Monday, 27 May 2019

Idlib residents defy death to take a stand against Assad's assault

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 Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'Residents of Syria’s Idlib province are refusing offers of safe passage to government-held territory despite increased bombardment in recent days as the Assad régime intensifies its campaign to recapture the final rebel holdout.

 More than 200 civilians are estimated to have been killed and about 180,000 displaced since the government launched a Russian-backed aerial and ground assault on the north-western province late last month, prompting an international outcry.

 While many civilians fled towards the closed border with Turkey, others said they would stay put.

 “I will not let go of my land or home, or leave, not to Turkey and definitely not back to régime areas,” said Khaled Al Essa, 35, who lives with his daughter and parents in Khan Sheikhoun.

 Mr Al Essa dismissed the offers of safe passage out of Idlib through humanitarian corridors guaranteed by Russia and the government.

 “They keep repeating the same lie of a humanitarian corridor,” he said by phone, with explosions and the sounds of aircraft in the background.

 “If they don’t want people to die then stop the attacks, as simple as that. How could we feel safe to cross their corridors when they are already crushing us here?

 “I don’t want to die under an olive tree or be humiliated with my family on the border.

“I have nothing to lose or gain if my family and I are to die in this holy month. So be it, we will not run away from whatever is our fate.”

 The government offensive breaks a ceasefire agreed to in September last year by Russia and Turkey, which supports Syrian rebel groups, to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

 Idlib’s population has swollen to more than 3 million after fighters and civilians from other parts of Syria were given the option to move there from rebel-held areas recaptured by the government.

 Mariam Ghlo, 31, fled to the Harem mountains with her husband and three children two weeks ago, after their home in the town of Latamnah was destroyed by a barrel bomb.

 Along with dozens of other displaced families, they live in the open with scraps of fabric for shelter.

 “Even though we are destitute, homeless, with nothing, not even enough blankets, water or food for the children, I don’t want to go back to régime areas, nor does my husband,” Ms Ghlo said.

 “We learnt lessons from Ghouta, Deraa and other areas where the régime opened corridors for civilians to flee.

 “On arrival they go through security checks, the men get arrested then killed, imprisoned or forced to fight with them.

 “We would rather be here under this tree for a lifetime instead.”

 The offer of safe passage is a warning of worse attacks to come, said Jamal Barode, 30, a father of two who moved to Maarat Numan in Idlib from Deraa after the southern province was recaptured by the government last year.

 “Russia’s offer to open a passage for us to leave is a sign that a new escalation is ahead of us, worse than what we have had already,” Mr Barode said.

 “When the Russia-Assad régime make such an offer, that means a furious ground operation or chemical attacks will follow in the coming weeks.

 “This is what we were used to over the past years and the same formula is being used again here.

 “The Russians must be fooling with us. They know that the majority here have already accepted corridors out of Aleppo, Ghouta, Deraa ...

 “They chose to come to Idlib and now they are offering us a corridor to go back again? This is only a step towards another escalation.”

 Mousa Abdullah, a strategic and military expert in Istanbul, said Russia’s offer of safe passage was a diversion from an embarrassing reversal against the rebels in a village last week.

 “This comes after rebel forces recaptured Kafr Nabudah in less than 19 hours after it was taken in a fierce military campaign over 10 days,” Mr Abdullah said.

 But Syrian state media reported that government forces retook the village on Sunday from militant groups including Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the dominant insurgent force in Idlib.

 Mr Abdullah said Russia was aware that there would be few takers for its offer of safe passage even if régime forces seized large areas of Idlib.

 “Out of nearly four million, only a few thousand might leave,” he said.

 “The majority are former internally displaced people who refused to stay in régime areas when they could, whether in Aleppo, Ghouta, etc, so it’s unlikely they will use these passages.

 “Idlib, unlike those other cities, is a special area as the final frontline between the Assad régime and Ankara, which has supported rebel forces with advanced weapons to fight back in the recent offensive.

 “There are more than 20,000 rebel forces with plenty of weapons and ammunition. Many are militant groups who have nowhere else to go and will fight to the death,” he said.

 Death is also a very real possibility for the civilians who choose to remain in Idlib.

 “We just want safety here,” Mr Al Essa said. “We won’t leave for anywhere. We are not terrorists, we are the residents and the rightful owners of these lands.

 “I might not be alive in the next 24 hours, and may not be able to be heard again. The last thing I want the world to know is that you’ve got the Syrian people’s blood on your hands.” '

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Sunday, 26 May 2019

Meet the Syrian mother who raised her son in jail


 'After giving birth and raising a toddler during four years in a Syrian prison, 30-year-old Hasna Dbeis is now free - and determined to forge a new life for her family.

