When Ghaidaa opened the door she was eight months and two weeks pregnant. I gave her the customary kisses on each cheek and slipped off my shoes at the door. I was in Jordan speaking with Syrian refugees, collecting their personal reflections on violence that had left some 90,000 dead and one fourth of the population displaced. I wanted to get past pictures of rubble and blood, to learn how this war had evolved from peaceful demonstrations. I wanted to uncover how, amidst the tragedy of lives shattered and communities turned into ghost towns, revolutions are made by very personal shows of courage, commitment, and even love.
Ghaidaa guided me to the couch and asked her husband bluntly, "What does she want to know?" She either did not know that I understood Arabic, or was just the kind of person who said what was on her mind.
"Tell her about the revolution," Hamzeh shrugged. "Tell her about how we met."
Ghaidaa was a slender woman with an ivory face and a sly smile. "I saw him on TV and wrote to him on Facebook," she stated matter-of-factly. Ghaidaa had not always been so bold. Growing up in Syria's third largest city, Homs, she was the girl too shy to raise her hand in school. Her days were divided between schoolwork and playing with her brother Dan. Just two years her junior, Dan was a best friend as much as a sibling. Ghaidaa was a sharp student, but her father died when she was four and her family could not afford for her to finish her studies. At age 14, she was engaged to a man she had seen only once.
Her husband began to hit her just one week into the marriage. Ghaidaa was too afraid to tell anyone and months lapsed before her family discovered the abuse. Another five years of his broken promises passed before she took her four-year-old daughter and two-month old son and filed for divorce. Yet in the trials of that cold and lonely period, Ghaidaa found her strength. "I learned that if I wanted something, I needed to seize it by my own hands," Ghaidaa told me, pouring out short glasses of sweet tea. "Or take pride in giving it my best try," she added with a smile.
Ghaidaa moved back to the family house that her mother shared with Dan and his wife and children. As years went by, some of Ghaidaa's siblings found work abroad and sent earnings back to support the rest of the family. Ghaidaa was able to buy a house of her own. She furnished it piece by piece, preparing for an independent life where she would see her children through school, and hopefully university. Suitors expressed their interest, but Ghaidaa focused on her children. "Then the revolution began," she recalled. "And I saw Hamzeh on TV."
Hamzeh, with shoulder-length hair, occasionally in dread locks, looked every part the revolutionary. A newscaster on a Syrian opposition television channel, he cheered the movement against Bashar al-Assad from its beginnings in March 2011. Regime supporters sent him death threats, while its opponents showered him with praise. Messages arrived via Facebook by the dozens. The one from Ghaidaa almost got lost in the pack.
Broadcasting was just another stage in a life of opposition politics. Hamzeh's father had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest movement opposing Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, after he seized power in Syria 1970. In 1980, Assad declared Brotherhood membership to be punishable by death and Hamzeh's family fled the country. Two years later, the Brotherhood launched an insurrection in Hama and Assad responded by flattening the city and killing 10,000-40,000 people. The massacre warned generations to come how the regime would respond to challengers.
In 2000, the elder Assad died and the constitution was quickly amended to allow his 34-year-old son Bashar to assume power. The new head of state promised reform, and people were hopeful. Hamzeh was too. He requested and received approval to return to Syria for the first time since age 13.
Hamzeh would remember the three months he spent in Syria as the most precious of his life. There he rediscovered distant relatives, familiar landscapes, and the house that his father had built with his own hands. "The apples and peaches tasted sweeter than anything I'd ever eaten abroad," he remembered dreamily. "The water more pure." Finally, he felt at home.
Yet, the political situation he encountered was no less authoritarian than that which had stunted Syrians' horizons for decades. On an almost daily basis, two local intelligence officers summoned him for interrogation, just because they could. "Then one day I got a call from as assistant to one of richest guys in Syria," Hamzeh recounted, spreading his hands as if to mimic the sky opening from above. "The Boss" had heard that Hamzeh lived in Europe and wanted him to be a partner in an import-export scheme. Suddenly, Hamzeh was whisked away to lavish meals in palatial villas, and hunting trips attended by crews of servants. The Boss's men offered him any car he wished. "I prefer motorcycles," Hamzeh told them, and a new one appeared. The intelligence officers who had previously harassed him phoned only to invite him for coffee. Neighbors darted away when they saw his motorcycle approaching, petrified of unwittingly saying the wrong thing to someone with so much power.
