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Syrian novelist goes underground, pens 100 days of horror

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 11:50 AM EDT, Sun September 16, 2012
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian novelist goes undercover to document opposition's stories
  • She's Alawite and was disowned by her family for speaking out against regime
  • Samar Yazbek's story is chronicled in her new book, "A Woman in the Crossfire"
  • "This regime ... they are monstrous people," she says

(CNN) -- By the time the officer slapped her across the face, she already felt dead.

I'm not getting up. Let him do what he wants.

Samar Yazbek, a woman lauded as one of Syria's most gifted novelists, had fallen to her knees. She was a lump of snot and blood, girding herself for the next blow.

Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek risked it all to stay in her country and document the opposition\'s stories.
Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek risked it all to stay in her country and document the opposition's stories.

"Well, well, well, what a hero," the officer laughed. "You went down with just one slap. Isn't it awful when such an angelic face gets hit?"

He spat on her and cursed. Her ears rang.

"Get up!" he ordered.

She inhaled, pressing her ribcage against a switchblade tucked under her bra. She'd kept it with her everywhere. It was a tiny thing, really, a laughable defense against a sniper that had, just a few weeks before, killed a young man standing not even an inch from her at a protest.

Still, the blade was a comfort. She liked to imagine plunging it into the necks of men like the officer breathing in her face.

"Cat got your tongue?" he sneered. "Your tongue should be torn out."

Did she not understand family and loyalty? he lectured. She was from a prominent Alawite family. They were the same sect as the president. Where was her pride? Why had she written things against Bashar al-Assad on her Facebook page? he demanded. She had brought shame on everyone around her.

The officer reached out again, this time brushing his palm against her cheek. Tauntingly light, this slap was enough. It ignited a rage in her.

She got to her feet and pulled out the knife.

Wild, she pressed the blade against her own heart.

"What do you want!?" she howled.

Shocked, he stepped back.

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"Put the knife down, you lunatic," he said, taking a seat behind his desk.

This is the deal we have for you, he explained: Go on Syrian state TV. Use that famous, pretty face, your prestige as a novelist and noted screenwriter, and pledge allegiance to al-Assad.

No way, she said.

The officer's phone rang, and he walked away to take it.

"This is your last warning," he told her.

A few beats later, two muscled men, both in regular clothes, walked in. They blindfolded her.

"Where are you taking me?!" she shouted.

"Just a short trip," one answered. "So you'll write better."

Disowned

That was a single day of the almost 100 that Samar Yazbek spent defying people ready and willing to end her last year. She recounts it in great detail in her new memoir, "A Woman Caught in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution."

The 42-year-old writer is a very unlikely revolutionary, certainly an unexpected presence among the Free Syrian Army. Yazbek is the odd branch on her family tree. Her family is prominent in Syria. She's even distantly related to Osama bin Laden.

Throughout much of her life, she moved in a rarefied world. An intellectual, she's been lauded for her poetry, acclaimed fiction and screenwriting. She even hosted a daily television talk show.

Yazbek was part of a community of creative Syrians who, for years, loathed President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, who took control in 1970. Yet those artists, if they wanted their work to be seen, had to submit to government censorship committees. Either that, or most likely, their work would not be seen.

So when al-Assad's forces began cracking down on anti-government protesters last year, some of those artists moved to Beirut or some other nearby cosmopolitan city.

Who could have known that the months of street violence would have become an all-out horror movie in 2012?

Yazbek couldn't have seen it coming. Like that young man standing next to her at a rally.

"We were at a peaceful protest, standing and suddenly bullets were fired from a sniper, killing a guy -- he was not even one centimeter from me," Yazbek explained through an Arabic translator in a recent CNN interview.

The crowd dissolved into chaos.

"This was my first experience seeing a man getting killed," she remembered, her voice faint. "It was very painful. I carried him in my arms.

"These protesters (were unarmed)," Yazbek said. "They were carrying roses.

"This regime ... they are monstrous people."

Rather than scare her, the experience emboldened Yazbek. She felt she had a job she could and must do: document.

