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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 April 2018

The heady days of revolution in Syria give way to a grim reality

As Syria's revolution rages, euphoric highs have given way to power struggles and a fractured opposition.

One night in mid-March, activist Rami Jarrah and I - in our typical Damascus versus Aleppo rivalry - were bickering. Our dispute was about the date of the "real" anniversary of the revolution. But as we argued, and later as we discussed the sad events of the day in Syria, there was a lightness, a slight joyfulness that we did not discuss. Yet it lingered and I knew why. We couldn't believe we had really made it - the revolution had survived an entire year.

The feeling of elation was nothing compared to what we had felt the day the students of Aleppo University took over the campus, or the evening the brave people of Homs reclaimed Clock Square. Still, it was a revolution high.

Moments like those have become scarce, dissolving into memories. Those days when hope was enough - when a witty sign from Kafranbul could lift millions out of despair; when the spirit of the Syrian people seemed unbreakable - are over.

Now the lows exceed the highs. Now we talk about what has been lost more often than what will be gained. And the losses have been heavy: some of the people we once spoke to daily are no longer in Syria; some have abandoned the revolution; many have died. Peaceful protests have dwindled as the bombs drop onto our cities and villages. Civilians are caught in the crossfire; thousands have become refugees - outsiders just like us.

And everyone is depressed.

We are now silent witnesses, watching as our country is reduced to a headline and the opening act for the United Nations General Assembly. Syria cues endless analysis from pundits and continuous hand-wringing by world leaders. The UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi says without shame: "There is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward." And our dead are a steadily growing but meaningless number.

As we crashed from euphoric highs, cracks in the revolution have appeared. Power struggles on the front lines and between the political groups exposed us as a fractured opposition. Bickering on social media sites turned activists against each other as loyalties were questioned. In contrast, the regime was steadfast, unflinching in its kill, burn and bomb strategy. Somewhere along revolution road our narratives had crossed and we wondered, was this the beginning of the end? Was the revolution dying? Or worse, the question I asked people: was the revolution dead?

On September 16, yet another massacre was reported from the village of Kafr Awayd in Idleb province. I thought I had become immune to the images of slaughtered children. I thought we had learnt lessons of detachment from Houla and Qubeir. But this time there was a little girl in a blue dress and white tights, a girl we could only imagine as pretty because she was missing her head. While I watched a man carry her like a rag doll in front of the camera, I realised we had not seen the worst yet.

Abu Zafer, an FSA fighter in the Madeeq Citadel, contacted me as he always does on the long nights after massacres. He said airplanes drop bombs on fighters every day now. One of his friends who had been detained for six months was released the day before. He came back to a home in mourning instead of celebration because his 7-year-old son had been killed by shelling. "We lived sad moments when they told my friend that his son was a martyr," he said.

Ashamed of my "depression", my eyes burnt with tears. "Death is the norm now," Abu Zafer said. "This is the necessary price. Freedom has an expensive dowry."

Another friend of his had just died and left behind two little girls, now orphans but he couldn't cry for them. In his village they now rank the families according to the number of martyrs in each family. Abu Zafer's family is in third place with two. He told me that I should be happy because martyrs are in heaven and their mothers are proud. I replied that I am not a mother of a martyr, just someone watching my country's youth die, one by one. He said goodbye with a simple "Victory is ours."

Still feeling down a couple of days later, I watched a YouTube video of a TEDx talk in Beirut by the journalist Antoine Gregoire. "It is the absence of fear that makes the revolution possible," he said. Have we forgotten that we have traded hope for despair? I thought about what had I forgotten while immersed in the chatter, about intervention and imperialism, and global conspiracies, and the endless election analysis and empty words.

A new iPhone is more important than dozens dead in Al Raqqa, and an irrelevant American "movie" has unleashed mass outrage in the Arab world while 105 people killed in Thiyabiyah this week - the deadliest day of the revolution - unleashed nothing but apathy. Had I forgotten the basics as well? Had I forgotten "death before humiliation" was not an empty slogan but an oath? Had I forgotten about Abu Zafer, a man who used to be a teacher who now lives on the front lines of a battle for freedom? Had I erased the slit throats of Houla children from my memory so that I needed a little girl without a head to remind me?

And so, sometime in mid-September, we crossed our 18-month anniversary quietly without loud campaigns or grand statements. Without the revolution high. As Gregoire said: "At a point, you have to stop dreaming and grow up." At a point, it's time to stop chasing the highs and escaping the lows.

Time to accept that what others did in 18 days, or six months, or however long, does not matter, when we are resilient and confident that we will be here for not only an "Arab Spring" but for many seasons to come, as many as it takes. Time to accept that the revolution is not a just something you enjoy when it's uplifting and abandon when it becomes too ugly or too painful. Revolution, like freedom, has an expensive dowry.

It's time to remember what we have forgotten: the absence of fear keeps the revolution alive. And remember the people's conviction that in the end, victory is ours.

 

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer

On Twitter: @amalhanano