Sunday, 18 March 2018

How the war in Syria destroyed my childhood idyll in Eastern Ghouta

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 'As the bombs rain down on the rebel-held area on the edge of Damascus, Steve Ali remembers the idyllic summers he and his friends spent there as children — and how their young lives were torn apart by Syria’s civil war
In Syria, we don’t say, “Once upon a time …” We say, “There was and there wasn’t a long time ago …” So that is how I shall start my story here.

 There was and there wasn’t a long time ago a boy called Mustafa who had a friend called Mahmoud. The most exciting challenge in Mustafa’s life was to climb the tallest oak tree in a field owned by Mahmoud’s family in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta. The field was by the Barada river that ran all the way from Western Ghouta and across Damascus to Eastern Ghouta. From the top of this oak Mustafa felt like he could see the whole world. He loved to ride the bendy branches as the howling wind rocked them back and forth.

 Mahmoud’s father would scold Mustafa. “Get down, you monkey! You’ll hurt yourself if you fall, son,” he’d shout, but Mustafa did not fall.

 Mustafa and Mahmoud and their friends Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad were a tight summer crew. They played football in the long, wide field, through the emerald plants and the dark red soil. They chased each other through the trees. They planted vegetables, fed the farm animals, swam in the river and found adventures in the woods until the sun went down. Then they pulled aubergines and potatoes from the field and cooked them over an open fire under the moonlight. Then they rode back to the house on their bicycles.

 Mahmoud’s older brother Karim was a teacher and sometimes he would manage to gather the scattered children into the house to teach them maths. He had kind, twinkly eyes and a warm heart and stealthy means to make the children laugh as they learnt that “numbers are important”. After lessons the whole family would sit in their large living room full of treasures, on a beautiful Persian rug that Mustafa thought looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet. They would share a picnic of traditional Syrian dishes made by Mahmoud’s adoring mother.

 When the children were tired of running outside on the long summer days, they’d visit Samer, whose father was a master craftsman. Sometimes he would take the boys to his workshop in Hazeh where he taught them how to make wooden clocks. Each child had a role in the production line and at breaktime Samer’s mother would reward the little workers with sandwiches and a huge kettle of tea.

 Ahmad wouldn’t come to the workshop. He was too shy. He preferred to work in his father’s florist’s, more excited by flowers than people. He would lecture Mustafa about orchids with a spark in his eye and a passion in his quiet little voice. Mustafa loved watching his friend leave his awkwardness to one side whenever he was able to be an authority on orchids.

 Amer and Rami were brothers. The children were sometimes invited to their father’s factory in Hamoryah where he produced generators and electrical products. The boys fiddled with the machines and tools and broke them as often as they learnt how to get them going.

 Little Ziad, the last of the gang, was from Douma. His dad had a convenience shop on the corner in the main square where he chatted and chain-smoked. Mustafa always warned him the smoking was very bad for his health and he always promised to quit but never did.

 Many blissful summers in Eastern Ghouta and peaceful school years in Damascus passed. Mustafa and his friends laughed and argued, played and studied, and grew tall — even little Ziad. Eventually the crew split up to travel to different universities. The idyllic years of their childhood grew into their first days of adulthood. Then the war began. It was and it wasn’t a long time ago … the kind of slaughter that belonged in a savage ancient myth. Except this time it definitely was — and it was happening now. It was happening to me and everyone I’d ever loved.

 None of us living in Damascus knew what was happening in the country at first. We lived under the relentless brainwashing machine of national television, where we were told that the rumours of torture and killing were lies to turn people against the government. We couldn’t imagine life being any other way than it had been when we were riding bicycles in the woods.

 But soon everyone could smell the blood. The sickeningly dry and suffocating smell of burning flesh made it hard to breathe. As the conflict intensified, we all had to be identified as either a loyal supporter of the regime or the enemy. For them or against them. Damascus was turned into one massive fortress, crawling with army officers, with checkpoints on every street. Walls were painted with the regime’s flag and propaganda. Veiled figures walked the streets at night writing revolutionary phrases on walls. The regime responded by threatening to knock the walls of people’s houses down if they couldn’t keep them clean.

 From my room at night I could hear the peal of cannons. My house would tremble as I watched the bombs like shooting stars in the distance. A walk to see friends would turn into a battlefield, running through bullets from armed soldiers and rebels, like something out of Mad Max. Bombings, explosions, assassinations and arbitrary arrests became the norm.

 I was a student, so immune to being called up to shoot and gas Syrians my own age and younger. But soon young men my age were randomly pulled off university campuses and forced into uniform with a gun in their back and a threat to kill or be killed. So on March 13, 2013, I packed as lightly as possible, dressed as discreetly as I could and left my home for the last time.

 I set off with the intention of passing through about 20 military checkpoints, including one known as the checkpoint of death. My ID card was torn, which would have signalled disloyalty and meant certain death. I slipped it into a clear plastic folder, masking the tear, and showed my passport instead wherever I could. At each checkpoint I was waved through, my heart beating in my mouth — until the final one.

 An enormous, bald, armed man with huge bushy beard and a face from hell approached me and asked for my ID. He stared at the torn document for a long time and I knew my time was up. I was going to be taken away. I knew not where, except that I would not return. After what seemed like a short lifetime, he handed it back to me wordlessly and walked away. I have no idea why, to this day. I didn’t look back. Not long afterwards, I was in Turkey. I felt born again, but I had no idea how far away peace would be for me.

 I walked across countries where Syrians were not welcome and there were no rights for refugees. I crossed seas in dinghies and I slept rough. I avoided arrest from ruthless police, dealt with unscrupulous, terrifying smugglers and nearly died of exposure. After three years, I finally arrived in the Calais Jungle refugee camp, where I lived for a year. By night I worked as a firefighter. It was a very flammable place, in every way. The French police tear-gassed and intimidated the traumatised population and threatened to bulldoze our shelters to the ground. Eventually they did.

 I tried every possible death-defying way to get to London until one of them worked. I was sofa surfing while waiting for asylum. Then a friend asked me to do a panel show podcast called Global Pillage with some stand-up comedians who were doing a refugee season for TimePeace, an app that connects refugees with local people. Deborah, the host of the show, said she and her husband, Tom, were going away and needed a cat-sitter. I agreed immediately.

 When they returned, we all stayed up for hours chatting, drinking tea and stroking Toast, their cat, in front of the fire. It was the loveliest night I’d had in a long time. Like something I would have done in Syria before the war. It felt … normal.

 Afterwards, Deborah said that if I left it was clear that Toast would leave with me, so I should stay on in their spare room. I feel very lucky and grateful in every way to have met them. The sense of family we’ve developed and the calm stability that I have being there has meant I’ve found some of my old self. I’ve unpacked in more ways than one and made my bedroom my own space, like it was in Damascus. I haven’t had any room except a shelter in a refugee camp from the age of 20 to 25, so I love this one.

 I make silver jewellery, so I got a desk from Freecycle and began collecting tools. As soon as I got my papers, I started selling my jewellery and called my company Road from Damascus, because I had my epiphany coming the other way.

 Being granted asylum is like becoming a person again. Life is getting better and normality is returning. Recently, I was offered a job as an interpreter for a news agency. I speak Arabic, Turkish and English, and this is quite well-paid work for someone who loves languages. For the first time in years, I have an appetite for the future.

 I wake up. My phone reminds me it is 1,808 days exactly since I left Damascus. Numbers matter. Karim taught me that, but now I understand what that means in a way perhaps he didn’t. I go to work at the news agency and I am distracted because it is my best friend’s 26th birthday, but he only lived 21 of them. Our university was bombed just after I escaped. We spoke the night before he was killed. He was making plans to join me.

 I sit behind a desk, going through videos and reports. They come through thick and fast from Eastern Ghouta. The region is being bombed and devastated. I need to prepare for a report for the 6pm news on national American television. I interpret a speech from a man they call “The Tiger” — Brigadier Suheil Salman al-Hassan, commander of the government’s Tiger Forces. He is leading the attacks on Eastern Ghouta. I translate his words into English but they stick to the roof of my mouth. He says: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.”

 I feel sick. Furious, devastated, sad, battered and broken. How much longer will this last? How much longer do my people have to suffer?

