Saturday, 25 January 2020

Christians face threats throughout Syria, thanks to its president

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 Mirna Barq, George Stifo and Bahnan Yamin:

'As Syrian Christians who grew up in Syria, we are concerned at the ongoing instability in the north. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this area is home to a rich diversity of Syrians: Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. It’s unconscionable that, after surviving genocidal rampages by ISIS, Christians and other civilians yet again are caught in the crosshairs.

 But our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria face much worse, more long-term threats than this latest chaos. Targeted violence against Syrians of all faiths, including Christians, is a daily occurrence in the other two-thirds of the country controlled by a man whose unique sadistic tendencies have shocked the world: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A member of a minority community himself, Assad has used his status to garner sympathy and set himself up as the “protector of Christians.” We know better.

 In September, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, relied upon for civilian death tolls by the UN since it stopped counting in 2014, released a report counting the number of Christian houses of worship targeted by all parties to the conflict — régime, opposition, ISIS, al-Qaeda and others. The results were damning: of the 124 churches targeted for shelling, bombing or military use since 2011, nearly two-thirds were at the hands of Assad’s forces, backed up by Russian air power and Iranian militias.


 For Assad’s purposes, minority identity is a useful tool, until it’s not.

 To wit, the ranks of peaceful protesters who took to the streets in 2011 demanding freedom, dignity and an end to corruption and injustice reflected the diversity of Syria. And all were equally targeted by the régime for demanding freedom — facing detention, torture, rape and death — including Christians.

 Khalil Maatouk, a Christian human rights lawyer, represented many activists in Syrian courts. He was “disappeared” into a régime prison in October 2012. Saeed Malki, president of the Syriac Cultural Association, was taken into custody in 2013. Their statuses remain unknown. Bassam Ghaith, who led the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, was abducted in 2014 and months later the régime told his family he had died of cardiac arrest — the régime’s blanket explanation for those whose hearts stop under torture.

 Christians likewise are among victims documented in the “Caesar” photos taken by a régime defector. His 55,000 images present bodies of protesters grotesquely mutilated and tortured almost beyond recognition, if not for the carefully cataloguing practices of Assad’s machinery of death that include identifying numbers for each victim. The photos are the strongest evidence of war crimes since the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis, according to the former U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen Rapp. Christians are among those whose eyes were gouged out, bodies electrocuted, stomachs starved and throats slit. Assad’s leash of “protection” runs as long as his desire for control, and no further.

 It hasn’t always been this way for Christians in Syria. Few remember that a Protestant Christian Fares al-Khouri was democratically elected as prime minister of Syria in 1954. Since the rise of the Assad family to power in the 1970 coup d’état, however, Christian freedoms have declined. Even after the so-called reforms of 2012, Christians have still been barred from becoming president since the elder Assad took power. Free exercise of religion is restricted under Assad’s rule: church leaders are controlled and congregations infiltrated with spies to prevent dissent. Resistance to intimidation leads to arrests and execution, even nearby in Lebanon. Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, both of Aleppo, were abducted in 2013 only days after Bishop Ibrahim, a previous Assad supporter, criticized the régime’s brutality against Syrian citizens. The two remain missing. It’s no wonder that, as shepherds of their flocks, clergy are under extreme pressure to repeat régime talking points, even in the face of egregious human rights abuses like chemical attacks.

 Further, Assad has purposely created escalating extremist dangers to Syria’s Christians in the cynical expectation they would have nowhere else to turn than his government for safe harbor. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Assad’s strategy was simple: send violent extremists across the border to kill U.S. troops as a punishment and warning for toppling a fellow dictator. Immediately following the peaceful protests in March 2011, he employed the same strategy to dilute and poison legitimate, moderate voices for freedom and democracy. According to a former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, “The régime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades. The régime wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaeda, but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. It was a specific, deliberate plan and it was easy to carry out.” Before he defected from the régime, Affaq Ahmad, the right hand of the head of the notorious Syrian Air Force Intelligence, testified that the régime found the al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked groups who made their way into Syria “very useful.” How? By allowing jidahist groups to kill minorities, the régime could “use that to convince these minorities to rally around the régime.”



 The ploy’s results are plain: beheadings, enslavement, rape and genocide of Christians and Yazidis by ISIS, and destruction of churches, torture and death by Assad.

 Backed up by Iranian-sponsored proxy militias and Russian warplanes and targeting assistance, Assad has waged a bloody campaign against all Syrian civilians, including Christians. Every day we pray with the psalmist: “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the afflicted” (Psalm 10:12). Our Christian faith demands we speak up for our Muslim, Alawite, Kurdish, Druze, Assyrian, Arab and Christian brothers and sisters throughout Syria, from the Tigris River to the Mediterranean Sea.

 But it must be stated clearly: the United States is flailing in its approach toward Syria. It must take stock of its entire Syria policy, and fix it.

 First, the United States must maintain a strong troop presence. A modest military force has essentially created a No Fly Zone in the northeast for years, and is the best bang for our buck in leverage for eventual peace negotiations. Foreign powers know the consequences of attacking U.S. troops and our partners nearby.

 Second, the administration must restart $200 million in stabilization aid throughout the country to provide alternatives to both Assad and extremism. Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities throughout the country need assurances that they can live lives free from both hazards and from Iran, which is pursuing its well-trod policy of discrimination and demographic change in Syria as it has in Lebanon and historically Christian areas in Iraq. The State Department should realize the mandate for international religious freedom doesn’t stop at Iraq’s border — Syria must be a part of the picture.

 Finally, stop the slow-motion civilian massacre in Idlib province, where men, women and children — including hundreds of Christians still holding on — are caught between extremists, Russian bombs, Assad’s troops and a closed Turkish border. While Turkey threatens to unleash the 3.5 million refugees it’s hosting into Europe, a similar number of internally displaced people are crammed into an area the size of Connecticut. It’s a humanitarian disaster already — we cannot let it become the worst catastrophe since the conflict began. President Trump must follow-up on his promise a year ago to stop the killing.

 One sign of hope arrived in time for Christmas last year, as Congress and the President came together to sanction war criminals by passing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act into law. We must build on this bipartisan momentum.

 While division, war, oppression and hatred are Assad’s weapons of choice, Christ teaches unity, peace, freedom and love. Americans and officials in Washington must not ignore the torture of Christians in Assad’s prisons, the destruction of their churches by régime and Russian bombs, and the general horrors perpetrated on Syrians of all faiths.'

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Tuesday, 21 January 2020

‘Painting on death’: Syrian artists make art with spent ammunition

Syrian graffiti artist Aziz al Asmar turns damaged houses and buildings into artspaces.

 'The nine-year campaign of bombing in Syria led by Bashar al Assad and his main backer, Russia, has inspired a wave of war artists to produce artwork with one common feature— remnants of war. They are using spent rocket casings, missile debris, empty bullet cartridges and other exhausted weapons that targeted their towns, cities and villages, and turning them into a diverse range of artwork.

 Akram Sweidan, who was born and raised in Douma in the countryside of Damascus, describes his work as the "painting on death". During pre-war years, he painted on glass. Since the war broke out and continued, Sweidan goes out on the streets of Douma to collect the spent ammunition.