 Dbeis says she was two months pregnant when she was detained in August 2014 in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, accused of working with rebels; an allegation she denies.

 She was shuffled around various detention centres, including one where she saw her father and brother for the last time.

 “They were tortured in front of me,” she said, her face veil revealing tired eyes.

 She is one of tens of thousands of Syrians jailed during the conflict for opposing Bashar al-Assad.

 Dbeis said she was kept in solitary confinement for 40 days at one stage, in a cell littered with garbage.

 Insects crept up the walls, and the screams of inmates being tortured rang around her, she recalled.

 She was allowed out of jail only once, when she went into labour.

 “A newborn came into my life and I didn’t know what to do,” she said, clad in black.

 After giving birth to Mohammad, Dbeis was transferred to the notorious Al Fayhaa prison in Damascus.

 The facility housed other mothers, including Iraqi women detained on suspicion of working with Daesh, she said.

 Dbeis shared a cell with her newborn and a 20-year-old Ethiopian woman.

 Her cellmate, who other inmates called Lamees, would help her sew clothes for the little boy, she said, but also care for the infant when Dbeis was being interrogated.

 Guards usually entered her cell at around midnight to take her to another room where she was beaten and suspended by the wrists, she said.

 The first time, she recounted, “the interrogator started by taking off my veil. He looked at my hair, brought a knife, and started cutting” it.

 “Then he started beating me,” she said.

 Her hands were cuffed behind her back, she said, and she was left hanging from her wrists for hours.

 She also contracted tuberculosis, she claimed, and had to be kept away from her child for more than four months while she received treatment.

 By the time she recovered, her son - then nine months old - thought Lamees was his mother.

 “He didn’t know who I was,” Dbeis said.

 For three years, her hope for a better life dwindled, as she watched Mohammad grow up in a cell, the sound of other children playing echoing in from outside.

 “I used to dream of walking in the street with my child and entering a store to buy him clothes like normal mothers do,” she said.

 In April 2018, she was released.

 She did not return to Eastern Ghouta, which had fallen under government control that month, after régime bombardment and a crippling siege.

 Instead, she boarded a bus that took rebels and their families from the Damascus suburbs to opposition-held territory in the northern province of Aleppo.

 Dbeis remembers the first time Mohammad saw a stand selling tomatoes.

 “He ran towards it, grabbed a tomato, and started gobbling it up,” she said.

 “He’d never seen a tomato before.”

 But catching up with one of her sisters in the neighbouring province of Idlib brought new trauma.

 Dbeis was told that her mother was dead and that her husband had been killed by regime forces.

 Two of her sisters were detained by the government, and the fate of her father and brother - who she last saw in jail - was unknown.

 “After hearing about my family’s heart-wrenching fate, I decided to start a new life,” Dbeis said.

 She remarried and moved to Idlib, a region outside régime control.

 But four months after her wedding, her 25-year-old husband was hit in the stomach by shell shrapnel, leaving him unable to work.

 In a desperate bid to provide for her family, she joined a sewing workshop employing former female detainees.

 “The money I make, I spend on my home,” said Dbeis, who makes children’s clothes.

 But her life is under renewed threat.

 Since late April, heightened bombardment of Idlib by the regime and its ally Russia has sparked fears of an imminent full assault.

 “I don’t want the régime to enter Idlib and throw me back in prison,” Dbeis said.'

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Saturday, 25 May 2019

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Image result for Ghalia Rahal

 'Amid the traumas of Syria’s war, women like Ghalia Rahal are building an unprecedented role in peace talks over their country’s future. Rahal—the founder of a network of women’s centers in northwest Syria—has helped energize a Syrian women’s movement despite threats from extremists, attacks on her workplaces, and the assassination of her son, a journalist. Syrian women leaders say Rahal is one of many local activists who have enabled women to strengthen their representation in U.N.-backed negotiations for an end to the war. Now, Rahal and her women’s network in  in the hilly, fig-growing province of Idlib face an extreme threat—the Syrian government military offensive against the province that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

 “In Syria, Ghalia is creating a power base for women within a very conservative area,” said Mariam Jalabi, who in 2017 founded a Syrian Women’s Political Movement with Rahal and others. In the rural town of Kafr Nabl, Rahal ran a beauty salon and, amid the war, converted her business into a center to teach women and girls job skills, literacy and first aid. “Women come to her center for a class in sewing, but they discuss what they should do in the community, and they are empowered,” said Jalabi.

 Rahal’s work “is part of the foundation for what our national women’s movement has achieved,” including a growing role in the United Nations-supported peace process between Syria’s government and its democratic opposition movement, said Jalabi, who represents the Syrian democratic opposition at U.N. headquarters in New York. The Syrian Women’s Political Movement is pressing for further gains in women’s representation in peace talks and political processes that will define the future Syria.