 I can’t see the screens any more. My mind blocks the carnage with all the summers with Mahmoud, Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad. I can hear their laughter, feel the softness of the magic carpet, taste the roasted aubergines and smell the orchids. Every colour is vivid. A hundred images in a second, as if their lives are flashing before my eyes.

 I realise my tea is cold. And I am numb. I have forgotten where I am. And remembered where I’ll never be again.

 Mahmoud died in an airstrike when a bomb fell on the house with the big Persian rug that we had picnicked on so many times. His father was killed beside him.

 Mahmoud’s older brother Karim, who taught us to love maths, came home to find his loved ones dead and his kind eyes stopped twinkling when he buried them and four more of his siblings. Not long afterwards, Karim’s warm heart stopped beating. He was shot in the head by a sniper.

 Samer left his house full of wooden clocks one day and went to a protest to call time on Assad’s regime. He was arrested and so badly beaten by the police he was unrecognisable. When his father went to the police station to try to get his son back, he was arrested too. Neither of them has been seen again.
 About a year after that, Samer’s mother who had made us so many sandwiches and big pots of tea was killed in an explosion alongside her seven-year-old daughter.

 Shy Ahmad got on a bus to go to university one day. It was stopped at a checkpoint. They ripped his student card out of his hand and forced him into the military. Ahmad was killed in a battle and thrown into a large ditch with many other young, violently conscripted men. A young soldier who knew Ahmad recognised him while trying to cover his body with some soil. He contacted his family to let them know. There were no orchids on his grave.

 Amer and Rami’s father’s generator factory was stormed by the regime. Everyone working there was arrested and the place was looted. Their father was accused of having connections with terrorists and put on trial. All his possessions and property were taken and he was sent to the notorious military prison of Sednaya, where later he was executed.

 In response Amer and Rami joined the rebel forces. Amer got shot in one of the vicious battles during the siege. Rami saw his brother go down, ran directly into the line of fire to try to save him and was instantly shot dead.

 Little Ziad, barely grown up at 20, tried to flee Syria with his family, who left their convenience store and everything they knew behind, but he was detained at a border. His father went back for him and paid someone he knew to get his son out. They took his money and sent him Ziad’s dead body. Soon after, Ziad’s father had his last cigarette and died of a heart attack.

 And then there is me, Mustafa, nicknamed Steve by my Syrian friends, which is easier for my English ones. The only one left who can remember the tallest oak tree in the field in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta.

 I walk back to the desk and see a post from Hassan Akkad, a friend from Damascus who is now in London. “A few years from now, there will be a huge Hollywood film about Syria. It will tell the true story of the systematic torture and rape Assad’s troops used against millions of peaceful protestors to shut down the revolution. A film we will watch, weep and then say, ‘Never again’.”

 It was and it is and it’s happening now — and every day nobody stops it. I feel as if I have climbed to the top of the oak tree again and I can see the whole of Ghouta from here. I can hear Mahmoud’s father’s voice in my head, warning me to be careful, but I am the lucky one. I did not fall.'

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‘I screamed, but no one came’: The horrifying sexual violence facing Syria’s women and girls

 'Syrian government forces, under the control of Bashar al-Assad, have systematically used rape and sexual violence as a tool to victimize and humiliate its perceived enemies.

 That's the conclusion of the United Nations' Human Rights Council, which just released a new report on the horrific sexual violence facing the people of Syria.

 The stories in the report, written after interviews with more than 450 people, document a terrifying and systematic pattern of sexual abuse by the government during house raids, at checkpoints and in detention centers.

 Rape and sexual humiliation weren't a bug of the system — they were a feature, designed to break combatants and destroy the structures of family life.

 The report documents the way rape was deployed during government raids on the homes of people it suspected to be in the opposition.

 As one women explained: “My home was invaded ... One security officer told me to go to my room and he followed me in. He began insulting me and telling me he would 'do me' and that I would never 'be clean again.' I screamed, but no one came.”

 In some instances, women and girls recounted being raped outside or forced to walk naked in the streets in front of tanks. One woman told interviewers that she'd been raped in front of her brother. Another woman said she'd been raped in front of her husband and three young children. Some women who resisted were killed, or were forced to watch their relatives die.

 In other cases, women and girls were taken to detention centers as a way to pressure their male relatives to surrender.

 At government checkpoints, particularly in opposition-held areas — a near-daily reality in Syria, where most roads are controlled by someone — women and girls suffered similar humiliations. Sometimes women were separated from their groups and raped. One woman recalled being pulled off a bus and taken to a house with eight other women, who were all naked and injured.

 Even elderly women were not safe. Many were subject to “intimate searches.” One woman recalled being taken to a basement and beaten by a militia member, who also touched her breasts and genitals. Another said she had “an object inserted in her genitals.”

 The worst abuse, however, was reserved for the girls and women in detention. As the report explains, “thousands of women and girls were also apprehended, including female lawyers, journalists and activists expressing anti-Government sentiments. Large numbers of female relatives of men perceived to be opposition supporters, or suspected of belonging to armed groups, were also arbitrarily detained.”

 For those girls and women — some as young as 9 years old — there was a parade of horrors: Pregnant women were raped. At least one interviewee miscarried as a result.

 On arrival, women were sometimes stripped naked in groups and forced to squat in front of an audience as a male officer inserted his fingers into their genitals. In detention, many women reported rape. Some reported electrocution of their genitals and breasts. Others said they had been gang-raped.

 All reported horrific conditions and frequent beatings. According to the report, one detainee said that at one point, the fact that she was covered in blood, urine and lice prevented officers from raping her.

 “The officers of the Syrian forces were not only aware of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls,” the report found. “They ordered it or were themselves the perpetrators.”

 In detention centers, men suffered too. According to the report, several reported that they had been raped in front of other detainees. Some said that pipes or rods had been used, “seemingly for amusement.” Others reported that male relatives were forced to have intercourse with one another.

 “Survivors of sexual violence and defectors of the Syrian army linked rapes of women and girls during house raids to the arrest of men, with the rapes considered as punishment for rebellion and a way to deter opposition.” This kind of assault eased up after 2015 as the government's forces shifted to air raids.

 These were not isolated incidents, but rather reported countrywide, in Daraa, Homs, Damascus and Latakia.

 There are accounts of sexual violence against women from armed groups too. But the report finds that that was sporadic, or at least not part of an organized campaign.'

Friday, 16 March 2018

Everything is going to get worse and worse until you get rid of Assad

 My contribution to a debate on Syria and the Left at SOAS on 15th March, 2018.

 ‘I spent a lot of time in 2013-14 unpacking the concept of intervention. Because you had an awful lot of people, especially on the left, whose entire discussion about Syria would be, “Well I’m not in favour of intervention,” and that would be simply the end of the conversation.

 Partly it’s based on the war in Iraq. Believing that everything is about the war in Iraq. Which is partly an understandable carry forward from having your government lie to you. But is partly instrumentalised by people on the left, who say that was a great success for us, so if we cast everything in those terms, then that will mean everything else is a success for us. So if we say, anyone who says we should intervene in Syria is a right-wing warmonger, then we will be doing a good job for the left. Because we were proved right about Iraq, and you are all now Tony Blair.

 What the intellectual versions of this would be, is to cast any sort of intervention as a full-scale invasion à la Iraq, so that you could steal their oil. Any sort of intervention was a slippery slope on the road to doing that, because that is what happened in Iraq. It was totally to ignore what was specific to Syria.

 So much so that today you get people going, “Oh, Salisbury. Would the Russians really use chemical on people?” Because it’s in Britain it is more obvious that this is a complete pack of lies. This is where getting into the mindset of believing all these conspiracies gets you. But while it has been very successful in building a left alternative consensus in 2013, that what we needed to do was throw Syrians under the tank, and that was done because we’ve learned from experience tells us that staying out of wars is the way to solve them.

 Whenever someone who had previously supported the war in Iraq proposed a solution. Then it would simply be read by what you would now call alt-left commentators as there is someone who wants to go and bomb Syria. Even if what they said was that we should have a No Fly Zone and support for the Free Syrian Army, and various other things that would try to avoid having Western boots on the ground as much as possible, it was simply, “Oh, you want to bomb Syria.” And that was the end of the debate.

