Syria Revolt Takes Toll on Teacher Who Says World Fails

Revolt Against Assad Takes a Toll on a Teacher Turned Activist
Medea Daghestaney, Syrian kindergarten teacher turned activist, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting with the Syrian National Council at the Istanbul Congress Center in Istanbul on April 1, 2012. Source: U.S. Consulate of Istanbul

Syria’s secret police raided Medea Daghestaney’s house twice, hunting for the activist from Homs. They missed her both times.

Now the former kindergarten teacher is hunting them, knowing in graphic detail what might have happened if they’d found her. The 29-year-old belongs to a network of Syrian activists who are using whatever international support they can muster to protest President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and report its brutality to the world.

Daghestaney catalogs the rape of women and boys and the cases of men whose penises have been cut, mangled and wired to electrodes. Working in exile from Turkey, she’s documented massacres that haven’t made news in the West. She organizes social-media workshops for Syrian activists, coordinates medical aid inside the country, and helps plan protests. The London group she works for, which she asked not be identified because its mission is sensitive, aims one day to hold Assad accountable in international court.

“Don’t tell me we’re in the 21st Century and nobody can stop killing in any one country,” she said in an interview in Istanbul, her voice cracking. She dismissed claims that Russia’s defense of Syria at the United Nations makes it hard to punish Assad.

“The world just uses Russia as an excuse,” Daghestaney said. “For them, Syrian blood is cheap. They watch us die and do nothing.”

Her faith that the world will help Syrians -- something she asked of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a personal meeting in April -- has corroded into acid cynicism.

Meeting Clinton

Daghestaney met Clinton in Istanbul at an April conference of the “Friends of Syria,” a coalition of countries calling for Assad’s ouster.

“I asked her, ‘Is election politics more important than this blood in Syria?’ and she told me, ‘No,’” Daghestaney said.

She began to cry.

“She was lying to me,” she said.

After meeting with Daghestaney and members of the opposition, Clinton said the U.S. would provide extra assistance to Syrian rebels. That aid included “communications equipment that will help activists organize, evade attacks by the regime, and connect to the outside world,” Clinton said April 1 in Istanbul.

Daghestaney’s work has come at a cost. Listening to accounts of torture has left her angry all the time. Friend after friend has been killed or maimed in the conflict’s 18 months.

Joining Resistance

After she joined the resistance in Syria in March 2011, she started to receive reports of young girls being kidnapped, repeatedly raped by soldiers, and then returned to their families.

“Taking these people to the international court would be better for Syria, but for me, hearing these things, I began to wish someone would kill them,” she said.

In September, the military came to the kindergarten where she worked and told her boss to fire her.

“Of course he did,” she said. “He was scared.”

The secret police began raiding her house in Homs. To lie low, she left for Damascus and took part in protests there.

She was in Istanbul in November, learning to document war crimes more professionally, when the Syrian military arrested one of her friends. After the woman was released, she contacted Daghestaney’s family.

‘Had My Photo’

“All their questions were about me,” Daghestaney recalled. “They had my photo. They had recordings of my mobile phone calls. They had my phone number,” she said. “My dad was so scared. He called and he said, ‘You will not come back: That’s an order.’”

As Daghestaney documents war crimes from Istanbul, she keeps a tally of the dozens of her friends who’ve been wounded, arrested, or killed.

Mazhar and Sem died on Feb. 6, blown apart by a mortar round that fell on a crowd trying to help people in a building that had been hit by the first shell.

Nais and Samer were tortured in jail.

Simon was hit by a mortar round and burned from head to toe.

She remembers the dates when all these things happened.

Noura -- “she is like my sister” -- and Ali were arrested on March 6. Daghestaney hasn’t seen Noura since.

“Ali, I see him now, on the official Syrian TV, talking about all the ways the opposition lies,” she said. “I know Ali. I can’t imagine what horrible torture that he faced to go on official TV to say what they want.”

She paused.

“Actually, I can,” Daghestaney said.

Short Dress

Like the majority of Syrians, the former kindergarten aide is a Sunni Muslim, the group most deeply embroiled in the conflict against Assad, who’s a member of the minority Alawite sect of Shiite Islam that controls the country’s military, intelligence services, and internal security apparatus.

She has almond-shaped hazel eyes and light brown curls that spill over her shoulder. In a form-fitting dress that stops above the knee, she turns heads in a hotel lobby. She’s divorced, the single mother of a 5-year-old girl. As she puts it, waving her hands to the left like a hula dancer, she is “very liberal.”

Her boyfriend’s beard reaches his chest. “If you see him you think, ‘Oh, he is jihadi,’” -- a Muslim who believes in holy war -- “but he is not; he just doesn’t have time to shave because of all the stress in Homs,” she said, laughing.

Their relationship reflects Syria’s history of religious tolerance, a quality she said is under attack by a regime trying to sow sectarian discord.

Liberal, Muslim

“We are like Syria,” she said. “I am so liberal, he is so Muslim, but we love each other.”

The chatter of analysts who warn of the influence of Islamists in a post-Assad Syria infuriates her.

“You don’t want to get involved because you say there are Islamists in Syria?” she said, her voice rising in disbelief.

In refusing to step in, Daghestaney said, the West is creating a foothold for Islamists to gain influence.

Syrians are desperate for help, she said. “We would take help from anyone right now,” she said. “I swear by God, if Osama bin Laden came now and said, ’Do you want my help?’ I would say, ’Yes, I want your help.’ ”

She stopped, and then added, “Please, I just want one out of all my friends to survive by the end of the revolution.”

Daghestaney came by her role in the opposition naturally, and she learned to lie about it early in life. Her father spent eight years in jail for his opposition to Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.

“In the house, I learned that we hate Hafez Assad,” she said. “In school, I learned I have to say that I love Hafez Assad.”

Preschool Chant

When the protests began in Syria last year, Daghestaney’s daughter got in trouble at preschool for echoing a chant she’d heard on TV about the current President Assad’s downfall. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want my daughter to have to lie like me,’” Medea said.

She wants her daughter and other children “to be able to say what they want, when they want, where they want. We want them to be able to say what they believe.”

“That’s why I started organizing demonstrations,” she said.

She’s been thinking of returning to Homs. She feels torn between her duty to her daughter and her duty to her country and people.

“I feel so cold when I hear about all the shelling,” she said. “My friends get hurt, put in jail, killed, and I am here safe. I can’t stand that.”

After 18 months, she still struggles to understand what’s happening.

“I just sit and ask myself why,” she said. “Just because we’re ask for freedom, dignity, democracy? These things, these principles, are normal, right? You’re not supposed to die for this.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE