It started off with a headache. On Saturday morning a message from a facebook friend on my phone snapped me out of the first stages of limbo between sleep and consciousness. "There are reports that Mohamad Rafea who participated in your documentary has been murdered." Suddenly awake, my head cracked open and the beginning of a migraine that has yet to end set in.
I fumbled for my phone and dialled his number. "Beep, beep, beep" and back to my home screen. Nothing. A boulder hit my stomach. A few messages later and then contact with Mohamad’s cousin and 26 hours of desperate hope began. He had been kidnapped, a terrorist group that was set up just in August, Kutayabat Ahfaad al Sadeeq, claimed they had "executed" him outside of his home in Damascus’ Barzeh district, but provided no evidence - no photo, video or body.
Sunday morning and his father received a private number call from his killers. How did he survive that phone call? How did he survive the journey to collect his son’s mutilated and tortured body, discarded in a field? The immense suffering his family have endured since Friday night, is impossible to contemplate. It is only the sound of his father’s voice, and the images of his mother, strong and radiantly proud at his funeral ceremony, that will have given a glimmer of hope to the hundreds of thousands that now mourn.
Since Saturday morning, my own my mind has leapt between the last time we spoke, now about a week ago, to the first time we met and every moment in between. Each memory deepens the agony and sharpens the torturous truth that he is gone. And now the picture of him just after his brutal murder, which ultimately will be weighed out by the overwhelming memories of love he filled so many with.
My friendship with Mohamad began on the second day of a trip to Syria I made in January this year. Following a televised speech by President Bashar al-Assad at Damascus university on January 10th, a contingent of western journalists that arrived at the same time as me were determined to fulfil the reason for their visit: to find anti-government protests and dissidents who would slam the Syrian government. But as they eagerly plotted trips to the Damascus district of Douma, with the day ahead of me I wanted to orientate myself around city and get a sense of where I was. I headed out of the doors of that contingent’s hotel where we had watched the speech, and began my directionless wandering through the capital. Very soon, the sounds of distant chanting would draw me to its direction and in Sabaa Bahrat Square I would find their source. In front of the Central Bank, in the middle of the day about a thousand people had seemingly spontaneously gathered as a response to the President’s first public address in months. The contingent of western journalists were nowhere to be seen, but with the protesters clinging to posters of the President, it seemed to be the opposite of what they were desperately looking for. I was intrigued, and set about trying to get people to agree to speak on camera in English about why they were there. After several “we don’t speak English”, in apparently perfect English, I got the picture. As a westerner, I symbolised what was working to tear their country apart and what they were standing against.
Half-an-hour of a definite defiance from the crowd towards my advances for interviews, I decided to pack up my camera and continue my directionless wandering. As I began to turn my back, a call of "Hey where are you from?" stopped me. That was the moment I met Mohamad, the young Syrian actor, most well known in his rich career that started as a young boy from the Bab al-Hara series.
And with him at my side I went from being a somewhat hostile symbol, to someone that the crowd’s beloved Mohamad had taken a chance on.
After interviewing him briefly, he pulled me up onto the stage and requested the chanting crowd to say something in English. The reply was unanimous "fuck you Al Jazeera....fuck you BBC". I fantasised about the faces of the western journalists had they been amongst the crowd.
As the protest wound down, Mohamad and I grabbed a quick coffee at a kiosk looking on to the square. Something had been playing on my mind and I wanted to run it past my new friend. Doing so, or rather Mohamad’s response, could well have saved my life. The western journalists were determined to visit Syria’s most hostile areas, convinced that there they would find bastions of anti-government activism. Rejecting the government’s advice that Homs, Hama and other areas were too dangerous for anyone to visit and accusing it of trying to restrict their press freedom, they organised their own trip to Homs, scheduled the day after I met Mohamad. My friend and Fars News Agency colleague Mostafa and I were in two minds about whether to join them, but the little I knew about Homs was veering me strongly towards it being a very bad idea. Still, a small part of me nagged that as a journalist I had a special responsibility to go and see for myself.
"No way!" Mohamad insisted. "There is no way you can go to Homs," at which he called out to someone in the crowd who he introduced to me as a resident from Homs. "Tell her what Homs is like," he demanded. His response of his own experience having to flee from the thousands of terrorists that had embedded themselves in the city, and Mohamad’s emphatic reaction, tipped my previous hesitance over into a decision to not take such an apparent risk.
The next day, the 1,000 in Sabaa Bahrat Square swelled to hundreds of thousands in Umayyad Square at a monumental protest where President Assad made an appearance with his wife and children. Mostafa and I saw Mohamad briefly, exchanged greetings then hurried to the TV station where I was almost overdue to do a interview with Russia Today about the huge demonstration. Inside the building and with just seconds left before going live, Mostafa’s reaction to a phone call made me freeze. “Lizzie, the journalists were attacked in Homs, one of them has been killed." Stunned, but no time to think, I went on air.