 Where Stop the War came in. They developed the belief after about 1991, that there was only one significant imperial power in the world, which was the US. And so everything they did was about saying what was bad was about the US. Even people who came from a tradition of saying Neither Washington Nor Moscow”, still, it’s everything is about the US. So when Russia invaded Georgia in 2009, the problem is that John McCain has been seen in Georgia, and they are going to try and oppress all these people and split up Russia. And we have to oppose all this.

 Stop the War had organised lots of coaches for the Iraq War demo. And then they needed a reason to continue their existence. So they began to get funding because they were a voice opposing American power. And so that’s why they’ve been some of the worst people, because they’ve had a particular in saying this is all about America, this is all about stopping Britain from invading anywhere.

 There are practical solutions that could have worked better five or six years ago. I think still the best way to go is to empower Syrians to fight against Assad.

 I don’t think Syria is that complicated. I think it is essentially a question of Assad staying is such an immense destabilising force, that everything is going to get worse and worse until you get rid of Assad. You have to say what the critical debate is. There are other things you can do about solidarity. You can have solidarity with people under siege. But the fundamental debate about how you make things better, is about how you support Syrians to overthrow Assad, however difficult that looks at the moment.

 I was going to try to avoid the whole Afrin question, because I am generally more positive about it than Leila is, but what can say about it is that there are now tens of thousands of trained Syrian fighters, fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Who once the operation is over, will want to see a free Syria that is liberated from Assad.

 So while the forces that we would call the Free Syrian Army are now more dominated by foreign states than they ever have been, particularly Turkey, and that’s a problem, of self-determination, they do at least exist.

 You can arm people with anti-aircraft weapons. That will stop the bombing. I remember the last time there was a debate about anti-aircraft weapons in relation to Aleppo, people said, “Oh yes, but MANPADS don’t work against the Russian bombers.” Well, that shouldn’t be the end of the debate then. Why can’t they get BUKs like the Russians are handing out like candy to their forces in the Ukraine to shoot down airliners with, and give them to Syrians to shoot down the Russian airforce? Or the US equivalent. Stinger missiles, whatever it is. Once you have decided the problem is Assad, that there is going to be no democracy, there is going to be no freedom of assembly, while he continues to rule, then the question is what are the practical ways you go about it.

 I also think it is a situation in which you need all the forces fighting Assad to be fighting against Assad, and not fighting each other. There are Islamists who are more extreme than I would ever want to live under, and I’m not saying they should take over the place, but I am saying I don’t think these are the people the more secular forces should be fighting against. They should all be fighting against Assad.

 It is a situation like the 1930s, where the Germans had a question of: you’ve got the Communist Party who are doing everything Stalin tells them, you’ve got the Social Democrats, who are selling out to capitalism. These people have to unite, in order to stop the fascists. And you can argue about what sort of society you create afterwards, but that’s the brutal thing.’

The Bravehearts of Syria

One of the key leaders of the Syrian revolution who led a successful campaign against the Assad regime until most of them were killed,  imprisoned or maimed.

 'Lieutenant colonel Yusuf al-Jadir made a strategic advance in one of the suburbs of Aleppo on December 15, 2012, destroying several tanks of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.

 One of his fighters asked him how he was feeling about the victory. Jadir said, “By God, I’m really sad. These tanks are our tanks, the ammunition [of the enemy] is ours, and the people we are fighting are our brothers. By God, I feel sad whenever one of us or them get killed. If that man [Assad] had resigned, Syria would have been one of the best countries in the world.”

 Born in 1970 in the suburbs of eastern Aleppo, Jadir defected from Assad’s military in July 2012. Five months later, a few hours after gaining hold of an Aleppo suburb, he was killed in an air raid.

 Jadir was among the most influential military officers who defected from the regime’s army in the summer of 2012. Though the “Free Syrian Army” was officially launched in July 2011, more and more soldiers joined the revolutionary ranks by 2012, a defining moment for tens of thousands of Syrians who protested against the Assad regime.

 But seven years later, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no longer a well organised conglomerate of several fighting units. It is rather a deeply fragmented resistance movement that is spread across Syria, holding up key territories in Daraa, Idlib provinces, Aleppo suburbs and Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.

 What happened between 2011 and 2017 is a story of Assad’s brutal military campaign aided by Russia and the culmination of several dozen fighting units backed by international players that changed the course of Syria’s revolution, pushing the country to a full-fledged civil war.

 From 2012 onward, competing ideologies and interests caused cracks in the opposition. Some battalions and brigades started to form their own agendas beside toppling Assad.

 To understand why the revolutionary forces were able to make strategic gains in the initial years, one must look into the lives of some of its key leaders. They were somehow able to bridge a gap between various fighting forces – whether they were “moderate”, “Islamists” or “patriotic.” And even today, the space they left seems to be unfilled. And until now, they are proving to be the irreplaceable leaders of the revolution.

 Yusuf al Jadir defected from Assad’s army on July 18, 2012, and took the leadership role of Al Tawheed Brigade, one of the biggest armed oppositions in Aleppo. In its heyday, the brigade had at least 10,000 fighters.

 Jadir participated in many battles against the regime forces north of Aleppo. He died in an air raid on December 15, 2012. Instead of harbouring the feelings of enmity, anger or revenge, Jadir looked after the welfare of hostages or the regime soldiers who surrendered in various battles. Many Syrians consider him as a national figure.

 Zahran Alloush wa born in 1971 in eastern Ghouta, Alloush came from a family of religious scholars. He studied in Saudi Arabia, where he finished his MA in Islamic Studies at the Islamic University.

 He was known for being “moderate active Salafi,” a title that landed him in trouble. The regime arrested him for holding Salafist views in 2009.

 Soon after the armed rebellion gained momentum, Assad released thousands of prisoners. Alloush was also set free. He was quick to gather fighters and form what he called the Islam Platoon, which gained several territories. He then named it the Army of Islam with more than 10,000 fighters under his belt.

 Under Alloush’s military command, Daesh failed to impose its presence in eastern Ghouta. Alloush was against the extremist group, often referring to it as the “Baghdadi Gang”.

 A few months before his death, foreign countries intervened against the revolutionary fighters, giving an advantage to the Assad regime, Alloush launched a key battle in Ghouta that enabled the opposition forces to get closest ever to Assad’s stronghold, Damascus.

 But he was killed by a Russian air strike on December 25, 2015.

 Known by his nickname “Hajji Mare,” 
Abdulkadir Salih was born in 1979 in Aleppo. Prior to the revolution, he used to be a grain merchant. As protests against Assad morphed into a nationwide uprising, Salih organised many demonstrations.

 Salih felt the urge to protect the people of Aleppo as the regime deployed brutal tactics to quell the uprising, often killing unarmed protesters, torturing and disappearing people. He joined the armed opposition and became one of the founding members of Al Tawheed Brigade, which succeeded in taking control of more than half of Aleppo.

 Salih organised many rebel brigades in the region and was part of the FSA’s command structure.

 He played a crucial role in bridging the gap between various opposition groups with different ideologies and schisms. His moderation was accepted by most of the fighting units in Aleppo and that alone led the regime to put a $200,000 bounty on his head, local experts say.

 Salih survived at least two assassination attempts before he died on November 17, 2013, as a result of an air raid on the Infantry Academy of Al Muslimiyah north of Aleppo.

 When some opposition fighters asked him about composing an anthem on his name, he said:

 “If you want to write a song, do not mention my name, you could mention the name the Al Tawheed Brigade, the whole Muslim Nation, Syria, that is okay, however, don’t mention the name of a person. He might get arrogant."

 So what changed after the revolution lost key leaders?

 Aleppo’s largest Al Tawheed brigade collapsed soon after the death of Salih.

 Rebel group Jaish ul Islam remained stuck in eastern Ghouta and never made any further advances after losing Zahran Alloush.

 So far, no one has managed to replace them. Their charisma and ability to unite battalions and move away from the control of their funders made them indispensable.

 Ahmad Abazzed, a military analyst from Daraa, said that the Assad regime had pinpointed these leaders and was desperate to eliminate them.

 “Assad knew all the revolutionary forces were following the command of these charismatic leaders as they were from the first generation of rebels who fought against the regime,” Abazzed said.

 It was clear, he added, that Assad’s and Russia’s first target was never Daesh or other extremist groups that killed in the name of religion, rather it was the FSA and other moderate opposition groups.

