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ON A SULTRY NIGHT IN OCTOBER of 2011, two young men sit on the edge of a fountain in the city center of Damascus. It’s near midnight and a threatening silence hangs over the old Arab city with its narrow, mys-­ terious streets and numerous bazaars and coffeehouses. The men speak softly with each other.

President Bashar al-­Assad’s security forces are present on the streets. Russia and China have just vetoed the UN Secur-­ ity Council resolution intended to force the Syrian government to cease violence against its citizens. State media is broadcasting nature films.

One of the men lights a cigarette. The other slowly puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a paper packet full of colored powder. Unnoticed by anyone, he lowers it into the water of the fountain. The men stand up and walk away.

That night, the fountains in Damascus slowly turn red. When the sun rises and the citizens wake, they see water the color of blood flowing in their fountains. Heated dis-­ cussions erupt on the streets. Drivers secretly film the fountains as they pass. These films show up on YouTube.

That morning, Ahmed Zaino, a 27-­year old architect, sleeps late after his nighttime adventure. But the moment he steps out his door, people in the street rush to tell him : “Did you hear what they did ? The fountains are red ! Everyone’s talking about it !” Later that day, he hears how the soldiers of As-­ sad’s security forces hustled to shut the foun-­ tains down. It takes them a week to replace the colored water.

Two years later, Zaino still smiles when he talks about it. He speaks with great ex-­ citement about the time he and a friend tossed orange ping pong balls with Hur-­ riyah ! (“freedom”) written on them down the streets of Damascus, and how the men in uniform, carrying rifles, ran after the boun-­ cing balls to collect them. “If you don’t want to speak with weapons, you must speak a different language,” he says.

With a small group of friends, Zaino formed a brave and ingenious non-­violent resistance movement in Syria in 2011 and 2012. More than once they managed to mis-­ lead the army with humor and to offer the Syrians strength and a sense of hope that change might come. For months, they kept up the campaign. They demonstrated daily, hid speakers in trees from which anti-­regime speeches sounded, filmed demonstrations which they then played back in public spa-­ ces, released balloons with notes carrying messages of encouragement and met up on the rooftops of Damascus at night, shouting “Freedom for Syria !” hour after hour.

For the first time, Zaino tells his extra-­ ordinary story to The Intelligent Optimist. It’s an important tale of courageous choices made by young people like himself, a story that deserves to be part of the history of the tragic civil war in Syria.

Ahmed Zaino is a shy young man with big, dark eyes. During our conversation, he occasionally shares his passionate dreams for Syria, but he also often stares sadly off into the distance. When he talks about the friends he lost in the war, his sadness is palp-­ able. Zaino, who trained to be an architect at the Al-Baath University in Homs, now lives in a tiny apartment in Paris. He fled Syria in the summer of 2012 after the head of the security forces told him directly, “Don’t ever return to Syria or I’ll kill you.”

How had it come to that ?

Ziano can still recall the first time he went out onto the streets of Damascus. It was March of 2011, and the Arab Spring was spreading. A portion of the Syrian people rose up to protest against Bashar al-­Assad’s government and almost five decades of fa-­ mily and Ba’ath party rule. “Nobody could call out slogans because everyone was crying with joy. I was very emotional too because I thought : Finally, we can build a new Syria,” Ziano says.

Already during those early demonstra-­ tions, the police would forcibly disperse the crowds. Hundreds of protesters were killed. Police became more and more aggressive the longer the protests continued ; they star-­ ted torturing and killing people.

Zaino could see that many of his friends wanted to fight too. “I told them, Guys, whatever happens, we must try to use a dif-­ ferent language. We know the regime will keep shooting and bombing us. People will die, but if we start shooting back, more people will get killed.”

His words proved prophetic. In the fall, the demonstrators formed the Free Syrian Army. The conflict grew grim as they car-­ ried out armed attacks against military posts and gas pipelines. It was the beginning of a long, drawn-­out civil war. At least 120,000 people have been killed, mostly citizens, ac-­ cording to the Syrian Observatory for Hu-­ man Rights. More than 2.5 million people have fled the country. According to the Ne-­ therlands Refugee Foundation, approximate-­ ly a third—7 million people—are dependent on humanitarian aid.often play a bigger role in Syria. This is clearly shown in the work of political scientist Erica Chenoweth, a pro-­ fessor who studies international relations and civil resistance at both the University of Denver and the University of Oslo. She studied 323 non-­violent and violent protest movements that occurred between 1900 and 2006 and concluded that non-­violent pro-­ test is twice as effective as violent protest. She wrote a book about it called Why Civil Resistance Works : The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

“I can’t say the war wouldn’t have happened if resistance had remained non-­ violent,” Chenoweth says, “but based on our data, the nonviolent resistance had a much better chance of succeeding than armed resistance.”

