Despite five years of war, several stints in government detention centers and a near-constant fear of being "disappeared," one woman in Damascus has not given up on the Syrian uprising, transitioning from activist to citizen journalist and committing herself to covering ongoing human rights abuses.
Since the crisis in Syria began in 2011, Rafia Salameh hasn’t had much routine in her life, but she never misses her morning shower.
“My friends joke that it’s such a luxury that I want a daily shower,” said Salameh, a Syrian activist and journalist in Damascus. “But I really like taking my morning shower, especially having spent time in prison, where you miss it so much. I just love it. So I always try to arrange the day before that I can take a morning shower no matter where I am.”
Salameh, who has been arrested several times for organizing and participating in demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, has decided to stay in Syria despite the war, which has taken the lives of some 470,000 people by the latest estimates and forced approximately 5 million to flee the country. Another 7.6 million have been internally displaced.
“I want to make a change,” said Salameh, not her real name. “But I want to make it here in my country because I know the circumstances here better. I believe in humanity and I want to do something for people, and I think I can do better in Syria than other places.”
The risks she faces are great. A report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that by 2015, more than 8,700 women in Syria had been detained by government forces, rebels and other groups. The network estimates that around 3,000 of these women were activists. The exact number of female activists like Salameh who have remained in Syria is unknown, but the figure is likely to be very small.
“We are reaching a very small number because of the security situation,” said Nour al-Khatib, a member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, who also works under a pseudonym for fear of her own safety. “In government-held areas like Damascus, most female activists use fake names and take very high security measures to work in secret and not be detained,” said al-Khatib. “In rebel-held Syria, extremist Muslim groups like al-Nusra Front, ISIS and Jund al-Aqsa look at activists as infidels and treat them in a very violent way.”
When the uprising against the Syrian government started in 2011, Salameh and her friends organized many demonstrations in Syria. They created a coalition with representatives in different Syrian areas and made slogans for the revolution.
Since then, Salameh has been arrested four times for arranging and attending demonstrations. One time the judge let her go because he said she looked like a “good girl” who wouldn’t attend a demonstration.
Other times, she had to spend time in prison. In the summer of 2011, some of her friends were arrested and tortured to give up her name. She was arrested in the fall and spent around 10 days in prison. She was later arrested again and was detained for three months until she was bailed out with help from her friends.
Salameh, who still relishes the Arabic pastries like manaesh or fatayer and fresh juice sold by street vendors in the capital (“Delicious fruit cocktails and the food that my city is famous for are some of my favorite things in Damascus,” she said), freelances for various Syrian publications and has written extensively about detainees in Syria. She is planning to make a documentary about Syrians who have suffered amputations because they were injured in the war.
She is also trying to interest Syrian housewives in public issues. She has started a cultural center in rebel-held Syria that offers activities for women and is working on opening a feminist cultural café in Damascus, as well as trying to connect women on the opposition side with NGOs that need employees and give them English lessons.
She said that some women have become more independent since the Syrian crisis started five years ago. “The revolution has changed some norms,” she said. “Now, some women are forced to live alone, maybe because their family members are dead or displaced.”
Salameh meets in secret with other activists in their homes. She hasn’t hosted them at her place for a while. “I am the most arrested person among my friends,” she said. “I have this big anxiety that the police will come to my house while the other activists are there. I don’t want anyone to be arrested because of me.”
They usually make sure not to arrive at the same time. They keep their voices down when discussing their plans and avoid gathering near windows and doors. They always have a backup story ready for why they are meeting, should anyone ask. They don’t discuss activism over the phone and erase all messages and emails related to their activism.
Transportation takes a very long time because of the many checkpoints in Damascus, so Salameh often spends the night at a friend’s place after an evening meeting. “Most late visits become nights out,” she said. “You can’t just go home, so you stay at friends’ places.”
When Salameh is on her way back to Damascus from a work trip abroad, she usually stops in Beirut for a day so she can empty her phone and laptop of anything related to activism and throw out business cards from other activists she has met.
Salameh also spends a lot of time doing favors for her friends, often helping deliver money into Syria to NGOs and to family members of friends. She hides the money under her clothes, which is risky because travelers are often searched at the checkpoints. “But I like to help people,” she said. “There’s a big army of helpers in Syria who offer people a place to stay when they need it.”
She added: “We feel responsible for one another as activists. To me that’s the beauty of the revolution. It’s about helping without waiting for something in return. It’s just about dreaming together about a better country and a better life."