 Though the strategy of bumping off top leaders worked with Al Tawheed and Jaish ul Islam, Abazzed said other battalions have learned to survive even after losing their main leaders.

 “Because they have built an institutionalised structure and popular base among the masses.”

 Moving forward, he said, the armed opposition has moved from building large military brigades to forming small and compact fighting units. “The new battalions that have been formed recently are easier to control than brigades that led the assault at the beginning of the revolution,” he said.

 “I think regaining independence, strategic thinking, cultivating an understanding with various allies is important so that the opposition forces would be able to balance between the interests of the allies and the interests of the Syrian people.”

 Abazzed said one thing was clear in the series of negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition that took place in Geneva, Astana and Sochi. "The opposition should be able to represent Syria as a whole rather than representing local battalions or councils," he said. "Then only they can redefine themselves and stick to their main goal to topple Assad first.” '

Leaders like Alloush and Salih became household names for their revolutionary views and decisive military command. A town square has been named after Yusuf al Jadir in Jarablus.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Syria Is In No Civil War

 'Having now completed its seventh year, the Syrian conflict, one of the deadliest humanitarian crises of our time, continues to be characterized as a civil war.

 Such a categorization, however, is both inaccurate and troubling, as it simplifies a very complicated situation.

 It allows us to become disillusioned with the idea that problems “over there” are just that and have no impact elsewhere, resulting in a collective numbness and shrugging-of-shoulders when images of war-torn Syrian cities and towns (too rarely) dominate our front pages.

 Such a simplification is dangerous.

 It exonerates the international community of responsibility, producing global apathy. It allows internal and external groups to justify their involvement and use of violence, fails to acknowledge the direct and active role of powerful players like Russia and Iran, and gives Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a facade of legitimacy by equating the killer with the victims.

 In March 2011, following decades of stagnation and oppression, a sudden awakening of a disenchanted Syrian populace – one which had lost patience with a failing, anocratic state – swept through the nation when a group of teenagers were arrested and tortured in the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa for painting graffiti featuring messages in support of the Arab uprisings.

 Daraa’s consequent rallying cry for the release of the boys was met with a ferocious crackdown of security forces, who reverted to the logic of violence by killing and detaining innocent civilians.

 Struggles for freedom, economic woes, and public anger over harsh government retaliation resulted in a shift in chants from local and reformist demands, to a call for the complete overthrow of the Assad regime.

 Further, the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes fuelled hope among Syrian protesters, who continued risking their lives demanding dignity (karama), liberty (hurriyya), and revolution (thawra).

 Armed resistance against the Assad regime grew in the form of self-defence as soldiers began defecting from the Syrian military via YouTube videos following the summer of 2011. This led to the birth of the Free Syrian Army, marking the weaponization of the conflict.

 There are local factions that fight against one another from time to time – still, the underlying power dynamic between the regime and the Syrian people is one that is too convoluted to be characterized as a civil war.

 We see this in the arbitrary violence perpetrated by the Assad regime against a helpless populace.

 Soldiers were forced to shoot unarmed demonstrators or were shot themselves. Stadiums and school classrooms were turned into prison camps where mutilation and torture of the worst kinds imaginable were inflicted on men, women, and children, including the elderly and wounded. Public rape, forced starvation, aid obstruction, and indiscriminate executions were used as instruments of warfare and deterrence.

 This degree of atrocities deployed against a largely unarmed population failed to suppress rebellion. The regime’s survival strategy – one of oppressive tactics and its attempt to blame sectarian divisions and foreign conspiracies for the violence – proved ineffective.

 And so, in a deliberate attempt to aggravate the conflict and radicalize what remained of formerly peaceful demonstrations, Assad released dangerous extremists from prison – a number of whom now compose the majority of ISIS leadership. This has helped him shift the narrative, emphasizing so-called Islamic terrorism as a key characteristic of the conflict, thereby presenting himself as a partner in the global war on terror and justifying his use of violence.

 How can we refer to the conflict as a civil war, given the vast amount of external interference?

 Foreign powers have prioritized violence and significantly exacerbated the conflict.

 Following the outbreak of demonstrations in 2011, Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran were immediately deployed in Syria to support the Assad regime.

 Moscow has also been integral to Assad’s survival. Since 2015, Russia has been launching airstrikes targeted at Syrian rebel forces, which often entails targeting Syrian neighbourhoods, hospitals, and schools.

 The most brutal bombardments are currently being carried out by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, an agricultural, rebel-held enclave located in the northern Damascene countryside that has been under siege since 2013 and is home to an estimated 400,000 civilians. Since mid-November, over 1,200 air strikes and more than 6,000 rockets and shells – some of which have reportedly contained chlorine gas – have been fired at the enclave. This is despite the fact that eastern Ghouta was declared a “de-escalation zone” last May; that is, the region is under a diplomatic ceasefire agreed to by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

 The death toll in eastern Ghouta continues to rise. In a one-week period earlier this year, the number of casualties exceeded 500, with thousands of civilians severely injured. Relentless air and artillery strikes have forced civilians to seek shelter underground and has left the region largely deprived of medical care, foodstuffs, sanitation, and other basic necessities.

 The conflict has produced well over five million refugees and six million have been internally displaced – more than half of the country’s pre-war population. More than eight million children have been affected by the conflict and over 13 million Syrians are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Nearly half a million people have been killed, more than two million injured, and more than 65,000 have disappeared in Syria’s torture prisons.

 This is a war carried out by Assad and his foreign allies against the people of Syria, a murderous campaign to exterminate a nation in order to maintain a long-standing power dynamic in the region.

 Do not equate the killer with the victim.

 This is not a civil war.'

Monday, 12 March 2018

Assad’s rape victims break their silence

 Yvonne Ridley:

  'The torture victim stood in front of her tormentor wondering what treatment would be meted out this time in the notorious Branch 215, also known as Raid Brigade run by military intelligence in Damascus. Would it be a merciless beating or would it be another sex assault on her already broken body?

 The start of the investigation was interrupted suddenly by a ringing telephone and she watched and listened with incredulity as the voice laughing and giggling down the line prompted the torturer to break into a warm smile. Almost automatically, he softened the tone of his voice, for that is the effect most daughters have on their fathers.

 In the seconds that he looked away from his torture victim he had morphed from brutal monster into a warm and caring father. This was one of the more chilling aspects that emerged from the stories I heard from Syrian women who have been swept up on an industrial scale and thrown into Bashar Al-Assad’s prisons since the start of the 2011 war. The cold reality is that the mass rapes, sexual assaults, punishment beatings and mental torture are being inflicted on women routinely by someone else’s fathers, husbands and even grandfathers.

 At the end of the shift, these men must return to their family homes and normality, having completely destroyed the lives and souls of the women and young girls in their grip. The harsh reality is that if your husband works in Branch 215 then he is probably a serial rapist or is standing by as a spectator watching the most heinous, unimaginable crimes being carried out on women prisoners and girls.

 I wonder how this particular monster responded when he got home and was asked, “What did you do today, Daddy?” Obviously he would not be telling his daughter about the teeth he smashed, the bones he had broken or the sex he had forced on his victims.

 While trying to shine a light on this dark underbelly of the Assad regime, I met several women who ended up in Branch 215 or other equally terrifying prisons and ghost jails run by the Syrian regime. In every encounter, the image of Bashar Al-Assad loomed large, either in portraits hanging on walls or on the T-shirts worn by the men responsible for the brutal rapes.

 Yes, you read that accurately. Incredible as it may seem, the face of the Syrian leader is emblazoned on T-shirts worn by the rapists in his employ, as if he defiles Syrian women by proxy. No wonder that many who manage to get out of the prisons cannot bear to look at the face of the Syrian leader. Those small, thin lips and piercing stare must send shivers down their spines every time they see his image.

 “Some days I manage to forget what happened to me,” Noor told me, “and then suddenly I’ll see someone sneer or curl their lip in a certain way and it acts like a trigger; I’m back inside 215 suffering from a flashback, feeling terror and anxiety.” Three years on from her own ordeal she puts on a good face for the outside world but you just know, in her darker moments, that she’s plunged back into the stuff of nightmares.

 Badria is not as fortunate; for her, the nightmare continues five years after she and 40 women in Homs were rounded up and taken to an apartment in the Syrian revolution’s fallen capital. When she was arrested she was dressed in black and wore a full face veil, which made her more of a target for her Alawite captors who taunted, mocked and abused her for her piety.

