Samar Yazbek documented the early weeks of the Syrian conflict
Her work was honored with a PEN award in Britain this week
"They are destroying a whole country," she says
For more than three months, Samar Yazbek watched and took notes as the Arab Spring demonstrations in her native Syria were met with bloody force.
“When the Syrian regime’s press began broadcasting lies about what was happening on the Syrian street, I found it absolutely necessary to document this stage and to talk about it candidly,” Yazbek told CNN. She felt compelled to show “that these demonstrations were peaceful – that this was not driven by sectarian strife as the regime would have us believe.”
Her memoir of the early weeks of the conflict – now a full-blown civil war that has claimed 28,000 lives, according to opposition activists – earned her literary honors in exile this week.
Yazbek, who now lives in exile in Paris, accepted the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Award in London for her book “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution.” She dedicated the award “to the martyrs of the Syrian revolution” and “those who move among the downpour of bullets and artillery fire, the tanks and the fighter jets, in order to carry on the revolution of the Syrian people toward establishing a free and democratic society.”
When the government of President Bashar al-Assad unleashed police and army units on opposition protests in March 2011, Yazbek traveled to some of the hotbeds of the unrest and recorded how people were rising up against Syria’s longtime rulers. She published a number of articles about the killing and arrest of peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, leading to what she described as a terrifying response from neighbors and family.
She received threatening letters and obscene telephone calls. Relatives and childhood friends publicly announced that she was “no longer considered one of them.” Her daughter told her that in their Mediterranean coastal hometown of Jableh, flyers accusing her of being a foreign agent were being handed out.
Yazbek shared the prize with Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In a statement released by PEN, Duffy praised Yazbeck for criticizing the government “when she is already such a prominent figure in Syria and so at increased risk.”
Yazbek was spared the treatment of many of those who criticized the government, which has been led by the al-Assad family since 1970. But she was arrested in May 2011 and shown the cells where people who opposed the government had been held – and warned to avoid the same fate.
“They tarnished my reputation, called me a traitor,” she told CNN. However, “That was nothing compared to what they did to our people.
“They are destroying a whole country, killing hundreds, and the world is silent,” she said. “Right now I can’t even think about what happened to me. I feel it was a mere nothing, a nothing.”
Her story also reflects the sectarian strains created by the conflict. Yazbeck was born into a well-known family of Alawites, members of a Shiite Muslim offshoot sect that includes al-Assad and his family.
“The regime wanted to pretend that what happening in the country was sectarian in nature, especially in the beginning,” Yazbek said. “So they were very disturbed by me.”
But she said the conflict isn’t destined to become a sectarian war, and has called on her fellow Alawites to join the revolution.
“It is often reported that the minorities in Syria want guarantees of their safety to join the revolution,” she said. “What greater guarantee is there than that even after all this time, after all these massacres, there have been no retaliation massacres?”
Al-Assad’s overthrow “is the only the only thing that will protect the minorities in Syria. It is the only safeguard even of the majority. It is the only safeguard of Syria as a whole.”