Maya Gebeily

Talking to Qusai Zakarya

Media activist tells NOW of exposure to sarin, starvation campaign

Qusai Zakarya

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, international media has relied on Syrian activists in local “media centers” for updated, accurate news. Now, as foreign correspondents are less likely to report from the ground, these local spokespeople have become the central resources for press coverage of Syria. One such media activist, a 27-year-old former student known as Qusai Zakarya, has been shedding light on two major events in Syria’s war: the August 21, 2013 chemical attack, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s starvation campaign. Zakarya, who fled Syria two months ago and has been meeting with officials and academics in the US, recounts to NOW his personal experiences during last year’s sarin attack and siege. 


NOW: Where were you when the uprising began?


Qusai Zakaraya: I was living in Moadamiya al-Sham. In the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, we were so excited about what was going on – especially that we knew that Hosni Mubarak was very similar to Hafez al-Assad. So we kept on watching the news and keeping our fingers crossed that it would happen in Syria.


On March 15 when we heard what happened in Deraa, it was like day-dreaming to see that happening in Syria. We all started putting out theories about what’s going to happen. Personally, I thought that Bashar al-Assad would go to Deraa and speak with the families there and take the pressure out, because we always knew that Bashar every once in a while would go make some social public relations with the Syrian community. Others started talking about the regime using force. I thought they would be too smart to do it, that they would be smarter than this. Eventually it turned out they were stupid.


NOW: How did you start getting involved?


Zakaraya: Since the beginning of the revolution I had to keep a really low profile to protect my family. Most of the time I went outside of Moadamiya to participate in demonstrations because we knew there were a lot of “rats,” as we call them, for the regime taking information about who was participating in the revolution. The regime was so aggressive about the Palestinians who were participating. They would say that especially the Palestinians have no right to demonstrate because the regime is the protector of the Palestinians in Syria and takes credit for that. I had to be really careful because I knew the consequences would be double if they caught me.


NOW: Tell us about August 21, 2013.


Zakaraya: I was exposed with the chemical attack. My heart stopped for almost three minutes, and I was placed with the deceased for around 45 minutes. I heard the alarm and sirens from Damascus before they launched the chemical missiles. I heard the rockets flying and hitting the ground. When they crashed, they didn’t make the same old fashioned bombing sound. Within seconds, I lost my ability to breathe. I felt like my chest was on fire, my eyes were burning. I wasn’t able to scream to get my friends. I had to open my chest to get my first breath and it was so painful, like someone was opening my chest with a knife of fire. I started hearing the neighbors screaming – they didn’t know what was going on. We went to the street – I always use the expression of judgment day to describe what it felt like for me to see men and women and children and elderly just running and falling on the ground, suffocating.


I was trying to help a small kid of the age of 13 who was suffocating. I always tell people that the expression I saw on his face when he was suffocating was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen during the revolution. You cannot imagine seeing a kid suffocating and vomiting this stuff out of his mouth or her mouth, and then just forget about it. It’s something that will stay in your memory forever, even though I always try to forget. I just can’t. Maybe I think I don’t want to forget, because it shouldn’t happen again. We shouldn’t forget and look the other way.


The minute we arrived at the field hospital, I lost my consciousness. That’s when my heart stopped. Doctors tried to give me CPR and atropine to get my heart working for almost three minutes, but they had so many people to look after. I was placed among the deceased, and I stayed there for almost 45 minutes until one of my friends saw me there. He started shaking me and starting crying, saw that I was moving and called the doctors, who gave me more CPR and atropine and I came to consciousness almost 30 minutes later. I woke up in the street, wearing nothing but my underwear, covered in water, and the earth was literally shaking under my feet. I don’t know. It was a pure miracle that the Free Syrian Army managed to hold the regime back that day. August 21 was the first time in my life that I literally felt death.


NOW: Is that when you started becoming a media activist?


Zakaraya: On August 25, UN inspectors entered Moadamiya and I escorted them because I have English skills. They went to the field hospital and to the crashing zones. They examined rockets and took blood samples. A reporter on BBC saw me on LiveStream and starting asking around for me until he got to a friend of mine called Wassim, a media activist in town. He talked to him and told him that he wanted to speak to the guy talking to the UN team in English. My friend sent another friend to call me – I didn’t even have a phone. I went there, and I talked to a reporter from my friend’s account, and he said he wants to pass my Skype account to other media contacts and journalists as well. My friend asked me how I was going to start working. I didn’t know, and he was kind enough to lend me his cell phone. One thing led to another, and I started talking with different media channels. And here I am.


NOW: Tell us about the starvation campaign. What did the town feel like?


Zakaraya: We had some food storage like rice and other things. Nobody was paying enough attention to what was going to happen. Everybody thought that sooner or later the UN would be able to send aid into Moadamiya. People were too busy with the shelling and the bombardments and invasion attempts and chemical attacks and nobody was paying attention to the malnutrition symptoms. I was one of the first activists in Syria who started identifying Assad’s tactic in using starvation as a weapon of war. I was just looking at people in the town, how most people lost a lot of weight. I lost a lot of weight.