 "The eastern Ghouta suffered from a lot of killings and destruction. Thousands of shells, missiles and barrel bombs were fired by the Assad régime and its ally Russia. So I collect the remains, paint and decorate them with colours, turn these killer tools into life-like graphics," Sweidan said.



 Another Syrian artist, Amani Zankeh, from Idlib province, doesn't use spent ammunition for her artistic expression but her drawings depict the human cost of the Syrian war. Her work also touches upon the oppression of women and violence against them in Syria. Despite surviving one of the most brutal wars of the 21st cCentury, she says her art sends the “message of life, despite the darkness of death" overshadowing everything.



 While the Assad régime and Russia have showed no mercy to civilian areas and hit them repeatedly, violating human rights and almost all ceasefire deals, it has failed to break the will of rebellious population and the surviving artists on the ground.

 Aziz al Asamar has replaced his canvas with bombed out walls and buildings. Before the Arab Spring-inspired Syrian revolution in 2011, 35-year-old Samar, who hails from Idlib province, drew caricatures of Assad and other senior members of his régime.

 He began drawing on the walls in the following years of war and destruction and said he wanted to send a clear message to the world that “under this rubble there were families, people with dreams and memories”.

 In February last year, when a baby girl was killed and her mother fatally wounded by Assad's bombing on Maarrat al Nouman, a town in Idlib, Asmar painted the portrait of the dead toddler with the caption: The war against terrorism in Syria.

 "These are the drawings I prefer. It hurts, crushes my heart, but I must keep on painting the martyrs,” Asmar said.



 Another artist, Mustafa Deeb, finds clay-based art therapeutic. “When I make a piece with clay, touching mud with my hands, I feel like all the negative energy in my body is gone. I feel my trauma is treated,” Deeb said. Deeb has been training Syrian children to make artwork with clay in the hope of helping them deal with their own war-related trauma.'


Swedan's artwork created from empty bomb shells.Amani Zankeh says her work depicts violence against Syrian women.Mustafa Deeb shows his recent artwork he carved out of clay.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Two Men Dead as Demonstrations Rock Syria’s Sweida



 'Protests were held on Friday in southern Syria’s Sweida governorate for the third consecutive day over deteriorating economic conditions and a drop in the value of the Syrian pound. According to local sources, protests “against corrupt officials, who are still insisting on ignoring the chaos in the governorate, will continue.” They said weapons have proliferated and the rate of kidnappings and murders for money has become very high.

 On Thursday, two men were killed in separate incidents in the countryside of Sweida for unknown reasons, they noted, stressing that such incidents have occurred on a daily basis. Nearly 12 people were killed in the past year, in addition to high inflation which has increased poverty, hunger and diseases.

 On Friday, demonstrators swarmed the streets of Shahba city, north of Sweida, raising loaves of bread and shouting “We want to live.” Videos broadcast by local news sites showed protesters gathered in Shahba’s square, chanting slogans against the corruption of regime officials and accusing them of ignoring the people’s suffering. Protesters demanded a peaceful revolution and the restoration of the value of the Syrian pound.

 A group of people, including children, raised banners and denounced the collapse of the pound, and demanded an improvement in living conditions, price control and accountability of the corrupt, Suwayda 24 official Facebook page reported on Friday. Photos published on the page also showed demonstrators raising banners slamming Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad. Shaaban has been facing a campaign of widespread criticism by loyalists and opponents after the release of a video recording her stating that “the Syrian economy today is 50 times better than it was in 2011.”

 The Syrian pound in the black market in Damascus was on Thursday at SYP1,300 compared to the US dollar. Specialized websites, however, stated that the exchange rate of the US dollar ranges between SYP1,230 and 1,210, while the official rate is SYP514. UN reports affirm that 83 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line.'

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Thursday, 16 January 2020

'Humanity is dying': Syrians feel abandoned by the world

'Humanity is dying': Syrians feel abandoned by the world

 Dani al-Qappani:

 'As the poet John Donne famously noted, 'No man is an island'; all peoples on earth are interconnected on the large and small scale, with our destinies intertwined.
Solitary confinement is commonly used as a form of punishment because, on the small or large scale, without our fellow humans we are isolated, hopeless and, after long enough, even suicidal.

 This has been proven true on the international scale for Syria, whose people have been abandoned for almost nine years to date by the international community, which has been wilfully blind, deaf and mute to the endless, daily atrocities by the Assad régime and its allies against civilians.



 Despite the mountains of bodies, the video and photographic documentation, the thousands of testimonies and all the rest of near-limitless evidence of this industrial-scale carnage, the world has looked the other way and continues to do so.

 Since the beginning of 2020, things have not got any better nor has the bombardment of civilians stopped. On January 1, Reuters reported, "At least eight people were killed when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families in the country's northwest, witnesses and residents said."

 This climate of wilful ignorance has created a culture of impunity for evil, enabling the régime, with Russia and Iran backing, to reinforce and intensify the systemic injustice that the people rose up to overthrow in every area it has recaptured, razing towns, villages and cities, terrorising, murdering, 'disappearing' or dispossessing millions.

 In late March 2015, the Idlib governorate was almost freed from the control of régime and Iranian forces; the régime saw this as an opportunity to begin forcibly displacing those in other areas which had dared to demand freedom to the Idlib region.

 Among the citizens forcibly displaced to Idlib were all those who refused to accept the régime's fake 'settlements' or to believe its transparent lies about ensuring peace and dignity, which were more especially unbelievable since the revolutionaries' main demand – the fall of the régime – was never addressed.



 As a result of this forced displacement, at least three million people fled or were transferred to Idlib governorate from across Syria, joining the people of the region which was one of the first to rise up against Assad in 2011. Despite years of enduring the horrors of bombing, siege and terror by Assad and others, Idlib's people never stopped calling for justice, dignity and humanity.

 All this took place against a background of international agreements and ceasefires which the régime-Russian alliance never abided by, such as the de-escalation agreement signed in May 2017 and the Sochi agreement signed in September 2018, while the international organisations nominally responsible for protecting civilians passively watched the slaughter.

 Since April 2019, the Idlib region has seen a massive military escalation by the régime and its accomplices in an effort to control Idlib, killing hundreds of civilians, including children and women, and destroying dozens of schools, hospitals and places of worship.



 The problem for Syrians is that they are sacrificing their lives and their children's lives waiting for someone to make a move to end this bloodbath, being profoundly aware that they've been abandoned by a world that makes speeches about human rights but does nothing to defend the defenceless, and left wondering about the real function and usefulness of international bodies like the United Nations and its various organs like the Security Council, or the 'Friends of Syria' whose friendship seems more like enmity.

 For the UN, Mark Coutts, the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, stated on January 7, 2020: "I am alarmed at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Idlib, northwest Syria, where over three million civilians remain trapped in a war zone – the vast majority of them women and children. At least 300,000 civilians have fled their homes in southern Idlib since mid-December, following a sharp escalation in hostilities."

 Having noted this, Cutts then continued his statement by saying, "On Sunday, we received reports of at least nine civilians killed and 20 others injured in Ariha, following airstrikes in the area. According to humanitarian staff on the ground, the airstrikes resulted in destruction and damage to buildings, including a school, a kindergarten and a mosque."

