Thursday, 28 March 2019

The art of Syria's revolution

Al-Maadamiya, Dying To Eat by Imran Faour (2013), captures the forced starvation of the besieged city's residents

 'In 2013 Sana Yazigi, a Syrian graphic designer from Damascus, launched the online archive The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, consisting of works created by Syrian artists during the uprising.

 "From the early days of the revolution," Yazigi says, "I was amazed to witness an incredible outpouring of artworks. I didn’t want them all to disappear, to be forgotten. I wanted to keep a record. There was a sense of urgency, a need to document what was going on."

 “When I moved to Beirut in 2012," Yazigi says, "I began writing, recording and collecting [stories of the Syrian people]. When I saw the sheer amount of material being created, I surrounded myself with a team to gather it all together.”

 The website documents paintings, music, graffiti, videos and cartoons among others, constituting an exceptional wartime archive. “Little by little, a list of works was drawn up," says Yazigi. "We were all running from the régime at the time, working anonymously in an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. Many of the artists were anonymous too. We’d discover their works on blogs and on Facebook. We documented everything we came across to add to the archives."

 “Over time, I emerged from anonymity and started contacting the artists," says Yazigi. "Most were enthusiastic about the project. Even today, we are still discovering works which were never made public at the time, for fear of reprisals.”

 The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution continues to grow. The site’s second in-house production, MAP, links archive material to locations across Syria, connecting documents with dates, categories, keywords and authors. The website’s user-friendly second version introduces the Syrian people, giving voice to the dreams and tragedies of the revolution.

 One initiative, Idlib Walls, archives all the graffiti from the city of Saraqib found online. More than 360 artworks are presented on a timeline which is periodically updated.

 Yazigi says she will continue her mission. “Ultimately, we’d like to see our archive enter the national archives, because once the war is over, the history of the revolution must be given back to the people of Syria. The archive is part of our collective memory. The revolution has brought about clear social and historical changes”.

 In addition to the websites, there is also a book and a travelling exhibition. The Story of a Place, the Story of a People, 2011-2015 is a collection of words and images retracing the uprising in each of 50 locations. The text describes the early days of the revolutionary movement, as well as the dynamic forces that would see it spread.'

Mohamad Omran's 2013 drawing From al-Bayda To Ras al-Nabeh: in April 2011, government security forces and the pro-government Shabiha militia entered Bayda, arrested the male citizens and humiliated them. Youssef Abdelke's 2012 drawing A Martyr From Dara - in February 2011, 21 children were arrested for drawing anti-Assad slogans on a school wall
The 2016 mural 3 Years by unknown artists on a wall in Jobar, Damascus - rights groups say hundreds of people died in the suburb in a chemical attack in 2013Hope, painted on a wall in Daraya in 2014
Untitled photograph by Ahmad al-Khalil from 2013 - despite government crackdowns, the inhabitants of Manbij continued to demonstrateAn activist scrawls, “There are no thieving revolutionaries... only thieves who have become revolutionary” - in al-Malihah in 2013 as it faces a humanitarian crisis
Mwafaq Katt’s cartoon Palmyra from 2015. The first marches in Palmyra took place in April 2011 at the funeral of a soldier, executed for refusing to fire on a protestRami Abbas’s drawing No Mercy from 2014 - in July 2012, the funeral for demonstrators killed at Yarmouk refugee camp was marked by unprecedented protests in Damascus

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Pianist in the rubble: A Palestinian-Syrian refugee’s journey through music

Aeham Ahmad broadcast from the streets of Damascus

 'For four years, Aeham Ahmad played a soundtrack to a devastating war. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Syrian capital Damascus, he wheeled out his piano to perform in the streets, often surrounded by children or neighbours looking for an escape from suffering and drudgery, during a long siege where many starved.

 “I tried to make my piano a bridge to transfer [what was happening],” he says of videos filmed to show the world outside what Yarmouk’s sorry residents were going through.

 Ahmad – who had never left Syria before 2011, when the war began – would address the camera, listing off problems, such as a lack of water or a plea for aid packages. Then, he would sit at his instrument – suddenly calm and concentrated, surrounded by rubble.