 As a girl, Rahal loved cross-country running through the rocky farmlands and fig orchards of northwestern Syria, and she dreamed of becoming a champion. When she got married, she has said, “I gave up cross-country running because our customs and traditions wouldn’t allow it.” Still, as a mother and housewife, she continued to push the bounds of what society would permit a woman in rural Syria. She opened a hairdressing salon and became a driving instructor.

 In 2011, Syrians roseIn Syria as elsewhere, the transformation of political protest into bloodshed marginalized women, Rahal said. “I had a 200-square-meter basement where women used to come for shelter from air strikes by the regime. We would have a lot of women sitting together, sometimes for hours.” Rahal’s crowded bomb shelter became a venue for discussion of women’s roles in a future Syria. “We imagined the situation,” she said. “How would society be if women were not able to overcome many of the woes of war and its aftermath?”

 In that basement bomb shelter, Rahal heard stories of women who had lost family members and homes, a daily stream of suffering that changed her focus. “I think I became more caring toward other people, especially girls and women,” she recalled in a 2016 film by Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim. “Since the war erupted, I felt we all needed one another.”

 In 2013, Rahal converted her hair salon into a women’s center to provide women and girls with vital skills such as literacy and job training. The women named it Mazaya, meaning “advantage.”

 “We have lectures, vocational training, educational workshops, financial training” and other projects,” Rahal said. Hundreds of women and girls registered for classes—and others volunteered as teachers. A woman skilled in weaving taught her trade. A woman with medical knowledge taught first aid, which “was … necessary because of the many injuries caused by the shelling,” Rahal said. The women obtained a printer and began publishing a magazine to report “the difficulties facing women, news reports [and] humanitarian cases,” she said.

 Persuading women to participate in public activities despite traditions that confined them to their homes was difficult, Rahal said. “I had to make them trust and believe in our work, and bear the negative words and harsh criticism.” But with time, “I have seen how women started changing and coming out of the houses to help each other.”

 Women’s activism is discouraged in Syria by patriarchal social traditions, by habits bred under decades of oppressive, single-party rule—and by the rise of movements promoting a narrow interpretation of Islamic faith. “Our society did not accept the idea of a women’s center,” Rahal said.

 To overcome resistance, Rahal visited Kafr Nabl’s power brokers, who of course were men. “Typically, women do not approach these town elders, the sheikhs, directly. But Ghalia does it,” said Jalabi. “She explains to them that women’s education provides benefits to the whole community. She gives them a sense of co-ownership,” and shows local leaders that cooperation with her project can help them look better in the eyes of their own people. She has been “able to establish with them a social contract in which they protect her centers and her work,” Jalabi said.

 One reason for Rahal’s success, Jalabi and others noted, is that she is—and is seen as—a deeply religious person who is drawing her ideas and language for change from her community’s basic religious principles. She wins respect from local leaders on both religious and social bases. “Ghalia has broken down many of the barriers against women with the strength of her personality and the respect she has earned from everyone, including men,” Jalabi said. “She has built a business, she is financially independent, and she is the mother of adult children who are also respected in the community.”

 One of the adult children who won respect for Rahal was her oldest son, Khaled al-Issa. He was active in the 2011 uprising, and became a locally prominent photojournalist. With a few colleagues—including one of Syria’s best-known dissidents, Raed Fares, he established a media center, including a radio station, in Kafr Nabl. They reported via news organizations and social media on the brutality of the war and attacks on civilians in northwest Syria.

 “My son, Khaled, told me, ‘Mom, you have started digging a road through all the thorns, and you are able to continue on with it. It is a revolution, my mother,’” Rahal recalled.

 Apart from the resistance by traditional conservatives, Rahal and her work have faced physical attack by extremists. While Kafr Nabl has seen the growth of a democratically oriented civil society, including its women’s movement, it also has a constituency that favors Islamist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaida). In 2014 the Mazaya center was burned in an arson attack. Rahal and her allies rebuilt it. The next year, the Nusra Front attacked Mazaya and Khaled’s radio station. Residents of the town rallied in the streets in protest. In July 2016, Khaled was killed by a bomb planted in the home where he was living in Aleppo.

 Today, Mazaya is a network of eight women’s centers, plus five child-care centers, in Kafr Nabl and other towns across southern Idlib. The women’s centers provide nursing and vocational training, job placement and professional development services. The Mazaya organization now produces both a print and an electronic magazine that make the case for education and empowerment for women and girls. Amid new reports of bombing in Idlib, Rahal sent a text message to Jalabi on May 21 that she has had to close some of her centers for fear that they may be struck. Others are continuing to work, located in basements.