 As with all the UN reports since 2011, Syrians are left wondering: Did anything change? Has the UN become a news agency now? And when the rest of the world is progressing and moving towards greater modernity and development, why are its attitudes towards Syria's humanity going in the opposite, regressive direction?


 Speaking about the hopelessness of the current situation, a media activist and photographer in Idlib, whose name is withheld here to protect his safety, said, "During the last two weeks, every kind of weapon was used, including the Syrian and Russian warplanes. We see aviation squadrons of helicopters dropping barrel bombs over the areas daily, concentrating on the eastern suburbs of Ma'aret al Nu'man.

 "The most heartbreaking thing I saw was in Ma'saran town. When I arrived there, I saw people fleeing using cars, motorbikes and even running on foot. I saw people carrying their children while running and screaming after an airstrike which targeted the centre of the town. People weren't even safe after that. They were targeted with artillery by the régime while trying to flee, killing a woman and a man, and injuring several others."



 It's not only the deprivation and harsh winter weather conditions that make life hard for the people in Idlib, but the constant fear of régime attacks even on refugee camps; as a report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights on December 13, 2019 noted, the Syrian régime carried out another attack on the Qah IDP camp located on the Syrian-Turkish border on November 20, using cluster munitions that killed 16 civilians, including 11 children and three women. As the SNHR pointed out, this was only the latest of dozens of similar attacks on refugee camps.

 Heba, a college student and resident of Idlib, says "We are really facing a catastrophic situation, having a hard time in dealing with every kind of death, not only the literal death that you know of, but other kinds of deaths and terrors like fear of the unknown, of displacement, of being injured and so on.

 "No sane human can see the tears streaming down people's cheeks, the body parts all over the place, the children in camps, and stay silent for no reason. Humanity is dying – are there any saviours? Please move and stop our blood from being shed!"

And what was the world's reaction to this atrocity, as to all the other thousands of régime attacks on camps, homes, hospitals, schools? It was the same polite 'thoughts and prayers' concern given for any minor accident, and the same failure to attribute any responsibility.

 The international bodies issued their usual statements 'without assigning responsibility'. For Syrians, this shrug of indifference is one more indication of the world's contempt that disregards any sense of interconnection or shared humanity and reassures tyrants they're free to do as they please. There is nowhere to turn for safety, with the world's indifference helping to strengthen injustice.

 As another Syrian warned, "Either humanity will prevail, starting in this land, Syria, or it will be a black hole devouring everything that remains – and what will remain when there's no humanity left?"

 Ibrahim, a young man displaced from Damascus suburbs now living in Idlib where he currently works at a gas station, said, "People have lost faith in the international community and humanity; we haven't followed any conferences or international news for so long because we all agree or have a feeling that the international community is conspiring against us.

 "We have learnt from the lesson of the 'red lines'; we're not waiting for anything from the international community, the Arab League, human rights bodies, animal rights bodies or anyone else. We're dying." '

#WhatIdlibTaughtMe: Hashtag pays tribute to dignity of Idlib's people amid the horrors of Russian bombing

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Running the gauntlet in Idlib

The Assad regime on the offensive in Syria’s Idlib

 Merna al-Hasan: 

 'The Russian air force plays a pivotal role in the battle for Idlib. Its advanced jets and helicopters can easily hit multiple targets at once with a high degree of accuracy, causing extensive damage to infrastructure and housing. The joint Syrian-Russian shelling has turned parts of the city into crematoriums for their inhabitants, and many of the surrounding villages, such as Maaret Hurmah, Sheikh Mustafa, Kafar Sijnah and Rakaya, have been razed completely.



 The recent military escalation is of a different intensity and scope to previous attacks. One minute the Russian warplanes launch tens of rocket-propelled grenades, while simultaneously dozens of barrel bombs are dropped on the exact same spot. Sometimes, internationally-banned phosphorus shells are used. These bombs have targeted and destroyed vital infrastructure, such as markets, hospitals and schools. Even mosques have not been spared, as many in the south and east of Idlib province have been targeted. Assad, with the help of the Russians, is trying to destroy anything that supports life, so internet cables, communication towers and water supplies have also been hit.



Opposition factions always retaliate when attacked by the régime and the Russians. However, their responses are muted in comparison. Armed opposition groups have tried to repel the régime’s attack on Idlib by employing simple ambushes and hit-and-run tactics. Nobody has complete control over the towns and villages around Idlib, especially in the countryside to the south of the city. For example, lands taken in the morning by the opposition are ceded to the régime forces with Russian air support in the afternoon. Some groups linked to the Free Syria Army have recently moved from the ‘Euphrates Shield’ area to the countryside surrounding the city of Idlib, but they were too few to change the tide of the battle there. The régime employs a scorched earth policy, meaning that firstly vital installations are targeted, forcing inhabitants to seek refuge away from the frontline. Then when the areas are almost completely deserted, régime forces advance in overland. The régime aims to control the M5, the international road between Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4, a major commercial route that connects the western port of Latakia to the cities of Aleppo, Raqqa and oil-rich Deir ez-Zor in the east.



 The military escalation between SDF and Free Syrian Army in the provinces of Raqqa and Hassakeh has negatively affected civilians in Idlib. Fuel prices in the city have increased beyond the reach of most households, because roads have been cut off, meaning fuel products cannot enter.



 It is a humanitarian catastrophe by any definition. What is happening now in and around Idlib is considered to be one of the largest displacements of people in the modern era, if not the largest. There is no sanctuary for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the eastern and southern Idlib countryside to take refuge in. No city is completely safe, but IDPs seek out refuge in less dangerous areas. According to some statistics released by local associations operating in Idlib (such as the Civil Response Coordinators Association in Northern Syria, an association that collects data on displaced persons), more than 300,000 civilians were displaced from the southern and eastern countryside of Idlib in December 2019 alone.



 Those fleeing Assad’s attacks head towards areas near the Turkish border, such as al-Dana, Sarmada, Atma, and Darkush. The displaced persons are taking refuge in evermore crowded refugee camps. Despite the efforts made by individuals and organisations to open new shelters and new camps, severe overcrowding and dire conditions remain. Hundreds of families have been placed in bombed-out buildings. Some mosques have also opened their doors to those who have fled. The people of Idlib are running the gauntlet between one death trap and another. Roughly 4 million civilians are caught facing extermination from land and air. Any attempt to cater to the needs of such a large number of people have so far proved useless. A further 40,000 citizens are at risk of being displaced if the attacks advance into the town of Saraqib and the surrounding countryside.



 The reality of the talks in Astana or Geneva is that normal citizens always suffer the negative fallout from these political discussions. Oftentimes things only get worse after such talks. Syrian civilians continue to be shelled and are forced to exist in dire humanitarian conditions. People like us are always the biggest victims of devastating wars. We also can’t fail to mention the negative effect that Russia using its veto at the UN Security Council has had. The IDPs have suffered because this veto led to the blocking of cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey and Iraq to millions of Syrian civilians.



