For 33-year-old Kholoud Waleed, August is the cruellest month. It was a punishingly hot day in August 2012 on which Syrian government forces stormed her birthplace of Darayya. The Damascus suburb had been active in protests during the Arab Spring and was a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army. There was no option for her family but to flee. When they returned a week later, the civil war that had already raged for a year seemed much closer.
“All I could see were mortar shells, pieces of windows thrown onto the powdery ground,” Waleed told me when we met in London this June, her voice breaking and her sea-green eyes filled with angst. The four years that followed the retaking of Darayya by rebel forces in November 2012 saw an unprecedented escalation of violence and a devastating siege, until a brutal campaign by the Bashar al-Assad regime forced civilians out of the area in August 2016.
Today, Waleed leads a collective whose mission is to smuggle out the truth about the conflict to the world. As part of the Syrian diaspora in London, she has found herself translating a widespread impetus for change into an ever-growing form of resistance.
Her first exposure to the revolution came in the beginning of 2011, when the residents of Darayya took to the streets in large numbers, demanding greater freedom of expression and basic civil rights. The Assad regime responded by arresting, torturing and killing hundreds of activists. The ensuing chaos made it impossible for citizens to keep abreast with the dystopia unfolding before their eyes. Waleed felt compelled to take action to dispel this climate of confusion.
In April that year, a group called The Free Women of Darayya began to gather in the hope of taking a step back and discussing the motives behind each demonstration. “We would just pretend to be celebrating a friend’s engagement party or simply going about our leisure activities, but we were talking politics instead,” Waleed said. “In this way, we would keep ourselves from raising any suspicion.”