 “Ghalia has somehow been able to maintain a livelihood, swim against conservative and repressive social norms, survive the government’s relentless violence, and navigate and challenge the rise of armed extremist organizations—all while implementing her vision for a future Syria in which women are safe, empowered and free,” said Jalabi.'

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Friday, 24 May 2019

Syrian doctor describes latest alleged chemical attack as US mulls response

Alleged chemical attack victim in Syria on Sunday

 'Just after 9 a.m Sunday, witnesses on the ground in the remote Syrian countryside near the border of Idlib province claimed they saw more than 40 rockets slash through the sky, along with three different-looking shells that landed in a thud of yellowish smoke. These were described as large cylinders that did not explode, yet produced a strong chemical smell.

 “On May 19, we received information about an attack using toxic gases in a fight between the Syrian military and ‘revolutionary’ military. I was informed to be ready. Four people came with red eyes, struggling to breathe, headaches,” Idlib-based Dr. Ahmad, who claims to have treated the wounded, said on Thursday. “We took off their clothes, put them in water, and gave them oxygen. They smelled of chlorine.”

 Doctors who supervised the treatment process recorded that the patients endured an array of other symptoms from severe coughing and watery eyes to wheezing and vomiting. The four alleged victims are said to be males under the age of 30. They were kept under observation most of the day, Dr. Ahmad claimed, and were discharged later that evening in a “generally good condition" around 9 hours after they were admitted.

 “We immediately got our emergency staff – who are trained for chemical weapon attack – ready for any inquiry or support,” concurred Nidal Shikhani, External Relations Manager at the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre of Syria (CVDCS), which has worked closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to document alleged chemical weapons use. “We were informed that there were four affected victims by chemical weapons toxic gas. They all received emergency treatment.”

 Images of the victims were provided to Fox News by CVDCS under the condition that faces and hospital logos were not shown. Medical centers have routinely come under attack throughout Syria's protracted civil war.

 A specialized team is said to have collected blood, urine, saliva and clothing samples from the injured to be tested, with the hope of starting a thorough investigation by OPCW.

 “We fear this will happen again and again,” Dr. Ahmad said. “They gave a green light to attack.”

News that the government of Bashar al-Assad may have used internationally banned substances once again has prompted a harsh, if confusing, response from the United States.

 “We continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons,” said U.S State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, cautioning that if the alleged actions by the Damascus government are proven, "the United States and (its) allies will respond quickly and appropriately."

 Later, the State Department’s leading diplomat for Syria, James Jeffrey, backtracked somewhat and told reporters that officials were “watching it closely” but could not yet confirm that the alleged attack had occurred.

 The U.S. has twice launched airstrikes in the past against Syrian military installations after verifying that chemical weapons were used against civilians.

 According to the most recent “credibly substantiated” data gleaned by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), chemical weapons have been used at least 336 times since the war started in early 2011. The Assad regime stands accused of using the banned substances 98 percent of the time, while ISIS is documented as having carried out the remainder of all chemical bombardments on Syrian civilians.

 “Assad is once again testing President Trump, first by attacking Idlib despite the President’s clear warning, and now by using chemical weapons – violating the President’s bright red line,” said Jameson Cunningham, policy and public affairs strategist for Americans for a Free Syria. “President Trump has responded twice, and we urge him to take swift military action again to protect civilians and deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons.”

 Idlib remains the last major bastion of the war-embattled country that remains under the control of forces opposed to the Damascus regime. Ground fighting and bombing sharply escalated in the area earlier this month after a seven-month ceasefire agreement seemed to wither, with many fearing it will amount to an all-out assault by Assad's forces that could prove the deadliest battle in the war to date.

 Meanwhile, many in Washington have resumed their push to further punish the Assad government for its long-documented war crimes. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bill which holds the Syrian leader and its Russian and Iranian allies accountable for the crimes and hampers their ability to fund further human rights abuses.

 The law is named after a Syrian who, under the pseudonym Caesar, took grave risks earlier in the war to smuggle out more than 50,000 images of civilians who were barbarically tortured and murdered in government prisons.

 The Caesar Act provisions include sanctions on anyone aiding Damascus in executing its barbarities, including construction sectors in the war-torn nation until Assad completely halts all attacks on civilians.

 “We have taken high risk for our lives and the lives of our families when we left Syria at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. We had great hope that the world that claims freedom and humanity would put an end to the bloodshed in Syria and work to stop the killing and torture inside the Syrian prisons,” “Caesar” – who remains in-hiding – said this week. “Especially that we have all the evidence and evidence that condemns the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad by committing the worst types of torture and systematic killing against the Syrian people inside the basements of the Syrian prisons and intelligence.”