 There is much said internationally about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Idlib, but in reality, such conflicts are always resolved by force, with the strongest party prevailing. Idlib’s inhabitants have lost all hope that their lot will improve, not even a glimmer remains. No outside country wants to intervene on their behalf to end the bloodshed either. After nine years of killing, destruction and displacement, those in Idlib don’t have the luxury of hope! We no longer talk of human rights, but we seek help from the world so that the régime does not annihilate us all. And here we are, waiting for our unknown fate, we may be displaced tomorrow or killed, or we do not know!




 It is not easy to be a woman reporting in a relatively conservative city like Idlib. Society here is not so accepting of female journalists covering news from the streets. Before the revolution broke out in 2011, people in places like Idlib and Aleppo were not used to seeing women working in the streets. There is a major problem in ensuring the safety of journalists in general. When I go to cover news after air strikes and bombings, there is always a risk that another air strike will hit the same place, regardless of any media professionals who have arrived to report on it. We also constantly receive death threats, especially on social media. Both those who support the régime and others who oppose it regularly insult me and accuse me of being disloyal to the Syrian nation. They even threaten to blackmail me, kill me or hurt me in other ways. As a journalist in the thick of events, I’m targeted by people from both sides as most of whom do not want the world to see the truth.



 In the past few months, we journalists in Idlib have been trying to contact various Arab and international media outlets to cover the strikes against Idlib. We have found them to be reluctant and inflexible. We feel that nobody cares about what happens to us! After nine years of war and destruction, Idlib is the last pocket of régime opponents who went to the streets to protest in 2011. I would say what little international coverage there has been of Idlib has been characterised by manipulation. The stories that come out about what’s going on here are often full of misinformation, falsification of the facts and a random narration of incomplete stories about the massacres. The result is that the media does not play its role effectively in conveying facts and raising awareness of people so they can to form nuanced opinions based on correct information.



 For example, in the case of the White Helmets, media campaigns distorted their image and fake stories were circulated about them, especially by Syrian state media. Furthermore, after Russia had denied Assad’s responsibility for carrying out the deadly chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 and accused ‘foreign agents’, different media platforms have adopted this narrative. The régime is internationally recognised, therefore its official media story is covered in the international press unlike the opposition’s narrative. Assad has managed to convince the world that we are all terrorists, and that we absolutely deserve to be killed. The people of Idlib are not terrorists, they just want to live for the love of life itself.'

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Saturday, 11 January 2020

Idlib demonstrators revive Syrian revolution



 'Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (January 10) in Idlib city center, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans, confirming the continuity of the Syrian revolution and condemning Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib.

 The demonstrators expressed their sympathy and support to the forcibly displaced persons from Maarat al-Numan.

 They asked the international community to press the Assad regime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 Meanwhile, about a dozen demonstrators organized a sit-in in Maarat al-Numan to express their attachment to their land despite severe Assad and Russian bombardment that displaced most of its inhabitants.

 Two weeks ago, thousands of Syrian demonstrators and activists worldwide took to the streets in more than 50 cities and capitals worldwide chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and condemning Putin and Assad's crimes in Syria.

 Assad-Russian warplanes have committed dozens of massacres in Idlib and Hama countryside since they launched their bombing campaign on the 30th of April, largely violating the de-escalation zone deal reached between Russia and Turkey.'

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

How we try to find hope amid the slaughter in northern Syria

Syrians surround body bags containing the corpses of victims of a reported regime airstrike in the town of Ariha in the Idlib province on Jan. 5. (Omar Haj Kadour/Afp Via Getty Images)

 Raed al-Saleh:

 'The world may be focused on America’s feud with Iran, but the war in Syria continues unabated. As 2020 dawns, the olive groves of northern Syria have become shelters of last resort for nearly a quarter of a million people forced to leave their homes in recent weeks. Many of them were attacked from the air even as they scrambled for safety.

 For the three and a half million civilians in Idlib, constant bombardments and displacements are facts of life. Yet eight years of empty promises from the international institutions set up to protect civilians have not broken our resilience. Every day, amid the horrors, we witness astonishing acts of humanity and selflessness that give us hope.

 Only by persisting in this hope can we see our way through. This is what inspires us to believe, despite the odds, that 2020 will be the year when world leaders finally act to protect civilians. We refuse to succumb to despair.



 In response to the latest wave of bombings and mass displacements by the Syrian regime and Russia, our White Helmet teams have been working desperately to help civilians reach safety. We have been setting up camps anywhere we can, even rehabilitating sports stadiums and other available spaces. We have been providing coats and blankets and digging trenches to keep the camps from flooding. Our teams of female volunteers have been helping those fleeing on the roads by providing information, food, water and medical advice.

 In 2019, 3,364 civilians, including 842 children, were killed across Syria. Our teams have pulled 4,530 people, including 1,054 children, from the rubble of bombed-out buildings — saving the lives of those whom Syrian and Russian forces want dead. The White Helmets take our motto from the Koran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” I repeat it to myself every time we lose another colleague and friend.

 We mourn 17 volunteers who lost their lives over the past year, most in so-called double-tap airstrikes, when warplanes returned to bomb for a second time after our rescue workers gathered to help the injured. Russian reconnaissance aircraft monitor our rescue missions and target them, destroying life-saving equipment and ambulances. Everything is calculated to make life as unbearable and horrific as possible so that people have no option but to flee.



 My teammate Anwar is mourning the loss of his three little girls and his wife as the new year begins. Last month he received an emergency call while on duty about bombing and artillery shelling in his town. When he arrived at the site of the attack to rescue the injured, he found his own house bombed and completely destroyed. The loss tears us all apart.

 The crisis is worse than it has ever been. War crimes are being committed on a weekly or daily basis, and the world meets them with earth-shattering silence. For us on the front line it’s incomprehensible — the indifference is impossible to understand.

 In December that indifference turned toxic when Russia and China blocked one of the last lifelines — cross-border aid from Turkey meant to help four million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The crisis for civilians trapped in Idlib is about to get even worse.



 All of this has taken a heavy toll on our volunteers, many of whom are among the most affected by the bombs. Many are themselves displaced with their families, and each time they leave to do their work, they fear they may never see each other again or that they may return to a flooded tent.

 Under such conditions, hope is the precondition of survival, and we persist in seeing it in every child rescued from a collapsed bedroom that was bombed while they slept. My colleagues sing nursery rhymes to them in the ambulance on the way to the hospital or make balloons from surgical gloves to give them a reason to keep smiling.

 All we ask is that the international community share our belief in the people of northern Syria. There are millions of civilians getting up every day and finding reasons to work, play or volunteer in their communities, all despite the extremists who surround them and the bombs that fall from the sky.



 Funding cuts have left people without proper shelter, clean water or sanitation services, while the world’s most powerful nations meet the horrors of our daily lives with silence and inaction. But I know that as long as we can save a single life, we will continue to dig for it from the depths of death and destruction.

 The White Helmets have saved more than 120,000 lives since our formation. For us, this is our greatest accomplishment: offering a glimmer of hope for the Syrian people in the face of utter failure from politicians and world leaders. I hope 2020 will be the year the world finally steps up to end the suffering of Syrian civilians and hold all war criminals to account. It’s not too late to save lives.'

