Syrian Activists Take On New And Riskier Roles

Sep 10, 2012
Originally published on September 10, 2012 5:58 pm

On a recent day in the northern Syrian town of Azaz, there's an edgy energy when a pickup truck armed with a heavy machine gun screeches to a halt.

Wild-eyed and high-flving, the young rebels in the truck are happy to be alive after they hit a government helicopter landing at an air base 8 miles outside Azaz.

This rebel-held town is under nightly attack. This lightly armed rebel crew races out to the air base every day to target regime aircraft from hidden sites in the olive groves.

It's a dangerous job — but almost everyone in Azaz has a risky role in the revolution.

Over 18 months, the Syrian revolt has transformed from a peaceful protest movement to a brutal civil war with no end in sight. As the conflict grinds on, activists who once led peaceful demonstrations have now joined rebel brigades and have their own job to do.

From Activist To Active Rebel

Take Shadi Sheik Sana, 28, and Mahmoud Hassano, 22, for example. They run the media center in Azaz, a sprawling compound on a side street where the fighters hang out.

Sana provides live reports on government shelling attacks. His broadcasts — from the rooftops of Azaz — are picked up by Arabic satellite.

Hassano, meanwhile, is a combat photographer. He uploads images to the Web when the rebels fight in Aleppo, the provincial capital, about an hour's drive away. He says he goes there every day and takes photos on the front lines of contested neighborhoods.

When the revolt began, Sana and Hassano were part of a nonviolent movement in Azaz, but like so many young activists, as a peaceful movement gave way to civil war, they joined the rebels. Hassano, a banker's son, was a law student 18 months ago. That's no longer the case.

"I stopped my study — I lost more of my friends. For six months, I don't enter my home," Hassano says. "The revolution changed most things in my life."

Azaz is a small example of a larger picture in Syria, says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says that peaceful protest is over.

"Those activists are still there, but they are now all affiliated with Free Syrian Army groups, and that's a big change," he says.

Rapidly Evolving Revolt

It is also a change in the network of friendships and even in beliefs.

At a farmhouse outside town, the fighters gather for a dinner of grilled meat, salad and soda. They are deeply religious men from rural Syria, more devout and sectarian than before the revolt.

The media team activists, Sana and Hassano, are college graduates who grew up in more moderate religious circles, but they share the goal of bringing down President Bashar Assad's regime.

The revolt is rapidly evolving, says Tabler. It's more militarized now, with the rebels governing towns in villages under their control.

"We have to understand one fact. Those that are taking the shots against the Assad regime will be those that are calling the shots after Bashar al-Assad is gone," Tabler says.

In the early morning, Hassano piles into a crowded van armed with his camera for the drive to Aleppo and another day on the front line.

This is the role he's chosen, documenting a brutal fight against regime loyalists street by street. The revolution has changed him, destroyed his town and pushed most of the residents of Azaz to shelter in the refugee camps of Turkey.

At first, he and other activists thought the revolution would take two or three months. It's been a year and a half now, and he thinks there's still at least six months to go, he says with a nervous laugh.

He drives off in the blazing morning sun, past badly damaged homes and shops and neighbors searching for water and bread to start the day.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the past year and a half, the revolt in Syria has transformed from a peaceful protest movement to a brutal civil war, and there's no end in sight. Syrians who once led non-violent demonstrations are now full-fledged members of rebel brigades.

NPR's Deborah Amos met some of them recently in northern Syria.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: On the street in Azaz in northern Syria, there's an edgy energy when a pickup truck armed with a heavy machine gun screeches to a halt. Wild-eyed and high-fiving, these young rebels are happy to be alive after they hit a government helicopter landing at an airbase, eight miles outside Azaz. This rebel-held town is under nightly attack. And every day this lightly armed rebel crew races out to the airbase to target regime aircraft from hidden sites in the olive groves. It's a dangerous job, but almost everyone here in Azaz has a risky role in the revolution.

SHADI SHEIK SANA: My name is Shadi Sheik Sana. I am 28 years old.

MAHMOUD HASSANO: My name is Mahmoud Hassano, 22 years.

AMOS: They run the media center in Azaz, a sprawling compound on a side street where the fighters hang out.

What is your job in the revolution?

SANA: When Azaz have shelling, I broadcast in it, when helicopters coming in the sky, I broadcast live.

AMOS: That's Shadi Sana, and his broadcasts from the rooftops of Azaz with a camera and a laptop are picked up by Arabic satellite channels.

SANA: This is live in Azaz, shelling.

AMOS: Mahmoud Hassanno is a combat photographer. He uploads images to the Web when the rebels fight in Aleppo, the capital of this province, about an hour's drive away.

HASSANO: I go with them and take photo. I go every day to Aleppo.

AMOS: You're in the contested neighborhoods?

HASSANO: In the front line.

AMOS: When the revolt began, Sana and Hassano were part of a non-violent movement in Azaz. But like so many young activists, as a peaceful movement gave way to civil war, they joined the rebels. Hassano, a banker's son, was a law student 18 months ago.

You studied to be a lawyer. You expected to be a lawyer. How has the revolution changed your life?

HASSANO: I stopped my study. I lost more from my friends. For about six months, I don't enter my home. The revolution changed most things in my life.

AMOS: Azaz is a small example of a larger picture in Syria, says Andrew Tabler with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says that peaceful protests are over.

ANDREW TABLER: Those activists and these organizations are still there, but they are now all affiliated, in one way or the other, with Free Syrian Army groups and that's a big change.

AMOS: It's also a change in the network of friendships and even of beliefs.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CRACKLING)

AMOS: At a farm house outside of town, the fighters gather for dinner - grilled meat, salad and soda. They are deeply religious men from rural Syria, more devout and sectarian than before the revolt. The media team, activists Sana and Hassano, are college graduates who grew up in more moderate religious circles, but they share the goal of bringing down the regime. The revolt is rapidly evolving, says Tabler, more militarized now, with the rebels governing towns and villages under their control.

TABLER: We have to understand one fact. Those that are taking the shots against the Assad regime will be those that are calling the shots after Bashar al-Assad is gone.

AMOS: In the early morning, Mahmoud Hassano piles into a crowded van armed with his camera for the drive to Aleppo and another day on the front line. It's the role he's chosen, documenting a brutal fight against regime loyalists street by street. The revolution has changed him, destroyed his town, and pushed most of the residents of Azaz to shelter in the refugee camps of Turkey.

HASSANO: At the first, we think the revolution take about two or three months. Now, one year and a half, and I think we will wait six months.

AMOS: He drives off in the blazing morning sun, past badly damaged homes and shops and neighbors searching for water and bread to start the day. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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