For the last three years, the story of Syria has been defined by loss — the loss of tens of thousands of lives, the loss of history and heritage, the loss of humanity, the loss of childhood, and the loss, the absolutely devastating loss, of great men and women who had the potential to have a profound impact on the country’s future.
On Friday, April 25, one of Syria’s potential leaders lost his life at the young age of 17. Mouaz Abdurrahman al-Omar, more commonly known as Abu Mehdi al-Hamwi, was killed alongside five other men by a rocket launched by Bashar al-Assad’s forces onto the town of Kafarzeita in northern Hama province. His death was immediately recognized by those who knew him, either personally or virtually, as a huge blow to the Syrian revolution.
I was first introduced to Abu Mehdi in fall 2012, when he joined the Lens Young Hamwi team and began sharing his photographs with me; I was an administrator of the Facebook page utilized by activists to share photographic images of life in the midst of revolution in Hama with the rest of the world. He was a 10th grade student who had joined the city’s protest movement early on and was dabbling in the world of citizen journalism.
It didn’t take me long to realize that Abu Mehdi was a skilled photographer. He possessed a talent that only continued to grow and develop as the months passed. In April 2013, Abu Mehdi was stopped arbitrarily by security forces in the city of Hama who proceeded to arrest him after discovering that he and his father were on the Assad regime’s “wanted” list.
In a testimonial to the Violation Documentation in Syria, Abu Mehdi gave a detailed account of his four months of detention. He was repeatedly interrogated and tortured after confessing to partaking in nonviolent anti-regime activities such as attending and photographing protests and spraying revolutionary graffiti on city walls. Ultimately, Abu Mehdi was tried in front of a counterterrorism court, where he was released after not being convicted of any crime.
Upon his release from prison, Abu Mehdi was unable to return home because he was still blacklisted by the Assad regime. But while many people in his position would have essentially quit at that point, feeling that they had paid their dues to the revolution, the time Abu Mehdi spent locked up in overcrowded prison cells reeking of death and infested with disease only motivated him further. Instead of settling down in Turkey like he had the chance to do, Abu Mehdi returned to Syria after he regained his health to continue his media activism in the rebel-held suburbs of Hama.
He joined a rebel brigade and covered its military operations, continued his work with a number of revolutionary media entities in Hama, and worked with medical relief groups to cover the delivery of polio vaccines to children. And while Abu Mehdi was very proud of his accomplishments, he always shied away from stating his age, ostensibly fearing that he would not be taken seriously due to his youth.
Until the day of his death, Abu Mehdi believed in the mission adopted by many Syrians at the start of the uprising; the use of cameras to document human rights violations being committed by government forces against the people. His camera was not only his best friend, it was his weapon that he carried in his pursuit of a better future for Syria, a future that he hoped would be rid of the men who tortured him and left many others rotting to die in prison.
But while in the early days of the revolution to be a media activist was to shoot a video and upload it to YouTube, Abu Mehdi understood that the passage of time demanded an increase in effort. From the day he joined Lens Young Hamwi, Abu Mehdi was always eager to learn and to better himself in order to become a professional-grade photographer, and he succeeded.The young man who started off taking photos with his cell phone in Al-Karamah neighborhood of Hama was eventually commissioned by an international news agency to cover battles between government and rebel forces and the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the bombardment of civilian areas and the mass displacement of the Syrian people.
At the age of 17, Abu Mehdi left behind him a legacy of bravery, persistence, hard work, dedication, sincerity and compassion. While many who joined the Syrian uprising early on did so because it was clearly black and white, good versus evil, the regime versus the people, many of them also abandoned the cause when it became polluted by an excess of gray matter. But Abu Mehdi did not; he refused to step down — chanting “the people want the downfall of the regime” was for life, and there was no turning back.
In your memory, Abu Mehdi, and for your sacrifices, those of us left behind find the strength to continue, and after your death, we are responsible for ensuring that the loss of your life does not mean the loss of your message. Rest in peace.