Mohamad called later that night, he had heard the news too and we expressed our sorrow at the tragedy, whereby finally it was confirmed that seven Syrians were killed in the attack along with one France 2 journalist. I thanked him for his unequivocal insistence the day before that I stay away from Homs. Several days later when we were all struck by some kind of bronchitis, and at 2am one morning when I was close to losing consciousness, I would experience once again the lengths Mohamad would go to ensure he could prevent harm wherever possible. After replying negatively to his text message inquiry if I was ok, like lightning he was there, whisking me to a night clinic.
When we weren’t laying low at night time struggling with this virus, Mohamad would take me to the array of cafes and restaurants that help make Damascus one of the most exciting and welcoming cities I have visited. The first such occasion was on the day of the Homs attack. Winding down from the shock in a Bab Touma cafe, we distracted ourselves by thrashing out each other’s analysis of Syria and global events. As Mohamad chuffed away on cigarettes, I on my recently accomplished non-smoking high horse remarked how much he smoked. "Would you believe that I didn’t smoke before this crisis?" he asked, "It has changed everything."
The next night, as we listened to live Debka and patriotic Syrian music at another of his favourite haunts, I fell off my high horse, and picked up the habit again, but it didn’t occur to him to taunt me. After a few songs, in between singing his tormented heart out to no one person but to the whole of Syria, and translating some of the lyrics, he took the microphone, and welcomed me to the country. In the morning Mostafa chastised me jokingly for leaving him out of the fun.
Because of Mohamad, my planned one week trip extended into three, as he more than stayed true to his promise that night as we left the music behind, that if I cared about speaking the truth about Syria, then he would do everything he could to support me to do so.
The mornings me and Mostafa would spend together, visiting various places, meeting and interviewing people and plotting how we could be most effective in trying to shine a light through the media blackout on the real causes and effects of the crisis.
In the afternoon, Mohamad would join us, and with his endless friends, contacts and back to front knowledge of Syria, he helped us to create ideas and realise them. It was because of Mohamad that we decided with no resources, we would be able to put together a documentary that would address the main media distortions that many Syrians hold responsible for the bloodshed in their country.
As night turned into morning, we would wind down, in a cafe or restaurant and set about our endless discussions. Mohamad’s generosity often extended to welcoming us into his humble family home where we were privileged to meet his equally golden hearted parents of whom Mohamad resembles a perfect mix of. His mother, radiating with pride for her children, at the same time like her son held in her eyes an undisguisable sadness.
And amidst all of my beautiful memories of Mohamad’s friendship the truth is that every second of Mohamad’s life since the crisis began, and particularly as a Palestinian, much of his life before then, was ridden with great personal agony borne out of his bleeding homelands.
In the wake of terrorist bombings, Mohamad was often the first to find himself in ensuing carnage, helping to recover the bodies and body parts of Damascus’ children. A year previously he had seen his cousin shot dead in front on his eyes by Israeli forces during Naqba day protests on the border. And so the pain felt by many of those who are grieving for Mohamad now, is a pain that Mohamad lived with too in life, but rather than drive him to hate, his boundless capacity to love never faltered.
There wasn’t a moment where he responded impatiently to the often ignorant questions I filled the days and nights firing at him. What about religion, he was a Sunni, was he representative of Sunnis who the media was otherwise claiming had been marginalised by the government? "I never talked before all of this about being Sunni, what someone’s religious beliefs are never concerned us before and they don’t concern me now. I do not want to mention that I am Sunni in any interview. We are Syrian," he would respond. Three weeks down the line and a few days before I left, he would give me the scented rosary beads that he wore round his neck, as just one of the many symbols of his love for all of his country’s religions.
What about the Palestinian Resistance? Why are Hamas faltering on their long-time Syrian government ally? The answer to this is perhaps one of the things that burned Mohamad most deeply. He recounted a trip he had made with a delegation of 50 or so other Syrians to Cairo where they had travelled to deliver a letter of condemnation for the Arab League’s role in facilitating the armed opposition in Syria. The delegation was met with a violent response by Egyptian protesters and he showed me pictures of injuries inflicted on women and elderly delegates. "How could the Arab League claim they could protect Syrian civilians when they couldn’t even protect 50 Syrians in Cairo?" he fumed. But the crux of his torment was Israel, and how his fellow Arabs that were directly or inadvertently supporting the division of Syria, had seemingly forgotten that their first regional enemy was Israel. Such stances could only fuel sectarianism, weaken Arab unity and ultimately weaken anti-zionist resistance.
