A month ago, Yaman Marwah was studying law and economics at Carleton University in Ottawa. But between October 25 and November 3, he was an embedded journalist and activist in Binnish, Syria with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main armed opposition group.
The Daily spoke to Marwah over the course of ten days while he was in Syria and Turkey.
The 18-year-old is president of the Syrian Student Association in Ottawa (SSAO). His father, Hisham Marwah, originally from Damascus, is the head of the legal division of the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The SNC has recently come under domestic and international attack for not being representative of activists on the ground. Hisham Marwah was not available for comment at press time.
“I started being involved in activism for Syria at the beginning of the revolution. I was never involved in activism before,” Yaman Marwah told The Daily in a Skype interview. A close friend of his father arranged for him to enter Syria.
“It was an opportunity for me to fight back, to go back to my country. My dad and him have been friends since 35 years; he trusted his friend so it was easy for him to accept [the] idea I was going to Syria,” Marwah explained.
Marwah went to Syria with his friend Faris Al Shawaf. Al Shawaf is also a Syrian-Canadian student and is on the Board of Directors for the Syrian Canadian Council (SCC).
“We were going on a media mission, we were trying to send the pictures of what is happening in Syria to the people in Canada,” Marwah said. The students were also on a humanitarian mission to deliver donations – including $5,000 and toys – that they had collected in Canada.
“I wanted to make sure they were going to the right people by delivering them in person,” Marwah said of the donations.
Arriving in Syria
Marwah and Al Shawaf entered Syria through the Turkish border, which is presently under FSA control.
“We walked to the Turkish borders, got the stamp outside, and walked for around two kilometres until we reached the Syrian border, and we just walked in,” Marwah told The Daily. “A friend of mine was waiting for us there, picked us up, and kept going.”
Marwah arrived late in the night on October 25 in Binnish. “On Friday morning, there was the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha. There was a big rally in Binnish that we were part of, then we visited some of the FSA, had some interviews with them, and then they did accompany us to Taftanaz, one of the most damaged cities in Syria right now.”
Marwah explained that 90 per cent of buildings in Taftanaz have been destroyed by the Syrian army’s air raids. “There were always [Syrian army] planes flying above us, heading to Taftanaz,” he said. “We can hear the bombing, we can hear the planes, we can hear everything. It is very freaky, they might hit us any single moment.”
Binnish is part of the Idlib Governorate in northwestern Syria. The city of Idlib is currently a site of open struggle between the FSA and the Syrian army. The rest of the province, including Binnish, is mostly under FSA control, according to Marwah.
“Although the FSA has taken control of Binnish, Taftanaz and other cities, the Syrian army is doing their bombing from war planes and helicopters. The army is using air strikes so that all they have to lose is ammunition. The FSA does not yet have the antiaircraft missiles to stop the regime’s forces from advancing,” he told The Daily in Arabic.
Most of the FSA’s machine guns are captured from the Syrian army or bought inside Syria.
According to Marwah, “The FSA has not been able to smuggle any heavy arms. They can only smuggle light arms.”
“Syrian army soldiers who are desperate for money are selling their machine guns for 85,000 Syrian pounds,” he said.
According to current conversion rates, this would amount to roughly $1,200.
He also explained that the black market price of the machine gun has doubled over the last few months.
Marwah and Al Shawaf publicly posted photos of themselves carrying guns inside Syria on Facebook. Marwah said that once in Syria, the FSA trained him to use a gun for self-defense.
The FSA accompanied Marwah and Al Shawaf everywhere they went in Syria.
Marwah believes FSA units work in coordination across Syria. “I witnessed coordination between the FSA in Binnish and the FSA in Taftanaz, when they communicated with each other to make sure there were no government war planes in Taftanaz before taking me there. The coordination is how we managed to travel between two different cities,” he explained.
Qatmeh Refugee Camp
On October 27, Marwah and Al Shawaf were accompanied by the FSA to Qatmeh, a refugee camp inside Syria. They distributed food in the camp, as well as toys for the children there.
