In June, as I was finishing a short fellowship in the United States, many of my friends and family members encouraged me to stay, saying it was the right moment to seek asylum in a country that many Syrians only dream about reaching. None of the advice resonated with me, however. I was determined to go back, with my new experience, to what I thought would be my natural role in the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship.
I knew the moment I arrived back in Syria, however, that things had changed – even though I had been gone just three months.
My area, Afamia in Hama province, had been under rebel control since October 2011, the early stage of the rebellion, and civil society activists like me had been able to work without worrying about being arrested by the regime. The year 2012 was a golden age for me: writing for newspapers, doing TV interviews and helping foreign correspondents, including McClatchy’s, navigate northern Syria, covering the rebellion.
Unfortunately, that golden age seemed to me a remote past when I came home in June 2013. My first shock came after I interviewed one of the leaders of Jabhat al Nusra, a fundamentalist group that the United States has declared an affiliate of al Qaida. My primary intent was to ease concern among average Syrians about Jabhat al Nusra’s ties to al Qaida. After all, the members of Jabhat al Nusra were mostly Syrians, and they were interested only in fighting the Syrian government. They were not promoting international jihad.
The Nusra leader, I thought, came across well. He condemned attacks on civilians and he blamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), another al Qaida-affiliated rebel faction, for the killings and kidnappings that were sweeping northern Syria. At one point he proclaimed, “We don’t belong to ISIS nor do they belong to us.”
Unfortunately, the last statement outraged Nusra’s top leadership. The man I had interviewed was arrested, stripped of his weapons and brought to my house in the middle of the night. The Nusra members who escorted him were rough with him – and me. Brandishing their rifles, they demanded that I confirm that the statements attributed to him in my article were true, so that they could behead him. As far as they were concerned, his rejection of ISIS was a rejection of Islam; when someone says he doesn’t belong to them, it means that he himself is a non-Muslim.
I looked into the eyes of the man I’d interviewed, who had been a close friend. They pleaded with me not to do what his captors asked. Shocked and worried about my friend, I tried my best not to answer, which worked to stall their judgment. They left but promised to be back soon.
The next day, the armed delegation returned, with two new members and my bereft friend. This time, they didn’t question me. They just handed me a paper from Nusra’s high emir for Hama province and asked me to sign it. It said I had interviewed no one, that the statements were fabrications, and that I was merely a liar. The delegation promised that signing the paper would make the problem go away, for both me and my friend. Taken by their frank readiness to lie and distort facts – even as they claimed to be the only true Muslims in the world – I readily signed.
I had no more problems with Nusra, at least for the next two months. ISIS, however, was another story.
ISIS was quickly earning a reputation for abducting and killing journalists and civil society activists like me. In one case, the ISIS group in Atareb in Aleppo province used the Skype account of an abducted friend of mine to call me, saying: “We will get you all out of Syria; you agents of America.”
Still, I went about my work with the local coordinating committees, doing interviews for Orient TV and writing articles for an online publication, all4syria.info. Then in October ISIS began to infiltrate my area. It abducted one of my close friends, who was a well known local activist. The Free Syrian Army, comprised of more secular moderate rebels, was able to mount a response, and ISIS was forced to set my friend free. He soon left for Paris, but before he left he warned me that ISIS had asked him about me. He said it might abduct or assassinate me at any moment, and he begged me to leave the country soon.
What drove me to leave, however, wasn’t so much the threat, but the fact that I was unable to write about the abduction, or how the FSA had managed to win his freedom – a story that would have made good propaganda for the secular branch of the armed opposition. I knew if I wrote it, it likely would be the last thing I wrote.
Then, in mid-November, an ISIS member came to my office in Afamia. He said that he considered himself a friend and that he came to advise me. He asked me please don’t criticize ISIS in any TV interview, newspaper story, or even on a Facebook post, or I would pay a very high price. ISIS, he said, had learned from its experience in Iraq that public opinion could turn against it, and it didn’t want that to happen in Syria.
I assessed my situation. The FSA, which had been my protector, was getting weaker and weaker. ISIS and Nusra every day seemed to be seizing control in more and more areas. ISIS was now recruiting many young men in my hometown. More alarming, the group had set up three new checkpoints on the highway leading to the Turkish border, one very close to Bab al Hawa, the gateway for me to leave Syria if I wanted to do so. That decided it for me.
My wife already had been urging that we go. The rising prominence of religious radicals augured poorly for a diverse and open society, and the prospects for women were deteriorating. Radicals even had invaded schools, forcing their type of dress and ways of thinking on teachers and pupils alike. No way would we allow our daughter to grow up in such an unhealthy environment.
My huge library had always been my pride, and I hated to leave it behind. I picked a few of my lovely books to take with me, and the next day, my wife, daughter and I fled for the border. Some members of the FSA escorted us, in full uniform, armed and driving in a military vehicle, so that it would be clear we were rebels. We passed the checkpoints without anyone even asking for IDs – the result, I have no doubt, of my wife’s fervent prayers as she huddled in the back seat.
In the month before I fled, 15 civil and media activists that I knew had left the country. Many will follow me. I hope they can do so soon. None of us had ever thought this would be the result of our search for democracy, but I have come to realize that activism in an al Qaida-held area not only is deadly, but meaningless.