Underground and under fire: An activist’s life in Syria since 2011

Five years ago, activist Osama Nassar, a Syrian human rights activist witnessed first-hand the public protests and violent government response which sparked Syria’s bloody armed conflict. Since then, he and his family have been arrested, intimidated and forced underground. He tells Amnesty their story.

Man and woman holding child, smiling
Nassar Family © Private

At the beginning of 2011, I met with a group of activists from Damascus to discuss the popular protests taking place in neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. We felt certain that the “Arab Spring” would undoubtedly reach our country, but we also knew it would take longer here, and come at a higher price because of the power of the regime and our army.

On 15 March, when protests flared across the city, we went to the mosque for evening prayer. There were security forces everywhere, and shock and anticipation on the faces of shopkeepers in the market. On our way back, we were surprised to find tens of security personnel and riot police with their vehicles ready. We marvelled at the government’s readiness to suppress us.

The next day, we joined a sit-in by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in solidarity with the political prisoners who had started a hunger strike. We were among many arrested, including my wife Maimouna, who was pregnant with our first daughter. Emar, was the first foetus to be detained in the Syrian revolution! Today the number of detainees is in the thousands, including many women and children.

It was a really hard time for my family. My wife gave birth while I was in detention, and I couldn’t see my baby girl until she was three weeks old.

The revolution is on

In prison, we only had access to government-run television and newspapers. One article about our arrest described us as “foreign infiltrators”, this turned into an ongoing joke among us. We also saw a government spokesperson on TV speak of the protesters’ “sectarian radicalization plan”! In fact, the protesters came from many different sects, ethnicities and ideological backgrounds.

News was leaked to us about protests starting to erupt in Deraa and other cities. One of my fellow detainees commented: “The Syrian revolution is on”.

Two weeks later, on the evening we were all released, our friends were waiting for us outside of the prison, they received us applauding and cheering. When the demonstrations first started most people were hesitant to participate in protests. I remember on one of the first Fridays, protests would start in front of mosques and in markets with about 20 people who would try to encourage others to join, but the numbers would only increase slightly. However, on that evening, we could have been 20,000! Strangers who barely knew one another were congratulating each other as if it was their wedding day. One young man, whom I learned later was called Abu Adnan, gave me a strong embrace and said: “Thank God for your safety. Your detention will not go to waste”. Abu Adnan himself was detained a few weeks later, and is still missing.

Man stands holding Syrian flag with his arms outstretched
Syrian protester © Flickr / Freedom House

Forced underground

By that point, the government was determined to seek out all the activists who had helped to organize the protests. On 1 May 2011 I was detained again along with several other activists in the Mazzeh Military Airport, but was released two months later. Soon, the intelligence forces started arresting activists once again, and my friend, Mazen, was among them. I was told that they were on the way to arrest me next, and so I left my house and joined other activists working undercover. Mazen is now near the end of his fifth year in prison.

I lived with my friends, Ghiyath Matar, Yehya Sherbaji, Nabeel Shurbaji and others, in hiding in Damascus. We used to move from one apartment to the next whenever we sensed danger. However, after one ambush Yehya and Ghiyath were arrested, among others. Two days later, we learned that Ghiyath had been tortured to death. We were unable to make it to his funeral. Everyone who was arrested with him on that day four-and-a-half years ago is still missing.

It was a really hard time for my family. My wife gave birth while I was in detention, and I couldn’t see my baby girl until she was three weeks old. Later, I saw them at most once a week. My wife promised to send me pictures of our baby every single day. I felt that I was missing important moments of my daughter growing up.

Persecution of activists

We wanted to send a message that we will never surrender. They will never curb our determination.

Osama Nassar

My wife who is also a human rights activist had to leave our apartment and go into hiding after the intelligence forces raided our house and arrested her brother Suhaib. They threatened to kill her and to abduct our daughter and hold her hostage until I turned myself in. Suhaib was released later, but he was arrested again along with his brother Iqbal, and they remain missing to this day.

We spent more than a year undercover in Damascus, but the persecution of activists continued to escalate and checkpoints were choking the city. In April 2013, we moved to a suburb over which the government had lost control. For the first time, we were able to open an office for the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and another office for the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC).

Some people believe we are a threat to them because we work in human rights. In December 2013 my colleagues, both men and women, Sameera, Razan, Wael and Nazem were abducted. We reopened the office a week later – we wanted to send a message that we will never surrender. They will never curb our determination.

Dignity and peace

We are approaching the end of our third year here. The airstrikes, shelling and siege dominate our life. They ebb and flow but they never cease. Sometimes I feel as if Syrians have become guests to their own cause – they are invited to hear what others have decided for them and for their country but mostly they are left out of the discussion. But other times I feel hopeful that change is coming, and that we’ll live in dignity and peace someday.

At first we were motivated by our enthusiasm for change. Later, it became a responsibility, especially when our friends started to get killed.

When I reflect on all the events of the past few years, I can’t understand how I’ve made it this far. Why I wasn’t in the car instead of Ghiyath when he got arrested? Why wasn’t I in the office when it was raided and everyone in it was abducted? Why did the chemical attack target the next town and not mine? Why did the thousands of rockets miss me, but fall on other people walking where I walk?

Why after five years of screaming, hundreds of thousands of victims, detainees and refugees, do we still need to explain to the people of this planet that we are humans like them, no less and no more? We are human… like you.

This blog was first published by Syria Deeply.