 Videos of Ahmad were broadcast through social media, reaching people across the world. As Syria’s initially peaceful revolution turned into a protracted and bloody conflict, his videos were held up as proof of resilience, strength and the power of music in times of turmoil.

 Ahmad is now a refugee in Europe. His new memoir, The Pianist of Yarmouk, reveals a principled man with a history more complicated than any footage could have conveyed.

When we meet this week, in a small seventh-floor room in Penguin’s London headquarters, close to the Thames, the slight 30 year old shows me his scars. He has one on his forehead and another on his hand, where a tendon was severed by shrapnel and sewn back together by a carpenter, who agreed to operate on him because the doctors had all fled.

 Mentally, Ahmad is also scarred: he thinks constantly of people he left in Yarmouk, which the UN branded a “death camp” last year; and Zaineb, a young girl murdered by a sniper, as she sang beside him.

 Ahmad’s piano was eventually burned by Isis. His family’s music shop, which housed thousands of instruments – 1,200 ouds, 600 guitars, and pianos – was bombed to pieces by Syrian régime forces.

 In 2015, unable to carry on any longer, the pianist finally fled Syria, crossing Turkey and risking death on the Mediterranean, before arriving in Germany. His wife, two young sons, and parents have now joined him.

 For Ahmad, creating the memoir was a kind of therapy. It took him four months to speak everything out loud, while working with writers who helped him hone detail that was at times almost physically painful to remember. “It was difficult and great,” he said.

 “I tried to describe everything that happened in a very clear mind, but it wasn’t clear for me until now. I tried to write a life story about my family, Yarmouk, people, the community, and I tried to write also the life story of the Syrian people. I tried to focus not too much on politics, but I tried to [explain] our opinion of politics.”

 Ahmad’s finished book is a love story: to musicianship, but also to his dedicated father, a blind violin player, who pushed him to play music; to his mother, who sang sweetly every morning before the war began; to his wife and children; and to his community of Palestinian-Syrians, torn apart by an eight-year conflict.

 In Syria, music – like sport – has become a tool of war. In late 2017, I visited the Damascus Opera House. A vast building, it’s located on the same roundabout as Syrian state media, close to the music school where Ahmad took lessons growing up.

 By this, they clearly meant support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the opera house is named after.

 One notable example of music as propaganda happened in 2016, when the Syrian régime, with Russian help, reclaimed Palmyra from ISIS. Afterwards, a Russian orchestra was flown to perform among the ruins. For refugees following the war from abroad, this symbolised the ever-closer relationship between Russian president Vladimir Putin (who was beamed in to the concert live, from Sochi), and Assad.

 For Ahmad, it was sinister. Even before the war, he says, music might not have been as political, but it wasn’t free.

 “Everything will be under the control of Assad. Every piece that you play. You know we have a lot of Kurdish musicians not allowed to play Kurdish music before the revolution, and a lot of people would like to compose a lot of things not really in the politics of the Syrian régime, [so] they are not allowed to play it.”

 When protests broke out in 2011, peaceful demonstrators composed revolution songs on the streets. The régime responded with brutality and the protests spread.

 Soon afterwards, Ahmad became a YouTube star. Initially, he was anxious about being recorded, and astonished when the videos began to go viral. Later, he realised that the internet gave him a kind of freedom, bridging the gap between his Palestinian camp in Syria, and Europeans, who took a growing interest in his actions.

 In the end, it was music that saved him. With fame came offers of assistance. “I get a lot of help in Germany… Without this help I couldn’t go on with life.”

 Even in Europe, Ahmad feels certain he’s being monitored by Syrian security. “They follow me, I’m sure… They follow me on Facebook.”

 Like many other Syrian refugees, Ahmad knows if he goes back to Syria he could be detained and tortured in régime prisons. His brother Alaa is already missing in one; he was arrested at a military checkpoint near the start of the war.

 The Pianist of Yarmouk is also dedicated to Alaa and Syria’s other political prisoners, including another friend who was tortured to death. Ahmad speaks passionately of them and his frustration that Europeans don’t understand Assad is one of the biggest threats, even if street fighting stops again.