 Once the captors had left the large, spartan room she began to perform tayammum using the stone floor because normal wudu — the Islamic ritual of washing before prayer – was impossible. Unknown to her, CCTV cameras caught her actions and as soon as she tried to prepare for Salah the men returned and beat her with sticks.

 She had her feet and wrists bound and was left hanging from a ceiling hook by the rope around her hands. Every time she mentioned the name of God or any Islamic reference she was beaten. Hands shaking, she looked at me and opened her mouth slowly before removing her dentures. Her teeth, top and bottom, had been shattered by the sticks swung hard and with deliberate precision across her face. Her cheekbones were fractured.

 “I used to have full breasts,” she said as she lifted her shirt, “but now look.” Doctors have told her that the beatings across her breasts were so severe that the tissue was destroyed and will probably never recover. In terms of dress size she was probably an English 14, medium to large when she was arrested, but as she sat before me she looked more like a Size 6, a skeleton draped in skin which will bear the scars of captivity for life.

 Speaking through a translator, she told me how the women in her group were taken into a smaller room where they were raped and humiliated by two or more of the military intelligence officers. There, above the bed, staring down, were portraits of Assad and his brother Maher. To the side of the bed was a small table with various bottles of alcohol for the men to drink.

 To combat their drunken state, explained Badria, they took blue pills before forcing themselves on their prey. She also described how some would put an orange pill under their tongue. After some research I concluded that the drugs she described were the blue diamond-shaped Viagra and the orange pill Levitra, which works four times faster in some men, taking effect after just 15 minutes.

 There was no need to ask Badria if she had been sexually assaulted; the detail she provided about the inside of the rape room, the pills and the alcohol, and the portraits of the Assad brothers leering down told me all I needed to know. She had been forced into the room on numerous occasions where cameras were also installed and the women were led to believe that their images and photographs had been taken.

 She told me of one woman who was “gang raped to death” while another had simply lost her mind. Freedom for Badria came at a price; $17,000 was the ransom paid by her family to get her out of prison. If she thought the nightmare would end then, though, she was wrong. Her husband did not survive the military prison in Homs where he was held; witnesses told her that he died after having his eyes gouged out by his captors.

 Her father and one of her brothers were martyred fighting in the Free Syrian Army and the brother who borrowed so heavily to get her released is now in prison himself, being unable to repay the debt. Meanwhile her sister has been arrested and locked up, and those left in the family are trying desperately to raise the $1,000 being demanded for her release. So not only is the Assad regime abusing women on an industrial scale, but it is also making money out of their misery and running what amounts to a sordid slave trade.

 Badria’s son, aged around seven, sat in silence as his mother told her story; every now and again, when the details became too graphic, she sent him on an errand. He looked nearly as traumatised as his mother who was shrinking before his eyes in stature and health. She looked so frail as I got up to leave, that it was difficult to give her a sisterly hug; I honestly felt that she might snap.

 At another house I was taken to I met a mother-of-five called Aishah who was arrested in the early days of the war because she had taken part in the street demonstrations. She was taken to Branch 215 where she was beaten “in a humiliating manner”. She was moved around the intelligence system and taken to three other branches, including one at Adra.

 During her incarceration she saw girls as young as seven, old women and every age in between detained, raped and abused. She spoke of the five military officers who put on T-shirts bearing the portrait of Assad before carrying out their gang rape on one woman. “They declared Assad to be their god,” she said.

 Now living safely on the Turkish border near Hatay with her five girls aged three to 17, Aishah is widowed. Her husband, who was also arrested and abused, survived his prison ordeal only to be killed in an air raid in eastern Ghouta three years ago just after the birth of his fifth child.

 The women I met all want justice. They want to see the men who tortured, raped and abused them stand trial for the war crimes that they have all undoubtedly committed. I’d like to be able to report that they are now safe and secure but I’m not sure that they will ever be able to recover fully. One told me that the moment she closes her eyes she’s back inside the hellish prison, waiting for Assad’s men to pounce.

 What makes this all so much worse is that there are believed to be around 7,000 women and 400 children still inside the Syrian regime’s jails. That is what last week’s Conscience Convoy to the Turkey-Syria border was all about; 10,000 women from 55 nations assembled to demand the release of the prisoners.

 I don’t care if it takes money to get them out of the grip of these monsters, but having spoken to the victims, I know for certain that Assad can never be part of the solution in Syria. In more than 40 years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed prisoners from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Abu Saleem in Tripoli and Toulal 2 Prison in Meknes, Morocco, but I have never encountered evidence of so much depravity and inhuman behaviour on such a large scale as what is unfolding right now — even as you read this — in Assad’s prisons.

 There is a brutal regime in Damascus, run by monsters who masquerade as doting husbands and family men in homes around Syria while carrying out of the most horrendous crimes. “What did Daddy do at work today?” Trust me, you don’t want to know, habibi; Daddy and his monstrous associates have to be stopped.'

Sunday, 11 March 2018

A Kurdish couple's love blossoms under Assad's torture

Azad Osman and Sefira Sido, who are Syrian Kurds from Afrin, are now living in Turkey's Mersin province along with their children. They have long been persecuted by the Assad regime.

 'On the afternoon of February 12, a Kurdish family of four from northern Syria broke into an old Kurdish song. “Once upon a time there was a girl from Afrin, whose heart was broken...,” they sang in unison.

 Azad Osman, his wife, son and daughter sat in the living room of their apartment in a poor suburb of southern Turkey’s Mersin province. With his head down, the 53-year-old Osman followed the notes of the Turkish saz, its chords struck by Dilar, his son.

 For a moment, the family seemed to have drifted away from all their worries, away from morbid memories of war and trauma. But as they finished singing, they were back to reality.

 They are refugees who have not only survived the deadly bombings of the Assad regime, but also endured the abuse and trauma inflicted by the YPG, an armed extension of the PKK, which is considered as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey.

 Both Osman and his wife, Sefira Sido, had been punished for espousing the communist cause since their youthful days. Their union began at the University of Aleppo, while at a protest against the dictatorial policies of Syria’s former president Hafez al Assad in 1987.

 First, intelligence officers arrested Osman on campus, then they picked up Sido from the nearby nursing college, where she was pursuing her diploma in paramedical sciences.

 “They (the intelligence police) took me to different places and then they finally led me into a small room where Azad was held,” she said.

 She saw Osman naked, handcuffed to the ceiling.

 “They asked me, 'how do you know each other,’” Sido recalls. “I told them, ‘I love him.’”

 She was moved to a women’s prison cell, where she spent 15 days before her release. Osman was released soon after. But they were both blacklisted. And they were dismissed from their schools and all government-run avenues were closed for them.

 Though they have grown disillusioned with the communist cause, their love for each other is resolute. When Sido speaks about Osman, her eyes still light up with joy and she often tells him 'hezdikim', 'I love you' in Kurdish.

 Born in 1965 in Aleppo, Osman grew up in a politically active family. Though his father was a peasant who struggled to make a living, he was affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a political front currently led by Masoud Barzani in northern Iraq.

 In the 1960s, Osman’s father worked for the front’s branch in northern Syria. Barzani's father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, led armed assaults against the then-governing Baath party in Iraq. He also spoke critically of the party’s extension in Syria led by former president Hafez al Assad.

 The Baathist regime in Syria perceived Barzani’s KDP as a threat, frequently launching military crackdowns against its members in Syria.

 Since Osman’s father was a frequent target of those crackdowns, Osman did not have a happy childhood. “When I was about six or seven years old, my mother woke me up. I got up to see my father being taken away. They were hitting him and dragging him,” Osman said.

 “It was very difficult and hard, my father was being hit and dragged right in front of my eyes. Time passed; I grew up. But what I witnessed then stayed with me.”

 In his early 20s, Osman became a member of the Syrian Communist Party, which was founded by a Syrian Kurd named Halit Bektas. The party underwent a split in 1986 and ideological differences emerged within various communist networks in the country. But Osman stayed loyal to the communist cause for almost 24 years.

 But in 2004, he couldn’t relate to the communist movement anymore, although he was smouldering with the revolutionary sentiment.

