and if the people got tanks, then the regime would bring aircraft. The forces would never be equal. He insisted that the regime well understood violence, but that non-violence was a game that the regime didn’t know how to play.

More than this, Islam felt that violence couldn’t change Syria. It could only replace one dictator with another. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets because they had the potential to change everything: a mindset, a culture, even a whole society.

The human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh (who is herself now disappeared at the hands of Islamist extremists), wrote in 2011 about the aspirations of Daraya’s non-violent activists. She observed that these exceptional revolutionaries were trying to change more than the regime.

From the start of Syria’s uprising, activists in Daraya proposed protesting with flowers, with every protester carrying a rose. One of the leading activists was Yahya Shurbaji. At age 31, clean-shaven and smartly dressed, he was an experienced political campaigner, who had previously protested against corruption and for an end to the Iraq war. He was detained in 2003 for his activities.

Yahya Shurbaji

Razan reported that Yahya Shurbaji said that Daraya itself was in need of roses and described the revolution as an opportunity “for us to change too”. He said, “The revolution should be achieved inside of us before it is achieved on the ground.” 

Ahmad recalls, “When Yahya spoke about non-violence you could see the passion in his face. He was very genuine because he spoke from the heart. He made people want to follow him. He could transform very ordinary uneducated young men who were angry into believers in non-violence. But he was also very quiet in a way. At coordinating meetings, he encouraged others to participate, from multiple backgrounds, and would often just say a few sentences at the end.” Videos from that time show the power of his speeches.

From the outset of the protests, the regime responded with violent repression; shooting at protestors in the street and detaining and torturing activists. This provoked more demonstrations. Some of those attending wanted to retaliate by swearing, throwing stones, and lighting tires. Yahya urged against this response. Razan reported how Yahya showed empathy for the soldiers. He recognised that many of the soldiers were young men doing mandatory military service, under constant investigation by their superior officers and enormous pressure. He didn’t want anything to make them feel further embattled or pushed to respond aggressively.

Yahya and Islam held fast to their non-violent principles, even when tested. In April 2011, Ahmad was shot in the face by a sniper and left Daraya to get surgery and recuperate. In his absence, Islam became more involved in organising the protests alongside Yahya and others. Hiba tells me: “One of Islam’s friends asked him what he’d do if they used weapons against the regime. Islam said, ‘If the peaceful activists turn violent, I will let it go and I will stay in my house and never come out because I stand against all people who use weapons. I’m against all violence.’”

Yahya famously said: “I would rather be killed than be a killer.”

The friends continued their peaceful protests and decided to offer roses with bottles of water to the soldiers. Hiba remembers when, one night, another prominent Daraya activist, Ghiath Mattar, came to their house with flowers and bottles of water and stayed up all night with Islam, writing messages in preparation for the demonstration the following day. She sends me a photo of a rose affixed to a water bottle with an elastic band, and a handwritten message from Islam to the soldiers: “We are Syrians, why are you killing us?”

Razan reported that at one protest in July 2011, the soldiers released tear gas and shot rubber bullets at the protesters. Islam approached the row of water bottles and roses and spoke to the military and security personnel about the peacefulness of the revolution and its goals. She wrote, “The soldiers were puzzled at first. Then they began collecting and reading the leaflets that the protesters had cast their way. As they did, protesters chanted, ‘The army and the people, hand in hand.’ Then the soldiers began gathering the water bottles off the ground. One of them tried to shoot rubber bullets at the protest again, but his colleagues prevented him from doing so; indeed, they were waving at the protesters, who quietly walked away.”

Engaging with the soldiers provided an inspiring and instructive lesson for the activists. Islam in particular must have been heartened by the experience, because Razan reports that the following Friday he insisted on crossing the dividing line and offering roses to the soldiers and security personnel directly, making eye contact, trying to further break down the barrier between them.

Tragically, he disappeared amongst the regime forces and was arrested. This was on 22 July 2011. Islam’s friend, Abdulsattar Kholani, went after him and was also detained.