 Ahmad speaks of the so-called Caesar photos, a cache which was smuggled out of the country in 2013 and shows the bodies of more than 28,000 people murdered in Syria’s prisons.

 Growing rhetoric that Syria is safe because Assad is regaining territory is reckless and dangerous, Ahmad says. Pushing refugees to return means many more will die.

 In Germany, Ahmad also struggles.

 “I fight against the image: refugee. What is a refugee?” he asks. “We are not refugees. We are names and not numbers.”

 Ahmad said he’s battling guilt, which can hit particularly hard when he’s on a stage, playing for European audiences, night after night. “I fight against myself because suddenly when you play every day a concert you feel you are a star, and I am not this one, and I don’t like to be this one,” he said.

 Now, Ahmad’s collaborating with Spanish and German musicians. After two years of anxiety, where he was unable to compose music, he was reunited with his parents. Now he can write again. “It’s coming really from my heart without any plan… I was lost for two years, but now it’s changed (since) my father and my mother [came] here.”

 The pianist says he’s grateful music has given him a platform to speak on behalf of Palestinians and Syrians. “I am not tired of saying things again and again and again. I am tired, but I am responsible.”

 He’s enjoyed bringing Syrian music to a wider audience, though admits his busy schedule shields him too, blocking bad memories and thoughts about the past. “Finding a new life is not easy… That’s why I play every day, to not think.”

 “Music can make people forget what happened,” he reasserts, later. “Music can’t stop the war, but at least [it] can stop the war in the mind.” '

Image result for the pianist of yarmouk

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The people's revolution will end only with victory

 Abdul Baset al-Sarout:

 'We swear by God, we won't remain silent over the blood of the martyrs. We swear by God, to protect our women and children and martyrs and land, until our last drop of blood. Until our last drop of blood. Until our last drop of blood. We shall be victorious, or die. As God is our witness.

 Well, the revolution is entering a new year of sacrifices. I'm here today in Maarat al-Numan, to mark the anniversary of the Revolution of Freedom and Dignity. A revolution of new life, an eight year old revolution entering its ninth year. With every year, there are more sacrifices, more blood, more martyrs, and more destruction. This increases our determination and commitment to the principles of this Freedom and Dignity Revolution, till the last drop of blood.

 Today in Maarat al-Numan, we renew our vows to the revolution we began eight years ago. The revolution shall continue as long as this people has the will. The people's revolution will end only with victory.' 

 Hadi al-Abdullah:

 'I swear that we won't abandon the revolution. We won't abandon the detainees. I swear to God we will not betray the blood of our martyrs, or the cries of our detainees. As God is my witness.

 We chose Maarat al-Numan to renew the vow to our revolution in its eighth year, because the town is in our hearts. Every stone here has its story for us. The town has a special type of attraction for us. It has proven to be the revolution's unbreakable stronghold, and its good people are the rebels. They had us loving Maarat al-Numan more and more.

 We are telling the world that we will continue, even if the entire world conspires against us. Even if all the world's criminals and blood-suckers come here to kill us, our only option is to rise from the rubble, and say "We are continuing." We won't betray our martyrs or detainees. I'm here today to tell Raed, Hammoud, and Trad, that I'll try to remain loyal to the path they took. We won't leave, we won't retreat. This revolution will continue until all its goals are achieved.'

 Unknown Revolutionary:
 'Even if all the olives disappear, the revolution shall continue until victory, God willing. No matter the betrayal by others, and no matter how much they support Bashar. As long as an inch of land remains unliberated, we stand and say: "Damn your soul, Hafez Assad." '

Image result for Maarrat al-Numan demonstration with Sarout, Hadi Alabdallah on the 8th anniversary of the Revolution

Eight years of revolution, and a struggle that will not perish

 Hadi al-Abdullah:

 "May peace be upon you. Greetings to you all. This era shall not end. Eight years of revolution, and a struggle that will not perish. Eight years of revolution is such a long time; we lived together through sweet and bitter days. We have laughed and cried. We have experienced joy and sadness. 

