Bravery's Edge: Syrians Standing Up Against Extremism and Violence
Thousands of unknown activists have risked their lives to defy extremism and violence. Daniel Adamson interviews some of them.
By Daniel Adamson / newint.org

Souad Nofal: The teacher who stood up to ISIS

When the Assad regime was forced from the northeastern city of Raqqa in the summer of 2013, Souad Nofal was elated. A schoolteacher in the town, she belonged to a revolutionary group that used non-violent tactics to instigate civil unrest. ‘We rushed into the street, crying and singing,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted to live as they do in the countries we see on the TV – for a person to say whatever they want and not be afraid.’ The elation was short lived. The Islamist group that had just started to call itself ISIS quickly became a major presence in the city. Many of Raqqa’s revolutionaries left, and those that remained were intimidated into silence. But as Nofal saw the revolution’s promise betrayed, she decided to confront the Islamists.

‘ISIS put a gun to my head, but I laughed at them’

Every day for more than two months she stood alone outside ISIS headquarters in Raqqa carrying a hand-drawn placard. Each criticized a different aspect of the group’s ideology or behaviour. ‘Don’t talk so much about your religion,’ said one, ‘show us your religion through decency, compassion, and good deeds.’ Another read ‘Our revolution was started by honourable people, and is being stolen by thieves.’ The simplest message of all was ‘ISIS = Assad’.

It was an astonishingly brave thing to do. ‘They put AK47s to my head, but I laughed at them’, says Nofal. ‘I could feel their fear, fear of the words I wrote on my posters.’

In early October 2013, Nofal used her placard to condemn the burning of two Christian churches in Raqqa. ISIS militants ripped the paper to shreds and fired shots at Nofal and her sister as they ran down the street. Days later, Nofal escaped across the border into Turkey. She is now a refugee in Holland. 

 

Abu Mohammed*: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

In 2013, a young media activist saw a car drive through the streets of Raqqa with the words ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ painted on the side. Abu Mohammed knew nothing about the men inside, but he remembers the fear. ‘I said to myself, “May God protect us from those people”.’

By 2014 those fighters, now calling themselves ISIS, had taken over Raqqa, and Abu Mohammed began to see public executions in the streets. In April that year, together with five other friends, he started a website to document and expose the brutality of the jihadists now lording it over his hometown. About a month after the launch, ISIS captured and killed one of the project’s six founders.The site – Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently – now has 25 contributors and has become a key source of information for journalists and analysts all over the world. The people who run it are all between 20 and 30 years old. Four are women. Most live with their parents, who know nothing about their children’s activism. They meet only online and hide their identities even from each other, to prevent the possibility that any one of them, if tortured by ISIS, might reveal the names of the others.

Outwardly, Abu Mohammed has adopted the attitudes of Raqqa’s new rulers. ‘I did change my look – I grew a beard, and I try to wear their style of clothes.’ But from the anonymity of his laptop, he continues to fight for the ideas that inspired him to revolt against Assad in 2011: ‘I wanted to see Syria as a civil state… as a democratic country where people live under the rule of law.’

As well as being a rejection of all that ISIS stands for, the website stands as a reminder of those values. ‘There is a civil side to this country,’ he says. ‘Syrians demonstrated for freedom and dignity, not for ISIS or the regime.’

* Not the activist’s real name.

 

Ayham Ahmed: The piano man of Yarmouk

In April 2015, Islamist militants poured petrol onto a brightly painted piano and set the instrument on fire.

The piano belonged to Ayham Ahmed, a 28-year-old musician born in Yarmouk, a densely populated neighbourhood of southern Damascus that had grown out of a Palestinian refugee camp set up in the 1950s.

For the past three years, Yarmouk has been under siege. Between August and December 2013, nothing got in or out. On top of those killed by shells or snipers, more than 100 people died of starvation and disease.

At the beginning of the siege, Ahmed decided ‘to play my piano in the streets and alleyways of the camp that I love.’ He built a wheeled platform to help move the battered instrument around Yarmouk, playing songs for children traumatized by fighting. ‘I sing the different colours of suffering of the people in the camp,’ he says. ‘And I teach music to kids, because it is the only thing that can change their state of mind.’

Ayham began playing at the age of six, and went on to study with a series of distinguished Syrian and Russian teachers at the Arab Institute of Music in Damascus. His first love is Russian composer Rachmaninov.

Since the Islamists took control of the camp in April, Ayham’s efforts to alleviate the agony of Yarmouk have placed his own life in danger. ‘Music is among the things that are prohibited by the hardline Islamists,’ he says. Ayham now has two children of his own, Ahmed and Kenan, both born under siege. He is desperate to bring them to safety.