She began to travel around Syria, usually obscuring her face with a headscarf. With the help of brave drivers and friends who risked their own lives, she made it into villages shelled half to oblivion. In one, she hunkered down with the men fighting in the Free Syrian Army. They ate together as bombs exploded nearby.

As we were sitting out on the balcony overlooking an olive orchard, the bombs started falling all around us. Nearby, the town of Taftanaz was being shelled; we could see it from the balcony. I asked the head of the division, who'd prepared dinner for us, "Aren't you afraid that a bomb might fall on your heads right now?" He replied: "We aren't afraid. Death has become a part of our lives."

'No to Death, Yes to Life'

"Crossfire" is a diary of the first few months of the uprising, from March 25 to July 9, 2011, containing interviews with people fighting the regime and innocents caught in the middle.

The reader watches brave women in Damascus who keep hold of signs, "No to Death, Yes to Life" while male security officers attack them. They listen in on conversations among Alawite who meet, in secret, at a friend's home to sing and post anti-al-Assad songs online. They hear the story of a journalist who was in hiding, afraid the regime will punish him for documenting protests and a doctor horrified by not having enough space to store so many dead bodies.

A volunteer in the security forces tells Yazbek that during a siege in Jisr al-Shughur near Aleppo, he got confused about who the enemy was.

"I no longer knew what I was supposed to do. Suddenly I was along amidst the rubble and I started running, trying to hide my identity," he said.

He tried to disappear down an alleyway, but panicked when he saw a man holding a bag walking toward him. As the man got closer, it was clear there was food in the bag.

The man, afraid too, asked, "Are you with security?"

The officer said he was and waited to be killed.

Instead, the man took the officer to his home, hid him and later drove the volunteer officer at a secure location.

"We aren't animals," the man explained, "and I know you're not a killer."

Dear traitor

"Crossfire" is also the novelist's scrapbook. It's heavy and horrible, like so much related to the war. But the book also reminds that Syria is -- was -- utterly beautiful. Yazbek takes us to its mountains. We can smell its lemon trees and ride along its country roads.

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We're with her as she swoops a child into her arms who was instantly orphaned at a protest. The child's parents were yanked into a bus and driven off by security forces. The boy, as she and others ran, somehow got away from her and disappeared into the chaotic crowd. The regime claims that "terrorists" are to blame.

Then there was the bare-chested teenager. Among his friends, protesting, he'd stood in front of security forces and ripped his shirt off. He puffed his chest out in defiance, a witness told Yazbek, and was shot.

The boy might not have been older than her own daughter, 17, in 2011. Yazbek had lived in Damascus as a single mom for 15 years. She got on fine. She did it. Her family was a strength.

But publicly speaking in support of those who want al-Assad gone, her family has disowned her.

A childhood friend texted her: Dear traitor even god's with the president and you're still lost

Leaflets were scattered near her home calling her a traitor and urging people to assassinate her. Government websites posted fake, damning stories about her. One story alleged she had a relationship with American agents.

Her Facebook page, on which she wrote support for the opposition, was hacked. Someone left a post that her daughter was in danger.

She answered her phone and heard: "If you don't disappear, Samar Yazbek, I'll make you disappear from the face of the Earth."

Sleep stopped. Xanax helped knock her out, at least for a few hours at a time.

"The murderers will soon fall asleep," she writes, "and we'll remain the guardians of anxiety."

The intimidation tour

Yazbek was arrested so many times, the violation became almost routine. She went with them usually. They bothered to knock on her door. They won't kill me, she began to believe. She was too well-known. It wouldn't be worth the trouble.

But that day in May 2011, she was slapped over and over again. She pulled her switchblade and the hulking men came in to blindfold her.

Just a short trip. So you'll write better.

They dragged her from the officer's room, down a set of narrow stairs, into a pitch-black corridor.

"A faint light seeped in; I didn't know it was from a hole in the ceiling but it produced dim lines of visibility that allowed me to see young men ...their tender young bodies clear under all the blood, their hands hanging from metal clamps, and the tips of their toes just barely touching the ground.

"Blood coursed down their bodies: fresh blood, dried blood, deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter. Their faces hung downwards, in a state of unconsciousness, swinging there like sides of beef." One of the prisoners turned in her direction. His nose was gone and eyes swollen shut.