 The whistleblower stressed the importance of his namesake legislation being put into full-force by Washington.

 “Caesar's law is a powerful message that justice will be handed to Bashar al-Assad and his oppressive regime." '

Medicines for those alleged to have been attacked by chemical weapons in Syria on Sunday (Provided CVDCS) 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Syrian régime’s slogan ‘Assad or we burn the country’ must not become reality

A civil defence member carries an injured girl following air strikes which hit Idlib, Syria 2 June 2016 [REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi]

 'The bombardment of Idlib by Syrian régime forces over the past few weeks has been relentless; the long anticipated offensive on the city in northern Syria has arrived with devastating results. A massacre of gargantuan proportions awaits as air strikes hit homes, schools and hospitals. More than 120 civilians in Idlib have been killed by Russian and Syrian régime air strikes over the first two weeks of the bombardment, and more than 180,000 have been newly displaced as they flee from barrel bombs.

 Idlib is currently a refugee centre within Syria; it has absorbed most of the internally displaced persons and provided them with new homes, with nearly 4 million Syrian citizens living there. People who have had their lives torn apart and have had to escape bombardment and bloodshed are already anticipating further violence, with some preparing to flee for the second or even third time in just a few short years.

 According to British surgeon David Nott who has visited northern Syria on multiple occasions for humanitarian reasons, 12 hospitals were destroyed in the first 10 days of May and there is considerable evidence that the Assad régime is engaged in the systematic targeting of hospitals and healthcare centres to terrorise and punish civilians who have fled areas controlled by Damascus. The destruction of any form of healthcare and emergency services is clearly the goal of the régime. Civilians who have “deserted the régime” can die of their injuries is Assad’s apparent rationale. The irony is lost on no one that Assad himself was once a doctor but is now more akin to a butcher, destroying hospitals as opposed to saving the people within them.

 The potential taking of Idlib would signify the régime’s re-conquest of the Western Syrian corridor and demonstrate Assad’s so called “victory”. This is a farcical, pyrrhic victory when the Assad régime currently just controls a “rump state” which is both smaller and weaker than the pre-uprising Syria and has in a way given up sovereignty to both Russia and Iran.

 Large swathes of Syria remain uninhabited with some areas in ruins and resembling ghost towns. The régime doesn’t even bother to repair the damage caused or rebuild the areas; it leaves them – for now at least – as the horrific, visible consequence of going against Damascus, and acting as a deterrent for anyone else. The slogan “Assad or we burn the country” which was scrawled in graffiti in many places by the loyalist Shabiha (state sponsored militias) during the early days of the uprising unfortunately rings true. Parts of Syria with revolutionary zeal have been obliterated with no immediate plans for rebuilding. This arrogant belief of Assad has led to untold horrors and the ruin of a nation yet he is still somehow viewed as the legitimate ruler of the country who unfortunately still enjoys the privileges of UN membership.

 A political resolution is impossible while the perpetrator and the root of the problem – Bashar Al-Assad – remains in power. The paralysis of the UN Security Council is nothing new. As long as Russia sees fit to back Assad then he is granted political and legal cover at an international level proving that international law has a long way to go before it is able to hold rogue régimes to account. Even former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the Security Council has failed Syria. It is difficult to foresee Russia not using its veto to block any attempt to refer the Syrian régime to the International Criminal Court but recent developments in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh offer a potential legal path to charge the Syrian régime with crimes against humanity.

 Idlib is holding out for now, but when considering the current onslaught by a régime that has been proven to use chemical weapons — and a report suggested that Assad used chemical weapons in northern Latakia as recently as last weekend — the worst is to be feared. If this slaughter goes on in Idlib, it will be a huge humanitarian disaster. The effects won’t be limited to the four million civilians in the city; it will lead to consequences as far away as Europe, with another wave of refugees potentially heading across the Mediterranean.

 The city of Idlib must not be allowed to fall to Assad, and every effort must be made to ensure that he and his régime are held accountable for the crimes committed against the Syrian people. We may one day view Idlib as a flashpoint within the Syrian conflict; it is imperative that history does not repeat itself as it has so many times within this eight-year conflict. The binary choice between Assad and burning the country must not be allowed to become an enduring reality.'

Graffiti Slogan saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in DamascusGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, SyriaGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, Syria

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Assad militiamen use chlorine gas in Latakia countryside

 'Assad militiamen used chlorine gas bombs in shelling the anti-regime factions in Latakia northern countryside on Sunday (May 19).

The Assad militiamen used the chlorine gas shells in the Kabina Hill in the Akrad Mountain in Latakia northern countryside after they failed to make any progress on the front, according to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's news agency (Ibaa).

