Issue 59 - Article 7

'You got the stuff?': humanitarian activist networks in Syria

November 26, 2013
Dalia Abdelwahid*
A field hospital inside Syria

Organisers of anti-government protests in Syria were rapidly forced underground by the state’s heavy security response. The networks and techniques that activists had honed to stage demonstrations, evading pervasive government surveillance, interference, detention and assault, were soon put to use in delivering a wide range of humanitarian and social support. This article focuses on the emergence, function and structure of these hybrid networks, particularly in Damascus, taking into consideration the repressive security conditions they operated in, the significance of such networks from the perspective of the regime and the implications for the social fabric of Syria overall.

These networks changed as the uprising became militarised, with a subsequent shift in the tone and rhetoric of the movement. Early on in the uprising, demonstrating, association or even sympathy for demonstrators became criminalised and dangerous.

What later would become broader humanitarian networks began working on securing basic medical supplies and treatment for injured demonstrators. While the use of violence by security forces in coordination with militias to disperse demonstrations was confrontational and aggressive, it was the follow-up searches exercised by security forces in pharmacies and hospitals that pushed medical care for wounded protesters underground.

Security forces regularly tracked the path of those transporting the wounded, raided hospitals and interrogated pharmacists to see if anyone had come in asking for disinfectant or bandages. People wounded in a demonstration needed a house in which to recover far away from neighborhoods likely to be raided. This fostered not only fear among people who participated in demonstrations, but also prevented people with unrelated injuries from seeking medical attention. This was particularly the case if the individual was from an area of the city where demonstrations were known to be held.

The emergence of networks

Preparing for a demonstration also entailed preparing access points for medical treatment and planning ahead for injuries. This required lengthy groundwork, from securing doctors in various parts of the city where checkpoints would not be a serious obstacle, to providing basic training on first aid and more serious medical treatment. It was this initial need that prompted ordinary citizens, some well-connected, some not, to organise medical networks to secure medical professionals, equipment and locations for treatment. In essence this involved networking with doctors willing to treat wounded protesters, broadening the scope, location and network as much as possible, and included (at great risk) bringing in medical supplies (such as empty blood bags) from Beirut or Amman (buying such items in Damascus would raise suspicions), or finding ‘safe’ pharmacies to secure basic supplies.

As it was often impossible for the doctor to see patients at his or her clinic, consultations were frequently held in people’s homes. Stopping bleeding until a doctor was available became a common need. Any tool to stop hemorrhaging was used, including anti-hemorrhage bandages – some treated with homemade pastes – to stabilise the patient until formal (or semi-formal) medical treatment was available. As this expanded, first aid and more advanced medical training was organised by activists in areas where demonstrations were continuing. Small ‘field hospitals’ were established. However, while field hospitals in the demonstrations in Egypt were meant to assist on-site at demonstrations for efficiency and safety, Syrian field hospitals were usually far from the site of the demonstration and far from public view, in hopes of not being raided and patients and volunteers apprehended and punished. In addition, networks began connecting clandestinely with hospitals that agreed to take seriously ill patients through connections and personal and established trust. This became more urgent as wounds increased in number and severity.

The functions of humanitarian networks

As a result of constant activity and growing need, networks began to expand. People would reach out to others who might be sympathetic or supportive, sharing the names of doctors, assisting others with supplies and additional contacts and connecting with various parts of the city to help in mobilising for demonstrations and getting the word out (media coverage, social media and bringing in foreign reporters). As such, networks began forming mobile satellite groups. These groups had contacts throughout Damascus and were able to secure supplies or medical treatment, requested by phone, using previously agreed code words. Supplies were transported through security checkpoints, a process made less risky by sometimes apparently clichéd techniques, such as using pretty women to transport supplies or having a bottle of alcohol ready to offer as an inducement.

As these networks expanded social and medical support, their activities also widened activist networks within the city; invitations to demonstrations and community events were extended and the basic act of securing medical treatment formed and solidified strong social ties. As part of this process, activists from the area itself or from outside were also able to secure trust within communities that felt increasingly targeted and isolated. As the situation escalated, what were initially established as humanitarian networks began to mediate inter- or intra-community tensions, for example negotiating kidnappings. Humanitarian networks were able to assist in smuggling people (deserters, people evading arrest) and remained trusted members of the communities they were supporting and accessing.

