Syrian dissidents are getting out of Damascus, but they can't escape their memories of torture.
CAIRO — "Tareq," a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, looks out a cafe window onto Tahrir Square, where an effigy of Hosni Mubarak limply hangs from a nearby lamppost. "They kept beating me on the head, and I was bleeding," he says, breathing shallowly. "I was screaming, 'For the sake of God!' But they would only respond, 'Where is your God now? Let him come and save you.' I was about to faint and could almost see light. I kept saying the shahada and telling God, 'This is for you and for the sake of freedom.'"
Tareq's story is one of many among the growing community of Syrian exiles in Cairo. As the number of refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's 14-month crackdown has mounted, a collective memory has formed in the Egyptian capital: For many young Syrians, the horrors of war, once spoken of in hushed tones by their elders, have now come alive. From the relative safety of the spiritual heart of the Arab Spring, Syrian activists are organizing, protesting, and praying from afar for the demise of Assad's regime in Damascus.
But the comforts of Cairo -- it's safer for Syrian activists than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey's border areas and cheaper than Istanbul -- are often not enough to drown out the physical and emotional trauma many refugees have endured. Tareq, who declined to give his real name for fear of retribution against his family in Syria, says he is plagued by memories of the electrical instruments used to torture him, soldiers' boots that crushed his face as he lay on the prison-cell floor where he was kept, handcuffs that restrained him as the guards threatened to rape his mother, and screams from detainees as soldiers used pocket lighters to burn the flesh from their groins.
Now, 400 miles away in Cairo, Tareq has attempted to rebuild his shattered life by remaining an energetic member of the activist community, organizing public events, plays, art activities, and short films to raise money and awareness for those back home.
Egypt, of course, is itself still far from a model of stability -- the upcoming presidential election promises to provoke a confrontation between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), newly resurgent Islamists, and embattled liberals -- and the dysfunction has left Syrian activists in a sort of political limbo. But Rami Jarrah, a well-known voice of the Syrian revolution who now heads a vast activist network from an office in Cairo, thinks Egypt's opportunities outweigh the inevitable disadvantages of a country in transition.
"In general, Syrian activists are free to move here," Jarrah says. "In Lebanon, you can't open an office like this. You have Hezbollah … It makes it impossible to really be active, to really surface and talk about the Syrian situation. In Egypt, it's far away, but close to what's happening. There's a lot of moral support."
Jarrah's own memories of torture in Syria, after being apprehended in March 2011 while covering one of the early anti-government protests in Damascus, motivate him to work into the early-morning hours in his Cairo office. He said he was imprisoned for three days in central Damascus, where he was denied food, water, and sleep, and would wake up covered in bleach after falling unconscious between beatings and suffocation at the hands of Assad's security forces.
Jarrah still tweets under his former alias, Alexander Page -- a daily reminder of the repression that initially drove him, his wife, and his child from Syria last October. Although he has made a new life for himself as an activist in Cairo, Alexander Page's biography still lists his location as "limbo."
"I spent the last seven years [in Syria] practically hating every second of it because of the fact that I felt Syrians didn't understand what freedom was," says Jarrah, who was born in Cyprus and raised in London, and who returned in 2004 to Syria, where he found work as an import-export consultant. "I [want] to spend another seven years in a democratic Syria."
Of course, Assad loyalists have found it just as easy to exploit Egypt's relatively open political space as opponents of the Syrian regime have. The Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police, regularly intimidate Syrians involved in anti-Assad activity in Cairo, activists say. After fleeing to Cairo, Jarrah says, he would receive ominous phone calls from an unknown number every day at 6 a.m. A voice on the line would recite the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, which is often said after someone dies.
But now, Jarrah says, the work of Syrian intelligence officers in Egypt is waning -- activists have not been harassed with the frequency that they were in the past. He attributes this to the raging conflict inside the country, which may be preoccupying the regime's attention. Nevertheless, Jarrah explains, Syrian intelligence officers still want activists to be aware of their presence in Cairo.
What's more, he thinks Syrians in Cairo who appear to be working for the regime may not necessarily be pro-Assad at all. In a bitter twist of irony, he says, some Syrian asylum-seekers who reach Cairo still find themselves prisoners of Assad's tyranny and are forced to feed information to Syrian intelligence to free family members and friends still in detention back home.
But for some Syrians, solidarity with Egyptian activists partly makes up for Cairo's pitfalls. "We see [Syrians] as people looking for their freedom," says Muhammad Ramadan, a freelance filmmaker and Egyptian revolutionary. "We support them and welcome their presence and protests in Cairo."
Ramadan could be found in Tahrir Square last year, filming the unfolding Egyptian revolution. Now he documents anti-Assad protests in Cairo -- his way of boosting a cause that many Egyptian and Syrian activists believe has yet to generate any significant response from the international community. "I support Syria because I'm Egyptian," he says. "It's important to have solid revolutionary governments around us [to lead] our Arab world forward."
