By Marcell Shehwaro
“Should we post on social media about the possibility of the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine?” A survivor and volunteer of “Do not suffocate the truth” campaign raised in one of our weekly meetings. The campaign that focuses on combating denial of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A denial that Russia invested money and resources to seed doubt of those massacres. Denial as the final stage of violence.
The question came out of genuine solidarity and concern over the possibility that we Syrians know very well, Russia will break the civilian resistance with any means necessary, including siege followed by chemical weapons.
We wished we didn’t know, we wished we didn’t expect it, that it would surprise us. We wished that any of the questions that might follow would be original. Why would Putin use Chemical Weapons?”, all the conspiracy theories “The west used chemical weapons to legitimize intervention”, then the bizarre conspiracy theories “Ukrainian used chemical weapons on themselves to demand international intervention” would be theories we heard for the first time.
Our discussion online took an hour. We are refugees in four different countries, all survivors of massive human rights violations, siege, detention, forced displacement and some of us survived the horror of chemical attacks. Our discussion tried to cover very difficult questions. Will we spread fear and panic if we write about such a possibility? Will we be making the Ukranian suffering about us? How we share solidarity without crossing to whataboutism. Moral questions. A lot of them. Something I fear many outside of the circles of the Syrian revolution don’t notice easily. Beyond our survival and victimhood, we are activists, with political and moral questions, mostly on situations which to describe as complex would surely be an understatement
The campaign started in 2020 with a simple call of action, spreading annually a yellow truth jasmine on the day of the largest chemical weapons attack on Syria, the 21st of August.
But the idea and the need for such a campaign started as a promise between friends two years earlier, on the night of Douma Chemical attack back in April 2018.
We promised each other, me and Mahmoud, that if he survives, we will work on combating the Russian denial of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime. I met Mahmoud online while I was living in Turkey and he was a computer science student besieged in Douma. I was translating stories from besieged and heavily shelled Ghouta. He volunteered to join these efforts. When I asked him how old he was? He was born in 1998, meaning he was in the eighth grade when the revolution started. This was hilarious to me. I made a lot of jokes about his young age and how we used to try to push “children” out of protests in 2011.
Mahmoud learned English during the five-year siege he lived through. He attended an online college and had online exams in the shelters, until a few days before his displacement from Douma. He was concerned for his safety, as well as his family’s, but he was also worried about his grades.
We talked every day back then. He talked about the siege, his studies, the shelling, securing his internet connection, and the hour-long walks he took to buy something. I talked, too, about moving to the US and writing a book, and complained about the questions journalists asked, and the statements the UN issued.
We talked daily since, about his university and mine, his complicated asylum situation and mine, as well as the TV series House.
But among all these conversations, throughout that entire journey, we discussed and argued a heap of moral questions such as, “Would we publish the photos of the victims’ bodies, as proof of the use of chemical attacks?” (We don’t use “women and children” while preparing infographics about the victims, and we don’t use stock phrases such as “innocent victims”, as if there are victims who aren’t innocent in the context of chemical attacks.) How can we depend on my proficiency and writing skills in English, without being viewed as the “good and credible Syrian”, the one “who looks like you”, the “relatable” character? Do we put survivors and witnesses at risk by linking them to journalists, knowing full well that the Syrian regime might target their parents with arrest, and Russia might do the same through propaganda?
But in the last week of Mahmoud’s life in Douma, these complex ethical dilemmas became more personal. At stake was his own life. Months of heavy bombardment were followed by the military invasion. Ghouta was divided into two parts, with the population of the first being forcibly displaced to the north, and the population of the second – the district of Douma – being subjected to the heavy shelling, the secretive negotiations, and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to them. Mahmoud was one of the latter.
One of the demands in these negotiations was to “evacuate doctors and activists”, since they will be principal targets, under threat of detention or execution, if the Syrian regime invades Douma.
Mahmoud came to me, to discuss whether or not he should put his name on the evacuation list for doctors and activists. This proved to be a dilemma. I couldn’t give an opinion while living safely outside Syria, and his options weren’t clear either. “What if we left, and the regime kept on shelling civilians? Who would cover the news?” The alternative, however, should negotiations fail and the regime invades Douma, would cost Mahmoud his life or freedom.
