This article is adapted from a presentation given at a recent forum on 10 years of the Syrian Revolution. View the panel here.
My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa. I’m a Syrian journalist and activist from the city of Masyaf in western Syria. Thirty years ago my dad gave me the name of the news agency of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. With this, he marked me and shaped the entire identity I built afterwards.
I went to my first protest with my dad at the age of ten. My dad started this journey that lasted for years that included traveling for hours every week to the capital of Damascus to participate in protests in support of different causes like solidarity with Palestine and Iraq. I still remember being at one of these protests in Damascus when I was fourteen. The regime’s forces attacked the protest. The image that is stuck in my mind is of when my father was beaten with a wooden stick and just told me to run. And I ran.
My dad raised us, my two sisters and I, to be political, to ask questions, to always get involved, and to work very hard for our communities.
In 2011, I was protesting in front of the Libyan embassy. Many people were there in solidarity with protesters in Libya, but we were also there for us and for Syria. People started chanting “a traitor kills his own people.” And then the security forces of the regime knew that we were there for Syria too. And so, they attacked the protest and arrested many people.
On that day, the journey my dad began took a different turn when an officer of the Syrian intelligence slapped me and said, “You Palestinians shouldn’t be involved in internal Syrian affairs.” The reason for this slap was a necklace of a map of Palestine I had worn for ten years. After that I had to take it off.
So when the revolution started in Syria, being a part of it wasn’t a question for me. It’s not as though I sat down and thought: “Shall I participate in this or not?” It was just a sense that it started, so I should be there. And I believe this was the case for many others.
I was detained with my sister, my cousin, and two of my friends in September of 2011, when I was in the middle of my third year of university, studying journalism and media in Damascus. At the same time, my dad was arrested in another city, Hama.
We were all released later. However, on the 2nd of July, 2013, my dad was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime again, this time in the city of Damascus. Today actually marks 2,829 days since he was taken from us. As in the case of many other Syrians, we haven’t seen him since, and we have never been told why he was taken from us or what he was charged with. Unfortunately, it is a bitter truth that the disappearance of my dad, Ali, is far from an isolated case. More than 131,000 people are still under arbitrary arrest or enforced disappearance by the Assad regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
The regime worked, and still works more than ever, to win—not just the military war but also the war over competing narratives. We’ve all seen how the story around Syria has slowly shifted. The discourses surrounding Syria now revolve around fear-mongering, presenting the narrative of the crisis both nationally and internationally as another “war on terrorism,” rather than a struggle for freedom.
In light of this situation, many of us have been asking ourselves: How will the narrative of the revolution be remembered in the coming years? How will it be remembered by Syrians and also by the international community? How will the spirit of the revolution be kept present, in line with a history of peaceful uprisings?
After ten years of the revolution and almost eight years of my dad’s enforced disappearance, I’ve realized why the regime—or any regime—uses detention and enforced disappearance against its own people: Because by detaining someone they not only silence and disappear those in prisons and detention centers, but they also break their loved ones, their families, and their communities.
However, years ago I chose to resist this forgetfulness that the regime has imposed on me by disappearing my dad. I have chosen to resist it with my memory and thus contribute to shaping a counter-narrative to that of the regime and its supporters. I’ve been trying, on a daily basis, to tell the whole world what it means to wake up one day and realize you have lost your dad or a loved one. The high price that people, not just in Syria but in many other places too, are paying for only demanding basic human rights should not be normalized or denied.
With many others we campaign for the freedom of our disappeared loved ones, in Assad’s and all other prisons in Syria, and for justice for Syria and Syrians. Everything I do today is to secure my dad’s freedom, so that one day we might have the chance to protest together again for a better Syria. There are many of us who still believe our hope is not an illusion and that change can happen. We all know freedom is difficult and slow, but it’s not impossible.