‘I am sad that my piano has been burned,’ he says, ‘but I am more sad about the lack of help from a limp world that is looking at our suffering without lifting a finger to ease the pain… Still, I am going to sing for love and peace, even if no one helps us.’

 

Dr Majed Abu Ali: The doctor who treated victims of a chemical attack


Majed’s first child was born in the spring of 2013, towards the end of what he now calls the golden days of the revolution. The regime had been pushed from Eastern Ghouta in November the previous year, and people were convinced that Syria was close to freedom. ‘We were excited, and wanted to build our country,’ he remembers. ‘We began to form our own local councils, our own hospitals, our own bakeries and schools.’ The regime, though, had other plans. The region’s water and electricity were cut off. No food was allowed in. Day after day, the Syrian army launched air strikes against a civilian population. ‘The regime,’ says Majed, ‘was targeting the hospitals.’

Before the war he had been a dentist. Now, he was working as a volunteer medic and using his contacts to keep Ghouta’s field hospitals supplied. The medical teams were well organized – but nothing could have prepared them for what was coming.

On 21 August 2013, a densely populated neighbour­hood was hit with rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Majed was at his hospital when the bodies started to come in. ‘Kids and women arrived in their sleeping clothes. We could not believe they were dead. We’re used to dealing with blood, but there was no blood. They were sleeping.’ It was the worst chemical attack since the Iran-Iraq war. Majed estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed that night.

In March 2014, Majed’s wife and son left for Turkey. ‘Just one week after they left, my own house was targeted and my son’s bed was destroyed.’ A month later, Majed joined his family as a refugee. ‘I didn’t want to leave. I want to help my people, my neighbours, my country. But I have a family too, and I want them to live. 


Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 485This feature was published in the September 2015 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

3.8 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 13,105 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 9,408 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
10 Stunning Images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award
Natural History Museum · 8,124 views today · These incredible images are a selection from of the 25 shortlisted by The Natural History Museum for the People's Choice Award from this year's Wildlife Photographer of the...
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 7,235 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
Van Jones: Only a 'Love Army' Will Conquer Trump
Tim Dickinson · 6,760 views today · Though it's important to fight Trump's policies, "it's at the values level that we need to do a reset," says Jones
The Problem with Hating Our Enemies
Charles Eisenstein · 3,406 views today · He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee. —Nietzsche
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Tommy Lehe · 2,510 views today · We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but...
David Graeber: We Need a Revolution in the Way We Think about "Work"
4 min · 2,026 views today · David Graeber on the Value of Work. Does the world really need neuroadvertisers, PR researchers and branding consultants? Renowned academic and coiner of the ‘we are the 99%’...
A New History for Humanity - the Human Era
8 min · 1,922 views today · It is time to reframe how we think about our past. We need a new year 0 for humanity. But which one should we choose and why?
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 1,619 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
How to Expose Trump's Dastardly Bait-And-Switch
Robert Borosage · 1,449 views today · Trump is not an economic populist, he’s just playing one on TV.
Forget Air Force One, Pentagon Wastes Billions and Billions Every Month
Nadia Prupis · 1,248 views today · President-elect Donald Trump's focus on single Boeing contract ignores enormous waste of bloated Pentagon budget
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,231 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
15 Easy Things You Can Do to Help When You Feel Like Shit
Maritsa Patrinos · 1,196 views today · You don’t have to tackle it all at once.
Asylum-Seeker Faces a Dangerous Deportation Back to Afghanistan
3 min · 1,185 views today · After an EU deal with Afghanistan, more than 80,000 rejected Afghan asylum-seekers are facing deportation back to that country. Alim says being sent back to Afghanistan could...
The Most Powerful Algorithm in the World
Joe Brewer · 1,136 views today · After the insanity of the U.S. election, a lot of people are blaming Facebook for its algorithms that parse us into ideological bubbles and spread “fake news” and other kinds...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,081 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
It's The Damn Police
Walter Fields · 975 views today · From an early age Blacks are socialized to live defensively and to absorb the mental body blows that come from the day-to-day indignities that are hoisted upon us by the very...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 833 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
Why You Should Stop Apologizing for Doing All That You Can
Kelly Hayes · 753 views today · I’ve noticed lately that a lot of allies and accomplices I talk to about NoDAPL and other struggles will name what they are trying to contribute to the cause, and then promptly...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Bravery's Edge: Syrians Standing Up Against Extremism and Violence