Continuing the Peaceful Struggle
On the morning of April 12, 2017, green buses to transport residents willing to leave Madaya in the western Damascus countryside for northern Syria began to gather at the entrance to the town.
The displacement was part of the so-called four cities agreement reached between representatives of the Jaish al-Fattah rebels and Hezbollah forces in Doha. This aimed to lift the siege on Madaya and nearby Zabadani in return for their evacuation, as well as that of Kafriya and al-Fu’ah, two regime-held towns in the Idlib countryside.
Ever since this deal had been announced, Madaya activist Moumina Abu Mesto had been torn. Originally from Zabadani, the 40-year-old agonised over whether to stay and risk arrest for her years of activism against the Syrian regime, or leave and abandon her land, her home and her memories.
In the end, she decided to leave, after she, her husband and other activists received dozens of death threats from Hezbollah.
“Our humanitarian and media activity had been a source of great concern for [Hezbollah],” she said.
Moumina had joined non-violent protests against the regime ever since the revolution began in March 2011. She started in Zabadani, working with a group of local women and participating in strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins, as well as preparing slogans, sewing flags and writing songs.
She was already a veteran of humanitarian relief and social work in her home city, and explained that “I dreamt of a righteous and ideal Syria for all”.
Moumina, like most activists who hid their identity as much as possible for fear of being pursued by the Syrian security services, used a pseudonym for all her revolutionary activities; in her case, Hala al- Ayyam.
However, this didn’t protect her from being arrested several times. While in detention, she witnessed the cruel mistreatment of female detainees and left prison even more determined to continue her peaceful activity.
But after about a year-and-a-half, she was forced to leave Zabadani after it was heavily bombed.
“I didn’t make the decision to leave until shells landed directly in our house,” she said. “I went with my four children to the neighbouring town of Madaya, because I didn’t want to leave the area, and my husband stayed in Zabadani.”
Moumina, together with a group of 15 other activists from Zabadani, went on to found the Dammeh association, which aims to empower, educate and support women through small projects. Moumina also created a centre in Madaya to teach languages and provide psychosocial support to children.
Omar, an activist who worked in both Zabadani and Madaya, recalled the formation of al-Dammeh as “a qualitative shift in the civil work of women, despite the domination of male and military [forces] in the region. They had determination, despite the difficult working conditions, and until today I can still see Moumina’s everlasting smile”.
Moumina’s activities in Madaya didn’t stop there.
“I wasn’t able to just stand and watch the siege and shelling of Zabadani,” she explained. “We smuggled food into the besieged village through tunnels dug between it and Madaya. We tried to serve as mediators and met with senior officials from the state security branch in an unsuccessful attempt to conclude a cease-fire truce.”
Then, in mid-2015, after the siege of Madaya began, Moumina was separated from her children who were outside the town and could not return.
“Despite that, we still fought the siege, as we continued to provide humanitarian assistance to the families most in need, as well as education and psychological support to children,” she said. “This wasn’t easy at all under a siege which lead to the death of dozens of people from hunger and illness. This made us think about the importance of the media in lifting the siege.”
During the following months, Moumina and her colleagues organised social media advocacy campaigns with titles such as Madaya is Dying Of Hunger, Madaya is Dying From Meningitis and Respond, in which activists inside and outside Syria participated in protests and sit- ins.
The most significant demonstration was one during which most of the town’s residents went to the surrounding Hezbollah checkpoints to demand an end to the siege.
Recalling their work with the Dammeh association, Omar said, “The days of the siege were very difficult and we lost all our hope, but Moumina always found a way to encourage us to work, help people and spread the message of their suffering.
“She is the ‘weak-strong’ woman who cries when a child cries and fights with the power of men. I can’t forget the image of how she used to walk in the snow to open the doors of her educational center or how she helped us in our media campaigns. She was able to invent resources out of nothing, so that every day she surprised us.”
However, Hezbollah responded by issuing such sinister threats against Moumina and other activists that they were eventually forced to flee so as to save their own lives and those of their families.
Even after the trauma of her forced displacement and the long journey, which included bus bombings and security issues at the bus crossings in the Ramouse and al-Rashidin areas, Moumina refused to give up. She continued her activism once in Idlib.
“I began attending trainings of trainers and English lessons. I also joined the political science department at Rushd University and I still insist on continuing my struggle to return to al- Zabadani,” she said.
“I have suffered many losses in my life,” she said. “I witnessed the death of my daughter Ayah, the martyrdom of my brother Jihad and the destruction of my home, as well as not seeing my children for two consecutive years and being away from my village. [Nonetheless]I want to continue my non-violent struggle to reach my goals building peace and human rights.”