The opposition defected brigadier, Ahmad al Rahal, confirmed the incident. "The Assad regime used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) in the village of Kabina on the coast front," he wrote on his Facebook page.

 The Acting US Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen warned the Assad régime against using the chemical weapons during the Security Council session on Friday, adding that Russia and the Assad régime were responsible for the attacks on health centers. He said it was "most alarming" that several of the centres attacked were on a list created by Russia and the United Nations in an attempt to protect them.'


Results of failed SAA attempts to capture KbanaSAA losses: 85+ wounded soldiers 58+ KIA 1 BMP destroyed 1 UAV destroyed"



Friday, 17 May 2019

Amina’s three brothers

 "My name is Amina Khoulani. This is not the first time that I sit down and tell people my story, and the story of my three brothers. Tens of news channels, newspapers, events, have been talking to me about the story of my brothers, from 2011 when they were first detained to this time.
 The difference is that in the past I used to talk about them full of hope that I was going to meet them some time again, that they would be released from their prison and I would see their faces, but this is the first time that I will talk about them since I got the news that they were killed under torture.

 It’s very difficult for me to sit down and tell this story.

 When I first received the news, I made a decision that I am not going to tell anyone. I will never attend any event, and I am not going to tell anyone about the story of my brothers.

 We started to lose hope, we Syrians, after we had been telling the story of ourselves a hundred times to everyone, but no-one had listened to our pain, and no-one understood what the pain meant to us.

 Later on I decided that no. I have to tell everyone of their story. I feel very proud of them because they were the first ones who drew the big dream and the big vision of Syria for everyone. And they had a dream like any of you British people, the same as anyone in a country that takes care of human rights.

 I took the decision to tell the story of my brothers and all other young men who sacrificed themselves for the big dream, the big vision of Syria, and democracy and freedom, because they deserve that. They deserve their stories to be told and their remarkable work to be remembered.

 And I will never stop talking about their stories and telling people about how brave and how great they used to be, because it might not be my turn, not in my lifetime, to see accountability and justice prevailing, but maybe the next generation are going to see it prevail. We have to tell the whole world about the crimes of the Assad regime, and the atrocities they committed.

 The first one I’m going to tell you is the story of Majd, the youngest brother of mine, the one that we call in Syria the last piece and the vine of the grapes.

 He was studying law at Damascus University, in his second year. Majd took the decision to go to the streets at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution, and he was a peaceful activist who demonstrated for a free democratic Syria for everyone, a Syria that respects the citizenship of all citizens there.

 The last thing that Majd wrote on his Facebook page was that all the blood of every single Syrian is prohibited from being scattered, including the members of the army and the security forces—the same security forces who took the decision to detain him and torture him to death.

 Majd and his colleagues, they were the ones who initiated distributing flowers and water bottles to the security members and soldiers during demonstrations. Because they wanted to deliver a great message to them, that ‘You and I are one, so why are you killing me?’ And they wanted to tell them, ‘We are peaceful demonstrators, we don’t want any bloodshed.’ And they went to them, to hand them the flowers and the water bottles. On a bottle of water they put the Syrian flag—now we use the revolution flag—and on the other side of the flag they’d write: ‘You and I are Syrians; we are the same, so why do you have to kill me?’ And despite that they were shot by the soldiers. And that day his colleagues were shot and he was detained.

 If Majd was with us today, he could have been a lawyer and working on human rights, or he could have been a footballer, because he was a fine footballer. He used to love friends so much, and this was what was really remarkable about him.

 During all the demonstrations he attended, he used to wear this red t-shirt, and when he was arrested he was wearing that red t-shirt.

 My eldest brother, Abdulsatar, he used to go to demonstrations and participate in them. He was married with two kids. He was almost newly married.

 The Air Force Intelligence, they arrested Abdulsatar, and we didn’t know any piece of news about him. That was the first time where we contacted Amnesty. Amnesty was the first organisation that acted in aid of my brothers after they were detained. But it didn’t work. The regime never replied to any appeals. We did not receive any piece of information about them. And we kept living sometimes in hope and other times in despair until we got the chance to visit them in December 2012 in Sednaya Prison.

 Of course it was an awful shock because we had bribed the officers in the regime to allow us to go to Sednaya Prison, we paid a lot, and we went through all the regime officers, and they allowed us to go see them behind three layers of barriers between us and them. We were only there ten minutes. We agreed to only see them for ten minutes at that time.

 I don’t know why the regime kept chasing my family. In November 2012 we were forcibly evicted out of my hometown Daraya, and we moved to live in Mazzeh, which is close by. But because we hold the ID of being from Daraya, and we are of the Khoulani family which is a family that participated in the revolution, this meant that we were cursed as a family, and the intelligence forces they broke into the house that we rented in Mazzeh and they arrested my other two brothers, Bilal and Mouhamed, though they had never participated in demonstrations.

