Assad or exile: An activist’s dilemma after the surrender of Wadi Barada

On January 23, a pro-regime sniper perched in the steep Wadi Barada hillside fired a single round from behind a thermal scope.

The shot shattered Abu Mohammad al-Baradawi’s kneecap as he was reporting on shelling in the town of Ein al-Fijeh, 15km northwest of Damascus. The regime had been trying for more than a month to retake the local water-pumping station that supplied the capital with 70 percent of its water supply.

In the week following his injury, al-Baradawi—the pseudonym of the Wadi Barada Media Center’s 29-year-old spokesman—was bedridden, unable to get proper medical treatment while trapped behind the regime’s airtight encirclement of the pocket of opposition-controlled villages that comprise the mountainous Wadi Barada region.

Pro-Assad forces continued their punishing offensive on the rebel-held towns, which left up to 200 people dead. Last Friday, rebel forces agreed to lay down their arms. Al-Baradawi was left with two choices: accept amnesty and stay under regime rule in Wadi Barada or leave his hometown for rebel-held Idlib province, an area that faces near daily airstrikes from Russian, regime and coalition warplanes.

“I had two choices, and neither was ideal,” al-Bardawi tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from his hospital bed earlier this week shortly after a successful knee surgery. He is expected regain use of his knee.  

Q: Throughout the regime’s five-week campaign to retake the Ein al-Fijeh water pumping station, you were the voice of Wadi Barada. How did you first come into this role of working as a media activist?

I’ve been involved in the revolution in every way, shape and form since the onset of it all. I’ve organized demonstrations, I wrote on walls and I even was a fighter for a brief stint. But ultimately, I came into working in media in Wadi Barada.

It’s not as if I have one specific reason for why I first got involved. The regime’s injustice and the humiliation that they inflict on people of every class, of every religion should be reason in and of itself to stand up.

 Al-Baradawi in the National Hospital in Maarat a-Numan on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Abu Mohammad al-Baradawi.

Q: But was it worth putting yourself in harm’s way?

To be honest, fear was never a factor. My family and I decided to go down this road from the very beginning. I knew the dangers that were in store just to be able to show what was actually happening on the ground. Given that no other information was able to get out of Wadi Barada, this was the very least that I could do. 

Q: And you were shot?

Yes, a sniper with a thermal scope hit me last Monday in Ein al-Fijeh while I was covering events in the village. I didn’t think that the sniper could see me, but clearly he saw my legs. I was hit with a round to the kneecap, which has left me bedridden for the past week and unable to cover the campaign in Wadi Barada.

Q: You had the chance to stay in Wadi Barada, to take the regime’s amnesty deal. Why didn’t you say yes? Why did you choose to leave your home with nothing but the clothes on your back and go to Idlib?

I went to Idlib because I’ve got principles. Look, I had two choices, and neither was ideal. On one hand, yes, I could’ve accepted amnesty from the same regime that I’ve been fighting for six years, and I could’ve returned once again to life under the rule of the Baath Party. But this would have meant that I gave up the revolution. This would have meant that I abandoned not just my principles but every single thing that I’ve stood for.

So I chose the second option, and I left Wadi Barada. I had my reasons.

Q: Why did the rebels in Wadi Barada ultimately decide to surrender?

We defended Wadi Barada with everything that we had, and we left on our own terms. The regime tried many times to take the city by force, but in the end they accepted our terms. We left so that no more innocent blood had to be spilled.

Q: How do you say goodbye to your city, to your home?

Saying goodbye to Wadi Barada was like having a soul leave its body. That’s what it means to see your city occupied by your enemies.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you plan to return to media activism in Idlib?

Well, right now, I’m in the National Hospital in Maarat a-Numan being treated for my injuries. On Monday, I had an operation on my knee, and it went 100 percent well. I’ll be planning my next steps as soon as I’m back and well again, God willing.

Q: Final thoughts: What does the evacuation of Wadi Barada mean for the future of the war? This past year, we’ve seen a series of similar departures from Aleppo to Darayya, a-Tal and Waer. Do you still have confidence in the revolution?

The revolution will continue no matter what. If I didn’t think that the revolution could still succeed, then I would never have left Wadi Barada. I would have just gone back to the regime’s rule.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.