Thursday 16 November 2023

My Road From Damascus documents years spent in Syria's prisons


 'Jamal Saeed sought refuge in Canada in 2016 after being imprisoned three times for a total of 12 years in his native Syria. Imprisoned for his political writing and his opposition to the régimes of the al-Assads, Saeed spent years in Syria's most notorious military prisons. My Road from Damascus, translated by Catherine Cobham, tells the story of his life as he chronicles the sociopolitical landscape in Syria since the 1950s and his hope for the future.

 You can read an excerpt of My Road from Damascus below.

 As the steel door swung open, seven soldiers, all shouting orders and obscenities, rushed into our cold, dark prison cell.

"Faces to the wall, you sons of bitches," they screamed at the three of us. "Hands behind your backs, animals."

"Lower your shit-filled heads and shut your eyes, bastards!"

I knew from the 12 years I'd spent in half a dozen Syrian prisons that the presence of many soldiers meant that one, or perhaps all of us, were about to be taken to meet an important army officer. They bound our hands, covered our eyes, and roughly stuffed cotton wool in our ears to make sure we couldn't hear what was being said unless they wanted us to. Suddenly, I was being dragged along the floor, pulled tripping up a flight of stairs, then jerked to a stop. The cotton wool was yanked from my ears, and I heard what I assumed was an officer's voice.

 "What did you do after you got out of prison, Jamal?" he asked quietly. "The first time..."

"Was there a second time?" came the voice, detached from its body. "They detained me a month ago."

"Do you call that being detained? You didn't even spend a week with us, not even enough time to warm the floor under your ass. The important thing is, Jamal, what did you do after you left us?"

"I helped my family on the farm and then came to Damascus at the beginning of winter to carry on with my university studies."

"I'll make it easier for you, you piece of shit," he said, his tone changing. "What was the printing you did?"

"Some designs for silk-screen printing in the Faihaa printing works. I still design for them and get paid by the piece."

"What kind of designs do you do?" "Butterflies... birds, flowers, fruit."

"You're lying, you son of a whore!"

"Your mother is no better than mine," I answered boldly. "There's no need for street language."

At this point he went wild and began to shout like a maniac. "Take this insolent bastard away. Execute him. We 've got seventeen million people in Syria. We don't need this dog."

I raised my head and said clearly, "I am not a dog."

 He repeated his order, his voice almost hoarse from the strain. "Take him away. Execute him at once. We don't need these sons of whores." I thought of saying something but made do with a scornful smile. "You shit!" he shouted. "Are you laughing at me? I swear to Allah, I'll make dog food of you! Take him away!"

This wasn't the first time I'd received abuse from an officer or been accused of treason because I'd helped print or distribute political leaflets. But, on this occasion, I wasn't protecting anyone by suffering torture and abuse. I didn't have anything to confess. I was genuinely busy with my studies and earning enough to survive. I wasn't lying.

A soldier took hold of my arm and dragged me down more stairs to what I imagined was the interrogation room, the place where my life was to end. He left me standing alone, expecting the inevitable. And then I heard the door lock, and it became very silent.

 Suddenly, my memory released a host of images and smells — things from the past that felt so real I forgot I was about to die. Maybe this illogical response to what should have been a terrifying situation was a manifestation of the awful despair that had set in the moment I was once again arrested.

 I pictured the line that the rubber tube had made on my forehead. I'd seen this mark on the heads of many after they returned to their cell after interrogation, if they did return. As I waited alone in a locked room for my death sentence to be carried out, scenes from the past continued to follow one after another with amazing clarity. I could almost touch the white lace collar and sleeves of Barbara's red dress. At five years old, I was fascinated by the elegance of Barbara, the youngest daughter of the asphalt quarry manager. I scratched my back with my bound hands. It's as if the barbed wire I'd crawled under to meet Barbara more than a quarter of a century earlier is again scratching my back. My mother used to smile when she saw us together, Barbara and me, and point out I was three months older than her to the day. I see my mother's expression when I was released for the first time after my prolonged absence of about eleven years. I revel in the flood of joy that made her walk around the house in a daze, turning back to hug me again the instant she left, saying a few more words, her brief utterances dominating all other sounds, clear and warm: "My heart was lying at the crossroads, waiting for your footsteps, and now you've returned my heart has returned to my chest," and "The hard waiting is over," and "Thank Allah we're no longer behind bars," speaking as if she had just come out of prison too. She pulls me to her, and I smell her scent and feel the heat of the tears falling on my face. Later I see the gleam of delight in her eyes as she welcomes the neighbors who have flocked to congratulate us on my release. They crowd around to see whether I am still like other people, if I can talk and see and hear, and if I still have five fingers on each hand after my long spell of incarceration. I can tell from the looks in their eyes and the questions they asked me that they are keen to investigate the impact of prison on my mind and body. Some are not afraid to blame me and call me stupid, believing I've damaged both myself and my family. I can see the effect of the passing years on them. Gray hair, wrinkles, baldness, and fat bellies prevented me from recognizing a few of the old ones, and recognizing the young ones, whom I've not seen since they were children, is even more difficult.

