Five More Minutes

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

خمس دقائق إضافية

(Tammam Azzam)
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Five and a half years have passed since the Syrian revolution had erupted, almost half of which I have spent outside of my homeland. I can hardly forget any of the details of these years. Few successes, frequent failures, and too many disappointments. I constantly seek to forget the failures and disappointments, but memory has a mind of its own, often evoking our worst moments at the most inconvenient times.
“Remember our college days?” an old friend asked me during a Facebook chat. I was at a loss for a few minutes, only to discover that my university years have been all but erased from my memory. I could not recall any fraction of those faraway days. What came to mind were only ordinary situations and a few familiar faces; no particulars.
The last thing I remember from university dates back to March 15th, 2011. There were calls on the internet for demonstrations in Syria under the title “Day of Rage.” I had planned to meet my girlfriend, a student in the Education Faculty, to assist her in a research project on “The lives of dropouts from primary schools.” She was late for our rendez-vous. I called her to inquire as for the reason. She replied that her father, a brigadier in the army, asked her not to attend university but for utmost necessity, due to potential “disturbances” that might occur in the country.
I hung up and left the campus. Traffic was ordinary. Nothing was remarkable other than a few men, with shaven beards and thick moustaches, patrolling to and fro – without accosting anyone. I knew immediately that they were security agents. I left the area, certain that nothing was about to happen, and that no response to the calls to demonstrate was to take place.
In contrast to my faint memory of the juncture leading to the revolution, extremely vivid is my memory of the period that ensued. I even hardly forget a face I had seen in the peaceful protests that took place in my city since March 18th, 2011. I remember all the people I have met, and everyone I have spoken to during the demonstrations, including those with whom I wished to speak but could not.
Among those I could not have the opportunity to address was a young man in his early twenties. I saw him in the third of the revolutionary Fridays. On that day, several demonstrations stemming from different neighborhoods were conjoined at Cairo Square, located between Khalidiya and Bayada neighborhoods. It only took fifteen minutes of gathering and chanting for shots to begin being fired at the demonstration, which came from the old headquarters of Criminal Security. People began to scuffle in every direction, in a scene that resembled nothing short of Doomsday. Everyone fled and were dodging the bullets, except for one young man, who stood in the middle of the street and spread his arms. The spectacle was too cinematic to be real.
From my hideout at the entrance of a building, I watched as bullets brushed against his shirt and pants, without wounding him, until a bullet found its way to his left foot. He fell to the ground, then crawled to the other side where he was taken in an ambulance. I did not understand what transpired in that man’s mind, and how he came to decide to do what he did. I wondered: Was he willing to confront bullets with his body? Or did he wish to deliver a message that “we do not dread your bullets”? Or perhaps it was one of those bouts of inexplicable hysteria? I did not arrive at an answer to my ponderance. I wished I had the opportunity to speak with him, and inquire about what was going on in his mind at that moment. I asked about him later, and learned that his name is Mahmoud, a resident of Bayada, and that he was martyred later by a sniper’s bullet while trying to rescue an injured man.
I have always taken pride in belonging to Khalidiya, one of the most notable among the revolting neighborhoods, and a significant focal point in the demonstrations, and later a stronghold of the Free Army. It was a place where I satiated my passionate desire to witness the events. By nature, I loathed hearing secondhand accounts of important events, opting to view them myself. I was always vehemently inclined to keep up with all the events and to witness them firsthand. This inclination has further consolidated my faith in the Syrian Revolution to its fullest extent, rendering any shift in my positive outlook towards it an impossibility. Neither the press or televised reports, nor words from this source or that, could shake my absolute faith in the youth of the revolution, regardless of their orientations and affiliations.
From my home in Khalidiya, I stood a direct witness to the Syrian revolution in all its stages, first the peaceful demonstrations, then the ones protected by army defectors, and later the stage of militarization and of taking up arms, up until the stage of liberation of entire areas and their exposure to bombardment. I was also destined to watch battles erupt between the Free Army and regime forces in the early stages. I did not seek to take part in these battles, but rather they reached out to me where I live. In July of 2011, the regime’s army decided to convert the school adjacent to my home into a military barrack, which was subsequently subject to several assaults by the Free Army fighters towards the end of 2011, which I was fated to watch from my window.