 With the death of each martyr, and each massacre, we would swear never to betray the cause or stray from the path. We all swore the martyr's oath: to not stray from the martyr's path, or change, or betray our values. Our demonstration today is the greatest proof of our loyalty to the martyrs.

 Eight years have seen the numbers grow, and there is no criminal who hasn't come here and added to his crimes. But with every outrage, we would rise from the rubble and pledge to keep going. To continue, to never abandon this revolution. We will never abandon this revolution, until our souls leave our bodies.

 Eight years and no one defended us against the one who kills us. Eight years and the world has been unable to judge this criminal. Eight years of revolution and we will keep going. While we shall blame no one for leaving our path, no one should blame us for deciding to continue. 

 I advise everyone not to abandon this revolution. This revolution is the noblest thing, the highest value that a human can hold dear. We will not give up this revolution. We will renew it. I swear by God. We will not abandon this revolution. We will not abandon the detainees. I swear by God Almighty, we will not betray the martyrs. We will not betray the prisoners' cries of pain. I swear by God, for the martyrs, we would give our souls and our blood."

Image result for Hadi Alabdallah’s speech | The 8th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in Maarrat al-Nu’man

Mass demonstrations in north of Syria to revive revolution

 'Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Friday in the north of Syria on the 8th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and confirming that the resistance is their choice against the continuous offensive launched on Idlib by the Assad militias.

 The anti-regime protests took place in Idlib city and in Idlib countryside’s cities and towns, including Kafr Nabl, Harem, and Binnish.

 The demonstrators asked the international community to force Assad regime to release the detainees.

 Similar anti-regime demonstrations took place in ِal-Bab, Azaz and as-Safira cities in Aleppo countryside where the demonstrators said they aimed to show solidarity with their fellow Syrians in Idlib.

 Significant participation of women and children was noted in Azaz demonstration.

 Idlib is the largest part of Syria controlled by opposition with a population swollen by Syrians who were displaced by the Assad regime and its allies’ advances in other parts of the country.'

Daraa protests show that city remains outside regime’s orbit

Father’s shadow. A young boy rides his bicycle in the southern Syrian city of Daraa with a gate behind him ornated with images of Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and his late father Hafez Assad, last August.  (AFP)

 James Snell:

 'Demonstrations took place in the southern Syrian city of Daraa to protest something symbolic.

 In the former heartland of Syria’s revolution, protesters gathered March 10 to oppose the refurbishment of a statute depicting Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s hereditary president, Bashar Assad.

 Although protesting is hardly alien to Daraa, given its position in more than a decade of open defiance of the Assad régime, this demonstration seemed to mark something new, coming, as it did, after southern Syria was reconquered by the régime and its allies last year.

 In other fallen cities, waves of arrests followed their capture and political dissent is heavily controlled, supervised by a state concerned about any criticism that could undermine its survival and claim to legitimacy.

 However, this protest took place under the auspices of the régime’s “reconciliation” programme, in which former rebel groups were substantially disarmed but remained in positions of influence in exchange for giving up their struggle against the state. This was under the auspices and with the support of the Assad régime’s Russian backer.

 Analyst Ryan O’Farrell said: “When the régime started its offensive, Russia had already been negotiating with important local figures, often tribal heads, to secure the peaceful surrender of towns, which was a huge factor in how quickly Daraa fell.

 “In some of them, the rebels were strong enough to get Russia to agree to local autonomy deals whereby the régime would not have a security presence inside the towns, which would still be held by [Free Syrian Army] FSA units, though they had to surrender their heavy weapons.”

 The contrast between locations that retained tenuous autonomy and those that did not is striking.

 “Protests have only been happening in these towns where the régime doesn’t have the kind of security presence that could crack down on them violently, while other towns have seen mass arrests, conscription campaigns and the other forms of repression that the régime carries out everywhere,” O’Farrell said.

 The Daraa protesters brought out old slogans opposing the régime while standing in continued opposition to its political project and were joined, as analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov pointed out, by “leaders who brokered the deal to surrender Daraa [and] now have ties to Russia: Adham al-Akrad, Abu Sharif Mahameed [and] Adnan Maasalameh.”

