- Sixth and last chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- It is easy to see why Nur generates an aura of respect around her.
- She is the one behind the protests, its slogans and signs, the distribution of videos and the social organization in Homs that prevents the city, 1.5 million people besieged and attacked by their own Army since months ago, crumbles down due to the lack of supplies.
The most respected woman in Homs goes completely unnoticed. Petite, her shyness becomes evident due to a voice that only emerges as a whisper and is confirmed by a flushed smile each time anyone brings up the role she is having in this revolution. “She is our heroine”, they say, and she looks down blushing. But earning the general and unconditional admiration of Arab men is something very few women can achieve, and Nur al Homsi is one of them.
The three cell phones she carries with her ring nonstop with information about the situation around the city, requests for help or advice on organizing anything from food hand-outs to sending medical equipment. “She is the soul of the revolution, if she gets arrested, it will be the end for the city of Homs”, says one of her fellow activists.
When Nur feels confident enough to tell her story, it is easy to see why she generates that aura of respect around her. She is the one behind the protests, its slogans and signs, the distribution of videos and the social organization in Homs that prevents the city, 1.5 million people besieged and attacked by their own Army since months ago, crumbles down due to the lack of supplies.
“Why have we launched this revolution? Because in Syria we can only open our mouth to eat”, she explains calmly. “We are not even allowed to breathe through our mouth. There is no freedom. Bashar is a criminal just like his father was, and the time has come for him to leave”, she says in a Homs office surrounded by other activists, whose respectful treatment towards her reveal the importance of this 31 year old college graduate who decided to give up her professional career to devout herself to the revolution that has marked the History of Syria.
“Our inspiration came from Tunisia”, she admits as she slowly sips a cup of tea. She started to spread the idea of repeating the Tunisian experiment among her colleagues with common democratic aspirations in her workplace, an international organization she would rather not mention for security reasons. “I did it face to face, and I also began to spread revolutionary ideas around the university. And many people agreed with me. I talked about it with all sorts of Syrians, including my Alaouite friends, explaining to them that we all need freedom. ‘Assad will leave, but we will remain’, I told them”.
Nur confesses that her affiliation to el Baaz, mandatory for Syrians if they want to get into certain universities or access government jobs, helped her not to
arouse suspicion. Her innocent appearance played a big role too. However, she was behind the Facebook call for the first protests in Damascus, those the regime claimed had been organized by the anti-Syrian Lebanese in Beirut to destabilize Bashar. The regime’s deployment of security forces was so big that they failed: the few protesters that attended never got together, knowing that they would be arrested.
“It was exasperating. I was so distressed that I thought about setting myself on fire, like Bouazizi, to repeat his revolution. But luckily for me, Daraa blew up”. And it changed not just Nur’s life, but all of Syria.
In the southern city of Daraa, in the beginning of March, a group of students decided to imitate their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbors and wrote “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall, the slogan that had driven both other revolutions. The teenagers were arrested, their families and neighbors went out on the street to ask for their release. The regime reacted violently to the audacity of the protest, and the more shots it fired, the more people attended the next funeral, which in turn had also turned into protests. The boys, aged between 10 and 15, were finally released after having been tortured, and the next demonstrations asked for those responsible to be held accountable. The Army entered Daraa, surrounded the mosque where the marches started –public gatherings are illegal in Syria except in places of worship- and set off a bloody assault. The images recorded by citizens and the casualty figures spread all over the country, and sparked demonstrations in solidarity with Daraa demanding the end of impunity and corruption.
They were the seeds of the revolution, and Nur knew how to spread it. “People were scared at first. We started with a team of 10 people –four men and six women- trying to raise awareness in others: each one spread the revolution to 20 other people, who would in turn do the same. If anyone was arrested, it was very unlikely that they would get to the others”. Security calls for many measures in a dictatorship such as the one in Syria, with about fifteen security departments destined to silence any sign of political dissidence. Many citizens, Nur recalls, went to her to offer help. “We want to help secretly. Send this to Daraa”, they said, handing over to her blankets or food. “It was not possible, it was under military siege. But we decided to keep that aid for when we needed it in Homs”.
The protests spread and so did the repression. Nur al Homsi explains that she was aware very early on that the revolution in Syria would cost many more lives than in Tunisia or Egypt. “We knew that many would die or be wounded, so from the beginning I learned, thanks to the Internet, how to protect ourselves from smoke bombs, how to make gas masks, and specially we focused on medical issues. Trusted professionals taught many activists first-aid tactics and we spread them across town so no neighborhood would be left unprotected”. The young woman calculates that about 900 people have been trained since then only in Homs.
