Darayya is different from the rest of the cities in Syria. In no other city are the armed groups reporting to civilian command. In other places both the civilians and armed groups compete, and there are conflicts between them – for example, in Douma.
The Local Council in Darayaa was formed when we realized we needed to serve the city and replace the state [whose influence] was now gone from the area. The groups that cleaned the streets, the hospitals, all of these services had disappeared, so we wanted to replace them. The Local Council started working to clean the city. We also worked with the armed groups: we decided that armed resistance to the regime should be organized and should report to one civilian person in the council.
We were able to organize all of the brigades under one [umbrella], called the Brigade of the Martyrs of Darayya, and organized a local council to have control over the armed groups.
But we haven’t been able to live in peace for long, because fighting has come back to the city. The regime keeps attacking Darayya because it is in a very strategic position: you can see the presidential palace, you can see the Meze Military Airport, the Daraa highway and the Kafr Sousa neighborhood that is home to the President’s cabinet.
Starting a Local Newspaper
In the beginning of 2012 we started our own newspaper – Enab Baladi, or “Local Grapes.” We felt our country deserved more than just the three newspapers that the regime ran, or a few state TV channels.
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Young people have a peaceful mentality in our city. We wanted to be an alternative to the regime. We realized that to defeat this regime you cannot just defeat it on the battlefield; you must defeat it in society, and this is why we wanted a media pulpit not just to talk about the revolution but also economics, our history, society and other educational things.
When the newspaper began it was published online and in print. We started printing it out on Saturday night and handing it out to people on Sunday morning. When we could and things were safe, we would print 400-600 copies. The biggest number we printed was 800.
The newspaper has opinion columns, politics columns. We remind people of those who are detained in jail, 2,000 of whom are from this city, some of whom have been [detained] for two and a half years. We have our own page on how to teach people how to hide their tracks on Facebook. We have entertainment sections.
We gained the experience in how to start a newspaper through people who knew enough to help start such a project. We also spoke through Skype and took online journalism classes on how to write articles from people outside the country. Many of our youths went to Lebanon and Turkey and learned how to write articles and teach themselves.
Teaching the Laws of War
I am a founding member of the local council of Darayya and a member of the legal office; I was a member of the office that holds the Free Syrian Army to account for their mistakes. I was given the opportunity to learn the laws of war from working with nongovernmental organizations in Lebanon. We went back to Darayya to see if we could teach these laws of war to the Free Syrian Army so that they could fight, but comply with the 15 principles of the laws of war with regards to dealing with civilians.
We have begun a new initiative, called “a fighter and not a murderer.” This is an educational initiative to teach the Free Syrian Army how to abide by the laws of war and to implement them on the ground. We are giving training sessions to the soldiers to teach them the laws of war.
We tell them that the laws of war are fully compatible with Islam and and also exist in the Quran. To convince them we are trying to locate the verse in the Quran that applies to each of the laws of war in the Geneva Conventions. We also tell them that there is an international court for war crimes after the war is over. If you commit war crimes, it will punish you just as it will punish Bashar al-Assad.
We tell them you have to be a fighter and not a murderer. The difference between the two words in Arabic is one letter – “m” [the word for Arabic fighter is muqatil, the word for killer is qatil] – but the difference is huge. Fighting with military honor and with the honor of a soldier for a just cause is different. If you kill a woman or an old person, then you turn into a murderer.
Everyone in the Free Syrian Army accepted the idea of learning and implementing the laws of war but two brigades: Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. We could not talk to them because it is dangerous to do so. In every brigade there is one person that is responsible for talking to us about this; just like every brigade has a member who talks to media, we asked for someone to be responsible for the laws of war.
Coming Together to Clean the Streets
After the Darayya massacre, the state disappeared from Darayya. The city became very dirty. We started a campaign in August 2012 during Ramadan.
We made a rule that every day after the Asr [afternoon] prayer we would get together in front of the mosque and give out cleaning supplies; people would donate their cleaning supplies to us. Activism came to every part of the city. Any time we came to clean a neighborhood, people would come out from the neighborhood and help us. We wanted to make sure everyone in the city was active.
We began to have a major problem with theft and realized the importance of protecting [private] property. People would say they wanted to go back to their homes to get something, but often came back with things that were not theirs. It’s one thing to go back and get something you forgot, and another to come out with a big television.
We realized we had to protect private property from theft. We put up flyers up all around the city, and for those who have internet access we made sure to post this on the council’s Facebook page, which has a lot of followers from the city. We were able to stop many thieves. We caught a thief trying to steal from a church.