 After six months, and after paying loads and loads of money to regime officers to gain any piece of news about my two brothers, we learned that they were taken by Branch 215, and because we paid loads of money they released just one out of two: Bilal.

 Fortunately he escaped to Lebanon, and from Lebanon he got resettled in Ireland, and he is recovering, thank God. He became kind of himself again. He survived. But to this day he shows the presence of torture. He still suffers from the torture.

 When Bilal was first released it was a great happiness for the family, but at the same time it was a disaster, because when Bilal was released from prison he told us that he witnessed with his own eyes that my brother Mouhamed was killed under torture. And he was killed in the detention centre of Branch 215. But we refused to believe. We thought at that time that Bilal, when he was released from the prison, was mentally unstable, and maybe he was hallucinating, maybe he had seen things that had never happened. So we kept that piece of news to ourselves, myself and my other siblings, and we refused to let my mum and dad know about it.

 Mouhamed, when he was detained, literally we wept. His wife was pregnant with his first child, so we didn’t let her know because she was still pregnant, and we thought that piece of news is not true.

 We kept that piece of news a secret until the images of Caesar were leaked, and the first image that we were seeing was the image of my brother Mouhamed. It was horrible. But we still hold to the memories of his previous features.

 I shall remember him as he was before he was detained.

 When my family went to the regime and they asked about the reason why Mouhamed is dead, they received a note that his heart had stopped. He had heart failure. My brother was 24 years old. He was very young and healthy—how come he died of heart failure?

 In 2013, the regime arrested me and my husband at the same time, same minute. We were taken in the same car to detention centres. That was a blow to my family as well, where they lost almost every kid in detention centres for six months, and my husband remained for two years, but we were both released. Everything that happened has never stopped me from speaking up for my brothers and for every detainee.

 Me and a group of colleagues that I’m really proud of co-founded a group called Families for Freedom in 2016 in Geneva.

 If no-one is going to talk about detainees, we are the families of the detainees, and we have to speak up for them. Maybe somebody is going to hear the story, they are going to hear our voice calling for them, and that was the reason for establishing Families for Freedom.

 In 2018, cold-bloodedly, the regime started to release lists of young men and women killed under torture in the detention centres. And that release was very rude where they sent the lists to the civil registry and there they registered them as dead, as simple as that.

 My home town Daraya itself, it received a list of a thousand young men who were killed under torture. Me and my family, we were very reluctant to go and search in the civil registry lists for my brothers, Majd and Abdulsatar, because we wanted to live in the hope that we were going to meet them one day. But later on we found out that no, we won’t then have a closure for that. We have to know their destiny.

 Because no-one of my family is in Syria, no-one was able to get papers from the civil registry, and that was why we appointed a lawyer to take that mission. And we found that my two brothers were both sentenced to death, same day, same minute, 15 January 2013. And this is the piece of paper I received showing that we lost them.

 I myself was a detainee. And I experienced how to be a wife of a detainee when my husband was detained in Sednaya Prison. I also experienced how to be the sister of a detainee. I experienced how to be a human rights defender, to defend the rights of the disappeared, and I experienced speaking up for them and their release.

 What I feel proud of despite everything that I mentioned is that even when I lost my brothers, even when I was in a single cell in the detention centre, even when they threatened to rape me, they threatened to kill my children when I was in prison, threatened to kill my husband, I never lost faith in this revolution.

 I never lost faith in how just this revolution is. Despite that I might never see the results of this revolution with my own eyes, but maybe one day my grandchildren will feel very proud of me. I will never be silent.

 Even if the whole universe is not going to listen to me, I will keep speaking up. And I will keep being proud of this revolution, this just revolution, even if I am the only one remaining in the opposition, because this revolution deserves to exist, to succeed, and one day we might invite you to Syria, and we will all sit together there, and we will talk freely about these things."

What one activist's death tells us about war crimes in Syria

 Paul Wood:

 'The Assad régime has disclosed that an opposition activist known as Jeddo had died in prison. He was from a suburb of Homs called Baba Amr, which was one of the first parts of the country to fall under rebel control, the ‘cradle of the revolution’. Every foreign journalist who went there knew him. Before the revolution, he’d had a shop selling vegetables. When street protests started, he picked up a video camera and became a ‘citizen journalist’. His real name was Ali Othman, but a few premature lines on his weathered face had earned him the nickname Jeddo, or Al Jed, ‘the grand-father’. He had jug ears, a ready, gap-toothed smile, and absolutely no fear of death.