I was begging all the media contacts I knew to write stories about the malnutrition symptoms spreading because of the siege. Nobody said yes, until we started losing people. We only had one field hospital, which only had eight doctors for thousands of civilians. They were dealing with different kinds of wounds because of heavy shelling. No time for anybody to think about going to the field hospital unless you’re injured and wounded. No point for the families to get their [starving] children to the field hospital and ask the doctors what to do – because they didn’t have anything to give them. They just need food, and we didn’t have any food.


NOW: How did you get out of Syria?


Zakaraya: In Moadamiya, we had to sign up for a so-called truce with the regime at the end of 2013 to end the siege. We had to raise the regime flag and hand over weapons, officers, and even some activists to go for interrogation in the 4th division – and in return the regime would allow very small amounts of food in Moadamiya.


Now, my great escape. The regime was always sending me death threats because I made a lot of noise against their war crimes. I was under a lot of pressure inside Moadamiya for a lot of reasons that I won’t be able to mention. I went to Damascus to meet with the chief of staff of the 4th division. He was telling me that they wanted me to start working for them, to tell the world that everything is okay, to use my media contact to shine up their image, especially during Geneva II as the world was watching. In return they’d secure me, get me to my family, and get me whatever I need. They let me stay in Dama Rose hotel in Damascus, and my friend who I had contacted wasn’t able to get me out. I was stuck again on my own.


So I called the secretary of Maher al-Assad. I told him I wanted to go to Lebanon to get some rest after getting beaten, to see my family who I hadn’t seen after two years, to talk to media contacts because they are all stationed in Beirut. I said the journalists won’t believe me if I start talking that things are getting better from Damascus. They will know that I was being pressured to talk, while talking from Beirut will get them to believe me. He said yes. It worked.


But he told me that I cannot use my personal ID to go out. He told me I should get a fake ID, so I managed to get an ID for a guy who doesn’t even look like me. It was a pure miracle for me to get through the Lebanese-Syrian border. In Lebanon, I stayed with friends, most of them – all of them – were foreign reporters that I used to talk to. I felt safer being with foreign reporters. In case anything happens to me, it’d make more noise and I wouldn’t just disappear.


NOW: What was the situation like for you in Lebanon?


Zakaraya: When I came to Beirut, I got a Lebanese cell phone and it was tapped. Sometimes I heard Russian accents while I was talking. Sometimes I’d hear the answering machine of SyriaTel while I was talking to my friends. Sometimes I felt like I was being followed.


After I got the visa to the US, I went to the Lebanese security and I told them that I had had to sneak into Lebanon, but that I have a visa and a plane ticket and I want to get out. They told me that I have only 24 hours to leave or I will be caught and sent back to Syria. They made me pay money and they took my passport and said I’d have to take it the same day from the airport. I went to Lebanese airport security at 8:00 a.m., but they refused to give me back my passport. They started telling me bad words and refused to let me on the plane. I talked to everyone I knew, and suddenly four Lebanese officers came to Beirut airport, gave me my passport back, got me on the plane almost a minute before it left.


NOW: What did you feel like in that moment?


Zakaraya: Ben Affleck in Argo. That’s me.  


NOW: Russia and China just vetoed an attempt to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. You were there at the session, and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power read your story to the Security Council. How did that feel?


Zakaraya: We felt for the first time that we have a voice in the Security Council – for the first time since 1963, since the time that the Baath Party took power. For the first time, we had a voice. And you know that when Syria has the chance to speak [at the Security Council], it’s the dog Bashar al-Jaafari who is speaking. But this time, they asked me two days before the session if I would come, and I said sure. I wrote out my story for Samantha Power, and she read it out loud. I wrote those words, and I lived the words.


NOW: You’ve also been meeting with American officials, analysts, and academics. Do you think these meetings are changing anything?


Zakaraya: Honestly, thanks be to God, yes. I’ll give you an example. We went to Minnesota, where most of the people were from the Non-Violence Movement and the leftists. We had a big meeting in the church: a congressman came, one of the ones who did a solidarity hunger strike with me. I was saying that in Syria, Bashar al-Assad is the cancer. We cannot keep giving bandages; we need to operate and take the cancer out, and we need more support for the FSA. I was expecting that I would finish speaking and they’d attack me. But I was just so clear. I finished, and everyone started clapping. They showed a lot of support. Things like this, you see that you’re making a difference.


NOW: When you look at Syria and see what it has become – not only the country, but the uprising – how do you maintain hope?


Zakaraya: The corruption that the regime has been growing for 40 years can’t be erased in a few months. It’s impossible to get rid of it so fast. This revolution won’t just change Syria, it’ll change the region.


The way I maintain hope is through the kids. The small children give me this positive energy. I would never think that I would get married and have young kids. I don’t have the energy. But to see that we have a lot of kids in the tents, under the shelling … This isn’t for us, this is for them. Don’t they want to live, don’t they need a life?


Maybe if our parents did what we are doing now, we would be living in the luxury of freedom. But now we’re getting beaten up for our kids, and the kids of our kids. This is for our kids.

Zakarya has been in Washington, DC since early March after escaping Syria. (Image via YouTube)

“I always use the expression of judgment day to describe what it felt like for me to see men and women and children and elderly just running and falling on the ground, suffocating.”