Syria Will Rise Again
Exactly five years after I was exiled from Syria, I was able to return to my homeland because of the Syrian revolution.
I left Syria in September 2007 after being directly threatened by Syria’s General Intelligence Administration (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma). The agency, which has branches in every Syrian province and is responsible for monitoring dissidents, tapping phone lines, and censoring media, objected to my involvement with the Damascus Declaration in 2005. The agency not only issued an arrest warrant for me, but banned my entire family from traveling outside Syria. The travel ban weighed most heavily on my sister and her five children. My sister’s husband lives in Saudi Arabia, and due to the ban, her children have been unable to see their father for four years — solely because their mother is related to a human rights activist and political opposition figure.
This September, after five long years, I was finally able to return. I entered Syria safely from Turkey through the Bab al-Salama border crossing, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army. As I crossed through the portal, I felt so many emotions. I wept tears of joy. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I was returning to my homeland after being forced to leave it and that I would be able to see my family and fellow citizens in a new, free Syria.
When crossing into Syria from Turkey, I noticed that the ubiquitous pictures of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator whose family has held the destiny of Syria in its hands for 40 years, were missing. In the pictures’ stead were walls covered with the words “Free Syria.” But my thoughts were quickly overwhelmed with the knowledge of the shocking tragedy facing Syrians today: Millions are displaced, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country for fear of being killed by the Syrian regime’s constant, indiscriminate shelling. Even then, many of those who have managed to flee Syria have not found safety. Thousands of the refugees live homeless on Turkish streets. Refugee camps on the Turkish border, already unbearably crowded with some 85,000 Syrians, have no more room for the thousands that continue to spill over the border.
It is difficult to envision Syria’s future. A cry of a child is horrible enough — it is even worse when you contemplate how Syria’s children are caught in a no man’s land between Turkey and Syria, with no school, no playground, and an uncertain road ahead.
And of course, Syrians will never forget those who paid the ultimate price for their country. More than 30,000 Syrians have given their lives since the revolution began, and untold thousands still languish in Assad’s jails.
As we continued driving into Syria, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was I really in Syria? I wanted to see everything at once. I tried to take pictures of everything — a vain attempt at recovering all that I had lost in the five years since I had been driven out of my home.
The trees were just as I had left them. The streets were the same as well, the sidewalks covered in dust and debris. All this, and even the passers-by — stone-faced from a year and a half of indiscriminate killing — seemed to symbolize a battered but resolute Syria. My country has hardened, yes, but smiles can still be found within the crowds. Assad was no longer here in this liberated Syria, and the dictator’s absence was evident everywhere. His pictures were gone; his intelligence services were gone; the structure of the regime was all but destroyed. Syria remains and Assad is gone.
As we approached Azaz, a town between Aleppo and the Turkish border, I started seeing evidence of Syria’s raging conflict. The burned-out hulk of an armored vehicle lay at the entrance of the city. “That was the first armored BMP that we were able to destroy,” one of the Free Syrian Army fighters accompanying me explained. “We captured three regime soldiers as well.”
Pretty much everyone who passes the destroyed armored vehicle takes a picture of it. As we drove on toward the city center, I counted 17 destroyed tanks. It was clear that the battle to free Azaz from the Assad regime had not been an easy one. The Free Syrian Army took photographs of the remains of the battle and hung enlarged versions on the walls of the justice department in the town. It has transformed the building into a museum commemorating the town’s freedom.
The citizens of Azaz lived through six months of horror before their town was liberated. While there, I visited a mosque that had been occupied by Assad’s forces and turned into a military base. A tank used to be stationed in the mosque’s garden; two snipers were always stationed in the mosque’s minarets, locals told me. The snipers targeted anything that moved while tanks prowled the city’s streets, bombing public buildings and schools. All in all, six schools in Azaz were shelled. The city’s hospital and cultural center were destroyed in airstrikes. None of the state government buildings are fit for use — Assad’s forces left nothing but destruction.
But despite all that, a love of life has helped Syrians persevere. The residents of Azaz have returned to their jobs and their shops. They have begun to establish civil society organizations to bring life once again to the city, and they have elected a council that oversees the administration of their town. The council is currently working to restore bakeries, rebuild the hospital, and dispose of garbage.
This is Free Syria — a new country that has paid a great price for its liberty. At one point, I was asked by a shop owner, “Aren’t you Radwan Ziadeh, the one from Washington, always on TV?” I answered yes, and he smiled. “Now I know that Syria is free. Exiled political opposition figures are able to return to Syria without restrictions or government permission!”
This is what I said to him: “Now I know that Syria is free, because this is the first time I can speak to you without being worried about the consequences of what I say. Thank you for making it possible for me to return to my homeland Syria after being in exile for five years.”
I meant it. Returning to Syria gave me an opportunity to see a new Syria on the horizon — a Free Syria proud of all its citizens, confident in its future, and baptized in blood.
Radwan Ziadeh is a Fellow at ISPU, executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.