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The Life of a Syrian Activist
Osama Nassar
Article published on 12 August 2023
last modification on 13 August 2023

Five years ago, human rights activist Osama Nassar witnessed and then started taking part in the protests and violent government response that sparked Syria’s war. Since then, he and his family have been arrested, intimidated and forced underground. He told Amnesty International their story.

At the beginning of 2011, I met with a group of activists from Damascus to discuss the popular protests taking place in neighboring Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. We felt certain the Arab Spring would undoubtedly reach our country, but we also knew it would take longer in Syria, and come at a higher price, because of the power of the regime and our army.

On March 15, when protests flared up across the city, we went to the mosque for evening prayer. There were security forces everywhere, and shock and anticipation on the faces of shopkeepers in the market. On our way back, we were surprised to find tens of security personnel and riot police with their vehicles ready. We marveled at the government’s readiness to suppress us.

The next day, we joined a sit-in at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in solidarity with the political prisoners who had started a hunger strike. We were among many arrested, including my wife Maimouna, who was pregnant with our first daughter. Emar was the first fetus to be detained in the Syrian revolution! Today the number of detainees is in the thousands, including many women and children.

The Revolution Is On

In prison, we had access to government-run television and newspapers only. One article about our arrest described us as “foreign infiltrators,” which turned into an ongoing joke among us. We also saw a government spokesperson on TV speak of the protesters’ “sectarian radicalization plan,” despite the fact that the protesters out on the streets at the beginning of the uprising came from many different sects, ethnicities and ideological backgrounds.

News was leaked to us about protests starting to erupt in Daraa and other cities. I vividly remember one of my fellow detainees leaning in and whispering to me, “The Syrian revolution is on.”

Two weeks later, on the evening we were all released, our friends were waiting for us outside of the prison. They received us with applause and cheers. When the demonstrations first started, most people were hesitant to participate in protests. I remember on one of the first Fridays of the uprising, protests would start in front of mosques and in markets with about 20 people, who would try to encourage others to join in, but our numbers would increase only slightly. However, on that evening, we were about 20,000 strong. Strangers who barely knew one another were congratulating each other as if it was their wedding day. One young man, whom I learned later was called Abu Adnan, gave me a strong embrace and said, “Thank God for your safety. Your detention will not go to waste.” Abu Adnan himself was detained a few weeks later and is still missing.

Forced Underground

By this point, it was clear that the government was determined to seek out all the activists who had helped to organize the protests. On May 1, 2011, I was detained again along with several other activists in the Mazzeh Military Airport, but was released two months later.

Soon, the intelligence forces started arresting activists once again, and my friend, Mazen, was among them. I was told that they were on their way to arrest me next, and so I left my house and joined other activists working undercover. Mazen is now near the end of his fifth year in prison.

I went into hiding with my friends, Ghiyath Matar, Yehya Sherbaji, Nabeel Shurbaji and others, in Damascus. We used to move from one apartment to the next whenever we sensed danger. However, after one ambush, Yehya and Ghiyath were arrested, among others. Two days later, we learned that Ghiyath had been tortured to death. We were unable to make it to his funeral. Everyone who was arrested with him on that day, some four and a half years ago, is still missing.

Persecution of Activists

My wife, who is also a human rights activist, had to leave our apartment and go into hiding after the intelligence forces raided our house and arrested her brother Suhaib. They threatened to kill her and to abduct our daughter and hold her hostage until I turned myself in. At the time, I was at friend’s place, hidden away in a secret apartment. Suhaib was released later on, but he was quickly arrested again along with his brother Iqbal. They remain missing to this day.

We spent more than a year undercover in Damascus, but the persecution of activists continued to escalate and checkpoints were choking the city. In April 2013, we moved to a suburb over which the government had lost control. For the first time, we were able to open an office for the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and another office for the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC).

Some people believed we were a threat to them because of our human rights work. In December 2013 my colleagues Samira Khalil, Razan Zaitouneh, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi were abducted at gunpoint by unidentified attackers. But we reopened the office a week later – we wanted to send a message that we will never surrender. They will never curb our determination.

Dignity and Peace

We are approaching the end of our third year here. The airstrikes, shelling and siege dominate our life. They ebb and flow, but they never cease.
Sometimes I feel as if Syrians have become guests at their own cause. They are invited to hear what others have decided for them and for their country, but mostly they are left out of the discussion. But at other times I feel hopeful that change is coming, and that we’ll live in dignity and peace someday.

At first we were motivated by our enthusiasm for change. Later, it became a responsibility, especially when our friends started to be killed.

When I reflect on all the events of the past few years, I can’t understand how I’ve made it this far. Why wasn’t I in Ghiyath’s car when he was stopped and arrested? Why wasn’t I in the office when it was raided and everyone in it was abducted? Why did the chemical attack target the next town and not mine? Why did the thousands of rockets miss me, but fall on other people walking where I walk every day?
Why, after five years of screaming, hundreds of thousands of victims, detainees and refugees, do we still need to explain to the people of this planet that we are human beings like them, no less and no more human? We are human … like you.