 Osman came to believe that communist parties in Syria had been hijacked by the state. His longtime comrade Mustafa Ali Mousto said that it took them a few years to understand that some of the leftist groups in the country had grown "under the wings of Assad’s Baathist regime.”

 By the mid 1990s, Osman formed a civil society group to moderate discussions on democracy among the Syrian people. He cultivated friendships among the “like-minded” Kurds, who shared similar grievances against the Baathist regime, and the PKK and its proxies.

 His drive to build up a strong opposition took him to Iraq, where he reached out to anti-Baathist networks. By the early 2000s, he had developed strong ties with “several small groups” in Sulaymaniyah, a predominantly Kurdish city in northern Iraq. He discreetly hosted meetings, introducing prominent Kurdish community leaders who held anti-Baathist and anti-PKK views, in Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, Aleppo and Damascus.

 Around the same time, he also set up a food company in Sulaymaniyah. But he couldn’t dodge Assad’s shadow state for too long. He was arrested in 2007 for conspiring against the regime, a charge that was commonly slapped on people for speaking against Assad.

 Unlike his previous detention, which lasted for two weeks, this one was much longer. He was imprisoned in the notorious Sednaya Prison, which is known as “Assad’s slaughterhouse," where 13,000 people have been secretly hanged by the Syrian regime, according to Amnesty International.

His fellow prison inmates held differing political views. They were largely affiliated with Al Qaeda and the PYD, the PKK’s political extension in Syria.

 At times, fist fights would break out over political disagreements. Osman managed to survive the toxic prison environment. One thing always kept eating at him from the inside though: his longing for his wife Sido.

 For two and a half years she was denied a jail visit to Osman. When she was finally allowed to see her husband, she could not speak at all. “She just kept crying,” Osman said.

 Osman befriended several inmates who somehow shared a similar worldview and they all aspired for a revolution. The revolution did happen, but it did not happen in Syria. In 2011, the wave of the protests, dubbed Arab Spring, swept Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, pushing long-serving dictators out of power.

 “We were happy to hear that and we hoped it will come to our country too,” Azad said. “We had debates in the prison, some of my friends would say that the regime is too strong, fascist and indestructible. But I held the opposite view saying that the Spring would come to Syria anyway.”

 By March 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians were inspired by the Arab Spring. They took to the streets, demanding the resignation of Bashar al Assad.

 But the regime retaliated with brute force, killing hundreds of protesters, raiding towns and villages to quell the uprising. In retaliation, the Syrian people were compelled to take up arms to save themselves from Assad’s military, which was baying for blood. The hopes of Osman and his inmates to see a peaceful Syrian revolution succeed were soon dashed as the country slipped into a civil war.

 As the armed opposition made some territorial gains, Osman said, the Assad regime opened its prison gates, releasing several hundred members of Al Qaeda and the YPG/PKK.

 At the same time, Assad’s security forces withdrew from predominantly Kurdish-populated northern Syria, leaving the YPG as an essential force there.

 The idea behind releasing the dreaded militants—accused of horrendous terror acts—was to open several fronts and divide the opposition along ideological lines.

 Osman was released along with hordes of other prisoners.

 The amnesty was a calculated move. It opened a new macabre chapter of deaths and destruction in Syria. The armed revolution, that was recognised by global powers like the US, the UK and Turkey, was undermined as members of Al Qaeda, released by Assad, and other extremists groups started to mobilise, recruiting foreign fighters and raising money from the Gulf countries. Amidst the wave of extremism, Daesh emerged as another force, besides Al Qaeda-backed fronts like Al Nusra.

 “They aimed to spoil Syrian revolution by releasing those militants,” Osman said. “They soon assumed leadership positions in Al Nusra and Daesh.”

 “They (the Gulf monarchs) spread fear among their population by giving them an example of Syria. They said, 'If you want democracy, look at Syria,'” Osman said. “Even Nigeria's government used Syria’s example to bring its population under control. In the end, Syria was sacrificed.”

 On the other hand, Assad held his fort in Damascus with the help of Russia and Iran. While Russia provided military support to Assad, Iran sent its Shia militias to fight the revolutionary forces.

 Osman picked up arms in 2012. “We were dragged into the war,” he said. “We tried hard to sort out things in a peaceful manner but so many people were arrested and it didn’t work.”

 Osman joined a fighting group called the Liwa al Tawhid Brigade, which fought against both the Assad regime and Daesh.

 For Osman, a Syrian Kurd, there were many battles to fight. Apart from defending the Syrian revolution, he wanted to protect the Syrian Kurds from Assad’s influences.

 In one of the battles he fought in Aleppo, he witnessed co-operation between the Assad regime and the YPG. He could never come to terms with the YPG's tacit alliance with Assad, since he grew up witnessing his father and many other Kurds being tortured by the regime, scarring his childhood.

 “There is a neighbourhood in Aleppo called Ashrafieh,” Osman said. “The arms coming out of police stations and warehouses were distributed among YPG members there. From that point onward, I knew that no Kurd would join the civil war. Why not? Because the YPG would prevent them. With the regime’s support, no Kurd will join the war.”

 The tactic worked. The Syrian Kurds saw two forces — Daesh and the YPG — emerging out of the civil war. “The war got much worse. As Daesh got stronger, so did the YPG. The more Daesh’s horrific videos spread online, the stronger the YPG became on the ground,” Osman said.

 Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Baathist regime, led by Assad’s father, worked hand-in-glove with various extremist groups, including the PKK and Hezbollah. In the late 1970s, when the Baathist regime occupied Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the PKK and several Shia militias ran training camps under Hafez al Assad’s supervision.

 The camaraderie continues to this day. Posters of Bashar al Assad and the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, hung next to each other on the streets of Aleppo’s Afrin district after Turkey started a military operation, Olive Branch, in late January to clear the YPG militants from the region. Ocalan has been serving a prison term in Turkey since 1999.

 “YPG’s desire to turn Afrin into a second Qandil is a huge problem,” said Azad, whose father was born and raised in Afrin. “As for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, Turkey is a big and strong nation. Turkey wouldn’t allow Afrin to become a second Qandil (the PKK stronghold in Iraq) in front of its eyes.”

 In 2013, he moved his family from Syria to Turkey. But he continued to fight. In 2014, both Osman and his son had a close shave with death. Their safe house in Aleppo came under a mortar attack by the regime forces, leaving them seriously injured.

 The father and son came to Turkey for medical help and reunited with their family members. Osman saw his family “in a deplorable state.” “It was time for me to find a job, so they wouldn’t go hungry,” Osman said. “I started cleaning houses with my wife. Then I switched over to construction.”

 “We were laying tiles during construction. My son lifted more because (he thought) his father was injured. I tried to lift more because my son was injured. We lived through very difficult days. But, most importantly, we could sleep easy in Turkey. There were no guns, no arrest. Assad’s missiles were gone, too,” he added.

 Sido’s fondness for Osman has grown with time and separation.

 "Nobody could separate us. Not the regime, not people's comments. On the contrary, we came closer to each other. Our love grew," Sido said.

 Though the couple could not build a decisive Kurdish resistance against the Assad regime, they continue to fight everyday battles of existence from the periphery.

 “There are many problems in life, but when you stand together with each other, there are no obstacles,” Sido said.'

Azad Osman and his family members have been forced out of Syria, settling in Turkey because of their fierce opposition to the Assad regime. The Syrian Kurdish family is from Afrin, a YPG-controlled territory in northern Syria.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Women recount torture in Assad regime prisons

Women recount torture in Assad regime prisons

 'Pleading for help for their fellow detainees, women who once languished in Syrian regime-controlled prisons are recounting their torment in an effort to raise awareness.

 A.H.Y., who was incarcerated for six months from 2015 through 2016 in a prison in Homs run by the Bashar al-Assad regime, said she faced torture and as a nurse was prevented from providing medical assistance to those who opposed the regime.

 “They raped teenage girls without showing mercy. We could do nothing. They tortured me and my elder sister in various ways,” she said.

 She lamented that Syria’s society alienates ex-women prisoners.

 “It is the most difficult thing to be a woman in Syria.”

 Narrating her life story, A.H.Y. said she took refuge in Turkey a year and a half ago with her three children, leaving her pro-regime husband behind.

 Another former prisoner, L. A., who was jailed for nine years during the rule of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, said there has been no end to the ordeal.