Five of my closest childhood friends I have lost during the peaceful demonstrations. I have shed lots of tears and nearly cried blood. At times, I wished that I had died along with them. But the rapidity of events used to force everyone, including myself, to forget everything, and to pay attention to what is yet unfolding on the ground. Later, I convinced myself that the tears shed by Syria’s sons and daughters are “Tears on the altar of Glory,” borrowing the words from a novel I had read years before. I have forgotten all of its content and only remembered the title. But these few words constituted enough motivation for me to have faith that this harsh parturition and these heavy tears are inevitable to reach our desired glory.
I was accompanied by three of my friends on one demonstration, where we stayed for nearly two hours. I picked up my phone and looked at the time. I told my friends “It is five to two, enough for today, let’s go.” One friend replied: “Let us stay until 2 and then we move.” Within only three minutes, a regime armored vehicle entered and began firing indiscriminately. I ran from the bullets and went home immediately. After an hour, I learnt that 9 protesters were martyred, among whom was my friend who asked for five more minutes! This incident is the most hurtful of all my memories. It prepared me to embrace the fact that some young men take up arms in defense of unarmed protesters, after having insisted on committing to peaceful resistance for months of the revolution. I now realize that five more minutes are not a short period of time; they might constitute a radical transformation in the thought and life of a human being.
I remember vividly how I began to observe the proliferation of arms in the neighborhood by the end of 2011. I knew many of those who carried them, all of whom were friends and neighbors. I admired them, sympathized with them, and hoped that they win any battle against the checkpoints deployed around our neighborhood. No one cared about the ideology these fighters have, nor about their “political project” or any of the terminologies that emerged later on. All what occupied people’s minds was that these men are fighting against those who have humiliated and arrested innocent people at checkpoints, and who shoot peaceful protestors. The popular incubator was wholeheartedly with these fighters, praying for their victory.
My first discussion with an FSA commander goes back to early 2012, in the wake of the infamous attack on Baba Amr neighborhood. He was a graduate of the Faculty of Sharia, and an imam at a mosque in that neighborhood. I asked him about their future project. He replied that it is nothing but overthrowing the regime. “What then? Would you leave the country to chaos?” I asked, to which he replied: “Our mission as a Free Army is to overthrow the regime, then people decide on the form of government they desire. An expansive conference of the elders and people of knowledge of this country suffices to resolve all of its problems, and to determine the future of its people.” His words may have been romantic, unfeasible for material implementation, but they are still in my memory as a sample of how the Free Army fighters thought when they took up arms against the regime.
My house was subject to bombing for the first time on April 7th, 2012. Five mortar shells landed on the roof of my house, creating a hole in the fourth floor. My brothers and I were residents of the first floor, and no one was injured. Bombing was then repeated dozens of times, and the street where I lived was a target of two or three instances of bombing each day. I pondered extensively about why our street was particularly targeted. I then remembered that our neighbor Abu Rabeah had hosted foreign journalists earlier, who came to cover the peaceful demonstrations. In the eyes of the regime, that was an unforgivable crime, and hence our street was condemned to total devastation. On a side note, Abu Rabeah have been tortured to death in the notorious Palestine Security Branch in Damascus, and the charge was “treason and harboring foreign spies!”
For an entire month I remained confined to my home, which was subject to daily bombardment. The extent of the horror I felt receded with every shell dropped in my vicinity. I am in disbelief that a person could remain unafraid of the sounds of those horrific explosions. Proportions vary, but the natural fear of death remains present in every moment.
On May 5th, 2012, I left Khalidiya to pay a visit to my sister, who lived in the regime-controlled areas. I decided to spend a week there before returning home. By the time four days had passed, the regime engulfed Old Homs, besieging the neighborhoods of Khalidiya, Qusour and Jouret al-Shayah. That siege would last for two years, and cause the death of many people, due to starvation and lack of medicines at times, and to indiscriminate bombing at others. I might have been fortunate again to exist outside the neighborhood at that time!