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Saturday, 4 January 2020

Syrian opposition rejoice in the death of the terrorist Qasem Soleimani


 'The Syrian opposition on Friday hailed the killing of top Iranian and Iraqi commanders in a US strike. The strike outside Baghdad airport killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and the deputy chief of Iraq's pro-Iran paramilitary organisation, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

 Soleimani had been a key backer of Bashar al-Assad and helped him save his position after an uprising that began in 2011 threatened to topple his regime.

 He was Iran's pointman in organising Iranian forces and their Shiite-dominated foreign proxies on the Syrian battlefield and a frequent visitor to Damascus.


 Thanks to the support of Iran and its proxies as well as to the decisive 2015 military intervention of Russia, Assad has clawed back most of the territory he lost in the early stages of the war.

 In the few areas still that still escape the regime's control, some Syrians celebrated the death of a man they hold responsible for thousands of civilians deaths.

 During a weekly Friday protest in the northwestern city of Idlib, one demonstrator held a placard that read: "We rejoice in the death of the terrorist Qasem Soleimani. Thank you Trump."

 "This piece of good news will encourage us to keep advancing, God willing, the revolution will continue and the revolution will triumph," said another protester, who gave his name as Mohamed Shkeib.

 Others handed out sweets to celebrate Soleimani's death.


 Leaders of Syrian opposition groups for their part hailed the death of a man they blame for thousands for thousands of deaths in the nearly nine-year-old civil war.

 "The murder of Qasem Soleimani, the number one perpetrator of Revolutionary Guards' crimes against the people of Syria and Iraq, is a blow that confirms that the world is able to stop Iran and protect Syrian civilians if it wants to," Nasr Hariri, a senior political opposition leader, said.

 Ahmed Ramadan, another senior opposition figure, also praised the US strike.

 "The killer of Syria's children has been killed, the killer of Iraq's free people has been killed," he said in a post on social media.'

Demonstration in Idlib to revive Syrian revolution



 'Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (January 3) in Idlib city center, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and confirming the continuity of the Syrian revolution and condemning Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib.

 The demonstrators expressed their sympathy and support to the forcibly displaced persons from Maarat al-Nuaman city.

 They asked the international community to press Assad regime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 Last week, thousands of Syrian demonstrators and activists worldwide took to the streets in more than 50 cities and capitals worldwide chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and condemning Putin and Assad crimes in Syria.

 Assad-Russian warplanes have committed dozens of massacres in Idlib and Hama countryside since they launched their bombing campaign on the 30th of April, largely violating the de-escalation zone deal reached between Russia and Turkey.'

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Russia’s role in Syria is sinister; it’s an occupier with an iron grip

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

 'As we enter a new year and a new decade, the Syrian conflict rages on, well into its ninth year. The estimated death toll is touching one million, with over ten million others displaced both internally and externally, from a pre-war population of around 23 million in 2011. The role of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in suppressing protests and attempting to crush the rebellion is well understood, but far less has been mentioned about Russia’s intervention in the conflict.

 Russia intervened militarily in Assad’s favour in 2015, although in reality it was backing the regime diplomatically from the onset. It has used its UN Security Council veto 14 times on the Syrian issue in the past 9 years and blocked any attempt to hold the government accountable for its crimes. Whilst the west was offering a veneer of hope for the uprising, Russia made no secret of its support for the regime. The military intervention is now an occupation which has tipped the scales in favour of the regime; the Russian Foreign Minister himself said that if it were not for their intervention, Assad and his government would have collapsed in a matter of weeks. And although Russia claimed that its intervention was to attack Daesh in eastern Syria, most air strikes targeted opposition held areas that had no link to Daesh or jihadist groups whatsoever. When Russia entered Ghouta, for example, there were no Daesh fighters, but it made no secret of its intervention in that area.

 There is an extremely strong case to be made against Russian President Vladimir Putin for committing war crimes in Syria. Multiple hospitals have been hit by Russian forces in a brazen attempt to terrify opposition-held areas into submission. There was a particularly well known instance in which the UN gave Russia the coordinates for hospitals in northern Syria specifically to avoid hitting them by accident; Russian air strikes still hit the hospitals in what was clearly a war crime. More than 50 hospitals have been hit in the past 6 months as Russia continues its campaign of fear against the Syrian population, and although the UN has failed the Syrian people on many occasions, the New York Times has just published a very powerful report investigating the many incidents where Russian and Assad forces deliberately attacked hospitals and schools in the north of Syria.



 There is a measure of irony here; Russia has played up its “diplomatic” role during the crisis by hosting the Astana Process on Syria and brokering the Sochi agreement back in the autumn. It claimed that it was the major power behind persuading Assad to get rid of his chemical weapon stockpile in 2013 after a massacre. Any attempt to play honest broker by Putin offers a thin veil of legitimacy and is quickly broken down by Russia’s military might behind Assad’s recent victories on the battlefield.

 Delving deeper into Putin’s mind, it is clear that he views Syria as a client state. The Russian leader himself was a KGB agent of the Soviet Union for over 15 years and is well versed in the mechanics of a totalitarian state. The Syrian city of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea hosts a Russian naval base, its only port outside Russia itself. The Litvinenko murder in 2006 and Skripal poisonings in 2018 in Britain demonstrated how Russia will stop at nothing to punish any dissent. The example of the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that borders are an abstract concept for the Russian state and are in no way respected. Is a state like this trusted to bring justice to Syria and to lead any reconciliation process?




 Nine years in, and Syrians see the conflict beyond simply a revolution against the Assad regime. The situation on the ground in Syria is akin to an invasion by Russia and Iran, with the former dictating the course of the war. This is not dissimilar to the situation of Afghanistan in the early 1990s when Najibullah was president with the Soviet Union there as the occupier and decision maker. Moreover, Putin himself claimed that he has used the war in Syria to test Russian weaponry and develop artillery at the expense of the Syrian people. Putin even arranged for Assad to visit Moscow during the conflict on a military aircraft in an act which underlined how weak the Syrian leader really is. This was by no means the only humiliation that Assad suffered at the hands of Russia, as he was essentially treated like a puppet on his own soil. Russian forces are not simply limited to the sky; they have been witnessed on the ground in Syria patrolling checkpoints and acting as a quasi-secret police service.

 As well as diplomatic and military interventions, Russia’s control over the Assad regime extends to directing the system of Syria’s government. Russia has authority over the political and economic decisions taken by the Syrian government which has gone beyond simple military decision-making. Putin is pulling the strings in Syria and the Syrian people are beginning to view the conflict through the lens of independence from Iran and Russia and their Syrian cronies; independence to plan their own course on and into the future.'

Friday, 27 December 2019

Syrian opposition calls on the world to aid rebel-held Idlib

a group of people sitting at a beach: Civilians flee a Syrian military offensive in Idlib province on the main road near Hazano, Syria, (Ghaith al-Sayed/AP)

 'A Syrian opposition leader has called on the international community to help millions of civilians in the country’s last rebel-held stronghold amid a crushing government offensive, calling it a “disaster area”.

 After weeks of intense bombardment, Assad régime forces launched a ground offensive on the southern and eastern parts of Idlib province in the north-west last week.

 It has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.



 Opposition leader Nasr Hariri told reporters in Istanbul that the international community “should turn on the red lights because there is a humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria”.

