Thursday, 1 September 2016

Painting the revolution in Daraya

 'Over the past three yearsAbu Malek al-Shami’s canvas has been the besieged rebel city of Daraya. Splashed across the fields of destruction, a cityscape laid waste by four years of relentless bombing, are 32 of his murals. They crop up randomly, like wildflowers, adorning the ruins of what once were homes, schools and hospitals. 

 It was back in January 2013 that Shami left his home and struck out from the city towards the sounds of shelling that had rolled like thunder over the hills from Daraya since the FSA took up positions there a few months earlier. As part of a large family of political activists, Shami had begun marching in demonstrations in Damascus two years earlier, while still a high school student. But the government’s continuously heavy-handed and bloody response towards the civilian demonstrators convinced him that protests alone were not enough to prevail and he left to seek training with the FSA. 

 The murals span a range of political topics, invoking the hopes, fears, and dark humour born of years living under siege. Strategically angled so as to be seen from both “above and below”, the work is directed at the people of Daraya but also the world beyond its walls. Motivated by a deep commitment to the principles of democratic governance and pluralism that launched the Syrian uprising of March 2011, his work has stood as evidence of Daraya’s resistance while also being a cry for help.
In the light of the rebel defeat in this Damascus suburb, his message to the Syrian opposition has taken on a more urgent and dire dimension.
 “There was a danger of people forgetting,” says Shami. “Forgetting about the struggle and forgetting the values that brought us here. There was a need to remind people exactly what they were fighting for, what this revolution meant.”
 It is not hard to see why the government prioritised breaking the resistance here. Until last week, Daraya stood alone as the last secular rebel stronghold in Syria, which residents and fighters proudly declared free of militants. With its democratic culture of local councils, communal farming arrangements, and fierce, grassroots resistance movements, the suburb was romantically called the “Idol of the Revolution” by opposition supporters.
 The Assad government, however, has ruthlessly pursued a strategy of eliminating credible rivals that could join it at a future negotiating table, reducing the war to a brutal choice between dictatorship and bloodthirsty militants. Daraya was as a lingering obstacle to that goal, clinging on in a state of a crushing siege since early 2014.
 Now, in the wake of the ultimate defeat of the rebellion in Daraya, the future of its fighters and inhabitants is hard to predict. Shami and his fellow rebels have begun the hard task of disengaging and making the long journey to Idlib.
 However, their struggle to spread the values of freedom and democracy has been immortalised in Daraya’s remarkable four-year-old resistance. Shami hopes his murals can educate Syrians about what they are capable of and will stand as a testament to the self-determination that initially inspired Shami to leave his home for a life of struggle.
 “When we started this uprising, it was for freedom and dignity,” he says. “We never wanted a fight. The need to carry a weapon was thrust upon us by the regime. I want to show that there are many like us left in Syria, whose goals are pure and who continue to fight for those same values the uprising started with.” '

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