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As Syrian War Grinds On, A Rebel Keeps Reinventing Himself

Dec 24, 2012
Originally published on December 24, 2012 6:51 pm

Ibrahim Abazid had no idea he would be part of a nationwide revolt in Syria — or that his role would keep evolving.

It was March 2011. Some teenagers in his hometown, Dera'a, got arrested for spray painting anti-government slogans outside a school. Rumors began circulating that the teenagers were being tortured while in detention in the southern town.

In the broader region, Arab protesters had been filling the streets for months. Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had already fallen. Abazid and his friends went to pray.

"Then on the Friday morning, we went to the mosque and it happened just like this — nobody planned it," says Abazid.

Unexpected Leader

Nobody planned that a few guys in the mosque would shout "God is greatest," then start spilling out into the streets. Nobody planned that guys from the other mosque in town would join them, that they'd all start protesting and insulting President Bashar Assad's government.

Soon, security forces showed up. Some protesters threw rocks. Security forces responded.

"For five minutes or 10 minutes, all of us were hiding. Because in that moment nobody can move. Nobody can do anything," Abazid says.

Abazid took cover behind a wall. Then he saw something horrible — two of his friends shot in the chest.

"I saw the blood. I saw how they lost their life — I think I saw the soul when the soul left his body," Abazid says.

Abazid put the bodies into a car to get them to their families. He proceeded to make a large white flag out of a sugar sack. A picture of him waving that flag came to symbolize the uprising on Al-Jazeera, the satellite network.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of additional people rushed to the streets that day. More people were killed; more protests followed. The Syrian uprising was under way.

Guns Versus Tanks

A month later, the Syrian army came to Dera'a, which is near the border with Jordan.

"When we saw [the army], they are coming with the tanks, with everything — with a lot — with thousands of security forces. In that moment, we know they are coming to kill us," Abazid says.

For three weeks, Dera'a had no electricity, no phones and little access to food. Anyone in the street past curfew could be killed by government snipers.

It was then that Abazid and his friends decided to fight back. And so began his first transformation, from a protester to a rebel fighter. The rebels killed security forces and stole their guns.

Abazid fought for more than a week, but then realized guns were no match for tanks. He decided to hide his gun in a school.

"I finished. No more killing," Abazid says.

"So you killed people?" he is asked.

"I'm not sure. Really, I'm not sure," he says.

Around Dera'a, soldiers left the army and joined the rebels. They started calling themselves the Jaish al-Hur — the Free Army. All over the country, men and boys did the same. Then the government started rounding them up.

"They caught me on my birthday — the 13th of May," Abazid says.

Abazid eventually was released on an amnesty order from the central government, but he later found out he was wanted by a branch of the intelligence service.

Then, a little boy who had been detained was returned — dead — to his family in Dera'a. A video of the boy's bruised and battered body went viral.

Abazid's mother begged him to leave Syria. He did and underwent his second transformation, becoming an aid worker and sending food and medical supplies back into Syria.

Planning For The Future

Abazid now lives in Jordan, just an hour's drive from Dera'a. Jordan is where I usually meet him, in his kitchen with his new wife. She and his mother now want him to leave Jordan and go to Europe. Before all this, he worked for an event-planning group in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

But Abazid says he doesn't want to leave. That's because lately he has undergone yet another transformation, a path that has been followed by many young Syrians before him.

The former protesters, rebels and aid workers are now planning for a future Syria, certain in the belief that the days of the Assad regime are numbered.

Abazid says it's not enough to ask for freedom. You have to figure out what to do with it, he says.

"We know the meaning, but we don't have any experience," he says. "So now we are preparing ourselves to deserve that freedom."

Abazid recently went to a workshop sponsored by the U.S. State Department to help Syrian activists build local governments. He and his friends from Dera'a drew up plans for a city council of sorts that would help rebuild infrastructure, manage health care, even launch a program to buy back guns from rebel fighters once the conflict is over.

But he says they can't do this alone. The international community needs to step up, Abazid says, before Syria descends into chaos and his plans go to waste.