 He added that large numbers of people are fleeing toward the Turkish border in what could trigger a new refugee crisis.

 “We declare this area a disaster area and it should be dealt with accordingly,” said Mr Hariri, who heads the High Negotiations Committee.

 He said work should be done to reach a permanent ceasefire in Idlib, not a truce that would crumble later.

 Mr Hariri said if the international community cannot protect those civilians, they should send them humanitarian assistance “so that they will be able to survive in this cold weather and difficult circumstances”.



 More than 235,000 people have been displaced between December 12 and December 25.

 It said many of those who fled moved out of the town of Maaret al-Numan, toward which Syrian troops have been advancing since Thursday.

 Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid group, said aid workers were rapidly scaling up operations to respond to the massive influx of newly displaced people.

 In just the past three days, Mercy Corps has handed out new arrival kits containing essentials for cooking and hygiene to more than 3,000 people and reached an additional 2,500 with fresh water, it said.

 “Thunderous bombs and shelling keep getting closer to major civilian areas,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, Syria country director for the organisation.

 “For thousands of innocent civilians the only choice is to flee, and now even their escape is a violent and frightening affair.”


 The town sits on a key road linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

 The immediate goal of Assad’s forces appeared to be reopening the strategic road, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.'

Friday, 20 December 2019

Where Doctors Are Criminals

Dr. Ahmed in a park in Gaziantep, Turkey in Nov. 2019. He was detained by the Syrian military and subjected to beatings, electric shocks and mock executions.

 'The Syrian medical students were well aware of the risks when they crossed over to rebel-held districts of Aleppo in 2013. The previous year, two other students had been arrested trying to smuggle bandages and painkillers through a checkpoint. A week later the security services told other students to collect the corpses, which had holes in their foreheads, tongues and eyes from a power drill.

 “That was a message for all the medical students,” said a former student who asked that his name not be used because of fear of retaliation. “ ‘If you do something against us, this is the result.’ ”

 Still, he and a friend decided to go. “There were no doctors at all in eastern Aleppo. The aerial strikes were really intense. It was a catastrophe.”


 Today the former student is working at a hospital in rural Germany where the hills are carpeted with vineyards. Two years after arriving he speaks fluent German and is studying for an exam that will give him status equal to a German-educated doctor. He lives with his young family in a quiet village. He told his story in a compact living room furnished with two soft brown couches and a large-screen television.

 After making contact with other students already working in east Aleppo, the student and a friend crossed over, pretending to visit relatives. As a third-year medical student, he had few skills, but doctors there taught him basics like inserting an IV needle or stitching a wound.

 In the beginning, medical supplies were so scarce that surgeons conducted an appendectomy on a young boy without anesthetics. “That was terrible.”

 Later the situation improved as outside aid groups provided supplies and training. A British doctor taught the Syrian surgeons how to repair a severed artery — essential in a war zone. The medical students visited Turkey to learn how to treat victims of chemical warfare.

 Despite their inexperience, the students admitted patients and provided emergency treatment because the doctors were always busy operating. The wounded were classified by color code: white for survival without treatment, black for hopeless, yellow or red for those in between.


 Some cases haunt him. A family trying to escape Aleppo by car came under fire, killing the father and fatally wounding the two children, one cut almost in half. “The mother said to me, ‘Please don’t help me, help my children.’”

 He lied to the mother that the children were fine, and the doctors treated her. She was the only survivor.

 Another time a government missile struck a marketplace and ignited cans of fuel for sale. About 10 people came in severely burned. He and other students pushed tubes down their throats to administer liquids and medicine, but as far as he knows only one person survived.

 After a couple of months he crossed back to west Aleppo to take his exams. The head doctor at the hospital told him he was crazy — the student had been filmed by a French television crew. Undaunted, he passed his exams and returned to east Aleppo.


 Asked why he had gone back, he told a story about a mother brought in by her children after a bombing attack in the middle of the night. She was covered in blood and classified as “black” — a hopeless case. But the doctors revived the woman with blood transfusions and liquids, as her children, aged 3 and 6, were curled asleep beside her. The children awoke, overjoyed. Cases like that, he said, “were a motivation for me to go back.”

 After about another six months, around January 2014, he left east Aleppo again to take more exams. He applied for a passport, because it was getting harder to cross into Turkey and he wanted more training there.

 That was a mistake.

 His name was on a list at the passport office. The clerk said the student needed to answer some questions that would take five minutes. He said “it lasted about 110 days.”


 The first night he was held with eight people in a cell measuring one meter by two meters. He was interrogated repeatedly and accused of providing treatment to rebels, but he was not tortured.

 That changed after he was transferred to another facility in Aleppo, which he described as a large house, operated by state security.

 For the next 96 days he was detained with 35 men in a cell about as big as his living room in Germany, or about three meters by three meters. There wasn’t room for anyone to lie down. The prisoners sat in rows, their legs wrapped around the person in front. The first three days he couldn’t sleep. The prisoners wore only their underwear and were allowed two bathroom trips daily. The guards counted down as the prisoners relieved themselves.

 Occasionally prisoners were hauled out. The others could hear the screams from beatings in nearby rooms. The youngest prisoner was 14, arrested for demonstrating. The oldest was 76, a teacher who developed a foot infection after a beating and died.


 Eventually the medical student’s turn came. A muscled guard made him lie down on the floor, hands bound. He was blindfolded and beaten with a braided electric cord. He said the first blow was unbearable. The beating lasted an hour.

 The next day he was beaten again until he was bleeding, with broken teeth lying on the floor. The guard wanted him to confess to giving medical treatment to rebels.

 After 96 days he and 50 other prisoners were loaded onto a bus with blacked-out windows. Guards told them they were en route to the desert to be shot.

 “I said, ‘O.K., this is it. This is the end.’” But it turned out they were en route to Damascus, where conditions improved dramatically.

           

 He was held in a less crowded cell with a toilet. He got a haircut and was allowed to wash and shave. The meals included eggs, vegetables and fruit.

 It turned out his parents had bribed officials the equivalent of about $1,650 to win his release. After 10 days he was freed.

 Despite his trauma, he went back to east Aleppo. The city by then was under constant attack, and his contacts behind the lines told him the situation was catastrophic. The student’s father tried to stop him. “He said, ‘Are you the only doctor? Please don’t go.’ I went anyway.”

 After a short time in east Aleppo he left, finished his medical studies and married a doctor colleague. Demoralized by the fall of Aleppo, in 2016 they became refugees bound for Germany.

 That was another odyssey, including a crossing in an overcrowded inflatable boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Chios on New Year’s Eve and the sale of his wedding ring to pay for train fare from Warsaw to Berlin.

 Now he works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the hospital now, but isn’t complaining. “People here are very nice.”


                                       **********************************************


 Soon after the Syria demonstrations began in February 2011, the government started using lethal force against the protesters, and medical personnel were pulled in to help.

 A pharmacist from Damascus began handing out basic first aid supplies because his pharmacy was in one of the suburbs where the protests first took hold.

 “People came for bandages and cotton,” he said. “People tried to organize themselves. They tried to set up field hospitals, in houses, to do some managing,” he said. “Some doctors tried to do that. I knew a lot of them. A lot of them were my friends. A lot of them were arrested.”

