Syria activists adapt to new roles as relief volunteers

A doctor carries a badly wounded boy in a hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
(Manu Brabo / Associated Press)

DAMASCUS, Syria — When Hytham was released from a Syrian prison in the spring after his third incarceration for being an opposition member, he expected to return to the streets with thousands of other activists to call for the fall of the government.

Instead, he found an opposition landscape that had been transformed from one of demonstrations and peaceful dissent to that of an armed uprising.

Now Hytham, who graduated from medical school last year, volunteers in the field hospitals that dot Damascus and its suburbs, treating civilians injured in government shelling and airstrikes and rebels wounded in fighting. He moves carefully through the city and its myriad checkpoints, smuggling desperately needed medicine and medical supplies.

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“Those our age are focused on the actual work, providing humanitarian aid or working in the field hospitals, or maybe have even joined the Free Syrian Army,” said Hytham, once a member of the group Freedom Days, which promotes peaceful forms of dissent. “The days of the protests were nicer, but I still feel like I am giving something to the revolution.”

Like Hytham, who for safety reasons did not want to use his real name, most activists have made a difficult transition: No longer demonstrators, they now risk their lives as relief volunteers amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in a conflict that has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

An estimated 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced, and an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other necessities, according to the United Nations. The country is facing a “critical shortage” of medicine, the World Health Organization says, and the humanitarian situation is expected to worsen as winter approaches.

Charities and nongovernmental organizations, which are providing aid in refugee camps outside the country, have had limited or no access in Syria, leaving much of the burden to the activists-turned-relief-volunteers.

The loss of the activists is perhaps the final blow to a peaceful movement that gave birth to the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

Yassur, who asked to be identified by only his first name, began organizing protests and other forms of dissent, such as blocking roads throughout the capital, in April 2011.

But even as peaceful protests continued in Damascus, the government was unleashing the might of its military elsewhere in the country. Displaced Syrians began streaming into the capital and its suburbs, seeking safety.

At the beginning of this year, friends who were helping provide food and shelter to those who were displaced pressured Yassur to join them.

“I was very hesitant,” he said of leaving his activism.

Yassur’s transition came in stages. First he helped the displaced with finding apartments and paying the rent, and then he began bringing food, clothes and medicine to people who had been out of work for months.

“It’s a big responsibility, and it leaves you no room for activism,” Yassur said. “We’re responsible for people, and if you get arrested then there are people who are still depending on you to pay their rent.”

When the government opened schools over the summer to house the influx of uprooted Syrians, for the most part it did not provide the staff or aid to run the centers. The responsibility again fell to the activists.

That required some activists to move even further away from any opposition work, as their presence in the schools put them directly under government watch, Yassur said. Some of the activists see a government plot to keep them sidelined.

“Bashar is destroying the country and occupying us with cleaning up his mess,” Lena Shami, another activist in the capital, said recently as she sat with other opposition members at a Damascus computer shop used as a front for revolution work.

Shami, who declined to give her real name, got pulled into relief work this year, but months ago she returned to media activism.

“There was a huge emptiness in the revolutionary activism,” she said.

The move from the streets and squares of dissent — where protesters were routinely beaten, shot and arrested — to homes and hospitals hasn’t been accompanied by a decrease in danger.

Those caught helping the displaced are accused of aiding “terrorists,” the government’s catch-all term for anyone in the opposition. Relief volunteers fear their fate at the hands of the government more so than had they been arrested in the streets calling for Assad’s fall.

Doctors and nurses in field hospitals have been targeted for arrest or even executed on the spot.

In a recent blog post, prominent Damascus activist Razan Ghazzawi, who has been arrested by Syrian forces twice, addressed the issue of “how peaceful revolutionaries turned into relief activists in Damascus.”

One man she spoke with was once active in the demonstrations and revolutionary committees before the uprising entered its armed phase. But he was soon arrested for buying supplies to help displaced families.

Held by the much-feared air force intelligence branch, he was tortured and kept incommunicado for more than two months. Recently released, he vowed not to return to relief work.

“I used to be able to buy rice and sugar in bulk to help migrant families and no one would have been suspicious, but now I can’t,” the man told Ghazzawi. “I stopped my work because I won’t let them arrest me again, not for buying rice.”

At the computer shop where the other activists gathered, a volunteer who goes by the nickname Abu Anas came by to pick up empty blood bags for a field hospital.

A former satellite-dish technician, he had been one of the earliest activists to organize protests in Akraba, a suburb near the Damascus airport. But as the town of 5,000 became inundated by those displaced from the central city of Homs and elsewhere, he had to switch roles.

Abu Anas kept the blood bags at a nearby office where he stored other humanitarian aid and money, gradually smuggling them through the city’s many checkpoints to avoid detection. But three days after he picked up the bags, the office, where his name is on the lease, was raided by security forces.

Within hours, Abu Anas fled the city for neighboring Lebanon.

“Once you are found out, you become close to death,” Abu Anas said recently, speaking from Lebanon, where he is now helping Syrian refugees. “Just for working in the humanitarian aid, nothing more.”