To gain a better understanding of why Ahmed Zaino’s actions were so important, try to imagine the situation in Damascus in the fall of 2011, Chenoweth continues. “Peo-­ ple were scared and confused. They heard all sorts of rhetoric from the regime and did-n’t know who they could believe. Then you suddenly see the fountains running red, you start to ask yourself what’s going on. You see other signs of resistance and suddenly you are prepared to take the risky step of supporting the opposition because you know you’re not alone.”

Zaino becomes emotional when he con-­ siders the effects of his actions. “My friends told me I was being naive, and I understood that.” He also knew of the handful of civilian deaths in the cities of Al-Rastan and Houla, reason enough for his friends to take up arms and take to the streets in anger. But then he adds firmly, “I can’t speak with a weapon.”
Still, Zaino wanted to do more. First he mounted simple demonstrations, but that be-­ came more and more dangerous as the army grew stronger and started to use tear gas. Zaino explains that he saw a YouTube video of how to make a gas mask out of cola cans filled with charcoal. Together with a group of friends, he decided they could make 300 of these masks to give to demonstrators so they could wear them and stay out longer.
Months passed, and the war kept getting worse. Zaino wanted to reach more people, “to let them know that there were ordinary Syrians who didn’t want to fight,” he says. A girlfriend gave him a copy of a book by American psychologist Gene Sharp called The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which lists 198 methods of nonviolent pro-­ test. Zaino and his friends started to explore new actions.
In a deserted office, they collected 80 megaphones, to which they taped an ampli-­ fier, a speaker, an alarm clock and a radio. Then they hid them all over Damascus. One dark night in December, the city was startled awake by loud music in the streets : an old song about mother Syria, forbidden during Assad’s reign. After the song, there was a speech by Zaino, in which he said, “We are the people ! It’s not necessary that people die ! We must stop killing each other !”
The reaction was overwhelming. People came outside with tears in their eyes. Laugh-­ ing, Zaino tells how a number of soldiers had to cut down trees in an effort to disable the megaphones quickly.
Zaino himself didn’t experience this ac-tion ; he’d been arrested the previous day. Much to his amazement, he was let go. He would have to be more careful, he decided, but along with four friends, he continued to work with other non-­violent activists in Da-­ mascus, including a group of young people who glued shut all the doors to a government building so no one could go in or out.
There were also larger demonstrations. Hundreds of youth helped release balloons with cards attached carrying messages of hope for the Syrian people. And there was an encore to the ping pong ball stunt : Zaino bought a whole shipment of ping pong balls and wrote messages on them such as “Freedom !” or “You and I, still bro-­ thers,” aimed at persuading soldiers of the government army to switch sides. Zaino and fellow activists threw these balls down the roads around Assad’s palace and ran to safe hiding places.
But the non-­violent resistance remained too small, according to Erica Chenoweth. Succesful resistance movements involved more people.The threshold for participation in non-­violent action is often lower than the threshold for taking up arms, which is how she explains the success of non-violent re-­sistance. But in Syria, that proved difficult due to a rapidly escalating level of violence over a mere nine months. “According to data,” says Chenoweth, “for an average non-­ violent campaign to be successful, it must run for a least two and a half years.”
After Zaino was arrested for a second time, tortured and threatened with death, he fled to France by way of Jordan. He’s deeply unhappy there, he says. He has applied for asylum and can’t travel outside of the Eu-­ ropean Union until he has a visa. He would much rather help in the refugee camps al-­ ong the Syrian borders, which he currently does from afar. He also works as an advisor for the charity Besmet Amal, for which he raises funds in France. Using crowd-­fun-­ ding, he managed to get a satellite tower and a bakery built in the Syrian village of Ma’arra al-­Numan.
Chenoweth says that non-­violent civilian movements still have a large role to play in Syria. “They can make the situation safer and create a better life for Syrians by offer-­ ing food, objective information disseminati-­ on and medical aid. Those too are important non-­violent contributions.”
Even though Zaino and his friends didn’t win their non-­violent battle, they did pro-­ vide a crucial element to the story of the war that’s raging in Syria, says Chenoweth. She calls it “cognitive freedom”—the freedom that takes place when people suddenly rea-­ lize that they’re not victims of a political si-­ tuation but have a choice to think differently about the current regime and can take action to safeguard their freedom.
The most powerful engagement lever-­ aged by Zaino and his friends revolved around humor, says Chenoweth. “Through their actions, people realized that their per-­ ceptions of the regime might just be based on lies. This gave people a sense of confi-­ dence in the role they could play in the resis-­ tance movement.” She adds, “I think many people had their opinions changed by the non-­violent resistance, and that may well be the most important form of freedom.”