 In February 2012, the régime began a relentless artillery attack on Baba Amr. Al Jed took us out in his little Suzuki jeep to have a look. The air was filled with a terrible sound of booms and crashes — the government shells — and a constant crackle of rifle fire — the rebels, using almost the only weapons they had. Jeddo rolled his jeep to a gentle stop in the centre of a crossroads to point out a smoking hole in the wall of a mosque. That’s very interesting, I told him, trying not to flinch with each crash, but perhaps we ought to move? No, no, he said, unconcerned, we’re fine. This went back and forth for an agonisingly long minute, my voice increasingly strained; Jeddo was relaxed, just out for a Sunday drive. Finally, he did a three-point turn of infinite slowness and drove away. Another shell landed, covering the place we’d stopped in a furiously billowing black cloud.

 It seemed as if he had gone a little mad because of the constant danger. I think now that it was something else: an unshakeable determination not to go back to the old days, to do anything to defeat the régime. Remembering him this week, a friend said that Jeddo had been wealthy by his neighbours’ standards (small shop, jeep); he hadn’t joined the uprising to enrich himself. "He wanted only freedom." Many of the activists in Baba Amr believed the rebels should make a stand there, whatever the cost. They knew the régime would win the battle but they thought that a massacre — filmed by citizen journalists such as Jeddo — would force the US and Europe to step in. Baba Amr would be sacrificed for the revolution. Jeddo was furious when the rebels fled, calling them cowards and dogs. ‘They are chit-chatting in Qusayr [a town miles away], watching while Baba Amr is destroyed and their women are violated.’

 He told me that when we got through to his mobile as Baba Amr fell in March 2012. He had dug a hole in his garden, ready to hide when the Syrian army kicked in the door. In fact, he managed to sneak out of Baba Amr, almost the last to leave. But he was caught a month later in a small town outside Aleppo. The story is that a female activist sent him a text telling him to come to collect some video equipment. She had been turned by the secret police, or they had her phone. A month after that, Jeddo appeared in a TV ‘interview’ from his jail cell, shown by a channel that supported the government. Nothing more was heard of him until last month, when the authorities in Homs told his family that he had died. They were given a document saying this had happened on 30 December 2013. The régime had kept them waiting — in hope and dread — for more than five years.

 This official document does not say how he died, though if the family ever get a death certificate it would probably have some innocuous term like ‘cardiac arrest’ or ‘respiratory failure’. That is usually the case with victims of the Syrian prison system. Jeddo’s friends say his broken appearance in the TV interview was evidence that he had been tortured. They could not imagine him doing the interview at all unless forced to. The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that almost 14,000 people have been tortured to death in Syrian prisons. Jeddo’s family and friends assume this is what happened to him. A fellow activist told me he didn’t want to believe it but said: ‘He’s better off dead.’

 The activists know all too well what happens in Syrian prisons. One survivor told the press this week about a guard who called himself Hitler and who made prisoners get down on all fours and bark like dogs or bray like donkeys. Prisoners were stripped naked and beaten, hung from wires, soaked with cold water, starved and forced to fight one other, even to kill other inmates. A report from the UN Human Rights Council quotes a man who was held in the Damascus Political Security Branch. ‘The officer took two girls, held their faces down on the desk, and raped them in turn. [He] told me, “You see what I am doing? I will do this to your wife and daughter.”’ Sexual violence is common. I once interviewed a government militiaman captured by the rebels who said — with no trace of emotion — that his job had been to rape women arrested at anti-government demonstrations. All these stories speak of systematic torture. It is policy. No one in Syria believes otherwise, whatever the régime’s public protestations.

 A body called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability — funded by several western governments — has been investigating Assad’s culpability. They are not trying to prove he is guilty of this or that specific war crime, but that he runs a system where such crimes are routine, so-called command responsibility. They have collected some 800,000 documents — the Syrian régime is meticulous in its bureaucracy, everything written down. The organisation’s spokesperson, Nerma Jelacic, told me the evidence against Assad was ‘very strong’. The idea was to have a case ready to go immediately if Assad were arrested.

 Assad knows enough not to travel to any western countries. Russia will use its veto in the UN Security Council to stop the creation of a Syrian tribunal at the Hague. But some argue that the UN General Assembly could vote for the tribunal by a two-thirds majority. And Assad might be toppled, not by the rebels but as a result of the régime’s vicious internal politics. President Milosevic of Serbia thought he was safe from the Hague until a successor handed him over. General Pinochet went to London for medical treatment and was arrested on human rights charges. Philippe Sands, a QC who knows this area of law better than anyone, says a war crimes prosecution hangs over Assad ‘like a sword of Damocles… A leader needs to know the possibility of justice is real.’ He would not be surprised to see Assad in the dock eventually. For a large part of the Syrian population, the war will not be over until he is.'

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