By Ghada Al-Hamoud and Rima Al-Hamoud
The struggle for political change was ignited in Tunisia last December, where the so-called Jasmine Revolution forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down.
These events inspired freedom fighters in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown after a 30-year long dictatorship, and it triggered civil turmoil in Syria and Libya.
Kingston University students felt the revolutionary spirit, and participated in the cause via marches and protests in London. Some even found themselves in the middle of the action as they were visiting family and friends in the affected areas. They chanted from Tahrir Square, shot bullets in the air of Bin Ghazi and Tripoli and feared for their loved ones in Damascus.
A trip back to their home countries was more than just a holiday for several students at Kingston University, unprepared to experience history as it unravelled.
Mazen AbouGamrah, 20, Egypt
Aerospace Engineering Mazen reflects back to the days, just over eight months ago, when his country faced the first riots which eventually led to a complete collapse of Egypt’s political regime.
“I was there when it all began in January. I was very worried at the lack of security and for my family’s safety,” Mazen says.
He recalls how his whole family gathered in front of the TV for the latest news after finding out that a curfew had been placed.
They watched the General state that people needed to protect themselves from the degenerates, as he admitted that the army had lost control of the situation.
“Literally three minutes after the speech ended, I heard a woman screaming outside of my house and we could hear gunfire. Like an impulsive reaction, my father and I ran downstairs where all the men from the neighbourhood had gathered. We were all armed.”
Mazen shakes his head as he says: “You know, when we looked around, the streets were absolutely empty. Usually these main roads are insanely busy, but that night it was dead quiet. For the first time in my life I had to hold a weapon. I needed it to feel safe and to keep my family safe. I spent whole nights guarding my building from thugs and run-away prisoners. The only way to protect ourselves was to be prepared to use the weapon. I had to face that if someone attacked my house, I needed to use it. If I didn’t kill them, they would kill me.”
Mazen is happy about the freedom that has been achieved in Egypt. “I’m aware that the large-scale oppression in Egypt was due to the government being corrupt. I blame the government for not reforming quickly, and at an earlier stage,” Mazen concludes.
“Alaa Gharbawi”, 23, Libya
Aerospace Engineering Alaa is from Benghazi, which in February was the scene of violent protests. Alaa wishes to remain anonymous due to the details of his story.
“After Gaddafi sent out foreign mercenaries to disperse the people of Libya, our only option to protect ourselves was to steal the military deputy’s weapons. We had to break in. My brother and I joined a few others and got the guns. We were a group with one goal; protecting our families from the brutality of Gaddafi’s men and to keep fighting. I knew that meant that there was a chance I might lose my life, but I didn’t care anymore,” Alaa says.
He talks about his brother who was arrested by Gaddafi’s forces. “I had heard stories of what happened to the men they took away. It was inhumane. I couldn’t bare thinking of what they could have done to him. Usually, the arrested men don’t come back. They’re either killed or tortured to death. Luckily, thank God, they let my brother go,” Alaa says with relief in his voice.
Alaa and his family fled to Tunisia after his brother was released. He says: “We were so lucky. He’s alive and we’re alive.”
Osama Al-Hussain, 21, Syria
Civil Engineering Osama, who was born and raised in Syria, feels strongly about protecting Syria and losing his life for his country.
He shares his thoughts about President Bashar al-Assad who remains in power today and is accused of using violence against the people of Syria.
“I would go back and be a martyr for my country. I pray that God blesses the victims, they died for an evil cause,” Osama says.
He is convinced that the media is spreading exaggerated and false information.
“I know that al-Assad has not given orders to kill people. Al-Assad is a great leader and he is staying. I thank Bashar al-Assad for being the leader he is and we will never kneel down to imperialism or Zionism. I believe that when we asked for reform, the government responded.”
Osama thinks that the external influences, like other protests in the Arab region, will not serve Syria any good.
Hisham, 20, Libya
Engineering Hisham joined the battle field to liberate his country. He explains how he was trained to use a weapon and how friends and family members gave their lives for the Libyan revolution.
“I have friends and relatives who passed away. Martyrs. My friend, who was the same age as me, born in 1990, was shot in the head. My uncle also lost his life in the riots as he was one of the weapon suppliers in Tripoli, and therefore was on Gaddafi’s list of ‘wanted’ people,” Hisham says, praying that God blesses his uncle’s soul.
“These people sacrificed their lives for their country and they will live through the history of Libya. Today I can say for the first time ever, ‘we are free’. Even though Gaddafi has not been caught, we are free. Something changed. We have become united.”
Hisham supported the revolution before it first kicked off and he decided to travel back to his home country to take part in the fight for freedom.
“I had to officially apply to be part of a gang. It was the only way to fight. Mine was called the Revolutionaries of Tripoli. I had to be trained to use weapons. It scared me, I won’t lie. They sent us out and I felt like they were saying good bye, like when soldiers are sent out to war. Somehow we were calm about the whole situation. I never knew I had this much bravery in me.”
Hisham describes how he saw dead people in the streets, every day. “That image came to be a normal one,” Hisham says.
Belal Kashik, 19, Libya
Civil Engineering Belal was in the UK during most of the upheaval in Libya. His entire family however, was in Tripoli in the most troubled area, Souq Jomaa.
“There were times when I couldn’t contact my family. The internet in Libya was cut from March to August. Some days I was literally jumping with fear when trying to get in touch with my family. Living in Souq Jomaa, they were in danger inside the house as much as they were if they left. People could break in with weapons.”