 Waiting to be executed, I remember as clearly as if I could see them, many of the other people I'd known in different Syrian towns: children, men, and women, old and young; relatives, friends, and those who'd shared in the painful experiences of prison; interrogators out of control in the interrogation branch in Latakia; doomsday in cellblock seven in the military's special investigation branch in Damascus; prisoners of conscience, murderers, thieves, drug dealers, cats, rats, and police in al-Qala'a prison; bodies exhausted by fear, faces distorted by terror, souls brutalized by humiliation in Tadmur prison. The faces of women I'd loved and cried over when they left, and those of the ones who loved me and who cried when I left. Informers for the intelligence services who visited me diligently after my release on the pretext of asking after my health. A great gathering of people, birds, beasts, with their features crystal clear; springs, rivers, different places by the sea, rough tracks, paved roads, and even familiar rocky outcrops. I am completely absorbed by this throng of images, smells, and the sounds my memory yields, sharper and more delicate than I would have believed possible, and in that moment I really forget where I am. I don't think about how my brazen answers to the officer had just slammed the door on my future.

 I am devouring life avidly as if it only existed in the past when the door of the interrogation room opens and footsteps approach. I brace myself for the end, but nothing. If only I could move my hand, I would pull the blind- fold away from my eyes. Has the soldier who entered the room changed his mind and left again? Or is he standing close to me this very second? I picture the room full of instruments of torture: an old tire, electric cables, clubs, a German chair, water, and a packet of pins on the metal table where the interrogator usually sat. Big strong torturers no more than twenty-five years old will show up at any moment.'

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Volunteer Doctors Went to Rebel-Held Northwest Syria to Help Save Lives. Then the Bombs Started.


 Dawn Clancy:

 'In early October, a suicide drone ripped through a graduation ceremony at a military academy in Homs, Syria, killing and injuring dozens of civilians and cadets while delivering an equally devastating blow to the psyche of the Syrian régime and its embattled leader, President Bashar al-Assad.

 Although no group took responsibility for the Oct. 5 attack, the Syrian army, without providing details, blamed the incident on “terrorist groups” in the northwest of the country, backed by “known international forces,” meaning the West, led by the United States.

 Since 2017, northwest Syria has been loosely governed by the anti-régime Syrian Salvation Government, the administrative arm of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a “political and militant group” mainly operating in Syria’s Greater Idlib area. It is primarily populated by civilians who have been displaced, some more than once, by the civil war that began in 2011. Currently, the Turkish military, which is allied with Syrian opposition groups, has a presence there. The Turks say they are guaranteeing a cease-fire that was established in 2017. However, when I asked Syrians in Idlib why they think Türkiye has troops in the area, they said, “It’s complicated.”

 On Oct. 5, as the blood-soaked bodies piled up in Homs and the Assad régime launched its response to the attack, I was on the ground in Idlib, a rebel-held city located a mere two-hours’ drive north of Homs.

 What was meant to be a nine-day reporting trip in northwest Syria, shadowing a group of doctors (including a cardiologist, hand surgeon and pulmonary, emergency care and family medicine experts) on a medical mission arranged by the nonprofit MedGlobal group, was abruptly cut short when we were swiftly evacuated from Idlib back to the Turkish border, as the Assad government unleashed an aggressive military campaign on Idlib city and surrounding areas, targeting schools and hospitals, killing and injuring dozens of innocent civilians.

 Although weeks have passed since the drone attack in Homs, the Assad régime, aided by its ally Russia, continues to bomb the northwest with barely a whisper of outrage from the international community, partly due to the world shifting its attention to the brutal war and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces since Hamas massacred approximately 1,400 people in Israel on Oct. 7.

 According to the White Helmets, a nonprofit organization that provides rescue and humanitarian assistance to people impacted by conflict and natural disasters in northwest Syria, its teams responded from Oct. 1 to Oct. 26 to more than “250 attacks on 70 cities and towns in the northwestern regions of Syria,” which left more than 250 civilians injured and more than 65 dead, including more than 20 children and 10 women.

Here, I share some of my reporting — including recorded interviews with Syrians living in internally displaced camps, field notes and snippets from a few casual conversations — during my abbreviated reporting trip to Idlib.

