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Syria’s pro-democracy protest made their marriage. The civil war destroyed it.



BEIRUT — Noura Ghazi Safadi fell for Bassel Khartabil at a pro-democracy protest in the Syrian town of Douma, near Damascus, in April 2011.

“He had this kindness and smartness,” Safadi said. “I felt like my heart started beating so strong!”

Three months later, in July, they got engaged.

It was in the middle of the Arab Spring, and thousands of Syrians had taken to the streets demanding democratic reforms. The optimistic protests had yet to descend into a vicious civil war. The Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta — where Douma is — had not become “hell on Earth,” and hundreds of thousands had yet to die in violence that has driven millions from their homes.

It was a giddy time. She, a human rights lawyer, and he, a self-taught software engineer, became inseparable and they attended demonstrations together, desperately hoping for change from the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But the relationship fell victim to the war, which is now in its eighth year. Khartabil was arrested in March 2012 — two weeks before his wedding — and, as Safadi learned in August, he was executed in 2015. She has yet to receive official notice from the regime that Khartabil is dead.

Instead, Safadi waits, and hurts.

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“I want to go there and to talk to him like I used to do,” she said.

Safadi, a small, soft-spoken woman with a steely resolve, has made it her mission to bury her beloved and mourn his loss at a gravesite, but she has been told nothing about the return of his body.

Khartabil, whose computer skills were widely known among programmers outside Syria, had long wanted to make the internet more accessible in his own country. Active as an open-source software developer, he was known to translate Wikipedia entries from English into Arabic. When anti-government protests erupted in Syria, he used his tech savvy to get around strict government censorship and posted hundreds of videos of demonstrations online so the world would learn what was happening inside the country.

Image: Bassell Khartabil

Bassell Khartabil and Noura Ghazi Safadi.