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Diary of Syrian uprising reveals grim reality of conflict

In her diary of the opening days of the Syrian uprising, Samar Yazbek gives a first-hand account of the horror faced by the people of Syria, and tells of the ceaseless brutality of the Al Assad regime.

A funeral in Daraa in May, the southern town where the Syrian uprising began and where many of the stories in this book originate. AFP Photo
A funeral in Daraa in May, the southern town where the Syrian uprising began and where many of the stories in this book originate. AFP Photo

In late April 2011, as news of heavy gunfire and rooftop snipers leaked out of the southern town of Daraa, besieged by the Syrian army and security services, Samar Yazbek received a text message from a childhood friend. "Dear traitor," it read, "even God's with the president and you're still lost." Yazbek's diary entry for that day, April 29, records 62 peaceful demonstrators killed, mostly in Daraa, where the government blocked flour shipments as part of its siege. "Why are they doing this?" she asks. "After the electricity and the water and the medicine, they'll even cut off the bread?"

The entry is one of more than 40 written between March 25 and July 9, 2011 that together form A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, a personal document and definitive account of the first 100 days of a once-peaceful uprising that is now a civil war. The diaries catalogue the bravery, confusion, torment and mounting brutality as the violence took over Syria, from the perspective of a prominent novelist (she was one of the three Syrian authors whose work was featured in 2010's Beirut39 anthology), screenwriter and journalist whom the Al Assad regime tried to silence.

From a notable Alawite family in Jableh, on Syria's Mediterranean coast, Yazbek was compelled by kin and community to back the government. Her early, outspoken criticism of Bashar Al Assad's suppression of peaceful protests that began in Daraa 18 months ago - when children were detained and tortured for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on their school - instead brought public denunciation and personal threats.

Three times in those first 100 days of Syria's uprising, Yazbek was brought to a security office in Damascus, where she was beaten, berated, condemned as a traitor and pawn of Salafi militants, and dragged through an underground prison below the office where tortured demonstrators hung in chains and in heaps on the floor to be stomped on (the calm, sinister officer told her it's "just a short trip, so you'll write better".)

The regime, despite fear-mongering about armed gangs and stoking sectarian violence, was scared of Yazbek. She contradicted propaganda that the government guarded Syria's sovereignty and various ethnic and religious minorities against an opposition of radical, foreign-supported Sunni terrorists. The security officer called her "a black mark on all Alawites" and threatened her young daughter, demanding Yazbek go on state television, where "we'll agree on what you're going to say". She refused and, from behind his tidy desk, he solemnly said: "From now on you're aligned with the enemy."

In her writing in international Arabic newspapers and onFacebook, included in A Woman in the Crossfire, Yazbek documented peaceful demonstrations and their violent suppression by soldiers, state security and shabbiha, gangs of muscle-bound regime thugs who serve the Al Assads.

Her account of a crackdown on a Damascus protest in April 2011, published in al-Quds al-Arabi, describes citizens challenging 40 years of fear and the mukhabarat with a challenge, as she writes, "I will infiltrate the sleep of the killers and ask them whether they ever noticed the holes of life as they took aim at the bare chests of their unarmed victims".

The book is made of stark, solemn lines like these - "it was not the time for exuberant words or small talk," as novelist Rafik Schami writes in his foreword. It is all the more arresting because of that, with details of hushed conversations and pained recollections from residents of besieged neighbourhoods in Baniyas, Homs, Hama and everywhere across Syria that organised peacefully against the regime.

Yazbek's is not a crafted memoir but an immediate record of three months of fear, torture, intimidation and, eventually, flight from her home told through diaries that stop and start, sometimes repeat, and always offer another detail of popular will and regime cruelty. Its importance is in its existence, the effort of so many Syrians to share their stories and Yazbek's own courage and ability to record them. It is a hard, painful read, not only for what Yazbek witnesses and suffers but also for that of the other Syrians that she interviews. Their testimonies come through on the page as atrocities happen all around her.

At a military hospital in Damascus, a security officer sits by the bed of a man wounded at a demonstration and demands he go on television and confess he was shot by "armed gangs". The wounded man insists regime forces shot him. The officer repeats his demand, then stands, holds a gun to the man's forehead, and asks again who shot him. "Security," the wounded man replies - so, Yazbek reports, "the officer shoots the wounded man in the head and walks out".

In the northern city of Jisr al Shughour, which the army levelled with the support of helicopter gunships, a group of soldiers realise they are not fighting armed gangs but civilians, and veer from their orders to raid a house. One soldier takes his helmet off and smashes his head against a wall in despair; another shoots himself. Then, in a haze of dust and bullets, a helicopter fires from above. "This was just one of many incidents experienced by the soldiers who invaded Jisr al Shughour," Yazbek writes. "Those that did not kill themselves and who refused to open fire on demonstrators, every last one of them was killed."

An early passage foreshadows in startling precision how more Syrians joined the ranks of the opposition, and eventually armed themselves against the regime. In a taxi attempting to reach the Damascus suburb of Douma, under siege by the army and security forces, Yazbek's driver says he is not with the protesters and has faith in the army. "What have I got to do with it?" he asks her, "I can barely make ends meet." Yazbek says people are dying in Douma and asks what he would do if one of his children was killed. Shaking his head in silence, he replies: "The world wouldn't be big enough to contain me." What follows is one of many awful anecdotes that appear throughout the book: Yazbek tells the driver how she heard "that they put a young man in Daraa into a refrigerator. While he was still alive. And when they pulled out his corpse, they found he had written with his own blood: when they put me in here I was still alive send my love to my mother." "They" are interchangeably the army, the security services and the shabbiha - the many arms of the regime that seem intent on destroying Syria to keep it. With each new crackdown, the government issues its ultimatum, which Yazbek describes as "either us or this scorched earth policy and whatever remains, O Syrians". The volume of violence she documents over the 100 days has, of course, swelled in the last year. One wonders what horrors Yazbek would have recorded had she been able to remain in Syria as the opposition armed itself and the regime continued its scorched earth policy on the way to civil war.

There is some hope in Yazbek's statement that "this is a revolution and not a sectarian war, and my voice as a writer and a journalist may come out in support of the uprising, no matter what the cost". In an appearance this summer at London's Frontline Club, Yazbek broke from Arabic into English to stress to the host, who spoke of "the situation," that "we must say revolution". Such sentiments may now seem far from news reports about the massacre in Daraya, or bitter street-fighting in Aleppo and Damascus. But as the book's translator, Max Weiss, writes in an afterword, "despite her very real and visible human fallibility, frailty and fears, Yazbek is not cowed by the seductive dangers of clan, family or sectarian allegiance." She represents the ranks of revolutionary Syrians who have struggled and died for dignity, freedom and reform against a vicious regime that built its power and legitimacy on sectarian fears and fealty.

The hope of shedding Syria's divisive identities in a country no longer ruled by the Al Assads may not yet be buried, despite all the bloodshed. Yazbek records the testimony of a woman in her 30s, an engineer, arrested for trying to help a food convoy to Daraa.

In prison, guards beat her and attempt to pull off her hijab, proclaiming "the Ba'ath Party above all else". She is put into solitary confinement, where she refuses to eat. A few security officers take pity on her and bring her better food. One guard is an Alawite. "We had human conversations," the woman tells Yazbek, "he told me, 'you put yourself in this situation.' I told him, 'so have you.' When I told him I felt lonely in there, he said he did too."

Frederick Deknatel is a freelance journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books.