BEIRUT: Syria’s protests began with a low hum, a single demand. “In the beginning the word was freedom, that was it – we wrote it on T-shirts, banners, flyers, that is what we were about,” says Sami, a former protest organizer now based in Beirut.
Starting in Deraa, that demand became a chant that echoed and reverberated through much of Syria. But as the uprising speeds toward its two-year anniversary with little sign of the violence abating, many of Syria’s peaceful activists believe their ideas and goals have become blurred, lost and reframed in the context of an opposition that is increasingly militarized and radical.
Numerous political activists fled to Lebanon, where some fear the influx of Syrians could upset the country’s fragile sectarian balance. And for many one-time protesters, the aims of the revolution seem detached from the reality of survival in Lebanon’s ostensibly cosmopolitan capital.
“Initially, when I arrived in Beirut, I was relieved,” admits Sami, who was smuggled to Lebanon in the summer of 2011, fearing for his life after being involved in Damascus protests and following a spell in prison several years earlier for teaching Kurdish in the northern city of Qamishli. “But I never thought I’d be here this long.”
Nineteen-year-old Hisham works in a cafe in the capital’s busy Hamra district, where he earns $350 a month – less, he claims, than his Lebanese colleagues. With $170 going to rent in an apartment he shares with four other young men, he hardly has enough left to fund his 40-cigarettes-a-day smoking habit, let alone to send cash back to his parents in the besieged city of Homs.
“Emotionally I feel suffocated here. War is tiring, sure, but here my worries are big in a different way. People look down on me, absolutely,” he says. “I feel hurt by the whole experience [of being in Beirut]. At least in Homs, my dignity is preserved. Here people are very patronizing and sometimes that’s worse.”
While Hisham and Sami’s activist days have all but grinded to a halt, in the port city of Tripoli, Buhan’s continue. The self-titled media activist’s days are a whirl of feverous activity: communicating with activists inside Syria, translating documents, creating banners for protests, publicizing events on Facebook and encouraging crowds at weekly rallies in Nour Square.
Yet his public role has led to his being intimidated. “One day I got back from a protest and there was a message under the office door. It just said ‘One Free Syrian Army flag equals one bullet.’” He is now careful when he speaks on the phone and tries to stay on the move.
Lama Fakih, a Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, says there is a “high frequency” of cases of intimidation and threats directed toward activists in Lebanon from the police.
“We do know of cases where activists have been detained by the security services because of their documentation, but were questioned about [anti-government] activities inside Syria,” she says.
Syria had a military presence in Lebanon until 2005 and critics charge that Damascus’ influence still holds substantial sway over the country.
“While most people do not experience this type of intimidation, the ripple effect among the activist community is huge. There is certainly a heightened fear of being targeted and surveyed,” Fakih notes. “People feel the hands of Syria’s security can still reach them.”
All of the activists The Daily Star spoke to echoed these fears and concerns of being monitored, regularly harassed by police, detained or being forced to return to Syria.
Far away from the conflict back home and uncomfortable in Lebanon, activists like Buhan have become obsessed with receiving and disseminating news, acting as conduits to a conflict where few have access.
Despite their commitment to these roles, many have found themselves alienated from an internal opposition that has become increasingly militarized. Last week Arab League ministers agreed to allow member nations to arm rebels, explicitly formalizing agreements which have existed de facto for months.
“From the very first day, we said the revolution is peaceful. Anybody out to make this violent won’t take that from us, as far as I’m concerned they don’t represent me as a citizen,” Buhan says.
The European Union has been hesitant to arm the rebels for fear that weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist groups, most prominently the Nusra Front, which has been a major player behind a series of recent rebel victories, including the seizing of the northern city of Raqqa and the kidnapping of its governor.
The EU’s fears chime with Abed, a once-apathetic teenager who became a passionate anti-government activist after witnessing the army shooting peaceful protesters at a march in Douma early on in the revolt. He subsequently established makeshift hospitals in several areas of Damascus, stealing equipment from a government hospital where he says demonstrators are too afraid to go. He eventually fled to Lebanon after several spells in detention.
“I am a Muslim, but this is a relationship between me and God. Why should the government or anyone else be involved in that?” he says.
“I know the war will never end now. People died for dignity and honor – that’s not Nusra’s way, they don’t support our revolution,” he says.
“I am with the peaceful revolution, but peaceful ideas are dying. I don’t feel like it will ever end, so I won’t go back. I think the country I knew is gone.”
Buhan, however, remains optimistic.
“In Syria we were living like animals, the security services were everywhere; we cannot live like that anymore. From the very first day, I knew this fight would take a long time, but that doesn’t matter. I will still being here in one year doing this if I have to, absolutely.
“Every day the fire increases inside me,” he says.