Hamzeh's life of privilege ended as abruptly as it had begun. A few short weeks later, word arrived that his brother abroad was publicly criticizing the Assad regime. Hamzeh received a call that day. The Boss wanted to see him immediately.
"For your family's safety," one of the Boss's assistants warned. "Get your brother to shut his mouth."
A second call came from the intelligence officers. "Time for another visit," they sneered with renewed arrogance.
Hamzeh started packing. He saw clearly how little had changed in Syria. It remained a state where the powerful were unrestrained by law and citizens were helpless before arbitrary abuse. A handful of politically connected families acted as if they owned the country; through monopolization of entire economic sectors, they practically did.
The corruption that shocked Hamzeh was something that Ghaidaa had come to expect. It was as ever-present as the air she breathed. She and Dan took drivers' education classes only to discover that they needed either informal contacts or bribes to obtain their licenses. Even to file for child support, Ghaidaa had to pay bribes. The court ordered her ex-husband to pay $40 a month, but she received only a one-time delivery of half that amount. "He probably paid his own bribe to get out of it," Ghaidaa shook her head. There seemed to be no alternative to accepting the everyday indignities of life in Syria. Children recited their civics lessons praising the Assads. Adults avoided discussing politics outside the privacy of their homes, and often not even there. Ghaidaa shrugged, "Everybody knew somebody who'd been arrested and was never heard from again."
After Hamzeh fled Syria for the second time, he dedicated himself to activism for human rights in the country of his birth. His work ranged from a new career in journalism, to filing a suit against Bashar al-Assad in the International Criminal Court. Yet his work was stymied by the fear that gripped his compatriots. When Hamzeh attempted to document the testimonials of victims of regime violence, he found that they were too afraid to speak.
His own colleagues became cynical. "Don't waste your time," one fellow activist told him in late 2010. "The Syrian people have given up. The country will never change."
Just a few days later, change began. A popular revolt swelled in Tunisia, and another in Egypt. One-by-one, untouchable dictators were toppled by the will of people on the streets.
Hamzeh was alight with the thrill of new possibilities. Visiting relatives in the United States at the time, he transformed the house into an activist headquarters. Phones rang nonstop and multiple television channels broadcast updates all day and night. Soon, the whole family was writing petitions and uploading video appeals to plea for a revolution in Syria, too. "Please have hope," Hamzeh's teenage niece urged in a video clip that became a YouTube sensation. "We can end the Assad dictatorship. May justice prevail." Inside Syria, handfuls of brave protestors mounted scattered protests. Yet armed police suppressed one after another, and most people stayed home. Other Arab countries joked that Syrians were only brave in the historical soap operas that they produced, which romanticized fighters from a long-gone age.
But on the streets of Homs, Ghaidaa felt a new mood. People began speaking about the protests sweeping the Middle East, first in nervous whispers and then without even looking around for government informants within earshot.
Dan was working in Algeria at the time and they debated prospects for rebellion. "Bashar will step down as soon as he realizes that people don't love him," Ghaidaa argued, expressing the view on many Syrians at the time.
Dan disagreed. "Remember Hama," he insisted, "There will be blood."
Neither of them imagined the revolution would begin in Daraa, a peripheral town in Syria's rural south. About a month after Mubarak's fall, anti-regime graffiti appeared on the wall of a local school. Security forces seized the school the next day and arrested a dozen children. Patriarchs of the children's families visited the regional security chief to plea for their release.
The chief, a cousin of President Assad, told them to forget the children. "Go home to your wives and make more children," he reputedly scoffed. "If you don't know how, bring your wives and we will show you."
After prayers that Friday, a handful of people went into the streets. Armed only with their voices, they called for dignity, freedom, and release of the children. Some people ran away, but others came down from their houses and joined the crowd. Security forces opened fire, injuring several and killing two. The next day's funeral procession became a political protest that attracted even larger numbers, and ended with still more deaths. By the time the schoolchildren were released with signs of torture, cities across Syria were holding demonstrations of their own. Security forces responded with gunfire, and trust in the regime diminished with every new bullet and burial.