More arrests of the group soon followed. On 8 August 2011, Abdulsattar’s brother, Majd Kholani, another committed student activist, was taken. Then on the 6 September 2011, Yahya’s brother, Maan Shurbaji was arrested. Their sister Bayan Shurbaji told me that when Maan was arrested, the security forces made him call Yahya to ask for help. Yahya went to find Maan, taking his friend Ghiath Matar with him, and both Yahya and Ghiath were then arrested too. A few days later, Ghiath’s dead body was returned to his parents and pregnant wife.

The others remained forcibly disappeared in the Syrian security services’ detention system, with their families searching desperately for any news of their whereabouts. After many months, news came through that they were being held in Saydnaya prison, and in 2012 the family of Majd and Abdulsattar Kholani managed to visit the brothers there and Islam’s family visited too. Hiba told me that when they saw Islam he said that he was due to appear before a court in January 2013 and a guard hit him for sharing this information. This was the last time the family saw him.

Ahmad was arrested and detained in December 2012. One of his primary concerns was that he wouldn’t know if Islam was released. “Islam never remembered phone numbers but he knew mine because it was very easy,” he recalls. “I knew that if he was released then he would call me and I was scared of missing that phone call whilst I was detained.” After six months of being forcibly disappeared in the regime’s detention system, Ahmad was transferred to a state prison where his mother could visit him. On her first visit Ahmad told her to put his mobile phone on charge permanently, so that it would always be on if Islam ever called. His mother did this and when Ahmad was eventually released in October 2015, he continued to keep his phone charged and paid the bills to ensure the line remained constantly open for Islam to call.

In July this year, Islam’s family heard that the Syrian regime were releasing names of people who had died in government custody. They asked a distant relative who was still living in Syria to go and enquire as to whether there was any new information about Islam. At first an official at the registry office refused to share any records because the woman was not a direct relative, but when the woman explained that Islam’s direct relatives had left Syria and begged for information, the official showed her on a screen that he was registered as dead on 15 January 2013. This news had been withheld from the family for over five years.

The Kholani family sent a distant relative to the Daraya civil registry office to ask for news of Islam’s friend Abdulsattar, and his brother Majd, and they were notified that the brothers had also died on 15 January 2013. Yahya Shurbaji’s family received news that he was killed on the same day, and that his brother Maan died later, in December 2013.

The fact that this group of Daraya activists – Islam, Abdulsattar, Majd, and Yahya – are registered as dying on the same day has led their families and others to speculate that they may have been sentenced to death together and executed. The timing of January 2013 matches the final news from Islam of when he was due in court. It also correlates with rumours spread by other detainees that the group were taken from their cells in Saydnaya around this time but not seen again. Amnesty International’s report, Human Slaughterhouse, describes prisoners in Saydnaya being sentenced to death by a Military Field Court and killed in mass hangings.

The sisters of these activists – Hiba Dabbas, Amenah Kholani and Bayan Shurbaji – are members of the group Families for Freedom. They’re campaigning to know the full truth of how and where their relatives died, and what has been done with their bodies. They also want to save those detainees who are still alive and to see those responsible for their brothers’ deaths brought to justice. Islam’s father also joined peaceful protests, and was arrested 20 days before his son. He is now serving his sentence in a state prison.

Ahmad tells me: “I’ve been through a lot over the past seven years. I was shot in the face, I was detained. But I have only cried twice. The first time was when I heard that Islam had been arrested, and the second time was a few weeks ago, when I heard that Islam was dead.” He was still hoping and waiting for Islam’s call.

The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, run by Mazen Darwish, a renowned human rights activist and a friend of Yahya, released a statement responding to the news of the deaths of the activists from Daraya. It said that the Syrian government had “deprived the country of its knights and dreams” and asked who could rescue them from a looming future “built by warlords, not by men of wisdom and peace”.

Now Ahmad is a refugee in Europe and has set up an organisation called Ta’afi to support political detainees when they are released from detention in Syria.

I asked Ahmad how he reflects on the protests now, with all that he has suffered and the friends that he has lost. “Those days were the best days of my life. I felt like I was really free, really a patriot. They were very powerful days, to shout for freedom when we had previously been silent even in our dreams. We felt we were the change. I tell you, they were the best days of my life. I would do it again one thousand times over, even knowing that I’ll be shot in the face and detained for three years. It was heaven.”