SYRIA: “Under Pressure To Stay Peaceful”
The Syria-based Freedom Days project aims to challenge the regime of the country’s current leader Bashar al-Assad by coming up with creative kinds of civil disobedience. These have included changing the colour of water in landmark fountains, strikes and sit-ins and relief operations. More recently, their work has been more practical and has involved things like printing and distributing leaflets on medical care, civil defence and how to maintain neighbourhood security after the authorities pull out.
As an Italian researcher into Arabic media, Donatella Della Ratta, wrote for a presentation for the World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression in October 2012: Freedom Days’ YouTube channel, “where videos are uploaded weekly, contains clips that document tactics of civil disobedience in Syria – such as drawing defiant anti-regime graffiti; distributing forbidden leaflets; building road blocks – but also creative animations explaining the importance of forgiving in order to re-build the nation and preserve the unity of the country.”
The group has been active since the beginning of October 2011. A representative of the group talks about how the group’s role has changed since they began and how activists who believe in peaceful, democratic change are dealing with the ever-increasing violence in Syria.
From the start the Freedom Days group has been known for its peaceful struggle and more symbolic activism. How has this project been affected as the struggle in Syria has turned more violent?
As the violence in Syria has increased and the desire for peaceful activism that characterized the first few months of the revolution has faded, groups like Freedom Days have had to find a new niche. Many have restructured, working on things like communicating with international organizations and charities and providing ordinary Syrians with important information – for civil defence and First Aid, for example, with courses for young Syrians in both urban and rural areas.
Despite the violence though, these kinds of youth groups still feel under enormous pressure to remain true to the original – peaceful – principles of the revolution. Presently it’s all about working against the escalation of sectarian tensions in Syria and preparing for a just transition. A huge amount of work will need to be done here once the regime has fallen.
So what sorts of things is Freedom Days currently working on?
Mainly we have been working on improving people’s knowledge of basic civil defence. Things like how to form civil defence committees that can maintain security in the absence of a government presence and tips on how to prepare bomb shelters, how to avoid becoming a target for shelling or snipers and so on. We’re also informing people about how to treat traumatized children, how to prevent disease in cases where hygiene is poor and also on methods that people can collect evidence of crimes committed by the regime.
We distribute leaflets on these subjects and then support those with videos posted on social media networks and in other media – such as television and radio stations and local newspapers – which support the Syrian revolutionaries.
Can you be more specific?
One of our recent campaigns was called One People, One Destiny. It was basically a call for peaceful and loving coexistence among the various Syrian religious sects and ethnicities. It’s been launched in various parts of Syria and the point was to encourage a rejection of sectarian divisions – which, in some cases, are being used by the [al-Assad] regime, but also by other groups, for their own agendas.
The campaign was conducted online and in the field right around Syria.
Why is a campaign like that so important?
Because of the bloodshed and violence and rape that is happening, just because of sectarian differences. Also because of the [al-Assad] regime’s attempt to divide and conquer, to create a rift between various sects and other religions. In some cases, weapons have been distributed on a sectarian basis, different sects have been directly encouraged to fight other sects and minorities have been intimidated.
Do you believe these campaigns actually make a difference?
Yes, of course. By nature, the Syrian people are fair and open minded, welcoming many cultures. And they want peace. The sectarian divisions we are seeing now are the result of a series of shocks to the fabric of Syrian society and of emotional manipulation. What we need is a balanced and informed discussion based on how Syrian people used to live and how they were brought up – we need to guard against being too emotional in this situation and we need to get back to how society was before.
And what sort of response have you had to that campaign?
Although we don’t expect to see any results from this campaign in the short term – the aim is a long term one – there have been some promising responses.
For instance, we’ve seen the number of people who want to take part rise from 20 at the launch of the campaign to around 70 now – and that’s in addition to people involved in other ways. This campaign has also received a lot of contributions from private individuals.
So things look really promising. But we know we won’t see any immediate results.
And what about when all this is over: what will happen to the Freedom Days group then?
We support the peaceful struggle of the Syrian people to topple the [al-Assad regime] which we believe is blocking the Syrian people’s ambition for a more democratic society.
Since the very start our aim has been the building of a civil society and obviously that goes well beyond the end of the regime. A sign raised in Aleppo a few days ago – despite the military siege there and the killing – summarizes our vision too. It said: “we go to the street not because we hate Assad, but because we love Syria”. We believe that our love of our country will move us in the right direction.
If you were speaking to the people out there fighting, what would you say?
To the rebels I’d say that somewhere between death and surrender there’s a large margin for activism. We also need to use our most important weapons – our minds. We need to continue to analyse our choices. This is why we are stronger than the regime. This is the only way we will achieve the victory we deserve.
And to those loyal to the [al-Assad] regime, I’d say: beware. Be careful of those who murder people just because they have different ideas. Why? Because your own ideas may betray you one day too. In fact, the way you look at someone or the colour of your face could become a reason for your own betrayal. And stay away from your children – they might become infected by knowledge that you’re seeking to hide from them.