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Middle East

'To keep the Syrian uprising going, you must survive'

In today's Syria, there is no room for the Arab Spring ideals of the country's 2011 uprising. But they've survived all the same. DW met a young woman who backed the armed opposition as a means to a free Syria.

As night falls on the Lebanese capital Beirut, Sofie Haddad peers from her window at the lights flickering in the darkness. Her eyes dart back and forth as if she were searching for something long lost. The young Syrian woman begins to sing a few verses from a song she wrote in 2011 for the Syrian revolution: "We demonstrate peacefully in front of the university, calling out loudly for freedom. Our voices united, we no longer fear death - the days of slavery are over."

Sofie Haddad isn't her real name, and when she smiles, it isn't a carefree smile. She fled Syria more than a year ago for Lebanon. That makes her story different from the stories of most of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in the country. Her real name can be found on the Assad regime's wanted list, and the "Islamic State" (IS) would also rather see her dead than alive. "I no longer trust anyone in Syria, and it wouldn't be safe for me to return before the end oft he war," she says.

Four years ago, young Syrians were overjoyed to see the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fall like domino stones. At that time, Sofie was 22 years old and an archeology student. She and her co-students were planning a demonstration for Syria's own "Day of Anger" at the Interior Ministry in Damascus. "I spent the night at my grandma's house in the old city of Damascus, just thinking about what was going to happen," she remembers. "I knew that this regime was brutal but I had hopes that something was going to change, the belief that there could be some change, some peaceful change." The next morning, she learned differently. Syrian soldiers were already waiting for the students, and drove them away with clubs. Sofie was lucky and escaped with no more than a fright.

The end of a peaceful uprising

In March, more protests followed in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. Shots were fired at the demonstrators and four people died - they were the first victims of the revolution. "We accepted that this change would cost us blood; we knew some of us would be arrested, and would die," she says. "We were willing to pay the price."

two fighters, one points weapon

The conflict expanded into a civil war

As more and more people lost their lives in Deraa, Homs and other cities, Sophie made a risky decision and began to help the fledgling Free Syrian Army (FSA) smuggle medical aid and food to the people in the warzones. The FSA was mainly made up of deserters from the regular Syrian army.

At the time, she couldn't imagine Assad would use aircraft and rockets, and she wasn't in favor of using weapons in defense. "But after the regime's massacres in Syrian cities, there was no other choice," Sofie says, justifying the FSA's taking up arms. In March 2012, she entered Homs, a city in the west of the country that had been at the center of the fighting for months - and was shocked at the magnitude of the conflict between the Syrian regime and the FSA. "Entire streets had collapsed, and wherever I looked, there were ruins and burning houses - it was a civil war."

"I felt invincible"

Sofie came to Homs to document the destruction with her camera. Few of the so-called media activists in Syria were women, and Sofie was one of the first to learn how to deal with the horrific things she saw there. "You might say, she's crazy - how could she see all of this killing and death, and continue?" she says, adding that the situation gave her such an adrenaline kick that she felt invincible.

In the course of 2012, the Syrian regime won back strategic FSA strongholds with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Armed opposition waned and Islamist groups like the well-organized Al-Nusra front took command. One day, Sofie had a call from the head of the Al-Nusra group, who wanted to see her. "I felt threatened, the face of the revolution was twisting into a grimace but I couldn't let it go, it was my revolution and I couldn't let them control it." So Sofie agreed to cooperate with them. She believed the leader, who said the Al-Nusra front wasn't about to call out an Islamic State.

Islamic state fighters

IS fighters have advanced across Syria

Hunting down media activists

For about a year and a half, Sofie continued to smuggle and film under the protection of the FSA and Al-Nusra. But she didn't feel safe anymore. Several experienced activists close to her were killed from behind. A Syrian group that was still relatively unknown in early 2014 was the main suspect: the IS. But activists also died in regions firmly controlled by the FSA. "From the start, the media activists always told the truth about everything," Sofie says. They found out that people they had trusted were traitors who cooperated with the Syrian regime, so, she says, "they killed media activists and claimed it was the regime or the IS."

Staying in Syria under the circumstances would have been suicide, so Sofie fled to Lebanon in March 2014. That month, she says, 76 activists and FSA members died, including her fiance Ahmad.

Meanwhile, a year has passed. Asked what is left of the revolution in Syria, Sofie answers quite confidently: "I am, and many others who live abroad now."

If you want to keep a revolution going, she adds, you must survive. "One day, when this war is over, we'll have enough strength to rebuild our country."

Meanwhile, Sofie has begun to support Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, she offers music therapy classes to Syrian women and children who, like herself, suffer from the trauma of war.

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