For decades, statues of Hafez al-Assad towered over every part of the country, his bronze hand raised. "People used to say that they made the hand especially big so you'd feel like it was going to come crashing down and slap you," Ghaidaa recalled. When demonstrators in Daraa tore down one of those statues with their own bare hands, onlookers held their breath. When they released it again, it was with a different sense of possibility. Syrians everywhere were gaining their voices, some hearing it for the first time and pledging never to lose it again.
About a week into the revolt, Hamzeh was a guest on the BBC's Arabic-language television network. "Syria has been a big prison for forty years," he said, unable to hide his emotion. The camera flashed to a shaky video that a protestor had captured on his cell phone. Hamzeh's voice cracked. "I never thought I would see the day that the Syrian people rose up and demanded their dignity," he spoke through tears. "The regime is over. The regime has fallen. It's over. It's over. Enough." His words were part yearning and part recognition. Hamzeh understood that the Syrian regime was built upon terrifying society into silence. Once people lost fear even of death, that system could no longer stand. What remained was the task of removing it completely.
It was then that Hamzeh was invited to become co-anchor of an opposition news program based in London, and then that Ghaidaa fell in love. Dan had quit his job to fly home and started to volunteer full time with the revolution. He and others gathered donations from Syrians with means inside and outside the country and delivered material assistance to families with greater need. The risk of arrest was unrelenting. Ghaidaa insisted on accompanying her brother around the city. "A young man would be less suspicious with a woman by his side," she explained. Just as they were once inseparable playmates, the two again became a team.
In the evenings, the family gathered to watch Hamzeh's television program. Ghaidaa's pulse would quicken as the hour approached. She was captivated by his unflinching commentary. At a time when people were killed daily, she drew courage from his passion and hope from his steady grin. She was not alone; one demonstration in Homs lifted a banner claiming Hamzeh as the city's adopted son. "His voice from outside made us feel less alone," Ghaidaa explained. And he stated clearly what everyone on the street knew; unless the international community did something against Assad's onslaught, the rebels would eventually take up arms.
In one episode, Hamzeh was asked about his personal life. He had neither a home nor savings to speak of, and divorce had left him single, too. Hamzeh was eighteen years her senior, but Ghaidaa was overtaken by tenderness and a longing to protect him. "The feeling was so powerful," Ghaidaa said, shyly gazing downward. "I wanted to give myself to this person the way he gives of himself."
Ghaidaa looked Hamzeh up on Facebook and sent him a request to be friends. Weeks passed without a response, but her feelings only intensified. She peeked at his picture when no one else was around, and lost herself in conversations she imagined them sharing. Finally she confessed to a cousin that there was a man she wished to marry.
"Who?" her cousin asked, thrilled by the news.
"He lives abroad," Ghaidaa replied shyly. She continued to speak evasively for days until she finally identified her love as Hamzeh.
"The guy on TV?" her cousin blurted. "Are you wasting my time? I thought you were serious!" Ghaidaa was serious. She was convinced that she would marry Hamzeh. Or she would make her best attempt to do so.
Four months went by before Hamzeh accepted Ghaidaa's friend request. They exchanged brief notes in the days that followed. Ghaidaa copied each message into a notebook before deleting it. Syria's secret police monitored the Internet and discovery of the exchange with such a well-known oppositionist could land her in jail. Ghaidaa's notebook documented a letter in which she asked Hamzeh for his phone number. It also registered the reply in which he obliged. It was dated November 6, 2011, 3:48 am. She called within minutes of receiving it.
Hamzeh happened to be in Jordan at the time. He and Ghaidaa exchanged customary greetings, but Ghaidaa had no mind for wasting time. "Let's cut to the chase," she said. "I want to marry you."
Hamzeh was stunned. "Pardon me?" he asked.
"I want to marry you."
Hamzeh was not unaccustomed to the affections of female fans. But this boldness was something new.
Ghaidaa continued. "I live in Homs, I can die at any time. If you marry me, then you'll have a wife in heaven. What do you have to lose?"
With that, the connection went dead. The call had used all the credit on Ghaidaa's cell phone. She snuck into the room where Dan was sleeping, quieted away with his cell phone, and redialed Hamzeh. They spoke until its credit was depleted, as well. She then crept around the house gathering every available mobile, calling Hamzeh again and again. By the end of the night, she was surrounded by a circle of lifeless cell phones.
