BEIRUT: A high-profile Syrian activist who handed himself in to regime security as part of a truce deal in the besieged Damascus suburb of Moadamieh has been released after 17 days held by security officials, in what could be seen as a trust-building exercise for broader negotiations.
The opposition media activist, using the name Qusai Zakarya, arrived in Beirut in the early hours of Wednesday morning after weeks of negotiations with senior military officials in Damascus.
Zakarya, a former hotel employee and English language student, had emerged as a vocal opponent to the Assad regime, drawing attention to the plight of residents living under harsh government siege conditions in rebel-held Moadamieh for over 15 months.
More recently he vocally opposed the conditions imposed by the regime for the implementation of a series of truces across Greater Damascus under what he described as a “surrender or starve campaign.”
Local opposition and regime officials negotiated a cease-fire deal in January, allowing the delivery of food into the starving neighborhood in return for the handover of rebels, weapons and the raising of the regime flag in the town. Zakarya came under pressure to hand himself over to authorities after receiving death threats for his opposition to the terms of the truce and for his activism work.
When guarantees were made for his safety, Zakarya handed himself over to authorities on Feb. 2. At the time he said he feared for his life, after some 800 people were arrested despite being promised safe evacuation from Moadamieh in October.
Opposition activists launched a massive media campaign after days went by without any word from Zakarya, held under tight security in a Damascus hotel. With peace talks underway in Geneva between opposition and regime officials and a series of truce deals implemented in suburbs of the capital, part of what the Syrian government is promoting as a “National Reconciliation” campaign, Zakarya’s case came to be seen as a litmus test for successful negotiations and a measure of regime sincerity.
In his first comments to the media after his release, the activist told The Daily Star he had been treated “surprisingly” well during his 17 days of detention. “They treated me in a good way; they did their best to make me feel comfortable. I was surprised. Very surprised.”
“They are doing their best to tell the world that this time they mean it. And they know that whatever they do, the world is watching.”
Zakarya declined to make public details of the negotiations or how he was transferred to Beirut.
After over 18 months living under siege in Moadamieh, coming under heavy artillery bombardment and deprived of basic food and medical essentials, emerging to the “other side” and arriving in Beirut was confronting, he said.
“I am still in shock. I can’t believe that I made it. I can’t believe I am alive,” he said.
“It’s like surviving a nightmare and still can’t know if you are dreaming or if everything that happened was true or not. I can see and sense and smell everything but in my mind I can’t believe it still. I am finally OK.”
He said he had put on 11 kilograms since leaving Moadamieh two weeks ago.
Shortly after arriving to Beirut, the Syrian-Palestinian spoke to his mother in Jordan. “My mom is thrilled and overwhelmed,” he said, “She’s almost as surprised as me. She kept asking me: Is it really you?”
Zakarya clarified his decision to hand himself in, adding that it gave him a chance to “see things from the outside after seeing things from the inside for so long.”
“I went out because I was getting a lot of threats from inside and outside that I should either shut up, or I will be silenced for good.”
“I was faced with two choices: Stay and risk being killed inside the town which would break my heart, even while I was dead, or to have the courage to go outside and see them face to face,” he said.
“I know I am fighting for a noble cause and I won’t give up for a million years. Someone who walked in to the regime is not a coward; I am trying to work out what this new era is and what to do next.”
Zakarya said he was grateful to his friends, family and the international media for keeping his case in the public eye.
“I would like to thank each and every one who supported me during the revolution since the very beginning and especially during these last few weeks when I was under a lot of stress and pressure. I want to especially thank the journalists who always helped me publish the truth and shed light on what was happening in Moadamieh. These people helped me to be safe now.”