 The presence of the men seemingly signalled that this political activity was not prohibited. In these areas “people there can continue protesting and will continue to do so until the régime responds,” Tsurkov said.

 “We’re already seeing people taking precautionary measures, by covering their faces for example,” she said, adding that “there is a great fear that they will be interrogated eventually by the régime.”

 “Right now there is this space in which they can protest thanks to the protection of Russia and these commanders of factions that reconciled with the régime but this can be changed at any moment. This space for dissent can collapse at any moment,” Tsurkov said.

 “In my personal assessment, the current situation is not sustainable. Russia will not stay in Syria forever to protect these rebel factions.”

 Listing other areas where Russian presence gave way to régime reprisals, Tsurkov noted “when Russia leaves the area, the régime is free to do whatever it wants.”

 In Idlib and parts of Aleppo governorate, where the régime and its allies hold no territory, protests continue. They are defiant and showy and less spontaneous than the recent demonstration in Daraa.

 Protesters in what some call “free Syria” run many risks and face trouble from local Islamist groups and militias but chanting anti-régime slogans remains an activity that does not invite punishment.

 “Amid a campaign of arrests and disappearances in Daraa, it is likely the protesters face grave risk, although the régime is probably more likely at this stage to enact retaliation privately — through abductions — than to actively disperse protests of this size,” US analyst John Arterbury said.

 “The potential return of an organic protest movement in Daraa… testifies not only to the deep unpopularity of the régime but to the resilience of civilians willing to put their lives at risk following years of wartime privations and a life lived in an authoritarian state,” Arterbury commented.

 Even with the presence of local commanders and the perhaps temporary licence afforded by Russian protection, the protesters know they face tremendous risks in engaging in any political activity that is not officially sponsored and does not meet official sanction. Reprisal will likely come, now or later, as the régime grows in strength and lets its promises lapse.

 However, Arterbury notes: “Protests in Daraa perhaps more directly challenge the régime’s fundamental power structure and its claims to legitimacy rooted in returning Daraa to its control.” '

Image result for daraa

Protest, torture, siege, displacement: The Syrian revolution through a rebel's eyes

 'In the dusty backyard of a small house with cracks down its walls sits Obada Dabbas, cooking eggs.

 Despite suffering from old wounds, a broad smile is drawn across his face.

 Dabbas's story is the story of the Syrian revolution. He has at turns been protester, detainee, rebel fighter and one of 14 million Syrians who have been displaced from home.

 Though it has been eight years since demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s government began on 15 March 2011, those early days of the revolution, a time when protests were toppling autocrats across the Arab world, are seared into his memory.

 Dabbas's hometown, Daraya, became rebellious soon after the first demonstrations began in southern Syria's Daraa.

 Known as the "city of grapes," the Damascus suburb had a reputation for the sweetness of its fruit and beauty of its trees.

 It is purportedly the site of Paul the Apostle's vision on the road to Damascus, and many of the city's residents had their own Damascene conversion when protests began sweeping through Syria like wildfire.

 "The aim of the demonstrations was to secure public freedoms, allow multi-partyism, curb violations by the security services and put an end to the ruling family's monopoly on power," Dabbas says from al-Dana, a small town in northern Idlib province, the opposition's last redoubt.

 Dabbas was 19 then, working as a carpenter building furniture. Every Friday, he and his friends would help organise protests in mosques, raising banners decrying corruption and handing out fliers promoting the revolutionary movement.

 Thousands gathered to chant slogans against Assad, whose presidential palace could be seen atop a hill just a handful of kilometres away.

 "The Syrian army and security forces stood for hours waiting to break up the demonstrations by force," Dabbas says.

 "We distributed water and roses to them, but to no avail. We were confronted with live bullets and were arrested randomly."

 While handing roses and bottled water to the soldiers deployed to quash a protest - a peaceful gesture that became an iconic image of the early days of the revolution - Dabbas's cousin Khairou Dabbas was arrested.

 Soon after, on 24 February 2012, Dabbas himself was also detained.