Support from the Egyptian government, however, is more ambiguous. "I feel safe [in Egypt], but I don't feel safe in the office," Jarrah says. Egypt's laws regarding foreign funding make it almost impossible for him to officially register his organization, the Activists News Association, which supports citizen journalism and coordinates Syrian activism. "It's only a matter of time before they shut us down," he predicts. "But by that time, we'll be credible enough to cause public reaction."
Even for Syrians not as prominent as Jarrah, Egypt's safety only stretches so far. "Bassam," a former Syrian student in Cairo, was part of the group that stormed the Syrian Embassy in Cairo in January. Inside the building, he says, the demonstrators found reports listing the names of Syrians who have spoken out against the Assad regime in Egypt. His name was among them. The revelation did not deter Bassam. Since our conversation, he has used what would have been his tuition money to return to Syria to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to his friends in Cairo. (Although Syrian government officials in Cairo connected his name to anti-Assad activity, his identity has been withheld because they do not know of his plans to fight with the FSA.)
According to Bassam, pro-regime Syrian students joined the January protests to gather the faces and names of demonstrators to hand over to Syrian Embassy officials. "They blackmail us," Bassam explains. "If you want your name off the list, you have to join pro-regime forces. We're not allowed to go back to our homes [in Syria]." He says the Egyptian government "knows this is going on -- they give [the Syrian intelligence] the freedom."
Some lower-level Egyptian officials, however, have found ways to tip the scales in favor of the anti-Assad protesters. In April 2011, following a particularly bloody crackdown by the Assad regime, activists organized a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy in Cairo. As Syrians mourned outside, embassy officials blasted pro-regime music from within. According to Bassam, an Egyptian police officer demanded that the officials shut off the music, and when they didn't comply, he cut off their electricity. "The policeman sympathized with us," Bassam says.
The officer's action prompted a new chant from the crowd: "Egypt and Syria, hand in hand" -- a modification of the old Egyptian revolutionary chant that the people and the army were "one hand."
Still, Cairo's comforts cannot distract Syrian refugees from the horrors that their compatriots are suffering back in Syria. Halfway through our interview, Bassam was informed by text message of a recent attack near his home, in the southern city of Deraa. Putting his phone on speaker, he tried calling his sister, the dial tone droning on until it cut out completely. "There is no connection," he said, staring at the screen.
Bassam's stay in Cairo was only temporary. For him -- like so many Syrians seeking refuge -- Cairo is a city of waiting and counting as the death toll ticks higher several hundred miles away. Bassam's only way back into his home country was to illegally cross Syria's border with Jordan. He wasn't naive about the risks. Several months ago, he attempted the journey from Turkey, with a group of Syrians who hoped to join the FSA. But upon stepping on Syrian soil, the group was ambushed by Syrian soldiers, and only half survived, he says. His most recent trip, however, has been more successful.
Not all Syrian activists in Egypt make their mark on Cairo's streets. One activist, a Syrian woman known to most only as "Damascus Rebel," was living in Cairo before the Arab Spring and now is tirelessly committed to informing the world about the situation in Syria. She tweets as @Mou2amara -- it means "conspiracy" in Arabic -- a name she chose during the Egyptian revolution, when officials claimed protesters were being bribed with $10 and a meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Everyone was talking about the external conspiracies against Egypt," she told me. "Little did I know it was going to be the excuse for every dictator during the revolutions."
Damascus Rebel works with a large network of activists -- around 100 directly and hundreds more through other organizations. Some have recently arrived in Cairo, and others remain undercover in Syria. Every day she circulates information and videos through her blog and Twitter feed, working to inform other activists and journalists about events in Syria.
For Damascus Rebel, Egypt is purely an electronic base. She rarely goes to protests, for fear of being outed by Syrian mukhabarat. Her identity remains a mystery to most, and even with Egypt's fairly liberal tolerance for Syrian activism, she fears her cover will be compromised, endangering her family both inside and outside Syria. "I don't trust meeting anyone," she admits. Most of her interactions with other activists are over Skype and Twitter, and though they often know each other's daily schedules and intimate details about their personal lives, real names are rarely used.
Damascus Rebel found her activist voice during the initial rumblings of the Egyptian revolution. But now the uncertainties of post-revolution Egypt create their own set of barriers for Syrian activists. "If the Egyptian government would take a solid stand, then Syrians would know how to organize properly," she says. "If there was a government in place, then [we] could work with NGOs. If paperwork was being done, [we] could apply for a license to do something."
Some days, she feels helpless. Working from afar, there is only so much an activist can do. "We are sick and tired of sending out videos of mangled children. At what point are we going to be seen as human beings?" she asks. "We [hear] people screaming over Skype."
For all Egypt's flaws, it is the much-needed sense of solidarity Syrians find in the country that brings them back to Cairo.
"When I stand in Tahrir Square, I am proud," Tareq says. "I want to thank the Egyptian people for supporting Syrians." He recalls a phrase he saw the other day, written on a wall in Tahrir: "Down with the SCAF and down with Bashar al-Assad." They were written "next to each other in the same line," he says. "They come together."
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