 Wary of Syria’s feared intelligence service, protesters cared for the injured in secret, fetching medical personnel to treat them in private homes or safe houses, not trusting the public hospitals where the police and intelligence agents could detain wounded patients.

 The pharmacist began organizing networks of medical workers. He had experience from his student days when he had raised money to help orphans and the sick. He began collecting drugs and medical supplies from friends, relatives and organizations and getting them delivered.


 By 2012 the protests had spread countrywide and escalated into an armed uprising. The government had sealed off opposition-held areas including the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, the southwest city of Dara’a and districts of the western city of Homs, preventing food and medical deliveries by enforcing a blockade.

 “The régime was preventing any help for them,” the pharmacist said. “The régime claimed that those people were part of the opposition parties and militias - children, women or men, without discrimination.”

 As a pharmacist, he supplied drugs to public hospitals, so he had access to drug supplies and he carried a health ministry card, which allowed him to drive through government checkpoints unhindered.

 “Sometimes I was trying to deliver very critical drugs,” he said. “We are talking about cancer, cancer affects all people, anyone can have this disease,” he went on. “In the besieged areas it was a very important intervention from my side to deliver those drugs.”


 He knew an oncologist in eastern Ghouta who had chosen to stay within the besieged suburb, and he sought ways to keep supplying drugs and medical supplies to her hospital.

 The pharmacist paid government militias to take drugs and medical supplies across government lines, and delivered supplies near tunnels in eastern Ghouta that the rebels had dug.

 The dangers to people like him were clear, the pharmacist said. Under President Bashar al-Assad — who was a doctor himself, specializing in ophthalmology — the Syrian government arrested medical professionals who showed any sympathy for the popular uprising.

 “If they find a weapon in your car it will be easier for you than if they find bags of blood, for example, or anesthesia drugs,” he said. ”Working in medicine was a very critical issue because the régime hated us more than the people, more than the revolutionaries.”



 Moreover, he said, the government mistrusted medical professionals because they were educated and capable of independent thinking.

 “They hate the educated people because we are trying to do some organizing that is not in their way,” he said. “They are trying to make all people think in the same way, what Assad needs and what Assad wants, not against him.”

 Fear of arrest did not deter him, he said. “It is our choice, our life,” he said. “As a human, we have this belief, and we have our belief in God, as a Muslim. And it is our families and our people who are being affected.”

 One of the supply networks he had formed with a friend consisted of 10 doctors and medical personnel. They used basic security, operating in cells, using code names. Only the leader, his friend, knew who the other 10 members were. But it turned out one member was a government informant.


 They worked for two years, longer than many medical activists, but in July 2014, agents of the Syrian intelligence service detained the group leader, who led them to the pharmacist.

 Plainclothes intelligence officers surrounded the pharmacist outside his office as he was getting into his car. He spotted his friend sitting in one of their cars. They took the pharmacist home and seized his computer, cash, and car, and ordered him to call his wife to tell her to come home.

 As they hauled him away, he recalled, the couple exchanged glances. “I looked at her — it was a very sad moment,” he said.



 He was interrogated and tortured with beatings for 60 days in the 215th branch of the Intelligence Service in Damascus.

 “My interrogator asked me directly: ‘Where is your gun? Why are you helping terrorists?’” The interrogator dismissed his protests that he was a government-approved pharmacist supplying public hospitals. They showed him a fellow member of his network who had been arrested. The man’s back had been broken after he was bent backward in a form of torture that inmates call the German chair.

 The pharmacist’s ordeal reinforced to him the Syrian government’s weaponization of medical care in war.

 “My interrogator told me, ‘We hate you more than the fighters. Why? Because you will treat people, you will treat fighters,’” he said.


 He was held in a cell so cramped that inmates had to take turns to rest. One sat with knees bent while another stood. Disease was rife that prisoners sometimes died in the cell.

 A family of three, father, son and grandfather, died one after the other. The father died after interrogation, and the 18-year-old son, who had been arrested trying to buy bread at the local bakery, was so traumatized that started biting cellmates. “He died in the night, and the guards did not remove his body for a whole day.”

 The pharmacist ended up signing blank papers and his interrogators filled in his confession, inventing details that he had stored weapons in a mountain cave, had treated fighters and knew the leaders of Al Qaeda and other militias.



 If the government had really believed such accusations his captors would never have let him out alive, he said. “They know I am not like that,” he said. Instead, they took a bribe of $10,000 from the pharmacist’s family to gain his release. A few months later he paid $2,000 for him and his wife to be smuggled out of Damascus and into Turkey.

 He lives in a modern apartment block in the city of Gaziantep, not far from the Syrian border in southern Turkey, and works for a nongovernmental agency, providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Syrians.

 The pharmacist said he remains opposed to the Syrian government and its enforcers. “We are fighting them, not with weapons but with ideas, concerns and also humanitarian work.”


                                *********************************************************


 For some, the war destroyed their dreams.

 Amani Ballour’s ambition was to be a pediatrician. She lived in Ghouta, a large suburb east of Damascus, and was in her fifth year of a medical degree in Damascus when demonstrations began in 2011. She recalls a building sense of terror.

 Police began checking student’s IDs at the university entrance and she watched in fear as fellow medical students were beaten and detained, and people were hauled off buses.

 “That started very early,” she said. “Everyone in Syria saw that.”


 A slim pale-faced figure in a head scarf and long coat, Ms. Ballour, 32, recounted her ordeal with the calm efficiency of a medical professional as she sat in the sparse one-room apartment she shares with her husband, a civil engineer, Hamza el Hiraki, 37.

 When demonstrations broke out in her own suburb, the risk of detention grew. “They started to do the same thing,” she said, “I felt very afraid.”

 Then one day, Nov. 25, 2011, her brother and brother-in-law, both mechanics who were traveling by bus on their way to fix a water pump, were detained.

 “My brother did not participate in the demonstrations,” she said, “but they took their IDs and because they were from Ghouta they were arrested.”

 “They disappeared from that time, nine years ago,” she said. “Till now we don’t know.”


 Ms. Ballour was still traveling to the university by bus, and was already helping to treat wounded protesters in a small clinic in Ghouta.

 “It was dangerous for doctors,” she said. “If you helped injured people they would arrest you, so I had to decide if I wanted to stay in Ghouta, or stay in Damascus and study. I decided to stay in Ghouta.”

 People who knew she was studying pediatrics began bringing their children to her. She handled respiratory and intestinal infections and referred serious cases to specialists in Damascus.



 When the government imposed a siege on the suburb, conditions worsened. At the beginning of 2013, a woman came to her with newborn twins. They were in good health, but she had no milk. And with no milk powder available, the babies died within weeks.

 The medics relied on expired medicines they found in an old pharmaceutical factory, but by 2014 even those were exhausted. “We did not think it would last that long,” she recalled of the siege. “By 2014 we had nothing. I saw a lot of children die with infections, and some died of pneumonia.”


