Amid the roar of gunfire and explosions echoing through Syria’s streets, the non-violent activists who launched the revolt against President Bashar Al Assad are struggling to make their voices heard.
But although the revolt they set off has morphed into a bloody insurgency, many believe there is still room for peaceful activism in strife-torn Syria.
“We started this revolution to rid the system of violence, not merely to oust Al Assad,” said Mohammad Qoraytem, a 33-year-old Syrian activist in Daraya, a town southwest of Damascus.
“Ours is an uprising of principles,” he told AFP via the internet.
Considered a heartland of non-violent activism, Daraya was the site of the worst massacre in Syria’s 19-month conflict, with more than 500 people killed there in late August, according to monitors.
But two months after the massacre, activists there said they are continuing to work in the non-violent spirit of the Arab Spring that overthrew regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and inspired Syria’s revolutionaries.
“Be the revolution,” reads one sign posted on the streets of Daraya, according to photographs sent to AFP. “Freedom, justice, dignity,” reads another.
Qoraytem blamed Al Assad for forcing rebels to take up arms and said that although he understands why many people have taken the path of violence, he continues to believe in peaceful resistance.
“I lost some of my relatives in the massacre, but revenge will not help me bring them back,” he said.
Despite the violence that has engulfed the country, activists say thousands of Syrians continue to brave the streets each Friday to protest, from small towns in the countryside to the urban battlegrounds of major cities.
“We don’t just organise protests,” said Qoraytem. “We also work with children who have suffered violence, provide support to detainees’ families and publish revolutionary newspapers.”
And some believe peaceful activism still poses more of a threat to the regime than the insurgency, because it has the potential to change society as a whole and not just the government.
“In a militarised revolt you trade weapons for weapons, but with a peaceful uprising you have a much better chance of bringing democracy… and that’s when people will rally to your side,” said Shadi Abu Karam, a 26-year-old activist from Damascus who left Syria under pressure from the regime.
Abu Karam is also a staunch critic of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s human rights abuses.
“When you are shooting, you have no time to think about what kind of democracy you want. You’re just interested in killing,” Abu Karam said in an interview in Beirut.
After some 35,000 deaths in Syria, according to monitors, many worry about the country’s future following an armed rebellion.
“I know the regime will fall, it’s just a matter of time. But I worry about the fate of Syria,” said a 31-year-old regime opponent who has left Syria and identified himself only as Mousa.
“Now everyone in Syria is armed, and weapons bring out the worst in people,” he told AFP in Beirut, smiling only when reminiscing about the peaceful start of the revolt. “Weapons and power are addictive.”
Some activists said that despite their preference for peaceful action, they have little choice but to work with armed groups.
“There are many contradictions in Syria’s revolt,” said an activist in the central province of Hama who identified himself as Abu Ghazi.
For instance, those working to provide humanitarian support to displaced families have to coordinate with rebels in order to move through the country, he said.
“The revolt became militarised because the army was so violent against peaceful protesters that soldiers and officers, moved by their conscience, started to defect,” said Abu Ghazi.
“Ironically, it was our pacifism that gave rise to the insurgency.”
And the longer the killing goes on, the more difficult it will be for peace to return to Syria should the regime fall, he said.
“This is not a revolution of prophets or angels. We are human too.”