His despair was summed up when we interviewed him for the documentary that he featured in, and ultimately was the glue for, having helped us to organise all of its logistics in Damascus. I will release his full interview in the coming days:
"The problem [is] that Arab people and Arab leaders are fighting me to serve Israel. I’m like a brother to them, you know? I don’t know why they are fighting me as a Syrian. We are like brothers. We must fight Israel together, because Israel came and took our land.
…I want to tell that my first enemy is Israel so I’m going to tell these people to go and fight Israel in [Palestine’s] lands and be like Fedayeen which is the most strongest man in the whole world, Fedayeen Palestine.”
His fundamental conviction that anything but Syria as a whole would be not just a catastrophe for Syrians, but regionally and globally, made it impossible for him to conceive of the possibility that the primarily western sponsored campaign would succeed in getting rid of the government. An achievement which like in Libya would cause a power vacuum that would be filled by an endless array of armed militias scrambling for a slice of Syrian territory, while millions of citizens would be relegated to a future determined by whether or not the slice they were on was ruled by a group that favoured their religious, ethnic or political affiliation.
Very late one night, after a long day running around and negotiating our schedule with the blackouts caused by the ongoing terrorist attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, we relaxed with coffee in the production company offices of a Kurdish friend of his, who he affectionately called "Shakal", or uncle, which is how I remember him. A report on Saudi Arabia’s notoriously anti-Syrian government and pro-western Al-Arabiya broke the duo’s conversation. Beaming footage of several cars laden with armed men, it claimed the fighters had taken control of nearby Zabadani on the Lebanese border.
Mohamad insisted that like many of the other Al-Arabiya reports, it was a fake and nothing more than propaganda, Shakal was much less sceptical.
Mohamad and I left, and got in his car so he could drop me off at my hotel. He had been on and off the phone since the report and with each phone call he became more certain of his inital disbelief. "Are you really sure? But what about the pictures?" I quizzed. "I am going to Zabadani, do you want to come with me?" he retorted. I looked at him, and nearly two weeks into spending every day of being taken care of by him, I knew him well enough that it was nowhere within him to take the slightest risk of putting another person in harms way. So off we went.
As we drove through the freezing night, and got higher and higher, and closer towards Zabadani, snow began to fall. Not a checkpoint on the way, until we stopped at the entrance to Zabadani. There, a small group of no more than five soldiers huddled around a fire, relaxed and chatting away. Mohamad wound down the window, told them about the report and they immediately laughed. "Go right through," they said. "Drive all the way into Lebanon if you want."
Right through to the centre of the city and not a soul in sight, let alone the convoys of armed anti-government fighters we had seen beaming supposedly live on Al-Arabiya about 45 minutes before. No gunshots, or sounds of clashes, just a city sleeping. Mohamad was right, but he could not have slept even the few hours that he caught every day, without seeing it for himself.
Very quickly after that night, the apparently fake images of armed oppositionists inside Zabadani, became reality. Bearing out what Mohamad concluded was a media campaign that created facts on the ground.
And in the months after I said goodbye to Mohammad just before I went through immigration in Damascus airport, for what I never expected to be the last time I would see him, the threat of Mohamad’s and potentially the world’s worst nightmare has only become graver. While he continued to hold on to his conviction that Syria would defeat imperialism’s conspiracy to destroy it, every time we spoke, up until our last conversation about a week ago, the ever increasing horrors wreaked by that conspiracy haunted him.
His living torment is now over, but his conviction lives on through the friendships and love he nurtured in so many people. And as my headache that started on Saturday morning morphs into the agonising acceptance that he is gone, I am deeply thankful to Mohamad that through our short friendship I have learnt and will continue to learn life long lessons from his limitless capacity to not just value love for humanity above all else, but to practise that love.
It is a tragic irony that those who took his life, and those who revel in the taking of his life, including the mainstream western and Arab media, seek to brand him as being a figure of hate - a government thug who targeted innocent opposition activists, based as so often, on not the slightest shred of evidence.
Stained with the obvious hypocrisy of their absent remorse for his torture and murder, it is not those who never knew Mohamad who will define his legacy, but he himself, those he loved, those who loved him and perhaps more than anyone, those who gave him life.
In the immediate wake of the news of his murder, his father, Ahmad Rafea’s public words epitomised why his son was the Syrian, the Palestinian and the human being that he was. Displaying a degree of strength and humanity that to me has only been the stuff of legends, his father wished nothing but forgiveness for the men who so horrendously stole his son and saluted all those martyred for defending Syria’s unity, of whom Mohamad is amongst, having "paid the price for loving his nation and people with his martyrdom."
lizzie-phelan.blogspot, 5 November, 2012.
Mohamad Rafea was a young Syro-Palestinian actor, best known for his work on “Bab al Hara” (The Neighborhood’s Door), famous in the Arab world.
Lizzie Phelan is an independent journalist and commentator. She had reported from Tripoli during NATO’s bombing campaign and takeover of the capital.