Like 'Doctor Who,' Syrian Activists Hang In Limbo Post-Election : Parallels President Bashar Assad's election victory is another sign that exiled Syrian activists may never safely go home. One activist compares it to the fate of the time-traveling, British TV cult hero.
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Like 'Doctor Who,' Syrian Activists Hang In Limbo Post-Election

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Like 'Doctor Who,' Syrian Activists Hang In Limbo Post-Election

Like 'Doctor Who,' Syrian Activists Hang In Limbo Post-Election

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "Doctor Who" is a popular British TV show - science fiction that wouldn't seem to have a lot of parallels with the Syrian Civil War. But one struggling Syrian sees some comparisons. Look at this week, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected in a vote that the West decried as a farce. It showed that Assad is keeping his grip on power even three years after much of his country rose against him. For the opposition, it means years more of exile and war.

NPR's Deborah Amos spoke with an activist who draws lessons and inspiration from "Doctor Who."


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This catchy tune is familiar to legions of "Doctor Who" fans - the iconic British TV show that features a doctor, a British phone booth and time travel. This is Aboud Dandachi's cell phone ring. And the way he tells it, "Doctor Who," a show about a time traveling alien, helped him understand the war in Syria and the failures of a peaceful movement he joined.

The 38-year-old self-described computer geek is now in exile in Turkey. And he writes a blog about the war. He wrote an e-book, released earlier this year, that includes parallels between the Syrian president, a trained ophthalmologist and the TV show - called "The Doctor, The Eye Doctor and Me."

ABOUD DANDACHI: Actually, honestly, my life was reduced to living for the next episode of "Doctor Who." And every day, I would pray that nothing happened to the internet so that I could download the episodes. (Laughter).


AMOS: In this time travel, we go back to the spring of 2011 to Dandachi's hometown - the city that became the capital of the revolution, Homs. Thousands chanted for freedom - led by young activists, convinced President Bashar al-Assad's days were numbered. Break the wall of fear and the oppressive regime would topple, too.

DANDACHI: We were definitely naive. When we said freedom, OK, freedom was just shorthand for lots of things that we wanted to change, a lot of things that maybe we couldn't articulate.

AMOS: As the rallies grew, the regime crackdown hardened. Dandachi witnessed friends gunned down in the streets - the cost for reporting those events to the outside world rose higher. Here, he was interviewed by the BBC in January 2012.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is that Aboud? what's happening there?

DANDACHI: Yes, lots of firing, lots of explosions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And how that close is that where you are sitting?

DANDACHI: Well, it's never been closer to be honest.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I mean, if you're in a unsafe position, obviously get off the line and get safe.

DANDACHI: No, I'm fine. I'm fine. No, I'm fine.

The host kept telling me off the air. Get off the air. Be careful. But I was not going to get off the air. Honestly, every time I hear that my heart still races. It had never been that bad.

AMOS: By then, the protest had become an armed rebellion. Al-Qaeda had set up camp in Syria. Dandachi fled to the relative safety of the coastal city of Tartous. For him, enemy territory, Tartous is the city of regime supporters.

He rented a small hotel room - stayed for 18 months - downloading "Doctor Who" broadcasts trying to make sense out of the chaos and the random nature of death in this brutal, relentless war.

Was this an attempt to stay sane?

DANDACHI: Ah, that's a very good question. I cannot think of any time in my life when I was so engaged and tried to find so much meaning.

AMOS: The television show became an inspiration. In one episode, the doctor prevailed in a war that lasted 300 years.

DANDACHI: At the beginning, he had so many enemies. In the end, there was only one. All it comes down to, in a war, is resilience. That is something that we did not understand when we started these protests. We overestimated how committed our side was. We underestimated how committed the people around Bashar were.

AMOS: This week, Dandachi watched that commitment in an election mounted only in the parts of Syria controlled by the regime. Syria TV broadcasts nonstop coverage. After the vote, Bashar al-Assad declared a mandate for Syria to manage its own affairs, ending hopes for a political solution to the war. Election theater, says Dandachi, not a real choice. Even hard line opponents voted for Assad inside the country fearing retribution he says.

DANDACHI: That is the fear that the regime has implanted in us for 40 years. That if you step out of line, there will be repercussions that you can't even imagine. I don't blame anybody for giving up, to be honest.

AMOS: But he's unsparing about the failures of the opposition, as well as the regime. Citing another lesson from the show, the hero is a skilled negotiator.

DANDACHI: Syria is what happens when a society has no political class worth a damn. Armies can fight wars forever. They can win battles, but without a political solution or framework to end the conflict, then you can keep on fighting forever.

AMOS: Forever is only in science fiction, but Dandachi and many other activists who begin a peaceful movement for change say it's unlikely they can return home for years. Another generation of Syrians in exile, working on building a credible political movement.

DANDACHI: You take it one day at a time. That's the only way that you can survive. If I accept the fact that the country screwed for 20 years, I will be completely depressed and could not function. I just have to take it one day at a time, one development at a time and hope. The moment that you give up hope, that is when you're done for.

AMOS: It's a lesson learned from a science-fiction hero - more from the real-life experiences of the war. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep.

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