Lina and Yusuf will not leave Syria: 'Suddenly, I saw the people who had bombed us'

'This is the revolution of the abandoned'

They were forced to flee Aleppo. Now Lina Shamy and Yusuf Mussa continue their fight with Assad in Idlib, where their voices are thwarted and the bombs continue to fall. Still, they refuse to give up. 'If we do, we lose everything.'

Lina in Aleppo, 36 hours before leaving. Beeld Lina Shamy

Activist Lina Shamy has only been in the Syrian city of Idlib for one day when she turns on the television.

Then she sees the images. Images of Aleppo.

'The soldiers were walking through our neighbourhoods', Lina says. 'They were in the exact place we had left behind the day before. We were screaming. We pointed to the houses we knew. The places we still inhabited in our dreams.'

It hurt, she says.

This is the story of Lina Shamy (26) and Yusuf Moussa (30), two young Syrians who studied architecture at Aleppo university, up until recently. But in these past years they've become activists. Rebels, fighting against their president, Bashar al-Assad.

'We were afraid, but we did it anyway', Yusuf says. 'We'd seen how our fathers and grandfathers used to live. '

De Volkskrant has been in contact with them for two months. In several phone conversations, Yusuf and Lina reported what happened to them after Aleppo fell and what's happening in their new city Idlib. During the interviews, they appear to have lost none of their fighting spirit. They make jokes. But when we push for details, long silences often ensue.

They experienced atrocious things in their city. They buried friends with their bare hands, saw children die, heard people scream as they fought for their lives under the rubble.

Just before they left Aleppo, they destroyed everything in their own home. Smashed and burned their belongings. So the soldiers wouldn't be able to use them.

'I'll demolish, you film it', Yusuf said.

Laughing nervously, they got to work. Lina painted a final goodbye on the walls. 'This is the revolution of the abandoned', it says.

15th of December. Lina and Yusuf see the wounded being evacuated from the city of Aleppo. Beeld Lina Shamy

Aleppo, late December 2016

It's 5 pm when Yusuf puts a Kalashnikov in his lap. In his right hand he holds a grenade.

His black hair is long and unkempt. His eyes look tired behind his glasses. For 36 hours they've waited. Now he sits behind the wheel of his old Kia.

He's just received a call from a fighter he fought alongside for months. 'We can leave', the man had said. 'Now'.

It's snowing. Yusuf looks through his windshield. It's over. He knows it is. Tonight, they'll have to flee, right through enemy territory. He casts a swift glance at the Kalashnikov in his lap. He knows he'll use it if necessary.

Lina's sitting next to him. She's thin. Out of nervousness they've barely eaten anything for days.

'We don't know', Lina tells de Volkskrant over the phone, 'whether we'll get out of here alive'.

Lina Shamy is a noted activist in Syria. A short while ago, she started a vlog. 'Western media often only show the public how the people are suffering', she says. 'As if this is just a humanitarian disaster. I started vlogging because I wanted to explain to them that this is a revolution against oppression.' Her account quickly became widely followed: she has more than 50 thousand followers on Twitter. She recently published an article in the New York Times.

They're part of one of the last convoys tonight. Because there aren't enough buses, they're allowed to drive their own car.

Two other armed people are in the back seat. 'We were prepared for anything', says Yusuf. 'We knew Lina was considered dangerous'.

One of the people in the back seat is Lina's friend. She's also holding a Kalashnikov. Just a week ago, she learned how to take the safety catch off, how to shoot. In her lap sits her daughter, a toddler of one year and eight months old.

Then Yusuf accelerates.

'I didn't look back', Lina says. 'My only thought was that we had to get out of there safely. It was all I could think about. It felt like time stood still.'

There are five posters in the trunk of his car. Pictures of Majid, a fighter. One day, during battle, he was shot in his side and never woke up anymore. Yusuf sat next to him when he died. All that's left to his mother is a little bag of earth from his grave.

Yusuf knows that the pictures in his trunk could get them killed today. Silently, he put them in his car.

Aleppo, five years ago

Five and a half years ago they witnessed the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia. And hoped it would spread to Syria.

'Every night, I'd lock myself in my room and watch videos of the protests', Yusuf says. 'Sometimes I'd have tears in my eyes tear up. My friends at university and I started to discuss a revolution'.

We worked in small groups of ten to twelve people, Lina says. 'We did everything in secret. Through Facebook. My alias was Black Rose. We'd meet up at the university, pretending not to know each other. As soon as someone started singing, we'd gather around them and all of us would sing together'.

Yusuf: 'I'd never felt such freedom before'.

Lina: 'The security service dragged people off. I fought to get them back'.