Mahmoud chose to stay, because he didn’t want to leave civilians behind in case the bombardment continued. It was a moral high ground that he was willing to die for, and a sentiment that represents the bravery of Syrian activists.
On the first of April, the first buses ran, carrying the doctors and activists who were forcibly displaced. On the night of the seventh, the regime attacked, using chemical weapons.
How simple – if simple could be used to describe such a situation! The Syrian regime, with support from Russia, agreed during negotiations to evacuate some of the civilians – mostly activists and doctors – and promised to evacuate the rest soon. Then the same Syrian regime, with support from Russia, used chemical weapons against the population, once it guaranteed there would be less media coverage and fewer doctors. Russia, this time, completely planned to deny the massacre, before it had even occurred.
Mahmoud was among the few activists who stayed behind. He kept moving between the location of the chemical attack and his shelter, in order to answer the questions of journalists. The connection was bad, there weren’t enough fellow activists around, and not enough cameras. Journalists kept asking us, “How can you be sure this was Bashar al-Assad?” and if we knew a survivor, “Who speaks English and accepts to go on camera?”
By the early morning, Mahmoud broke into tears. I felt utterly helpless and far away. He was angry we weren’t doing enough. I promised him, “Get out safely and we will work on this, we’ll combat the denial of the chemical attack for the rest of our lives. Just get out alive”
Two days after the attack, Douma fell and people were forcibly displaced toward the north. This gave Russia the opportunity to manipulate the evidence, and allowed the mukhabarat to terrorize the survivors and their families.
When Mahmoud reached the north, we renewed our promise. He would return to college once he settled, and we would devote all our time and energy into combatting the denial of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime – using whatever resources, armed with our constant moral and ethical questioning, and with the help of activist circles.
Two years later, Mahmoud enrolled at a university in Turkey. I was at the initial phases of writing about Aleppo in the United states. We acted upon our promise.
We created a group and invited hundreds of Syrian activists to choose a name and a logo for it. “Don’t Suffocate Truth” won the vote, as did the jasmine flower for a logo, the flower we would spread every year. After that, the exhausted, inspiring Syrian activists spread the call to action widely. Ammar, who designed all our visuals under siege until he was forcibly displaced, made our jasmine. Joman, a survivor of torture and psychology student back then, shared the call to action with hundreds of activists around the world. Majeda printed the pins and handed them out across London. Katoub, a dentist and survivor of the chemical weapons attack, a person with keen knowledge on the health situation in Syria, gathered Syrians over Zoom to talk about the use of chemical weapons. Hasan, Morhaf, Mohammed, Afraa, Noor, Fadi, Baha, Orwa, Thaer, Hayma, Muntaser, Muthana, as well as many, many others continue to fight this battle against denial as well. In our first year, we managed to spread more than 10,000 “Truth Jasmines” globally.
It was on 5 March 2022 that we, the core group for this campaign, discussed whether we should write about the possibility of chemical weapon attacks on Ukraine. We agreed to wait, thinking it would benefit the Ukrainian people not to broach the subject just yet. By 11 April, one of the volunteers, who was a medic and helped rescue the survivors of the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013, posted on our signal group two lines of news from Aljazeera. I skimmed the headline. The words “Maripol”, “Gas”, and “Russia” flashed by. For hours, we googled, searched Twitter, and shared on our group the comments of Ukrainian journalists. We were a group of Syrian survivors seeking confirmation from Ukrainian survivors. I wrote coldly, as if I were discussing a regular topic, “Don’t publish anything until we are absolutely sure of it. We don’t want the Russians to use this against the Ukranians or accuse them of publishing fake news”. We kept scrolling, and as we did, we witnessed a new phase of the massacre, one we hoped humanity could avoid: “Chemical weapons are used in conflicts, following the Syrian example”.
But it shouldn’t be that way. Part of our journey, to find meaning to the horror we survived, is to remind the world and hold it accountable, and ensure such horror isn’t normalized in the future. The world should have stopped the Syrian genocide, and Obama should have stuck to his “red line”, instead of allowing Russia and the Syrian regime to commit unlimited violence.
Today, we hope to spare the Ukrainians “the Syrian example”. At least we might say then, humanity has learned something from our heavy burden of violence.