Horrified, she lost her footing.

"C'mon, man," one guard said. "She couldn't handle a single slap!"

"She'd just die," the other said, "if we gave her the tire!"

So they gave her the tour. It's likely Yazbek was in one of several places designed for torture that Human Rights Watch reported in July had been set up around the country.

When the men finally pulled her back into the officer's room, she vomited and passed out.

Eventually, she left, and staggered home, in a daze.

"I wasn't the person I had been before," she writes. "I observed myself ... a woman caught somewhere between life and death. I saw her toss her keys on the table and then light up her cigarette. The woman closed her eyes and put the blindfold back on, as though she were on stage, and those image of the mutilated bodies returned."

A mother and daughter

Yazbek was born in 1970, the year Hafez Assad took control of Syria in a coup. Pictures of Hafez, and later his son -- their matching sloping chins and thin-mustaches -- wallpapered Syria. Grocery stores, restaurants, schools. Yazbek and her classmates would have to sing songs every day praising the president.

"It's like he was God, and he controlled our lives," she told CNN.

I wasn't the person I had been before. I observed myself ... a woman caught somewhere between life and death.
Samar Yazbek, "A Woman Caught in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution."

When she was a teenager, she became conscious that her friends were disappearing because they had given some lip at some point that the regime didn't like. You could be jailed for saying something against the regime, she said, and the mukhabarat, or secret police, had ears everywhere.

Bashar al-Assad, a trained eye doctor, took control of the presidency in 2000 when his father died. He was rubber-stamped into power by parliament.

Yazbek's own daughter was just a little girl then.

Yazbek divorced her husband when her daughter was 2 and moved to Damascus. A single mom, Yazbek didn't exactly have an easy go. She dealt with traditionalists, conservatives, people who judged her. But Damascus was also becoming increasing modern.

The global arts community lavished praise on the capital and the reform-promising al-Assad and his British-born wife. Asma al-Assad.

Yazbek is careful not to give details about her daughter (her name is not included in the book), but the girl does make heartbreaking cameos -- mostly fights with her mother. The girl pleaded with her mother to stop going to protests.

Yazbek writes about one of their fights:

She tells me impatiently, 'They're going to kill you. In the village, they said they're going to kill you. Everybody's saying that, everybody's cursing you and insulting you, and in Jableh (Yazbek's hometown) they were handing out flyers accusing you of treason!'"

I fall silent and I go to my room and cry. I don't want her to see my tears, even as she continues yelling.

The teen begged her mother to do what the security forces kept asking her to do -- go on television and say she supports the regime.

"I won't do it!" Yazbek snapped.

"And I won't leave with you," her daughter cried.

Yazbek heard her daughter stomped to her room, scream and break things.

"I would be wracked with crying fits in the middle of the night ... the images ...(of) my daughter with her throat slit from ear to ear and bathed in strange colours flickered in front of my eyes as I awoke," she writes.

From a distance

Yazbek says now her daughter has come around. She sees clearer what her mother felt she had to do.

"There were a lot of incidents that she did not understand and she would feel angry about how her life has changed," she answered. "She has read (my book), and (she) changed. I believe she is proud now. She is standing by me."

Yazbek and her daughter now live in Europe. She did not want to leave Syria. But so many friends, even those with an ear close to al-Assad, told her to get out. Luck could only last for so long. She'd done what she could.

It had to be about her daughter, their survival together.

It's so easy for outsiders to say -- Well, just leave. It's more complicated than that.

To leave your country is to give up part of your identity.

"It means shedding my skin," she writes, "casting away my heart and everything I ever wanted to do."

Over the past several months, Yazbek has adjusted to her new city, and her daughter is making friends. But the grotesque footage is always on the news, and she watches it. Of course, her anxiety is still there.

She still cannot sleep.

When asked about her family, she politely says she doesn't want to talk about them, not out of anger but concern for their safety.

Sometimes she talks to her friends in Syria. She doesn't feel watched now, but she knows they cannot say the same.

From this new distance, she has done what she can. She's worked with refugees, especially women, and tried to record their stories.

Does she want to go back, go home?

She lingers a little, then says no.

Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man?

CNN's Tracy Doueiry contributed to this report.

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