They protested almost every week. 'One day, a student asked me to come with her', says Lina. 'She was polite, so I thought: Oh well, what could happen? We walked into a room to find the chairman of the students' union sitting there. He had a gun strapped under his armpit and a blank sheet of paper in his hand. He said: Do you see this piece of paper? I can wipe you out with my eraser, until there's nothing left of you.'

'I responded fiercely and said: This is a university, what are you talking about? He let me go, but said he'd keep his eye on me'.

Images from the video that Lina and Shamy made before leaving Aleppo.

Outside of Aleppo, after five.

They drive through the snowy landscape in the dark. They hear something rattle behind them. Their friend Khalid's car had broken down two hours before their departure. He'd begged them to tow him. So now the two cars are tied together with a rope.

Lina nervously listens to the sounds. 'What if our car breaks down too?', she keeps saying. But no one answers.

There's the first checkpoint.

'Suddenly I saw my enemy', says Lina. 'These were the people who, just a few day ago, were killing us. There were four Syrian soldiers and there was a Russian standing next to them. From their demeanour it was clear that the Russian was in charge. He was giving out commands'.

'These were the people who had had bombed us. Now they were in front of me. We passed each other as if we were strangers. I didn't know what to feel.'

Yusuf looks at them. He wants to know who they are, but the Russian avoids eye contact. He counts the people in the car.

Then they're waved through. Yusuf constantly checks his mirrors. He's afraid of being followed.

After the second checkpoint their car breaks down as well. 'I'd never seen Yusuf so stressed out before', Lina says. Their friend is silent. 'He was deathly afraid that we would leave him behind'.

Only when they see the Red Crescent does everyone calm down: h is at hand. The organisation makes arrangements for them to move on.

That evening they arrive in Idlib. 'I remember how a member of the Free Syrian Army said 'welcome' to me', says Lina. 'Then I started to cry. I wasn't happy, and I wasn't sad. These had been the longest hours of my life.'

Their friend Hamdi, a fighter, awaits them in the snow. In tears, they embrace. 'He hadn't thought we would get through alive', says Yusuf.

Aleppo and the traumas

The times they had been close to death - there were many.

'The security service was everywhere', says Lina. 'They would come into the universities and stand among the students, armed. Professors were afraid to say anything'.

'There were gunshots during protests at the university. We'd run, bullets flying overhead. Sometimes dozens of people were killed. I'd always believed in a peaceful solution, but after all those deaths I wasn't so sure anymore'.

'Once, I was arrested and spent the night in prison, together with a friend. Our hands cuffed, we walked through the police station. There we saw men in their underwear, their hands cuffed behind their backs. Their bodies were covered in blood. That evening, we were blindfolded and taken to a room for interrogation.'

Images from the video made by Lina and Yusuf before leaving Aleppo.

'Some people in Aleppo didn't believe that the police were actually shooting protestors', she says. 'They were afraid to open YouTube. Everything was monitored. Some family members didn't want to talk to us anymore. They were afraid to call. Everyone was terrified.'

Yusuf's brother Hamza, also an activist, disappears in 2012. 'He was arrested', Lina says. 'Do you know Caesar, the Syrian photographer who brought to light pictures of dead prisoners? Yusuf started looking at those pictures, to see if his brother was in any of them. Picture after picture he clicked, zooming in on every image. They were pictures a person can't look at for a whole minute.'

'He didn't find anything', she says. 'But after a while we received a phone call that his brother had been killed. We were given a picture of a dead body. The boy we saw didn't look at all like him anymore: hunger and torture had changed him. But Yusuf recognised his hair and beard.

He never told his parents about that picture, says Lina.

'Out of everything that's happened in this revolution', says Yusuf, 'that's what hurts the most'.

Idlib, the fight continues

Idlib, the city they're in now - it's a different planet.

A lot of houses are untouched, it's been less heavily bombed than Aleppo. They live in Lina's uncle's apartment, downtown. There's no running water.

But sometimes the air raid sirens are sounded. They didn't have those in Aleppo: it would have been pointless there. But because it doesn't happen so often anymore, sometimes the shock makes them suddenly sit bolt upright in their beds again.

They spent the first days staring into space apathetically. In their minds, everything's mixed up. -------. Should they continue fighting? 'We don't know what to do yet', Yusuf says over the phone. 'Everything's different here. We're under a different authority. We've only just started to think about it.'

Rebels from all over the country have gathered in Idlib. They're also reunited with fighters Yusuf fought alongside in Aleppo.

'From the beginning, I've surrounded myself with the people who took up arms', Yusuf says. 'We spent a lot of time together. We talked about the revolution.'

