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In 'No Turning Back,' The 'Epic' Journeys Of Four Syrians In Wartime

Journalist Rania Abouzeid has had a front-row view of the conflict in Syria from the very beginning.

"I witnessed what was one of the first demonstrations in Damascus in late February 2011, and I was trying to figure out what it all meant and what was happening," she says.

Abouzeid's new book No Turning Back: Life, Loss, And Hope In Wartime Syria traces the stories of four Syrians from those small protests through a bloody war that still has no end in sight.

We began our conversation by talking about those early days during the Arab Spring. At that time, Syrian President Bashar Assad was trying to seem like a benevolent and modern leader. But many Syrians were still haunted by what his father had done as president in 1982, when he crushed a rebellion in a town called Hama.

"The regime went house to house in Hama, and nobody knows how many people were killed," Abouzeid says. "Estimates are in the tens of thousands. People were put in mass graves that were then paved over, and Hama lived on as a potent example of the price of dissent and what the Assads could do.

"So Syrians knew what to expect, and they knew their regime well. They knew that this was not going to be easy. Although initially caught up in the fervor of the Arab uprisings, many of the young men and women who took to the streets thought that, you know, it took 18 days for [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to be toppled and Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled within weeks, so perhaps, maybe it might take a couple of months here in Syria. And that was the thought in those initial, heedy months of 2011 — that every week might be Assad's last week. And then they quickly realized that that was not the case."

Interview Highlights

On the profiles of Suleiman, a peaceful protester from privilege, and Mohammad, a suspected Islamist tortured by the Assad regime

Suleiman was a man with everything, really. He's a rich man — he was a manager. His family had money. A very young man — he was a young man in his 20s. But he knew that he was privileged and that most Syrians didn't have the opportunities that he had. And for him, that was enough for him to take to the streets.

[Mohammad] is Suleiman's opposite. Suleiman was a peaceful protester – he never picked up a gun. Whereas Mohammad was, if you like, baptized in the aftermath of what happened in Hama in '82. So he grew up seeing his male relatives hunted and humiliated by the regime. And with time, he became radicalized. And his form of radicalization was Islamic radicalization.

On the nature of the earliest protests in Syria

People like Mohammad were there, but for the most part, it started peacefully. I walked with those protesters in those early months. They were peaceful; they were men, they were women, in some cases they were children. I remember walking with protesters, and the gunshots would ring out and they didn't break their step. In the beginning, that's how the protest in Syria started. There were also men like Mohammad who were planning — who were going to take advantage of this popular uprising. But in the beginning, it was the time of the protest — it was the time of people like Suleiman who shed their fear to take to the streets. And they found voices that their parents had told them to silence.

On the family of refugees profiled in the book

I tell the story of Ruha and her family, and I focused on Ruha because she was a little girl, but she was much older than a little girl in her ability to explain and try and understand the things around her. And [she] expressed it in her own ways, whether that meant she would be making paper planes when she was hiding in her house's basement from the real planes that were above them, or collecting shrapnel with her little sister ... when the shelling subsided, because she thought — the girls thought they were pretty shapes, and they considered them like a new form of toys. So I followed Ruha and her family for six years.

On how the characters in her book changed after six years

Yes, all of them. Every person in the book is changed. I mean, their journeys really were epic, and that's the only word that comes to mind when I think about what happened to them. And the thing is that they're not unusual. This was one of my big problems when I sat down to write the book, was — I didn't whose stories to tell because they were all epic. I knew so many people who had been through things that most of us can't even imagine.

Some of them have literally survived what I think hell is, and yet they emerged on the other side without bitterness or regret. Some of them lost so much, and yet they can still joke and laugh and love life. They still have hope, they still have plans, they still have dreams.

I have a friend of mine whose factory was bombed recently. And I spoke to him this morning before I came into the interview, and he said: It's OK, we'll rebuild. I'm making plans to rebuild, but until I do that, I'm looking to see if there's an empty factory somewhere ... that I can rent until I get my factory up and running again. I mean, there is a resilience that continues to astound me.

Ian Stewart and Joanne Levine produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.