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Four Syrian Survivors Speak at USF

Mortar shellings, perpetual hunger, and constantly fearing for your life. These are the conditions many Syrian civilians are living through at this moment.

Four survivors of the Syrian war visited the University of South Florida on Saturday to share their stories as part of the national campaign, "Voices from Syria". The North American tour is part of a push to increase awareness of that nation's suffering.

One of the war survivors was 24-year-old Hiba Sawan, who was inspired by her father to become involved in the opposition.

"I had a very strong relationship with my dad, who taught me a lot about how the regime was controlling Syria for more than 40 years," Sawan said. "So from my early childhood years I would like to change the situation in Syria and to topple off the regime."

She joined the non-violent citizen movement at the beginning of the revolution, but she said the regime was brutal. Sawan said it was this brutality that forced the movement to take up arms.

"At that time we had a lot of injured people and we had a lot of murders, so we weren't able to take them to the hospital and treat them," Sawan said. "So we had to learn how to be nurses and to learn how to give the first aid for the injured people."

One day in late 2011, Sawan and her father were helping those injured from an attack on her hometown of Moadamiyeh, a suburb of the capital Damascus. The following day he was arrested by regime forces. She hasn't heard from him since.

"Until now he's still detained. From that time my personal suffering started," Sawan said. "But I have to continue his way and I have to continue what he taught me to do in my life because he was the first one who encouraged me to do everything in the revolution."

Sawan's cousin, 23-year-old Ameenah Sawan, was also a volunteer nurse. She described the scene at the hospital the day of the chemical attacks that were allegedly carried out by the regime.

"We saw the people suffocating and rushing, they were spasming and we couldn't do anything to them," Ameenah Sawan said, "just taking blankets and using them to put vinegar on their noses and doing CPR to help them breathe."

It wasn't long before the volunteers began feeling the effects of the sarin gas as well. One of the doctors who was feeling sick approached Ameenah and handed her a baby that he said needed medical attention.

"That baby was about 10-months old. And I took the kid and I rushed to the room to try to do CPR," Sawan said. "Then Hiba entered the room and told me, 'Ameenah, what are you doing? This kid is already dead.' And I thought that we have to do something. And then she said 'His whole family were killed. Why do you want to wake him up? Let him rest.'"

Tales of whole families being wiped out are common.

36-year-old Mohammad Khair al-Wazir is a native of Douma, located northeast of Damascus. He started off protesting in peaceful demonstrations and later documenting the regime's human rights violations. He said that was when he was arrested and eventually tortured. After he was released, he returned to find Douma besieged.

"I found a safe route, and I went to my home, spoke with my wife and my children for half an hour, knowing that half an hour would be the last time I might be able to see them."

al-Wazir then moved to Damascus and lived in hiding until March 2013, when he found out his house had been shelled and his pregnant wife needed blood. Her blood type was the rare O-negative blood, making it that much more difficult to com across in the war-torn country. Nonetheless, he found some and rushed to Douma, coming under fire along the way.

"We were miraculously able to escape the shooting. I arrived to the hospital, but it was too late. My wife was already dead."

Despite this, doctors performed surgery on al-Wazir's deceased wife and saved their baby's life.

"I said a final farewell to my wife and I took off with my baby knowing that we may never be able to celebrate his birthday."

The stories don't end there.

34-year-old Anas al-Dabbas was almost executed by regime soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. al-Dabbas says the regime forces had no list of wanted terrorists and were targeting and executing people randomly.

"One of the young men who they started asking questions, they looked at him and told him, 'Your eyes look like you're a terrorist, so you are a terrorist,'" al-Dabbas said. "They were judging them from the color of their eyes and executing them based on that."

Many believe the war revolves around the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam, but the survivors maintain it didn't start that way. They said it wasn't until  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brought in outside militias such as Hezbollah that it turned sectarian. And at the end of the day, they say it's still Syrian blood being spilled.

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