Ghaidaa called Hamzeh again that night. And every night for the next three days. Each conversation became longer and more personal. But Ghaidaa had been chatting with him in the privacy of her mind for so long that she was surprised by his distance in real life. His return to London was approaching. "I must act fast," she said to herself. On the fourth night of their correspondence, she told him that she was coming to Jordan to meet him. He dismissed her words as playful flirtations.
The next morning, Ghaidaa told her mother that she was traveling to meet a possible groom. Her mother reacted with alarm "Need I list all the routes to death between Homs and Jordan?" She asked, tapping her fingers to count them one-by-one. Indiscriminate shooting made it perilous to buy bread, no less journey across the country. A neighbor had been shot by an unseen sniper while sweeping her balcony. Who knew what would await Ghaidaa while crossing government checkpoints on the way to the border. But Ghaidaa was determined. "In Syria you can be killed anywhere and at any time," she insisted. "What more do we have to fear?"
Ghaidaa exhausted her mother's protests. But her mother wasn't about to let her travel alone. Seven hours and two hundred miles later, mother and daughter were in Jordan. Ghaidaa called Hamzeh from the bus station in Amman to announce her arrival. He nearly dropped the phone.
Hamzeh drove to the bus station and spotted two women huddled outside in the cold. He saw that the younger one was tall and slim. She had carefully chosen to wear her favorite headscarf, a deep blue silk with swirls of purple and fuchsia. It framed delicate cheeks and large brown eyes. Hamzeh had not expected her to be so beautiful.
A friend of his had advised caution and accompanied him to the meeting. "This girl is either crazy or a secret service agent," he warned.
Hamzeh saw Ghaidaa shivering in an unusually bitter winter wind. "Don't worry," he told his friend. "She's just crazy."
The four exchanged greetings, and Hamzeh rented Ghaidaa and her mother a room in the dormitory where his friend resided. The next day, they shared a meal and polite conversation. A spark had been lit, but it was not appropriate to extend the visit any longer. By afternoon, Hamzeh brought the women back to the bus station for their return to Homs.
Ghaidaa called Hamzeh upon arriving home. As she did the next day. And the day after that. Soon they were speaking several times each day. On his show, Hamzeh began using certain hand motions or words to communicate secret signs of affection. Ghaidaa, watching two time zones away under the sound of gunfire, would understand and blush. She looked forward to his irrepressible energy. He was humbled by her courage and fell for her laugh. "Speaking became an addiction," Hamzeh chuckled. "And she insisted on paying for every call." Ghaidaa sipped her tea slowly. "In three months I'd spent my whole life savings."
Meanwhile, violence was closing in around her. Security forces and plain-clothes thugs searched homes, arresting at will and stealing anything they wished. Once they took all of Ghaidaa's jewelry. The next week they banged on the door of Ghaidaa's friend, who quickly slipped her gold bracelets from her wrists into the pot of soup that she was preparing. "The officers were hungry," Ghaidaa shook her head. "They took only the soup."
Ghaidaa and Dan continued to make their trips distributing aid around the city. Ghaidaa met parents who lost children and children who lost limbs. Young widows did not know how to feed their families. Young wives whose husbands had been arrested did not know if they were widows. And the rebels were fighting back. Army defectors around the country first used their weapons defensively to protect civilian demonstrators. Then they began offensive operations under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Homs emerged as the locus of revolt as parts of the city came under rebel control. In February 2012, the regime launched an artillery campaign to recapture or destroy those neighborhoods. Ghaidaa's neighborhood was one of the first hit. Hamzeh would barely hear her voice on the phone over the booms of exploding shells. He invited her to call in to his show as a special correspondent. She identified herself as Homsiyah Hura, or "Free Homs Girl." Asked to comment on the United Nations Security Council's failure to urge Assad's resignation, Ghaidaa was defiant. "Humanity has died in the world," she said. "The Syrian people rely only on themselves and God." Her words were chilling to all except for the news anchor, who visibly drew strength from hearing her voice. "Syrians are surrounded by death, yet they remain steadfast," Hamzeh commented. "Talking with people like Free Homs Girl gives me hope."
Tanks and helicopters continued to bombard Homs. Buildings burned. Corpses lay on the street. Eventually, regime forces entered the area and killed at a closer range. The United Nations Secretary General denounced the government's summary executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture. One British photographer who barely escaped cried out, "It's not a war, it's a massacre."