"The regime will leave. Maybe die, leave, I'm not sure. But the people, they will stay. So you have to help the people, please. It's good for you and for us. Because you are care about Middle East? Syria is the Middle East. So save Syria, you will save the Middle East," Abazid says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The conflict in Syria began as a protest movement. Now it's a civil war that's claimed tens of thousands of lives. As the conflict has changed, so too have the Syrian people. NPR's Kelly McEvers brings us the story of a 30-year-old man who started as a protester and ended up as something else.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Ibrahim Abazid(ph) had no idea he was about to be part of a revolution. It was the middle of March 2011. Some teenagers in his hometown, Dera'a, got arrested for spray-painting anti-government slogans outside a school. Rumors spread the teenagers were being tortured in detention. Around the region, protesters had been filling the streets for months. Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had already stepped down. Ibrahim and his friends went to pray.

IBRAHIM ABAZID: Then, on the Friday morning, we went to the mosque, and it happened just like this. Nobody planned it.

MCEVERS: Nobody planned that a few guys in the mosque would shout, God is great, then start spilling out into the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCEVERS: Nobody planned that guys from the other mosque in town would join them, that, as you can hear in this video shot that day, they'd all start protesting and insulting the government. Soon, security forces showed up. Some protesters threw rocks. Security forces responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

ABAZID: For five minutes or 10 minutes, all of us were hiding because, in that moment, nobody can move. Nobody can do anything.

MCEVERS: Ibrahim took cover behind a wall. Then he saw something horrible - two of his friends shot in the chest.

ABAZID: I saw the blood. I saw how they lose them life. I think I saw the soul when the soul leave his body, when - that's it. That moment...

MCEVERS: Ibrahim put the bodies into a car to get them to their families. He went and made a massive white flag out of a sugar sack. A picture of him waving that flag was later an icon on Al-Jazeera.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Hundreds, maybe thousands, more people rushed to the streets of Dera'a that day. More protesters were killed, more protests followed. The Syrian uprising was under way. A month later, the army came to Dera'a.

ABAZID: When we saw them, they are coming with the tanks, with everything, with a lot of - thousands of security forces. And in that moment, we know they're coming to kill us.

MCEVERS: For three weeks, the town had no electricity, no phones and little access to food. Anyone in the street past curfew could be killed by government snipers. It was then that Ibrahim and his friends decided to fight back, and so began his first transformation from a protester to a rebel fighter. The rebels killed security forces and stole their guns. Ibrahim fought for more than a week, but then realized guns were no match for tanks. He decided to hide his gun in a school.

ABAZID: I finished. No more killing.

MCEVERS: So you killed people.

ABAZID: I'm not sure. Really, I'm not sure.

MCEVERS: Around Dera'a, soldiers left the army and joined the rebels. They started calling themselves the Jaish al-Hur(ph), the Free Army. All over the country, men and boys did the same. Then the government started rounding them up.

ABAZID: Because they catch me on my birthday, 13th of May, the same day.

MCEVERS: Ibrahim eventually was released on an amnesty order from the central government, but later found out he was wanted by a dreaded branch of the intelligence service. Then, a little boy who'd been detained was returned to his family in Dera'a - dead. The video of the boy's bruised and battered body went viral.

Ibrahim's mother begged him to leave Syria. He did, and underwent his second transformation - into an aid worker, sending food and medical supplies back into Syria.

ABAZID: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Ibrahim now lives in Jordan, just an hour's drive away from his hometown. Jordan is where I usually meet Ibrahim, in his kitchen with his new wife. She and his mother want Ibrahim to leave and go to Europe. Before all this, Ibrahim worked for an event-planning group in Dubai.

But Ibrahim says he doesn't want to leave. That's because lately he's undergone yet another transformation, a path that's been followed by so many young Syrians before him. First they were protesters, then they took up arms, or at least supported the rebel cause, then they became aid workers. And now they're planning for the future of Syria, after the regime has fallen. Ibrahim says it's not enough to ask for freedom. You have to figure out what to do with it.

ABAZID: We know the meaning, but we don't have any experience to get it. So now we are preparing ourselves to deserve that freedom.

MCEVERS: Ibrahim recently went to a workshop sponsored by the U.S. State Department to help Syrian activists build local governments. Ibrahim and his friends from Dera'a drew up plans for a city council of sorts that would help rebuild infrastructure, manage health care, even launch a program to buy back guns from rebel fighters once the conflict is over.

But he says they can't do this alone. The international community needs to step up, Ibrahim says, before Syria descends into chaos and his plans go to waste.

ABAZID: The regime, it will leave - maybe die, leave, I'm not sure. But the people, they will stay. So you have to help the people, please. It's good for you and for us. Because you are care about Middle East? Syria is the Middle East. So save Syria, you will save the Middle East.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.