 Saying she was jailed for opposing the regime, L. A., a law faculty graduate, recounted her torture in prison.

 “The beatings and torture never stopped. They put me in an electric chair. I was also beaten while lying on the ground.”

 Residing in Turkey for four years, A. also mentioned the violence and oppression in regime prisons.

 “Women there are dying every day. There are scores of women in prisons.

 “We should not forget and get them out.”

 On Tuesday, the International Conscience Convoy, which describes itself as the "voice of oppressed women in Syria," embarked on a three-day journey with 55 buses from Istanbul's Yenikapi Square.

 They held a final rally to mark International Women's Day in Hatay, which borders Syria, after making stops in the Turkish cities of Izmit, Sakarya, Ankara and Adana.

 Women from over 50 countries, including Syria, Chile, Palestine, Iraq, England, Brazil, Malaysia, Pakistan, Kuwait and Qatar, addressed a large crowd at a fairground in Antakya district.

 More than 6,700 women, including 417 young girls, are still being held in prisons run by the Syrian regime, according to a statement by the Conscience Convoy.'

Women recount torture in Assad regime prisons

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The rebels are our relatives, they are trying to defend us

buildings reduced to rubble in Eastern Ghouta

 'For the past three weeks, Maram, a young Syrian mother, has been living in an underground shelter with her 3-year-old son, Ahmad, and his 8-month-old brother, Omar.

 Like other underground shelters around their neighborhood in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, this one is filled to capacity. They eat and sleep and wait out the days alongside 150 people as bombs fall overhead, reducing everything to rubble. They hardly see daylight and can’t get enough food. When they get a chance to peek outside, they can hardly recognize their own homes and streets.

 “The regime is trying to reach here. They are trying to reach here to kill us all,” 24-year-old Maram said. "We are afraid from the chemical [weapons]. The poisonous gases are dangerous, especially if we are in the shelters.”

 Maram asked to be identified only by her first name, since she — and so many other Syrians — fears the Russia-backed Syrian regime, which is behind most of the attacks.

 More than 860 people have been killed since the onslaught in Eastern Ghouta began late last month. Some 400,000 people have been trapped in the rebel-held enclave for years, facing severe food and medicine shortages. The latest bombardment is among the fiercest since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

 The Syrian government recaptured half of Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday. Meanwhile, an international aid convoy that attempted to reach Ghouta earlier this week had to retreat without fully unloading due to heavy shelling. United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Wednesday called Ghouta “hell on earth” and accused Syria and its foreign allies of already planning their next “apocalypse.”

 That’s indeed how it feels for people like Maram and her family.

 “We don't know why they are targeting us,” she said of the Syrian regime. “The buildings — it’s all residential. It's not for any kind of weapons or warehouses — it's for living, it's for just children, women.”

 “The rebels, all of them, they are from our area,” she continued. “They are our relatives, our cousins. They are not from other countries. They are trying to defend us.”

 All she can do is try to keep her boys from crying. “We are still alive. Until now I don't know what is going to happen to us next.”

 Others in the area have turned to social media in hopes that international attention will lead to help for themselves and others living under bombardment.

 Eleven-year-old Noor and her 8-year-old sister, Alaa, made a video plea to Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. In near-perfect English, Noor describes the 200 attacks on Ghouta that day alone and asks Haley to “save Ghouta please.”

 PRI reached their mother on a shaky line to ask how her children were coping.

 “Oh my God, you can't imagine how they are feeling now. They are very scared all the time and crying and sitting under the blanket,” said Shams, who also asked to be identified only by her first name.

 Asked how she would respond to those who say she is exploiting her children by putting them before a camera — which some critics are calling propaganda — Shams explained they were simply using the tools available to them to show the world the truth.

 “We don’t lie. This is the situation here in East Ghouta,” she said. “This is our life. We need [to] reach our voice to the world to help us.”

 They couldn’t leave if they tried. The Syrian army “would kill us,” she said.

 Loubna Mrie, a Syrian photographer and writer in New York, is in touch with many other civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

 “Every time they hear a bombing or every time they hear a shelling, they feel like this is their last minute,” Mrie said. “In 10 years if the world stopped and asked, ‘Ok, why we didn't do anything to stop this insanity?’ No one could say, ‘Oh well, we didn't know about it.’ No. You knew. And this is the biggest problem in the world that everyone knows what is going on, but no one is able to stop it, sadly.”

 The fighting won’t end anytime soon, she adds, because the residents refuse to surrender or leave their hometown.

 “This is their city after all,” Mrie said. “It was built by these people, and it’s mainly farmers, and they don't want to go. And for many of them dying their way is better than being sent to a completely new place.” '

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Syrian revolutionary speaks out for those left behind

Noura Al-Jizawi, poses with her 3-month-old baby Naya, at Innis College. Al-Jizawi, a University of Toronto scholar at risk, came to Canada after being targeted for her role in the Syrian rebellion.

 'After detention, torture, and flight from war-torn Syria, Noura Al-Jizawi was invited to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland last month. Presenting a final hurdle, her passport was then called a fake by border officials. It wasn’t the first time, but Al-Jizawi didn’t let it stop her — producing a receipt for the legal document from the Syrian embassy.

 Al-Jizawi is a Syrian revolutionary-turned-University of Toronto student, pursuing a masters’ degree in global affairs through their scholars-at-risk program — which supports graduate students who’ve fled war or persecution. And, as of three months ago, she’s a new mother. 

 The UN Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire of populated areas, including eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya, on Feb. 24. The order was made so humanitarian aid could be delivered, and the critically sick and wounded could be evacuated. Security council met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss the “failure” of that cease-fire.

 “Sadly, there’s no implementation, and it depends on the international players’ will,” Al-Jizawi said. “This attack against Eastern Ghouta, the besieged areas, must stop immediately.” She said the foreign ministers in Geneva had made “good, powerful statements” on the matter, noting that “strong diplomacy” — not war — was needed to stabilize the situation in Syria.

 Al-Jizawi’s convictions were forged from childhood in Syria, she said. In grade school, she started to notice the number of her schoolmates who had missing fathers. As she moved through her school years, Al-Jizawi said she heard stories in particular about the women and mothers impacted by those missing people. A group of them would covertly share information about the issue, collected from newly-released prisoners, Al-Jizawi said. She wasn’t part of that movement, but began to advocate around that time for the rights of missing people and against political detention. She and other advocates would meet secretly, discussing the authority situation in Syria. They concluded that revolution was the only answer.

 “But no one could predict when revolution would come, because revolution is the act of the majority of people, it’s not the act of a small group,” she said. So they waited and advocated for change. In 2012, she was detained for six months. She’s spoken to several media outlets about being tortured at the time. Multiple members of her family were detained as well, so the family was displaced upon their release. She and her sister fled to Turkey in 2013, staying there until she was able to come to Canada.'

A International Red Cross volunteer stands above the rubble of a destroyed building in Douma in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 5, 2018 on the outskirts of Damascus. An international convoy entered Syria's rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta to deliver much-needed aid today as the regime pounded the region with fresh bombardment, killing dozens as it seized more ground.

I am a student of freedom, and we called for it peacefully

 'We refuse any sort of displacement. The displacement policy is not welcome here. The Aleppo scenario will not happen in the Eastern Ghouta. Today, we call on the United Nations to execute Resolution 2401, and our message to Mr. Guterres, the children of Ghouta die by your silence, Mr. Guterres. And to UNICEF, who made a statement to the world, saying they couldn't find words to describe what is happening in Eastern Ghouta. With all the alphabets in the world they were unable to describe. An empty statement, they were unable to describe Assad's crimes.

 Yesterday, I buried a child. His name was Qusay Shab. We are being shelled with chemical weapons, and today Russia. Mr. Alexander, I ask that you get this message to Mr. Guterres. Tell him we are being killed, with Russian missiles, with the policy to horrify, and with the policy of burning our land. Twenty times you have come here, running back and forth with "aid". We do not want aid. Nor do we want bread. We were a people of freedom, and we are still determined to get our freedom from this tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. We will not retreat.

  Assad excuses himself by accusing us of attacking Damascus. We attack Damascus? Our brothers and sisters and children are in Damascus. The UN knows very well whose planes are attacking in Damascus. We are against anyone being shelled. Not one shell on a civilian. Whether they are Alawites, or Sunnis, or Kurds.

