Carl Stellweg
Last updated: 19 March, 2014

An oddly forgotten group in Syria: Ordinary citizens

There was a time when she thought everything would stay the way it was. That nobody could change life in Syria – or would dare to change it. The stories of disappearances and torture cellars immobilized everyone and everything.

But then, in countries not too far away, despots suddenly fell from their mouldered pedestals, and the young teacher Maha Ghrer and many of her friends in Aleppo started to dream about their own liberation square – their own Tahrir.

Which square was the most suitable? They decided on Saadallah al-Jabiri, since it was located in the heart of the city. More than once they marched towards it, on one occasion even escorted by a UN car, and sometimes their numbers ranked in the thousands.

“Nasma sings. About hurriye, freedom, and about people not being safe, not even in their own homes. Her expression betrays a certain pride, but then turns a little glum, as if she can sense what’s coming.

But the regime, with its water cannons, its tear gas, its mukhabarrat, its snipers and its callous disdain for the life of its own citizens, held the upper hand and pushed them back.

For Maha Ghrer, 27, three years of uprising brought about the destruction of her city, a forced flight to Turkey, and the death of her husband, Mustafa Qarman.

Their love came into bloom just when the Arab Spring did too. He used to tell her he had three wishes, and one of them had already been fulfilled: getting to know her. The other two was to change the country and become a filmmaker.

In October 2012 they got married. Three weeks later fate struck – mercilessly. “You want to see it?” she says, and doesn’t wait for an answer. In the office in Utrecht of the Dutch peace organisation Pax a laptop is put on the table, and we are invited to watch a You Tube-video.

A crowd in a squalid, colourless street: young and old, men and women, adults and children, all of them seemingly unarmed. Maha points at a laughing, slightly balding, youngish man in a grey sweatshirt.

“That’s Mustafa,” she says, and she nearly sounds happy, as if for one moment she has forgotten what is going to happen. Flags, banners, placards with messages, slogans, music, men performing a circle dance. The atmosphere is almost festive.

Then the face of a pretty girl appears in close-up, the Syrian flag painted on her left cheek. “Her name’s Nasma,” Maha says softly. “She’s ten years old.”

Nasma sings. About hurriye, freedom, and about people not being safe, not even in their own homes. Her expression betrays a certain pride, but then turns a little glum, as if she can sense what’s coming. The strike. A swirl of dust, debris and blood, a glimpse of lifeless bodies, a harrowing sea of shouts and screams that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, the sound of panic and disarray.

The voice of the girl again. She is unharmed, as is Maha, who was standing near her. That’s all the good news. The mortar attack kills Mustafa, although Maha will not know this until hours later: “I saw a lot of dead and wounded, but I couldn’t find him.”

Maha shuts down the laptop and dries her tears.

Here’s the video, by the way.

Mustafa died in the neighbourhood where he was born – Bustan al-Qasr – but where he hadn’t lived for years. It was hard for him and Maha even to get there. Bustan al-Qasr was “liberated”, while the couple lived in a part of Aleppo that was still under control of the regime. Regularly they went to the other side, though, avoiding checkpoints and crossing streets with snipers as fast as they could.

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Why did they put their lives on the line? Because – and Maha now sounds as if she’s stating the obvious – they were members of Kesh Malek (‘check mate’), an organisation of young civilian activists providing basic needs in liberated areas. In heavily damaged Bustan al-Qasr they started a cleaning campaign to stop the spread of diseases and opened a mixed primary school for boys and girls.

The fighters of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) predictably objected against this mingling of the sexes, but to the relief of almost everyone, these masked harbingers of death were chased away by other rebels before they could really harm anyone. Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that unlike ISIS is linked to al-Qaeda, is a little more flexible, since most of its members come from the local populace and thus can be put under pressure.

Suddenly, laughter erupts in the office of the Dutch organisation. “Al-Qaeda” and “flexible”: isn’t that something like “a healthy cigarette”?

The school, that was renamed “Mustafa Qarman school” in memory of Maha’s husband, doesn’t suffer from a lack of motivated pupils. The fast growth of their numbers alone – from 100 to 250 in two years – testifies to that.

“They like to come because it’s in a basement, so it’s one of the few places where they’re safe,” says Maha. “Besides, education is an ideal means to cope with a desperate situation.”

“But what about that political solution? Could it include Assad? No, it could not.”

She bursts into an enthusiastic account of a prison run by the Assad regime where educated prisoners have set up a clandestine school system – the writing material is made of chicken bones.

It’s these kind of stories of courage and resilience displayed by ordinary citizens that offer a key to what the outside world can do for Syria. Maha does not approve of military support for good guys – supposing these can be discerned – since this will surely lead to enhanced support for the bad guys too, at the inevitable expense of the country.

“At the beginning of the revolution, we had three ‘no’s’,” she says. “No violence, no sectarianism and no foreign intervention. Unfortunately, all these ‘no’s’ have become ‘yes’.”

So, what can be done? To put it simply: giving moral, material and logistic support to an oddly forgotten group in Syria – the citizens – who aren’t just victims, who not only manage to survive but even manage to live in the most horrific of circumstances, as the example of Kesh Malek shows.

Making it clear that in Syria, despite everything, there still is a civil society, however much it may be hidden in the fog of war. Pointing out to official parties in the conflict that non-violent forces are still very much active and to be reckoned with, so that they might be persuaded to look for a political instead of a military solution.

In that scenario, Syrians outside their country should assume the role of intermediaries more often than they do now. That also applies to Maha. When her face started to appear in television programmes of the opposition, she felt less safe than ever. And so she fled to Turkey.

She now lives in Gaziantep, like Aleppo a sprawling city, where she doesn’t feel at home. She has a job there, but doesn’t like to talk about it. Her whole family fled with her, except her brother Hussein, who’s been in prison for years. He is reasonably well: being a reputed blogger, he can count on a somewhat more cautious treatment by the regime than it usually dispenses.

But Maha not only has her family to think of. She’s glued to her laptop to stay in touch with her friends. To receive hopefully good, but if needs be also bad news from them. And to learn how the school is doing, of course. All in all, her uncertain future weighs on her, weighs heavy on her all the time.

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But what about that political solution? Could it include Assad? No, it could not. “The suffering caused under his authority can’t be forgiven,” says Maha. “But you know, that’s not even the point. Suppose we negotiate with him, and the outcome of these negotiations is that he will stay. Then what have we struggled for all these years? What was the point of all our sacrifices?”

That sounds logical. And by the way: is a Mustafa Qarman school under Bashar al-Assad conceivable? Wouldn’t such haven of humanity, under Bashar al-Assad, be something like: “flexible al-Qaida”? Or: “a healthy cigarette”?

Any views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not neccessarily correspond to those of Your Middle East