I then spent five more months in my sister’s house, not leaving it at all. I never felt safe enough to pass through a security checkpoint, since I hadn’t the slightest idea if I were sought after or not. With the beginning of December 2012, I decided to take the risk and leave. I intended to go to Lebanon and from there to Turkey, my final destination being the liberated Syrian north. I did leave my home at the end, but without a clue where my path led. My final destination was known, but the road to it was totally uncertain.
As I crossed the border, my heart was heavily pounding. Having encountered death several times, I was unafraid of it. But I was afraid of arrest. I crossed the border quietly, arrived in Beirut, spent two nights at a friend’s house there, and then headed to Turkey. I crossed the Bab Al-Hawa crossing point from Turkey into the Idlib governorate. I spent a whole year traveling between Idlib, Aleppo, Qalamoun and the towns of the Syrian east. I managed to spend a whole month in Raqqa, following its liberation and prior to its dominion by the dark, gloomy flags.
Everything in Idlib was different from what I had experienced in Homs. I later noticed that everything in Aleppo was different from what I experienced in both Homs and Idlib. The same went for every other region that I have visited. Each had its own characteristics and ways of managing its life and resolving the internal dispute amongst its kin. I felt at the time that the term “Syrian uprising” is not quite accurate, and that the significant dissimilarities and major contradictions existed between areas, rendering it Syrian uprisings, to be more precise.
The scene that was the most present in my memory of the time I spent in the liberated areas, is of a young man, aged 17 years, bidding farewell to his father, mother and four brothers, who had passed away in a barrel bombing of their home. His words were fraught with desire for revenge and retribution. I still justify all of what he had said. In the absence of justice and accountability, no justice will be sought but through revenge. Later, that young man became a fighter, and was killed in one of the battles.
On March 15th, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the revolution, Facebook timelines were flooded with stories about that day five years prior. I discovered immediately how everyone was a hero, and how all had helped ignite the revolution since its first day, except for me! The amount of ostentation and pretentiousness and lies I came across on that day was unbelievable!
Amidst all those lies, it occurred to me to look for the Facebook account of my girlfriend, the brigadier’s daughter. I had ceased any contact with her since the beginning of the revolution. I did find it. I recalled our last conversation, which was after the first speech given by Bashar al-Assad in the wake of the revolution – the speech of laughter and applause. She had told me back then about the big conspiracy hatched against the country, about the the strength of Syria, how it differs from Egypt and Tunisia, and about the impossibility of an outbreak of rebellion in a country ruled by Bashar al-Assad! She had repeated the same sentences of Bashar’s, as if they were sacred. I felt utterly disgusted by her words, and I held her with utmost disdain since that time. That day, I apologized and declined to resume the discussion, under the pretext of sleepiness, and I asked to be excused in hope that we meet in the university a few days later. I never saw her since, and never thought of calling her.
I have never mustered enough hardiness to debate a loyalist, not because I could not convince or keep up with them, but due to my prior knowledge of their miserable manner of thought. I have often told myself: “It is not reasonable that I argue with someone proud to place a military boot over their head!”
I opened her account. Her profile picture had a black mourning ribbon on its right corner, stating that her father was killed while fighting alongside regime forces in Idlib at the beginning of the 2015. The pictures and posts I read on her timeline were filled with grief at her deceased father. I thought of asking her “Shouldn’t your father who advised you to stay away from ‘disturbances’ since the first day of the revolution have taken that advice to heart? Wouldn’t it be better for him to not stand by the side of the murderer against his people?” Before asking, I anticipated that her dogmatic response would be full of accusatory and distrustful patriotic discourse, and that there is no way I can have a discussion with her in any capacity. My attitude was all the more strengthened by reading her status updates. The mount of spite and hate, and the calls to burn all the liberated areas to the ground and to exterminate their population, confirmed that discussion with her would be futile. I abstained from trying, and closed the tab without a second thought.
“Our cause is lengthy” is all what occurred to my mind as I closed the tab. This encounter, as have others like it, in addition to what I had experienced for years, have all highlighted the fact that a resolution to the Syrian conflict is gravely unattainable. If the war were to end now in a peaceful settlement, and without realizing justice, what would be sufficient to end the grudges and recover what the war had broken in our hearts?

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Fadel Homsi

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