Abdulkader Al Dhon is a human rights activist from southern Syria. In the past two years, he has traveled all over Syria working with several international newspapers and human rights groups, including Der Spiegel, the New York Times, and Human Rights Watch, to shine a light on the violence in Syria and help researchers access rebel-held areas.
He’s twenty-seven years old and hails from Deraa's old town. His first run-in with the authorities was in 2005, when he was arrested for having written critically of the ruling Baath Party online. After his release, he studied English literature at Latakia’s Tishrin University until 2011, when his life was changed forever by the revolt that erupted in his hometown. He was part of the demonstrations in March 2011, which began just next door to his family home. Abdulkader has now kindly agreed to share with us his memories from those early days of the Syrian revolution.
For a longer Arabic-language conversation with Abdulkader Al Dhon on the Syrian revolution, have a look the video interview Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, recorded with him for Jadaliyya in April 2013.
What can you tell us about how the first protests started in Deraa?
Well, I came in on Saturday, because I was in Damascus when the demonstrations began on Friday, March 18. But when I arrived home, it was like everything had changed. There were special forces there and checkpoints.
The first demonstration had started from the Hamza bin al-Abbas Mosque in Deraa, which is near the Omari Mosque. The demonstrators went out from there and started calling “Allahu akbar,” or “God is greatest,” and then they went to the Omari Mosque to pick up more people. Then the governor showed up and asked what they wanted, and they said they wanted the prisoners to be released. This was about the group of kids who had been thrown in jail for having drawn graffiti against the government.
But that was only one of the demands; it was not the only reason. For example, the protesters also called for opportunities for people from Deraa who had graduated from university. Another thing was that, in Deraa, there were many female teachers who wore the niqab, a veil that covers the face. An order came in 2010 from the Ministry of Education banning the niqab in classrooms and transferring these teachers from the schools to other places. They couldn’t teach; they were put in places like transportation offices and had to work with a lot of men, so people got angry about that too. Another issue was that the protesters wanted it to be easier to buy land. In Deraa, there were special rules in effect, Decree 49, because it’s close to the border with Israel. So the security services were always doing research on people who wanted to buy or sell land and looked them up and so on.
From the beginning, these were all local things that had to do with life in Deraa. At this point, there was nothing about the regime or the central government or about Damascus and the ministers.
How did it take on a national, political character?
Well, then the government started shooting at the demonstrators and killed two guys, Hussam Abdel Wali Ayyash and Akram Jawabre. They didn’t even let the people go to the funeral afterward, and that was important too. It’s a religious thing, so more people protested.
On March 23, government forces attacked the Omari Mosque, where the protesters were gathered. I was there, but we left the square at 9:30 p.m. About four hours later, at about 1:30 a.m., they attacked the square outside the mosque. More people were killed. Then they placed money and weapons on the scene and said that the protesters were terrorists from Saudi Arabia, which wasn’t true; they were people from Deraa. I even spoke to a military defector later who had been involved with the attack, who told me about how they placed the guns there.
Anyway, by that point, the protests had begun to spread through Deraa and in other parts of the country.
Why do you think the revolution began in Deraa?
You can say it started from the countryside in Deraa. In this area, most people had been loyal to the government. After the Baath revolution in 1963, many people from Deraa were with the Baath Party.
But then after 1970, people started going abroad to work in Arab countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and this gave them more independence. There was no economic development from the central Syrian government, but these people had money and were able to help their relatives. It was not like in the countryside in Hama or Latakia, where people depend entirely on the government. Here, you could get money to marry and so on, and you weren’t totally reliant on the state. It changed the ideological background in Deraa, and people were able to say that enough was enough. It wasn’t a revolution for money; it was a revolution for karama, or dignity.
Also, the children who had been arrested for drawing slogans against the president were from several families or clans, Aba Zeid, Mahamid, and Masri. But the majority were from the Aba Zeid family, which is famous because it has always had bad relations with the government. Basically, half the family belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and the other half is Communist.
You need to understand that Deraa is like a big village. It’s not really like a large city—most of the people there are from something like six big families. These families have lived in the city of Deraa since some one hundred and fifty years ago, when they first came from Jordan and other places.
When the demonstrations started, people began to react against the shootings. They were angry because the government started shooting at them, and this family or tribal solidarity meant that if you asked your neighbors for help, they would help you. This is a psychological thing. You may call it the reactions of a poor community, but the important thing is the residents of Deraa started to help each other when the government started shooting.
Did the exile opposition play a part in the beginning?
In the beginning, some of them had influence. Maan Oudat, the brother of Haytham Manna, who is active in the exile opposition, was important in the beginning—I remember him from the sit-in outside the Omari Mosque. But he was killed later by the guy in charge of military security.
The problem with the classical opposition was that they were late to everything. They didn’t imagine that the young people could go out into the street by themselves.