Most Internet and telephone communications went down. For the first time in almost three months, a day passed without Hamzeh hearing from Ghaidaa. He paced the hallways of the studio, calling her again and again. But nothing went through.
Electricity, although intermittent, lasted long enough for Ghaidaa to catch Hamzeh on television that evening. The optimistic smile that he sustained during a year of bloodshed was replaced by a furrowed brow and repeated sighs.
"We are not able to get information from inside the siege on Homs." He breathed heavily. "We've lost contact with our correspondent, Free Homs Girl."
Ghaidaa watched tearfully. The shelling was unrelenting, but she descended onto the street and moved from doorway to another until she found cell phone reception. She managed to connect to a friend in Damascus, who used another phone to call Ghaidaa's sister living in the Gulf. Ghaidaa's sister in turn used a third phone to call Hamzeh in London. The two intermediaries switched the mobiles onto speakerphone so that Hamzeh and Ghaidaa could hear each other's voices. Four telephones traversed three countries, but the messages came through clearly.
"Do I need to ask you to marry me one more time?" Ghaidaa shouted into the phone. She already knew the answer. Hamzeh said that he would wait for her in Jordan. She came as soon as a lull in bombing allowed her to make her escape. They were married shortly after in a small ceremony. When the newlyweds left for a honeymoon in Turkey a few days later, Ghaidaa was already pregnant.
The couple spent the next month in the refugee camps along the Syrian border. Hamzeh filmed reports on the Free Syrian Army. Ghaidaa built friendships with the women of the tent city. She also kept in contact with Homs. Her home was destroyed in the siege, as were those of five of her married siblings. Then came the news that she had prayed never to hear. Dan had been shot.
Dan had not ceased his work transporting money and supplies around the city, and one day he and his friends were stopped at a checkpoint. Regime forces arrested one from their group. Dan and the others sped away before they became next. Dan was now a wanted man, and he went into hiding in the house of a relative. "He didn't know it, but one of the neighbors was a regime informant," Ghaidaa's mother explained to me. As he left the house one March morning he was shot at the base of his skull. He slipped into a coma and died a week later.
In April, Ghaidaa and Hamzeh relocated to Jordan. Ghaidaa made arrangements for her children to join her, but their father refused to consent to their acquisition of passports. They had no choice but to sneak out illegally, as hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees had done. The nine- and thirteen-year-old travelled with a bus of other families to the border and walked for an hour in the dark. Along the way, they prayed that the Syrian border police would be satisfied with the bribes paid to them, and not decide to shoot. They arrived safely on the other side in the middle of the night. Their grandmother followed by plane shortly after.
When I met them, all three generations were living together in a modest apartment in Amman. News from Syria filled the house as the children spread out to do their homework each night. They followed reports of battles hour by hour, and those killed name by name.
Coverage warned about the increasing presence of extremist groups in the armed rebellion. Ghaidaa was convinced that religious ideologies remained marginal to what she still cherished as a revolution for dignity. "People are desperate for arms to overthrow Bashar," Hamzeh explained. "If they don't get support from the West, they'll take it from wherever they can." In his last trip filming inside Syria, he spent several days with fighters who wore long beards and echoed slogans about holy war. Yet some hardly knew how to pray and all peppered Hamzeh with questions about what girls were like in Europe. When pressed, they explained that they were adopting Islamic symbols as a kind of statement. Some admitted that they were making themselves out to be Jihadists in order to obtain guns from the pro-Islamist groups in the Gulf that were the rebellion's main suppliers. "You can't blame these people, given what they've been through," Hamzeh sighed. "But if the war continues to drags on, extremism will win."
Ghaidaa's mother's eyes filled every time she thought of Dan, which she did throughout the day. Yet Ghaidaa looked forward. "There are people who say that it's wrong to get married when so many people are suffering," she reflected, feeling the baby kick inside her. "But it's important that we continue living." Her most precious wedding present was a hand-written note from a friend from the camp in Turkey:
May God bless your marriage. Celebrated amidst the revolution and its sorrow, it is another rebellion against the Assad family. In marrying, you send a message: We shall not surrender to sadness. In spite of you, we shall be happy and will renew ourselves. We will bring forth children to enjoy the freedom that will come.