 Walking to the mosque to pray, he was intercepted by soldiers. They took his ID card and mobile telephone, on which they found a photograph of one of Daraya's dead wrapped in the green, white and black of Syria's revolutionary flag.

 That photo condemned Dabbas to 74 days of detention under the notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate - time spent between overcrowded cells and solitary confinement.

 "I underwent five sessions of interrogation and torture, each lasted about four to five hours. I cannot forget the cries of tortured women."

 During the last interrogation session, his captors blindfolded him, took his thumb and pressed it on a sheet of paper, making him implicitly sign a confession the contents of which he was not told.

 "I was released in deplorable condition at 3 in the morning, barely able to reach my house and cross hundreds of checkpoints."

 Despite his gruesome experience, Dabbas was one of the lucky ones. His cousin Khairou was not.

 On Dabbas' phone is a picture of Khairou, and as he gazes at it a grave sadness descends on the otherwise lighthearted man.

 Khairou's death in detention was recently confirmed by the Assad régime.

 He joins one of Dabbas' brothers as a victim of Assad's notorious prisons. Another brother detained by pro-government forced is yet to be accounted for.

 According to the Syrian Network of Human Rights, 128,00 people have been arrested or detained by the Syrian government since 2011. The group estimates 13,983 people, at least, have died under torture in Assad’s prisons.

 "The government has resorted since the crisis in 2011 to a systematic practice of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of a harrowing scale in order to silence its opponents - journalists, civil society activists, human rights lawyers," said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International.

 "It is an issue that has affected every single community in the country and will no doubt bear its scar on the society’s fabric for generations to come."

 The heavy-handed tactics of Assad's forces only succeeded in angering the people of Daraya more. Residents took to arms and tried to wrest the city from the soldiers arresting protesters en masse.

 In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army rebels took control.

 However, with Daraya only some 10km from Assad's seat of power in Damascus, the Syrian government was not going relinquish the suburb easily.

 Between the 20 and 25 August, Assad's forces stormed the city.

 "It was a day like the Day of Resurrection," Dabbas recalls. "The smell of blood rose from the entire city of Daraya after the Syrian government forces invaded the area from all directions."

 The city was subjected to four days of continuous bombardment, and all contact with the outside world was cut off.

 "News coming from different neighbourhoods told of how the Syrian government forces conducted mass killings in brutal ways as they progressed and combed the buildings.

 "Nothing could be done other than wait for an unknown fate. The Syrian army was driving young men, women, children and old people into cellars, then throwing grenades at them or setting them on fire."

 Totally surrounded by Assad’s forces and trapped, Daraya's residents had no other choice but to hide and hope for the best.

 "It was hard to forget the sound of the bullets and the screams of women and children. They drove young people out of the houses and tortured them to death."

 Terrified, Dabbas tried to hide wherever he could, in places such as water tanks and sheds. But the growing realisation that his family too was at risk drove him home to seek them out.

 "I watched the street through a bullet hole in the wall of the house. I saw dozens of soldiers storming the neighbourhood, carrying sharp objects stained with blood."

 The sight became too much for Dabbas to bear.

 "In fact I am not a hero, I lost my consciousness completely.

 "When I woke up, my family told me that the soldiers did not enter the house. They shot at the building's door and ordered all the young men to leave, threatening to demolish the building if they refused. After most of the young men were arrested they left."

 Worried the soldiers would return, Dabbas and his family moved to a different house, only for the forces to congregate outside that one too.

 "The soldiers were about to enter the house, but they were busy chasing young men running through the fields. I was even more appalled by the news that many of my friends and relatives had been brutally killed."

 As many as 500 people were killed in the assault, one of the bloodiest of the war.

 After the massacre, Dabbas saw no other option but to take up arms and join the Martyrs of Islam battalion of the FSA.

 By November, the rebels had taken Daraya back and the government had laid siege to the suburb. Little did Dabbas and his comrades know Daraya's siege would last for four long years.

 Over the course of the war, sieges have been a brutal weapon used by Syrian government forces, the opposition and the Islamic State militant group.

 According to Siege Watch, a monitoring organisation, 2.5 million Syrians have suffered under sieges between 2012 and 2018, when the last were broken.

