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The dream remains

By Dr. Aisha Toma.

It was not the beginning when we managed to demolish that statue situated at a café’s front door. However, it was a turning point and enough to determine the future for many of us. That was mid-2012 at the University of Aleppo, Faculty of Dentistry.

I cannot specify the exact shape or size of the statue, except that it was of the Eternal Leader (as they call him).

The sound of its demolition hardly leaves my memory, except to be followed by another sound; the call to perform the absentee prayer, in the same square, upon the souls of the martyrs who were falling daily across Syria. I stood in the middle of the square, watching that scene in reverence.

The prayer was completed, the gathering was done, and the questions running through our minds did not stop. Will this end well?

The following day, although it was a day off for my own student group,[1] I accompanied my roommate to the university as I did not like to be left alone. Everything was normal when we entered the faculty. We were chatting and heading to one of the laboratories, and suddenly, we saw students running and climbing up the stairs.

We ran with them without knowing why we were running or where. We stopped at one of the upper floors to watch what was going to happen. Screaming sounds reached our ears. I don't know how I dared to look towards the source of those sounds. Through the window, I saw a number of security men hitting something lying on the ground with iron sticks. I later realized that it was a classmate of ours; he was one of their most wanted people because of his significant activity in the nonviolent movement. At one point, when one of them spotted us from afar, he started shouting at us. In fact, I did not realize at the time why they did not want us to see them beating our classmates with such brutality, as they were usually not ashamed of these actions, and rather bragged about them. When that image resurfaces my mind now, I see through the window a person beating my classmate with all his might, as if he was digging in the ground. I realize that he was engraving those scenes in my memory and that they would never be erased.

It was only a matter of minutes and everything was over. I saw them arresting my classmate along with a number of other wanted classmates. They beat the dean of the faculty because he objected to them storming a scientific institution with such brutality. They destroyed the laboratories and clinics and left.

I don't know what courage I had that made me accompany my friend to leave the faculty, passing through the same place where my classmates were beaten. I felt like my heart was pounding in my feet as I saw blood on the walls, blood everywhere. Was it possible that what I saw was real? My legs could no longer support me, and I froze in place trying to comprehend what was happening. My friend started dragging me, urging me to get out fast. The faculty employees were shouting at us, wanting us to leave quickly. They wanted to cover up the signs of the crime. They brought water to wash away the blood and clean the place, but there was no way they could wash away the image that was imprinted in my head. We left the faculty door, and as soon as I saw the road, I burst into tears. A classmate of mine met me on the road and asked me why I was crying. I could not answer, but he already knew the answer. How could I not cry when I saw my faculty being violated in this way? How could I not cry when the dean of my faculty received a punch in the face from ignorant people who do not appreciate people of competence? How could I not cry when I didn’t know the fate of my classmates? When I did not answer, he looked at me with a look full of tenderness and said: “Take care of yourself!”

We walked towards the university halls, where I met at its door a classmate of ours. She was two academic years older than us. I do not remember if we had a conversation before that, except for a passing greeting we may have exchanged when we met. She asked me: What's wrong? I threw myself crying into her arms, repeating: “They destroyed the faculty” She held me tightly to her, saying: “Thank God for your safety. Allah is with us.”

I cannot find an explanation, until this moment, for the arrest of our classmates from the faculty in such a brutal manner other than revenge for destroying the statue of their leader, and to deter us from taking any action that would support the nonviolent movement at that time.

They did not succeed. This was clear in the following days when we decided to stage a peaceful demonstration outside the faculty, out of fear for the safety of our faculty, the sanctity of which they had not respected. We gathered at the faculty and started exiting the building individually, pledging not to begin any chants until we were all outside.

As soon as we gathered outside and uttered our first cry for freedom, we were surrounded by a group of monster-like creatures. Soon, shouts began from our male classmates: “Let the girls enter first”. The young men began to defend themselves, to give the girls a chance to enter through the faculty’s narrow back gate. I never thought about escaping, but rather stayed where I was, as if I was safe from arrest or humiliation. From afar, I saw Abu Jameel (who was one of my classmates and preferred that we call him this). He was hitting one of the shabiha as if he was taking revenge for what they did to us yesterday. I saw another classmate of mine near me grabbed by one of the shabiha. Without thinking, I approached him and said to him: “Excuse me sir, this guy was with me, he and I just arrived on campus and we had nothing to do with anything.”…

I don't know where I got the strength to say that! Why did I call him sir, when he was far from that!! Or why did I invent that excuse when I knew it wouldn't work?!

Thank God, he released my classmate immediately. Although I tried to protect him from being detained, I did not congratulate him on his safety, and in return he did not thank me for stepping in on his behalf!

There are many stories that still live in my memory of that period which reflect the regime’s methodology of humiliating anyone who may raise their voice in its face demanding their most basic rights. They did not have the slightest respect for a human being or an edifice, no matter how sacred it was. The attack on my faculty on that day was nothing but proof of that.

Eleven years have passed in which we shared the same study seats and the same dream of living in freedom and dignity in a country exhausted by tyranny and oppression. Today each of us seeks to achieve a different dream in our distant exile. We all hope that one day we will return to achieve our shared dream and be witnesses to attaining justice and holding accountable everyone who committed and is still committing crimes against our rights and the rights of our people.

[1] The student group is a group of a specific number of academic year students, divided according to surname. The students’ group conducts the practical part of their study, related to using the laboratories together.

By Dr. Aisha Toma.



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