Marwah said that he thinks donations and humanitarian aid should be directed more toward camps inside Syria. He explained that governmental and non-governmental aid agencies and the media usually focus on the refugee camps outside Syria, which have mainly formed in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
“When we went to Qatmeh, they said the last time they got bread was ten days ago. The situation is really bad in refugee camps inside Syria,” said Marwah. He and Al Shawaf used the $5,000 collected in Canada to buy the food they distributed.
Marwah wrote on Facebook that he was raising money to start a bakery in the camp to help the refugees produce their own bread.
Massacre in Binnish
On November 3, the Syrian army hit Binnish. “The planes hit just two hundred metres from where I was,” Marwah said. “When I heard the plane, I ran to the door to see what was happening. When I ran to the door, along with my friend who came from Canada, we were thrown away from the door by the force of the bomb. I got my leg injured.”
Several people lost their lives in the November 3 attack, according to Marwah. “There were at least twenty rockets that hit Binnish,” he recalled. “I witnessed a massacre.”
Reuters reported that government fighter jets had bombed Binnish that day following an FSA attack on a military airbase near Aleppo. A video uploaded to YouTube by activists showed residents fleeing the main square, as well as dead or injured civilians.
Marwah photographed an old woman whose face had been burned during the attack. He also witnessed a six-year-old girl being dug up from under the ruins of a building that had been hit by a rocket.
“Every time I hear a bomb, the only thing I think is, ‘this bomb might have hit me and that it could be me under those damaged rocks and buildings,’” he said.
Marwah’s older brother, Anas Marwah lives in Ottawa, is involved with the SSAO, and is on the media committee of the SNC. He told The Daily that “the day the bombarding happened on Binnish, we had no way to reach [Yaman] and it was very stressful here for me and my mother.”
“All we hear in the news is that Binnish is being bombarded but we have no clue where Yaman is, and what is he doing,” he continued.
After the massacre, the FSA escorted Marwah and Al Shawaf back to Turkey.
Since the Hafez al-Assad military coup in 1970, the government has prohibited soldiers from serving in their own cities, according to Marwah.
“The soldiers from Damascus are serving in Aleppo, and people from Daraa are sent to Idlib. The government posts people in cities different from their own so that the soldiers don’t feel as if they are killing their own people,” Marwah said in Arabic. “If you tell a guy from Daraa, ‘fire at Hama,’ he will fire.”
“The government posts people in cities different from their own so that the soldiers don’t feel as if they are killing their own people. If you tell a guy from Daraa, ‘fire at Hama,’ he will fire.”
“Government soldiers desert whenever they have the chance. It is very difficult for them to do so, because if they run away they will be killed. The only time they can desert is when they get permission to go visit their families,” Marwah explained.
“This is a revolution of the countryside and the peripheries, and I can guarantee you the rebels I met were all from Syria. They are all fighting for one goal, which is freeing Syria,” Marwah added in Arabic. “I see the revolution lasting at least another year.”
On the politics of naming the uprising, Anas Marwah said, “people are calling it a revolution, people are calling it a civil war, people are calling it a genocide. In this case, there is an oppressive regime killing its own people to stay in power, and they do not care how many civilians die.”
Anas rejects a sectarian interpretation of the war. According to him, the militias supporting the regime are composed of foreigners and Syrians who are being paid important sums by the government.
Marwah spoke to The Daily again on November 4 from his aunt’s house in Antakya, Turkey. She left Syria at the beginning of the revolution because her house was bombed. Her husband was captured by the Syrian army and remains imprisoned.
His aunt initially stayed in a refugee camp in Turkey, but was able to buy a house in Antakya after receiving monetary aid from family abroad and in Turkey.
Marwah has friends and family still living in Latakia and in Damascus, with whom he communicates regularly.
He said he is not worried about retaliations from the Syrian government following media exposure. “The Syrian government knows I’m an activist, they know my dad, and members of my family in Syria are all protesting against the regime, they are all standing against the regime and calling for their freedom.”
At press time, Yaman Marwah had arrived back in Ottawa without incident.