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Syrian war survivors share their stories at USF

Published Feb. 9, 2014

TAMPA — The 6-year-old girl had been hugging her sister when the mortars exploded near their home in Syria. The shells leveled the house, and killed everyone in it except for the 6-year-old, who survived because her sister's body shielded her from the shrapnel.

The story was one of several told Saturday afternoon by survivors of the Syrian civil war during "Voices From Syria," a program at the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center.

Ameenah Sawwan, a 23-year-old woman from Mo'addamia, Syria, told the story in halting English as the little girl's face displayed on the projector screen behind her.

The right side of the girl's face was pocked in scars from the explosions that killed her family. She smiled for the camera, though, and made peace signs with both her hands, which were also scarred. After telling the girl's story, Sawwan told the crowd that she often gets asked if she has lost hope the rebels can eventually overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

"Just look at their eyes. The eyes of the people who survived," she said she tells them. "The people, inside, they are so powerful. They are a source of inspiration."

Sawwan was joined by four other Syrian war survivors Saturday. They are part of a tour sponsored by organizations with ties to the nation, and they are traveling the world and telling their stories in the hopes of building support for military intervention on behalf of rebel forces. While some rebel factions have also been accused of war crimes, stories told by Sawwan and the others focused on acts committed by Assad's government.

Hiba Sawwan, 24 — Ameenah's cousin — told the crowd how she had planned to marry her cousin last year in January, but he was killed (she didn't say how) three hours before their wedding. Hiba also talked of the impact felt when Assad's forces seized her town and blocked the flow of food shipments. The people starved, and she became used to waking to the cries of hungry children wandering the streets.

"The suffering was more stronger than us, maybe," she said.

Muhammed Khair Alwazech, 36, from Douma, spoke through a translator. He compared the chemical weapons attacks he said he witnessed committed by Assad's government to a farmer using DDT to wipe out mosquitos. He talked of being arrested and tortured, because he worked with rebel forces.

While he was away from his pregnant wife, he said, she was wounded in a mortar attack, and needed blood. His wife had blood type O-negative, which is rare. Alwazech was able to get some of her blood type, and drove as fast as he could across the country, surviving several bouts of gunfire, only to arrive too late.

His wife had died, but the doctor was able to save the baby, his son. The family probably will not celebrate the boy's birthday, Alwazech said.

He finished by urging those in the crowd to tell the stories they heard Saturday to others.

"My story is just one of hundreds of thousands," Alwazech said. "The people of Syria desperately need your help."

Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

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