 The numbers of wounded escalated sharply when the government began aerial bombardment in 2012. When a hospital she worked in was destroyed by fire, Ms. Ballour began assisting a surgeon, Dr. Salim Namour in a hospital that was dug underground to protect against airstrikes. Their work in The Cave is now the subject of a documentary film.

 They trained volunteers to assist in the operating theater, and on the wards and Ms. Ballour was able to focus on pediatric cases. Eventually the staff voted for her to become the hospital’s manager.

 “He bombed it six or seven times but he could not injure anyone, he could not reach the basement,” she said, not needing to mention President Bashar al-Assad by name. Only when Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 and Russian jets joined the fight, were they able to pierce underground, she said.

 “A missile entered the basement,” she said. “They destroyed a part of the hospital and they killed three of my colleagues.” Ms. Ballour had just walked out of their room into the corridor and narrowly escaped.

 “They focus on hospitals because if they destroy the hospitals, people would give up,” she said.


 “A doctor represents hope for the patient,” her husband, Mr. el-Hiraki chipped in.

 Nothing prepared her for the devastating sarin gas attack of 2013. “This was the most difficult thing I saw. I had never seen something like that before, hundreds of dead bodies.”

 When she reached the hospital that night the whole square in front of the hospital was covered in bodies. “There was no blood,” she said. We did not know what it was but people were shouting, ‘Chemical, chemical!’”

 “I saw a lot of people, most of them children and they were suffocating,” she said. “Some of them were dead and some were dying.”

 The patients were foaming at the mouth, had pinpoint pupils and were in seizure. As medics tried to suck out the foam, more foam kept building. They gave every patient an injection of atropine but it was not enough and they had no oxygen.

 “People asked me to help their children but they were dead,” she said. With seconds to save those still alive, she brushed off a woman whose three children were her patients. “I could not even look at them. They were dead and I had to help others. There was no time and I did not sympathize with her. And when I remember that I feel bad.”

 “That night 1,400 died, most of them were children,” she said.


 The incident made Ms. Ballour and her surgeon colleague, Dr. Salim, targets of the Assad government because they were important witnesses to one of the war’s worst atrocities.

 They were eventually evacuated in to Idlib, the last opposition-held province in northwestern Syria. But there, they received a warning that they were on a government hit list because of their knowledge of the sarin attack and were forced to move to Turkey.

 In Ghouta medical colleagues who chose to stay behind were arrested, including a former military doctor, Dr. Motaz. He died in prison.

 For Ms. Ballour, the last days of the siege, when she saw so many children killed and maimed, many of them her own patients, finally broke her. She is working on a new project for Syrian women but gave up her dreams of being a pediatrician.

 “I cannot describe it, there are no words, but I could not work,” she said. “I will not be a pediatrician any more. I could not work with the children. Every child reminds me of another child.”


                                      ******************************************************


 Dr. Ahmed was training to be an orthopedic surgeon at a government training hospital on the outskirts of Damascus when he became involved in coordinating first-aid points for injured protesters in 2011. With a group of 10 friends in the suburb of Dummar, Dr. Ahmed helped to move wounded protesters to a couple’s private house where he would bring his instruments and medication, and provide first aid.

 They kept the medical work secret, but at the same time were actively supporting the demonstrations on social media.

 “We were expressing our opinions in public on Facebook. I was using my real name,” he said. “That was to encourage people to express their opinion. So I never used a fake name which was crazy in that time.”


 In August 2011, intelligence officials came to the hospital where he worked and detained him. Unknown to Dr. Ahmed, the whole group was taken into custody at the same time.

 He endured a month of interrogation and torture of beatings, electric shocks and mock executions. He was beaten with rubber, wooden and steel cables, and electrocuted in ankle-deep in water.

 “It was like someone threw me into a wall. I lost consciousness and then I woke up on the watery floor.”

 Three times his torturers told him to prepare for his death by hanging, marching him out in the morning, and then after hours of waiting, giving him a reprieve.

 Although his interrogators did not know about his secret medical work, they always took exception to his status as a doctor and his education.

 “They said you studied in government schools, and it was for free, and the health service is free. So now you are receiving training from the government and receiving a salary, and now you want to bring down this government. You are a cheat,” he said.

 “They always were torturing me double because I was a doctor.”


 Eventually he confessed, was charged with multiple crimes including trying to overthrow the government, and released. Despite a grueling four months detention, he immediately returned to his activism.

 “A lot had changed,” he said. “The Free Syrian Army had formed, the international community was with us. I felt, ‘O.K., we have hope.’ And the régime increased its violence so I felt it was our responsibility and we should not stop.”

 He created a network of safe houses to treat the wounded, both civilians and those who took up arms and joined the Free Syrian Army. “We helped all of them. At that time there was no Al Qaeda or ISIS, so we felt the F.S.A. were part of us.”

 He set up a safe house in a luxury villa just yards from one of the Syrian government’s main military bases. They devised a network to ferry serious casualties to Lebanon. He returned to his post in the government hospital, working by day as a government orthopedic surgeon and by night for the opposition. “Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he said, laughing. “Most of us had these two lives.”

 At one first-aid point he amputated the arm of a Free Syrian Army fighter without equipment. He used a simple razor blade and cut the bones with garden shears. “It worked,” he said, “but a couple of hours after we finished, they said that the Army was very close to the center and we have to evacuate.” The doctors could drive out because they had passes, but they had to leave the patient. “He told us, go, and we left and we don’t know what happened to him. It was one of the most difficult moments of my life.”


 In 2013, he received a warning that he was about to be arrested and fled Damascus for the rebel-held area of Idlib. It was just in time, as government officials came looking for him at the hospital the next day.

 He joined a small rural hospital, and in 2014 encountered one of the most dramatic surgeries of his life. A car bomb exploded in the market and caused dozens of casualties. He treated a 10-year-old boy who had an open leg fracture, but then discovered his femoral artery was ruptured. As the blood spurted out, he told his assistant to put his hand on the wound and called a surgeon friend in Germany.

 “He said ‘O.K. I will send you a YouTube link, watch it and then go to the operating theater and call me through Skype and I will tell you what to do,’” he recalled. Dr. Ahmed watched the video, and then his friend talked him through the operation, taking a piece of vein from the boy’s other leg, mending the rupture and watching the color return to the boy’s foot. “Till now, I have never felt happiness like this in my life,” he said.

 He now works in Gaziantep in southern Turkey, meeting for an interview in a cafe because his wife wants no more activism in their lives.

 He no longer practices medicine and describes feeling survivors’ guilt. “Maybe I could have done more. This feeling of guilt never left us,” he said. His new mission is to help train and support medical personnel in northwestern Syria, where there is a lack of doctors.

 “I came here to bridge the gap as much as I can, and I think I did good work in that.” '

A Syrian medical student in Frankfurt, Germany. He was detained and beaten for treating patients in east Aleppo, an opposition stronghold.A pharmacist who was detained and interrogated by intelligence services for providing medical supplies during protests in Syria.
Dr. Amani Ballour in her apartment in Gaziantep, Turkey in Nov. 2019. Dr. Ballour managed an underground hospital in the besieged suburb of Ghouta, Syria.Dr. Ahmed in a park in Gaziantep, Turkey in Nov. 2019. He was detained by the Syrian military and subjected to beatings, electric shocks and mock executions.