Lina: 'Yusuf fought along, but also worked as a medical attendant, cameraman, activist. He spread footage of the protests and smuggled items from Turkey: satellite phones, medication, cameras. Everyone who was involved in the revolution did everything. There was no other way.

As time went on very diverse groups of rebel factions arose in Aleppo, ranging from moderates to radicals. Yusuf says he doesn't belong to the latter. Nevertheless, from time to time he found himself fighting alongside Islamist extremists.

'It wasn't a matter of choice', he says. 'It was the only thing we could do. Whether we liked each other or not, we were in the same boat. I knew there'd be trouble ahead when we took up arms. But there was no other way. We all faced death.'

The bombs are dropping on Idlib as well, in slowly increasing numbers. And the number of bombs is slowly increasing. But it's not only Assad and the Russians who are responsible.

The Americans, too, carry out drone attacks, targeting radical groups, says Lina. 'The American bombs are immensely forceful. The drones constantly hover over us. They're spying on us. It's worse than the planes. At least you can hear those approach.'

It's one of the reasons why the atmosphere in Idlib is different from Aleppo. Rebel groups distrust each other, fearful of betrayal. The mood is explosive.

'We cannot talk freely anymore', Yusuf says. 'We mind how we talk about certain groups, careful not to make any enemies. It's impossible to walk the streets of Idlib unarmed. There are kidnappings, robberies. If you're out on the streets after 7 pm, you don't know whether you'll make it back home safely.

It may sound strange, he says, 'but apart from the bombings we felt safe in Aleppo. Over there, it was clear if someone committed a crime. Then it would be discussed with their group. Now, I'm worried I could be killed by someone I fought with in the trenches.

Idlib, the dreams

They've started protesting again. But the turnout is minimal. In Idlib, they can't seem to round up more than a hundred people. Lina: 'When we just got here, a lot of people said the revolution was over'.

Yusuf: 'I wanted to tell people about the importance of the revolution first. Only then could we protest again. But our friends didn't agree. They wanted to protest. I was afraid other groups would attack us for holding up the revolutionary flag. But no one did anything.

Lina was surprised by the number of people who started following her on Twitter. 'Sometimes I think we might have been too late. Why didn't I do this sooner? But honestly, I had so much to worry about in Aleppo that Itdid not occur to me earlier. It makes me sad that it took so long for this to happen.'

'Assad is committing war crimes and no one is doing anything about it, she says. 'He's in his palace, leading a happy life.'

'If we don't do anything, things might get a lot worse for us than they were in Aleppo. They might bomb Idlib, like they did Aleppo. I don't think they'll evacuate people from here. If they evacuate everyone from Syria, where can we go?

These past days they've been in Turkey, with some help from their contacts. They need to rest. Process what happened to them.

'My parents want me to go somewhere safe', says Yusuf. 'But they know I can't let this go.'

Lina: 'If we stop, we lose everything. We have to continue the work of all our friends who have died. We're the rebellious generation. But the revolution will not die. Even if we die or Idlib falls. We know that others will carry on after us.

Reflecting on these past months, sometimes it's only now they realise what they've been through. Sometimes they think of the day their car was stopped by three men.

'They were yelling they had injured people with them', Yusuf says.

'I saw four small boys', he says. He picked up one of them, a boy of about thirteen years old. 'His arm had been blown off. I only saw some skin hanging loose. He was very thin. I put him on the back seat of my car. He didn't say anything. I checked for a pulse, but didn't feel anything.'

The next boy was eight years old. 'When I took him to my car, I saw his face. His eyes were wide open. He had no pulse. I thought: God, what do I do? I wrapped him in a blanket and put him in the trunk.'

A third boy sits next to him in the front. The boy in the trunk is his brother.

'What's wrong with my brother?', the boy asks, crying. 'He's not dead, is he? Please tell me he's not dead.'

Yusuf looks at him. As fast as he can, he drives his old Kia through the potholes in the road, to the only hospital in Aleppo. The car veers in every direction. In the back seat, the severely wounded boy without an arm comes to.

'Stay calm', says Yusuf, unconvincingly. 'You'll be okay.'

When they arrive at the hospital, the boy in the trunk turns out to be dead. 'It was far from the first time I saw a dead child', says Yusuf. 'But the look in his brother's eyes - I'll never forget that.

'I drove to the battlefront myself to tell his father. He cried as soon as he saw me. He only said: who, who?

'Two days later I went to the hospital to ask if the boy in the back seat who had lost his arm had survived. But he was dead too. The operation had not been successful. I became sad. Very sad. I'd thought he would make it. I'd thought that, in this revolution, I might have saved a child's life.

Translated by Lisa Negrijn.

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