Racan Alhoch is the son of immigrants from Damascus, Syria. He is the managing director of The Amal Project, a non-political, non-profit, humanitarian relief organization and an associate at the Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights in Newark, New Jersey.
I spent around five months on the ground in Syria, traveling all over the war-torn country with my partner. We went into the trip thinking that we would emerge with so much to say but, having been home for almost four months now, we are still unable to articulate the big picture.
Contrary to the popular belief of expats, you cannot grasp the big picture unless you are in the picture itself. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is also unsurprising. Our revolution is a contradiction of so many beliefs that were previously held to be true. On the third anniversary of the uprising, I’ve decided it’s time to say something about the state of our revolution.
Things are bad. Not just with the raging war on the ground, but also in the political sphere, with an amateur political opposition divided by hatred for ideological nuance and plagued by cronyism. During our trip we angrily discussed this many times, as most Syrians there do.
We arrived in a village somewhere on the outskirts of Aleppo the day before Assad’s army firebombed an elementary school. Every child in the school was injured and many were killed the following day. Lots more died later, succumbing to their injuries due to a lack of proper treatment. In total, 75 children died.
We went to the ill-equipped field hospital to find out which supplies they needed and what we could potentially get for them. The place was packed with crying parents and screaming children. They had run out of beds — though they only had four — so the bombing victims were lying on the ground, in the courtyard, and on the sidewalk outside. Wherever staff could lay someone down they did. It was the most horrific scene I have ever witnessed.
We asked hospital staff what kind of supplies they were missing. Almost all replied “everything.” Eventually a parent came up and enquired: “Do you work for the Etilaf?” (Etilaf is the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s political opposition.) “No,” I replied.
“Where are they? Why are two kids like you asking us what we need but in the last two years we have not seen one of those hotel revolutionaries come to Syria and ask what we need?” the parent responded. “And they want to lead the country?! They think we will let them lead us!? We would rather remain at war with Assad!”
This happened in the first month of our trip but this theme endured for the rest of our time in Syria. In every bombing we witnessed, every death was followed by grieving parents screaming: “Where is the world?! Where is our opposition?!”
People kept telling us that, instead of spending millions meeting in five-star hotels, Etilaf should be funneling money to the rebels for weapons. On many occasions, people spoke to us as if we had some influence, but we knew it was just desperation. They just wanted their stories to be heard. And this went on for all five months.
The rebels were not properly equipped to fend off attacks by the well-appointed regime. Nobody was sending them weapons or ammunition. We spent four days running around Aleppo with a friend who was attempting to attach custom scopes to Soviet-era bolt-action rifles for his older brother’s rag-tag rebel brigade.
We heard countless stories of young rebels dying on the front lines because they ran out of bullets and were then pinned down. As Syrian-Americans, rebels would ask us: “Why doesn’t America send us weapons?” We would try to explain our understanding and they would argue their points back to us. As Syrians, we already knew them. But they too just wanted to be heard.
All the conspiracy theories about weapons being smuggled to rebels to fuel a proxy war have no leg to stand on in reality. All the talk about private financiers who paid rebels to do their bidding was sensationalized garbage. Of course there are rebel factions that receive money from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states but, even if you combine all this together, it is just a drop in the ocean.
Three years, over 140,000 dead, more than nine million displaced, and many thousands of missing people later, we still have not been able to tell the people’s stories. Journalists who see a Syrian story as a quick buck, or who visit with a specific vision for a story they won’t deviate from, have drowned us out.
It is partially our fault, a rookie mistake by a community of people who literally don’t know how to deal with the freedom to express themselves. In the beginning we thought that our story would sell itself. We thought if people just googled it they would see what we see, that a regime with a history of human rights violations is shooting unarmed demonstrators. That’s not how it happened at all.
But in this never-ending sea of hopelessness there is something that has stopped the revolution from drowning — the people inside Syria. Nobody can deny that Syria was a popular uprising. If it wasn’t it would have died out long ago. As well as the constant death and suffering we saw in Syria, we also witnessed so many unbelievable stories of perseverance and strength.
We met a woman in Kafranbel who, in the face of a war, was already planning an education movement, aiming to provide women with more independence. We met a rebel in Maarat al Nouman who lost his leg in battle, got the best prosthetic he could buy, and went back to fight. “We don’t feel pain anymore,” he told us. “The elation we feel because we are finally free numbs it. Despite our injuries we smile. And there is no turning back, we will continue to fight.”
In Aleppo, we met a computer engineer who left a lucrative career and lavish life in the West to return to Syria and help set up rebel communications.
Three years into our revolution against unimaginable odds, we still have not given up. They can shoot us, bomb us, gas us, and lie about us in the media, but we are not going away. For every person they kill, 10 more revolutionaries emerge. The stories of people who keep the hopeful spirit of the revolution alive are just as plentiful as the stories of suffering. They just need a voice that we haven’t given them yet.
Follow Racan Alhoch on Twitter: @Racanarchy
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