Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syria: Journey Into Revolution

Choosing sides costs young woman her old life and family connections.
By Bana Deeb

The first time Leila heard the call to action was on March 25, 2011, in a grainy YouTube video of worshippers emerging from the famous Khaled bin Walid mosque on the Horsh road.

The astonishment and excitement Leila felt were shared among many who saw that video. But she never imagined that one day she would herself feature in such films, which at the start of the uprising often cost participants their lives.

She wanted to see for herself what was happening. Was it mere curiosity or the promise of freedom that stirred her? She couldn’t quite define her feelings when she found herself outside the mosque during noon prayers, waiting for the crowd to emerge.

Leila was a quiet, calm girl from a comfortable home, the daughter of a Syrian doctor and a foreign mother who was very liberal in her thinking.

None of her circle of friends ever expected to suddenly see her right at the heart of the uprising. But from the first demonstration she attended, running into narrow alleyways to escape the security forces, she knew she had fallen under the spell of the revolution.

She began waiting for Friday to come around so she could join the demonstrations that emerged from mosques in the southern al-Ramel district in Latakia, at the time the area where revolutionary activity was strongest. Women were at the forefront of protests that became daily events, broadcast live on Al-Jazeera.

The crackdowns began that summer as the protests spread ever wider. The Saliba and Quneinis neighbourhoods joined the uprising, with large peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins lasting days. They continued until a horrific massacre put an end to them.

Leila became a veteran of those protests, gathering like-minded friends around her who all became important fixtures at these demonstrations. At one such march, she found herself carried aloft on someone’s shoulders, captured on video without the face coverings protestors usually wore to avoid being identified. That’s when the security forces began openly pursuing her.

Her father – the good, respected doctor known for pampering his daughters – was shocked when a regime agent told him of Leila’s activities. He had never expected to find his youngest daughter plotting against a state that he believed afforded them peace and security.

The agent was trying to be delicate when he told the doctor that all Leila needed to do was to come into the office and answer some questions. But her father knew very well that those scum would not treat her with any civility, nor would they stop at a few simple questions.

Leila’s father confronted her in the hope that she would provide a convincing answer – was she trying to fill an emotional vacuum? Did she feel socially isolated?

He treated her as though she had committed some grave crime against the family’s honour, and told her it was a foregone conclusion that she would have to leave the country.

The very next day Leila found herself at the Lebanese border, which at that point Syrians could cross easily.

She could not defy her father’s wishes but she was also unable to resist her own desire to return. She re-entered Syria after speaking to a friend who lived in the southern al-Ramel district, and who agreed to let her stay in her apartment for a week. At that point, the uprising in this neighbourhood was under serious threat, as the government army was about to invade. But undaunted, Leila stayed in al-Ramel, which was indeed declared a military zone after the army stormed it at the beginning of August 2011.

This was the second time Leila had escaped, but this time she did so of her own volition. She joined the exodus, unable to return to her father’s home as he had made it abundantly clear that he was dead against the revolution. She had nothing to say to him; he had cut off all communication between them.

Along with a group of familes from al-Ramel, she headed to the Hiffa area, a stronghold for rebels who left Latakia during Ramadan 2011 and who quickly declared that this area was under their control.

There she met Asad, a poor, young rebel. After the army invaded the southern al-Ramel district, he had refused to flee and leave the wounded behind. Asad kept moving from building to building, trying to stay ahead of the soldiers who were searching the area and shelling it from all sides. Through good fortune, he finally escaped along a dirt road to join his colleagues from the south shore.

When he and Leila met, it was neither irrational love nor sensible reason that drove their relationship. Instead, Leila felt quite simply that she needed him by her side. She was officially wanted by the regime and it would have been impossible for her to return to Latakia, even if her father had been prepared to exploit all his connections. The security apparatus dealt mercilessly with all activists and revolutionaries, and executions were their way of crushing civil disobedience.

Asad asked Leila to marry him and she immediately said yes, after which he joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The rebel forces met regime troops in battle in Hiffa at the beginning of September 2012, but they were defeated despite a valiant attempt to hold their positions. The FSA withdrew to the northern countryside and set up camp in Salma and some other villages nearby.

Today, Leila lives between Salma and Turkey. She now wears the veil and has a daughter. She is active in a number of civil society organisations and takes part in numerous workshops. She still considers her husband a warrior hero and has never regretted their marriage.

Her mother has made her disapproval very clear, but Leila continues to call home regularly.

She admits feeling nostalgic about her old, comfortable life, but still believes that getting involved in the revolution was the single most important decision she ever made in her life. She has no regrets.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.