“At first they put themselves in danger when they rescued injured people, they did not know how to evacuate them safely and they did it any way they could, since they were scared of being shot at; now they know how to transport them to the hospital without injuring them further”. According to Nur, the improvised medical staff knows how to insert I.V.’s and how to plug and sew wounds.
Nur and her team got hold of emergency kits and distributed them throughout the city and region of Homs. “First-aid material and baby milk, which we knew were the most necessary things in Daraa”. The southern city’s experience led them to stock up medicine in pharmacies and to contact doctors in private clinics to put their stock at the revolution’s disposal.
On April 8th, the people of Homs took to the street. Each Friday thousands of people went out calling for the fall of the regime. Nur and her team were in charge of designing slogans and signs, of making up the chants the people would echo. Each Friday, they were repressed with heavy fire.
On May 6th, the Army surrounded the city. It was the start of a military siege that was eased from time to time until, incapable of putting an end to the protests, was strengthened in Ramadan. Dozens of tanks closed off the access routes, making it virtually impossible for anyone to enter or leave without Army authorization. And hundreds of military checkpoints began to control the roads, shooting against any vehicle that tried to drive by.
Since the beginning of the revolution, 2113 deaths had been accounted for up to December 22nd. “These are figures of the corpses that we have been able to record and identify, but many others are buried in yards, especially on suburban towns, and we don’t know how many there are. Besides, the Army usually picks up the bodies and the injured people, and we don’t know what has become of them. Many are missing”, says Abu Hanin, an activist who works with Nur.
“We were running out of medicine and we had to look for solutions”, continues Nur. They asked pharmacies to place official orders to other pharmacies across the country, and volunteers in Aleppo and Damascus also placed orders to pharmaceutical companies, asking for delivery to Homs: a legal way of getting supplies. Also, they managed to bribe soldiers in military posts who agreed to look the other way as the supplies were passed by. “Sometimes we bribe them with food, you have no idea how extreme a situation Bashar’s Army lives in”, regrets the young woman.
As the siege became tighter, it was harder to get hold of supplies, so Nur traveled to neighboring Lebanon to arrange the clandestine entry of products. At first to get them into the city they used cars with women in them, but after the arrest of one of them, found hiding with medicine in the trunk and held for two months, they decided to change their strategy. Nur admits having passed supplies and cash at least 20 times.
She was involved in the creation of the Baba Amr field hospital, probably the neighborhood in Homs that has been hit the hardest. “We got the stretchers through intermediaries who bought second-hand ones to public hospitals for a lot of money”, she goes on. They profited from corruption to build from scratch a clandestine clinic that is still the only health care center in Baba Amr, which had a population of 28,000 people before the repression led some to flee.
For weeks, Nur rode along with the Homs ambulances. She declares that they came under fire from the regime several times: once, she says, the ambulance was shot at from four different directions. One of the men who were with her died instantly, two others were injured.
It was not the most dangerous situation she has been in since the revolution began. The worst memory she has is of her own arrest, when she spent five hours held in a well-known Internal Security office being questioned. “They asked me about five names, the five pseudonyms I have been using since the start of the revolution. I promised that I did not know those girls, that I was not involved in any activities against the government”. She could have spent months in prison, but a network was set up to raise the money needed to buy her freedom. “She is too valuable for us, not just because of her activities but especially because of what she knows: she knows the real names of all the ones who have been working in the revolution from the beginning”, an activist explains. “A government officer in Damascus accepted the money and ordered my release. I never knew how much it cost”, adds Nur.
Some of her main activities include distributing food to civilians and deserted soldiers, being in contact with the international media and recently editing a magazine, Syria Freedom, one of the many citizen media outlets that sprout up, encouraged by the revolution. But since a few months back, she concentrates her efforts on documenting the regime’s crimes for international Human Rights organizations that are denied entrance to Syria.
Far from opposing her work in the Syrian revolution, her family encourages Nur to continue playing her role. “My bothers go to the protests too, the younger one just attending and the older one, 22, looks for safe exit routes with his friends to allow the people to escape from the military repression”. For this woman, there is no turning back. “We only have two options: to win this revolution or to die at the hands of the regime”.