 Unlike the world that expressed outrage for the children of Kobani, the entire world, is the blood of the children of Ghouta, cheaper than the blood of the children of Kobani? Neither humans nor animals are treated like this. We just want to live normally for 24 hours.

 You ask yourself why I am speaking this way. This is from my pain. I am a student of freedom, and we called for it peacefully. Assad the tyrant forced us to fight with such weapons [holds up missile]. These are not ours. Assad used these weapons on us. This is how they respond to those that want freedom. I ask that you stand with us. Mr. Alexander, please get our message out.'

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Those who have stood with us and stood for our freedom and dignity are also defending themselves

 Aous al-Mubarak:
 'I write this after ten days of the worst suffering I have witnessed in the last seven years. I hold my breath, as does everyone else here, and my chest is filled with sorrow due to the continuing horrors I have witnessed, as the shelling has not ceased. The shelling on civilians has decreased, but overall it has intensified and clashes continue all day, on all the fronts of Ghouta that Assad’s forces and their supporters are trying to storm.

 I do not wish my readers to think I am avoiding the truth with what I say, especially after Security Council Resolution 2401, which was approved by all Security Council members including the Russian government, and after the Russian government announced a five-hour daily ceasefire to evacuate civilians in contradiction of the Security Council resolution. We have grown used to statements from major powers that contradict their actions. The reality is that we have not witnessed a ceasefire of even five minutes over the past ten days.

 It is difficult for me to describe the exhaustion, the disaster and the horrors, and their cumulative effect over the past seven years, but in order to put my description of today’s reality in context, it is necessary to summarize.

 The Syrian revolution began in the spring of 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions that preceded it, which sought to end tyranny and dictatorship and to give power back to the people. Peaceful protests erupted across most of Syria’s cities and villages. These protests were met by Assad, who inherited the republic’s rule from his father, with repression and killing and imprisonment and torture to death, as he refused to give any rights to the people.

 Roughly a year after the start of the revolution, thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands of imprisonments later, after the regime’s lack of response to any of the demands, no matter how small, and its continuation of its brutal crackdown, protesters began to carry weapons. The revolution headed towards militarization. Radical groups, facilitated by the Assad regime, exploited this situation under the auspices of protecting civilians and the legitimate right to self-defence, obfuscating their radical agendas and pretending, rather, to take these steps out of altruism and self-sacrifice. As their forces increased in number, they flaunted their radical ideology and human rights violations, without anyone daring to defy them so as not to legitimize the regime’s indiscriminate campaign against all. For the regime never stopped bombing areas no longer under its control, targeting civilians in these areas daily.

 This was the situation in most of the areas that were no longer under the regime’s control after the first three years, including East Ghouta, close to Damascus. In 2013, however, East Ghouta, experienced two major events that had a great effect on the area.

 The first is the second largest chemical weapons massacre since World War II (second only to Saddam Hussein's 1988 Halabja Massacre). 1,500 were killed, most of them women and children, and tens of thousands of others injured. It was a horrific day, compared by witnesses to descriptions they have read about the Day of Judgement. The Assad regime got away unpunished after agreeing to give up the weapons. But in reality, the regime did not surrender the entirety of its chemical weapons arsenal, as it has used them tens of times since, the largest case being Khan Sheikhoun which the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism has attributed to the Assad regime.

 The second event is the siege imposed by the Assad regime on East Ghouta, which has led to starvation and cut off the supply of medication, fuel, electricity, water and other necessities, forcing residents to resort to primitive methods to meet their needs. Hundreds have died from starvation and lack of medication, in addition to the thousands that have died in the daily bombings of civilians. The siege continues today, as the regime allows few supplies to reach the area, available at prices ten times those in Damascus, and blocks goods for months on ends, making prices in Ghouta the highest in the world.
 After five years, the area's 450,000 residents have forgotten what it was like not to live under siege, and children have been born who have never seen a fruit, who do not know playgrounds, electricity, or television— who do not know what it is to live in security.

 Clashes have erupted between radical groups and between more moderate and more radical groups, causing East Ghouta to become divided unto itself. But the radicalism has decreased with the withering of ISIS and the dwindling of Nusra to fewer than 1,000.

 I do not wish to say that all we have witnessed is horrific, as society has managed to make great strides in democratic self-governance, the most important being the election of local councils in which all, including women, can participate—something that had not occurred under the 50 years of rule by both Assads. We have also witnessed the development of many civil initiatives to reinforce the idea of human rights and societal development.

 But all of this is continuously undermined by the attacks on civilians by the Assad regime. The number of dead in Ghouta has reached the tens of thousands, among them those whose requests for medical evacuation were denied by the Assad regime. Despite all the rhetoric about de-escalation and truce agreements, the regime’s crimes have never stopped. Ghouta’s residents hear the news and statements then look at their reality only to find nothing has changed.

 No one believed us when we said the regime did not know anything about politics except how to regurgitate its propaganda in international fora and apply its military solution, rejecting the idea of negotiations about rights for the people. No political solution can be reached because the regime refuses to relinquish any part of its “ownership” of the country, and perhaps is unable to do so.

 In a continuation of this policy, the regime launched a campaign of unparalleled brutality on Ghouta on the night of February 18, 2018. We have lived through hundreds of massacres and bombing campaigns, but we had never seen anything like this.

 Every day tens of thousands of bombs and shells and barrel bombs are dropped. At any given moment, fighter jets and helicopters could begin swarming over Ghouta at any given moment, and artillery fire and rocket launchers bombing residential areas continuously. Ghouta is now completely paralyzed, and residents have been forced to seek shelter underground. The streets are deserted and stores are closed.

 The jets use a type of highly explosive bomb that we have not seen before; a single one of them is capable of bringing down a six-story building. Dozens of buildings have fallen in on their occupants, and underground shelters have collapsed on women and children, the rubble crushing them to death.

 The bombing surrounds us from every direction, the rockets deafen us and make us fear we are next. Something we all agree on: if it must be, make it a quick death for us and our children. Let it be a death without pain, not a slow death beneath the rubble.

 Underground field hospitals are overflowing with the dead and the injured and doctors can no longer manage to work around the clock. Hospitals are continuously bombed to prevent the injured from being treated, as the regime did to the protesters in 2011, preventing them from being treated and arresting them immediately as the hospital entrance.

 As for the White Helmets, they are the noblest people I have met since the beginning of the revolution. They are true heroes, rushing immediately towards bombed areas, despite the density and intensity of the bombing, to save the injured and pull victims out from under the rubble. Collapsed underground shelters are a new phenomenon for the White Helmets, but this has not stopped them from digging underground tunnels from neighboring streets to reach them.

 Some of them have been martyred performing their noble duty, and their centers have not been spared the concentrated bombing that seeks to put them out of service and kill the maximum number of people possible. It is not surprising that the Assad regime and its supporters would hate them and spread lies about them. The latest of these is that they are preparing a chemical attack on civilians and plan to blame it on Assad.

 Despite the great efforts by civil groups to lessen the suffering and horrors, the disaster is simply too great for its impact to be lessened by much. Many underground shelters are not equipped with bathrooms or the most basic of amenities. People spend most of their days in complete darkness, waiting for the unstoppable bombing to cease. Many of them have lost their homes in the bombing. They cannot find anything to buy outside and don't have the money required to leave the area, because they are living day-to-day, and work is very hard to come by.

 Even though the bombing has lessened in the past couple of days, as it has intensified on Ghouta's front lines, which are stormed from every direction by the regime, things remain paralyzed, with no one daring to return to normal life because of the possibility of being killed in the bombing.

 I want to remind everyone that there are countries fighting in Syria via their proxies in the regime and opposition, leaving civilians to pay the price; and that these same governments have apologized for the massacres their ancestors perpetrated against Native Americans, Africans, and Jews. Perhaps they expect their grandchildren to apologize for what they are doing to us today.

 There is, however, a positive aspect that we must keep in mind, and that is the solidarity we have experienced from people from across the world. To all who have stood with us and stood for our freedom and dignity, we are thankful and grateful. They are also defending themselves, for a victory by the tyrannical and brutal regimes over those who called for freedom and democracy in a world poses a serious threat to the fundamental values of freedom, justice, human rights, and democracy.'