 In the Damascus countryside, Assad's forces kept several urban areas such as Daraya under total lockdown, depriving them of food, medicine and other necessities.

 "The siege strategy flourished and spread because it was effective for its perpetrators," Siege Watch noted in its final report issued this month. "Today, the Syrian government and its allies have reasserted control over all of the areas they once besieged."

 Dabbas and his Martyrs of Islam did fight back, however, and tried to keep lines of communication open between Daraya and the neighbouring rebel-held town Moadamiyah.

 In the process, Dabbas was severely wounded.

 "We were targeted by a tank shell and I was hit. I felt that I had been killed, I was thinking about whether I was going to meet my brother, and whether the victim does not feel his wounds after death."

 Sounds of gunshots broke Dabbas from his daze.

 "I tried to crawl and search in the dark for survivors around me. I found an extended hand and tried to awaken the owner, but it was not connected to the body."

 Dabbas, who suffered shrapnel wounds in his eyes and feet, was rescued from the fray and taken to a hospital.

 "The doctors told me that I would lose my sight. I do not know how I was cured. It's a miracle."

 According to Dabbas, the battles waged in the Damascus countryside were more ferocious than any other across the country.

 Ill-equipped and lacking any kind of professional training, Daraya's rebels fought against, among others, the seasoned fighters of the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

 "We fought very fierce, face-to-face battles," Dabbas recalls.

 "The distance between the Syrian government forces and the opposition was no more than a kilometre, and we fought street to street."

 Eventually, the rebels cracked.

 In August 2016, the Free Syrian Army negotiated a withdrawal agreement with Damascus, handing Daraya to Assad in return for safe passage to opposition-held northern Syria.

 Green buses, which would become notorious as more and more rebel-held areas fell, pulled up to take the rebels and the rest of Daraya’s residents away.

 "I cannot describe the feeling of leaving Daraya, the city where I was born and raised. Which I fought for, and lost so many of my friends. It was the city that carried us in its difficult times," Dabbas says.

 "Parting from Daraya was like parting the spirit from the body. All those destroyed houses, witness to the criminality of the Syrian government, and Daraya's steadfastness.

 "I wish I could die in Daraya, and be buried under its land forever."

 Daraya's residents arrived in Idlib province to a hero's welcome. They had surrendered, but only after holding out for more than four years, starving, outgunned and alone.

 "We did not give up, we did not surrender our weapons and equipment, and we basically had no heavy weapons."

 Alighting from their green buses, Daraya's residents found a whole new world within their own country.

 "When we reached the north it looked like a fortress that could not collapse, because there were vast areas, wide and large fronts," Dabbas says.

 "There were thousands of fighters in the north and many heavy and medium weapons any fighter would dream of. We hadn't seen equipment like this except with the Syrian government."

 Around four million Syrians now reside in Idlib province, most of them displaced from around the country.

 Daraya was the first significant rebel centre to negotiate passage to Idlib. But by New Year 2017, east Aleppo had fallen. After that Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, then Daraa, the cradle of the revolution.

 Idlib is now a hodgepodge of civilians from every region. Dialects and cuisine from across Syria can be found mingling together.

 But it is also home to rebel fighters of varying degrees of militancy, including Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly linked to al-Qaeda.

 "The makeup of the opposition factions is very chaotic, even though they are all sons of one land. I do not know why they are scattered with different affiliations," Dabbas says.

 Dabbas decided to take a course in medical care, and he now works in a centre in al-Dana, tending to wounded fighters.

 "Having been wounded twice in the past, I preferred to take a field ambulance course," he explains. "The fighter must have knowledge of everything to help himself or his friends on the battlefield."

 Many in Idlib see a battle approaching, especially with the rising violence in the south.

 Dabbas says he will be ready if and when that happens.

 "If there is will, we can resist the régime for years, as we resisted in Daraya with only Kalashnikovs," he asserts.

 "All the north needs is the will to fight and nothing more, then we will be able to withstand." '
Dabbas tends to a wounded rebel fighter, in nothern Syria's Dana (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)