Post-Homs, February 2012

The regime’s offensive on the city of Homs in February 2012 altered, refined and expanded these humanitarian networks. While previously providing small-scale food and non-food items in parts of Damascus, activists now also needed to obtain basic items such as baby milk, diapers, bread and canned food – any item in short supply in Homs, or needed by families seeking to get by in Damascus. Secret trips were organised to homes housing Homsi families to take stock of their needs and follow up to ensure that families were taken care of.

This called for a higher level of caution to protect families who simply by having fled Homs might fall under suspicion as ‘insubordinate’. The fact that Homs was practically considered enemy territory by the regime was an additional hurdle. Some people who went to Homs to bring supplies or even in a show of community solidarity were interrogated, detained and charged with serious crimes. In many cases they were transferred to the Anti-Terrorist Court, established in 2011 following the revocation of the Emergency Law, which replaced the previous military courts with a different title and mandate, but more or less the same function.

Finding a shipping company willing to covertly transport items to Homs, as well as finding people willing to take the risky trip from Damascus with a car full of food and medicine was a significant challenge. These supplies were literally contraband.

The influx of displaced people from Homs into Damascus, in particular, did lead to a little more tolerance of humanitarian work by the government, albeit through accepted channels. Nationwide campaigns emerged to mobilise donations and support for Homs through national non-governmental organisations, and the regime organised relief operations with international agencies operating within the country. However, this aid only reached parts of Homs, and not all IDPs were comfortable or felt safe accepting and registering with Damascus-based NGOs (although many operated outside of the regime’s procedures). Activist networks were still needed to cover large gaps and support areas and residents that the regime did not consider legitimate beneficiaries of humanitarian support. Activists become frustrated at the scale of the task ahead of them coupled with the feeling that their role in the uprising had been, by default, restricted to meeting basic needs, and not the social mobilisation necessary to move the uprising forward.

At what risk?

It was clear that those who participated in these medical and support networks had a particular political inclination: they were in support of the uprising. The response of the government’s security apparatus was to aggressively pursue even purely humanitarian actions by non-violent citizens with judicial and extra-judicial violence and intimidation.

Protesting had already effectively become criminalised and the denial of medical attention added to the climate of fear. The act of supplying medical help was treated as a crime; the regime dealt with humanitarian activists exactly as it would demonstrators or armed insurgents. Activists were arrested, tortured and in many cases killed while in security agency custody. For this reason, humanitarian support activists and networks maintained small and tightly-knit circles, as well as a great deal of digital security. Facebook was clearly monitored by the security services, as were other forms of online communication, so the use of internet proxies and anonymisers was the first rule of communicating and networking online. Phone lines belonging to people who had died or were outside the country were used in order to avoid surveillance and arrest as well securing ‘burner lines’, some of which had been temporarily assigned to foreign religious pilgrims to Syria.

The security agencies focused on humanitarian activists in order to expose or uncover the areas and people the activists were helping and supporting. The regime was also addressing the greater threat of a large-scale networked organisation. The large security apparatus employed by the regime saw any type of organisation as against its counter-insurgency strategy to intimidate and atomise Syrians. Humanitarian support networks were the thin end of the wedge of popular mobilisation and revolt. Ironically, both activists and state security agencies would have the same view in that respect. While humanitarian networks were able to ensure that life could go on, it was the ability to access, influence, connect and catalyse that was the biggest problem to the regime.


Syrians continue to ask themselves if it is normal that they have to work secretly, underground, to secure assistance, food and medical support for other Syrians. This has reinforced mistrust between the state and citizens as the conflict has become militarised. Whatever frustration with the size, scope and limits of humanitarian networks activists felt following the Homs offensive, that frustration grows by the day. Meanwhile, humanitarian assistance is being used by many armed opposition groups to enhance their presence and credibility on the ground. The challenge remains how to ensure that people receive the support they need away from the political agenda of the parties involved.

Despite their initial enthusiasm now being tempered by fear and the threat of arrest, activists still feel compelled to pursue political and social avenues for continued influence and agency amidst the violence, to preserve their vision of the revolution, and to meet humanitarian needs. But these networks continue under the shadow of a seemingly endless war, with no end in sight, and with declining confidence that activists have a role to play at all.

*‘Dalia Abdelwahid’ was a community activist in Damascus, and has asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.


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