For 10 months, reading stories about the large-scale massacre of the Syrian people always felt so distant. I sat anxiously as the death toll climbed slowly to the thousands. There were also the occasional YouTube videos documenting the revolutionaries being shot down one by one by snipers.
Last Friday was the first time I heard a live account of the Syrian experience.
After a silent flash freeze, 50 students and I marched upstairs in Coffman and offered our attention while a few speakers recounted their horrific experiences under the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. The first to speak was a young Syrian woman studying public affairs at the University of Minnesota. She requested that her name stay anonymous.
“When I was in Syria this past summer, my friends and I were walking with a group of 50 women to the center of Damascus; we held up white flags and chanted, ‘We need our freedom, we need our children to be safe.’ Suddenly, hundreds of security guards were surrounding us from every direction. So we ran,” she said.
“I hid in a nearby shop where no one can find me. I was by myself, just crying … Four hours later, my friends and I tried to contact one another to see if each person was OK. But we found out one of our friends was missing.
“The security guards captured her because she was in the front lines of the demonstration. She was dragged to an isolated neighborhood where they beat her and stripped her from her clothes and threw her in a prison full of men. She wasn’t released until a week later.”
She continued to describe her friend’s capture as “a horrific message for everyone,” especially active women like herself. “Since that day,” she said, “I told myself I would never speak up ever again. Because they told me while they were interrogating me that if I open [my] mouth again, they will rape me.”
According to a U.N. report published last week, Syria’s death toll has reached 6,275 (300 of which are children). This count does not include the 30,000 detained, over 100,000 missing and thousands of others injured. This particular student was amongst the few fortunate enough to flee the country safely. A previous employee of Assad’s government, the student said she quit her job and escaped to the U.S. to receive an education in public affairs.
“They know I am active and are tracking me now,” she said. “If they know I am speaking out, they will interrogate my family and harm them. But my story is nothing compared to the story of other activists,” she said.
The student recalled the torture of her friend’s younger brother. A child of eight years, he and his friends were captured by Assad’s security guards and brutally beaten for having participated in peaceful protests. The student told me she visited him after his release — his body bruised, nails torn off his fingers, hardly alive.
“The American people have the privilege of democracy,” she said. “But in Syria, each Ghandi is being killed.”
After we had finished the interview, the student offered me some final words. “Listen,” she said, “this report you are writing cannot change anything.”
I let this final message sink in. Her words, although heavy and discouraging, were true. University students at the silent demonstration last Friday knew this. Gripping tightly to our signs, posing both as Syrian protesters and their murderers, we knew a few moments of silence would do no more than spread awareness about Syria.
Massacres of the Syrian people — whose request is only freedom and democracy — will no doubt continue. But if we cannot save the innocent, let us at least inform the ignorant.
Rania Abuisnaineh welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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