"Are you crazy?" Doreen Khoury asked her companions, as they sat in a packed café in a part of Damascus tightly monitored by the government. The two Syrian activists, who’d spent time in prison for their views, were openly talking politics. And they weren’t the only ones.
It was March 2011, the start of the Syrian uprising.
Khoury, a Lebanese woman who has been helping Syrian activists throughout the revolution, says those protesters who marched in their thousands in 2011 didn’t disappear when they were forced off the streets by civil war.
Although they are almost invisible to most of us outside of Syria, they continue to oppose the government – and extremist Islamist militia groups who now control parts of the country – and they want a part in leading the country once the fighting is over, she told me while on a recent visit to London.
Since those days on the streets, the same protesters have been running local services in rebel-held areas. They have kept the schools open, organised health care, distributed water, resettled hundreds of thousands of displaced people, run bakeries, collected garbage. And, in the absence of a functioning state judiciary, the lawyers among them have married and divorced people and held trials for those accused of crimes.
"It’s been very much trial and error, working with their feet on the ground, but they’ve learnt a lot," Khoury, who is Middle East Liaison Officer at Hivos International and an expert on the civilian grassroots movement in Syria.
Where the activists have been working, towns and cities have transformed from “cradles of the revolution” into “models of civilian management”, she said.
Activists are also challenging both government and Islamist propaganda using magazines, artwork and radio programmes, Khoury said.
Some post regular short films about life in Syria, frustrated with mainstream media's focus on the armed aspects of the Syrian uprising.
Some have continued to hold street protests. Women in Raqqa last year protested against the extremist Islamist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which imposed strict Islamic rules on locals, introduced Islamic law courts, and abducted many local men.
"They were really, really brave, they were shot at," Khoury said.
One of the leading activists in Raqqa, a former primary school teacher called Souad Nawfal, carried out a one-woman protest against ISIL until she was forced to flee to Turkey last December, because of death threats by the militant group.
PREPARING FOR A NEW SYRIA
Khoury says activists and civilian groups are now preparing for the end of the war. "It’s a shift now from resisting the regime … to developing (their) own understanding of inclusive Syrian citizenship and national identity, saying: 'We have our own definitions, our own vision for the future'," she said.
"It’s pretty strong among the Syrian community in Lebanon, in Gaziantep (in Turkey) and within Syria. They’re preparing and writing for a new Syria," Khoury added.
And they probably have credibility among locals, she said. The person running the local school or other essential service may not have official legitimacy, but people will listen to them, she said.
A network of local coordinating committees – established in the early days of the uprising – and other civil society organisations are preparing for a post-war Syria.
"I think they should play a big role because they are on the ground and are linked to the reality on the ground," Khoury said, adding that their experience of running local councils means they know what’s realistic, how fragmented a city is and what are the different power bases.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is internationally recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The coalition comprises Syrians in exile, and is relatively powerless within the country.
It attended international peace talks in Geneva earlier this year, where mediators were pushing for the establishment of a transitional government that would represent all sides. Local activists say some members of the opposition coalition seem to be more committed to guaranteeing a place for themselves in the transitional government, than looking after Syrians’ interests.
"It doesn’t make sense if we reach a post-conflict phase, to suddenly say: 'Well, thank you very much. Now the transitional government is here,' Khoury said. "(The activists are) not going to agree to it, but also it would be completely stupid to not involve them not just on a local level but also on a decision-making level," she added.
TIRED AND HUNGRY
The activists are tired and hungry, and are constantly under threat from the government and Islamists, Khoury said.
"Every day I look at actors on the ground and I see them getting weaker, because the conflict slowly makes them weaker. When we look at Raqqa there isn’t any effective civil society anymore and this is tragic," she said.
"They need solidarity, support and acknowledgement."