 Around 9 A.M., after a quick breakfast of steamy sweet tea and fresh bread smeared with za’atar spices and olive oil, we drive north from our hotel in Idlib’s city center and near the Idlib Health Directorate, the health care supervisor in Idlib governorate, to the al-Wifak camp to visit a mobile health clinic, where more than 1,300 displaced civilians live in tents and concrete block houses. With us in the van is a local Syrian journalist and his colleague, a translator, who jokes that instead of going to the camp, we’re going to cross the border into régime territory. I laugh and ask the translator, sitting to my left in a white polo shirt and jeans whose left eye is swollen and freshly blackened from a recent soccer game, what would happen if we tried to enter régime territory. Without hesitating, he turns to me and says flatly, “We’d be slaughtered.”

 Shortly after arriving at the camp, I meet Khaled Mustafa Abu Hasna, 70, and his wife, Ayoush Mohammad Mughlag, also 70 years old. They tell me they have been married for 55 years and have 14 children, 3 boys and 11 girls. The war drove them from their village in Syria in 2019, and they’ve been living in al-Wifak in a massive tent ever since. Their children, now adults with families of their own, fled the war and relocated to Lebanon and Türkiye.

 In 2013, their son Ahmad was arrested by the Syrian régime in Damascus, Syria’s capital, and the family still knows nothing of his fate. They think he could be alive in one of Syria’s notorious military prisons, or dead, possibly tortured and killed by the régime. Khaled Hasna tells me that he suffered a stroke the day Ahmad was arrested and hasn’t been able to move his left arm or leg in years. He relies heavily on Ayoush, his wife, who carefully massages his left foot as we talk.

 One of their grandsons, a toddler, is rolling around on a rug nearby, watching an episode of the famous Western cartoon series “The Smurfs,” on a mounted television — Internet in some camps is available for a fee — while their granddaughter Aya, 15, sits quietly in a corner. I notice her vibrant green eyes, perfectly framed by her hijab, and ask the translator, Aisha, to say hello for me. Aya’s father was shot dead by the régime in front of his father-in-law, Khaled, years ago. Since moving to the camp with her grandparents, Aya, an only child, hasn’t attended school and is unlikely to return under the current circumstances.

 Camps for internally displaced people in northwest Syria are serviced by a hodgepodge network of global humanitarian organizations, including the UN, which works through local partners, focusing foremost on providing civilians with shelter, food and sanitation. With limited resources in some camps, education gets overlooked. Before we leave, I ask Aya, who likes to paint, if she has any dreams, and she says no. “The war destroyed everything,” she say in Arabic, “all the dreams.”

 Al Fan Alshemali camp is a short drive from al-Wifak. It’s home to approximately 2,600 internally displaced civilians. According to the Camp Coordination and Camp Management cluster, an agency that “supports people affected by natural disasters and internally displaced people (IDPs) affected by conflict,” there are more than 1,500 camps of various sizes for internally displaced people in northwest Syria.

 As we arrive, we see a group of women and fidgety toddlers waiting outside the camp’s mobile health clinic: a stout, grubby cement-block building baking in sunlight and stocked inside with a table and two chairs. The group is there to see the pediatrician, a retired doctor from California volunteering with MedGlobal. Standing outside the cement block, I hear him inside treating countless sore throats, prescribing medications and checking for signs of malnutrition. Later, the doctor tells me that sore throats are common in camps as the air inside the tents tends to be dry. He said that if the parents smoked inside the tent or burned wood, it worsens the conditions.

 Meanwhile, the waiting women, dressed in black niqabs, a veil that covers the entire face except for a horizontal slit for the eyes, don’t want to be interviewed. However, Aisha, the translator who is provided through MedGlobal, is eager to share information about herself.

 Petite and soft-spoken, Aisha, 27, lives with her mother and six-year-old son, Yaser, in another camp. They fled their village, which is south of Idlib city, in 2019, when the bombings escalated. Aisha, who says she’s divorced, now lives in Sarmada city, a camp 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, north of Idlib city.

 “When I was displaced, I was in my third year at the University of Idlib, but I didn’t give up,” Aisha said, “and I graduated this year from the English department in faculty of literature.” Aisha tells me that girls like Aya, whose dreams have been destroyed by the war, make her sad.

 “I remember myself when I was displaced and I lost any hope to live and continue my study,” Aisha said. “So, yeah, I feel sad about it but I have a dream . . . to continue and continue and arrive.”

 As for her son’s future, Aisha said there’s nothing for him in Syria. “We have no options in our lives here. I feel that we are living in a prison,” she says. “For me, I wish that I leave this area and travel to any country that I feel I’m human in it.”

 We return to Idlib city and the health directorate, where we are lodging, around 6:30 P.M. After dinner, I take a quick walk around the city center with Aisha — who kindly helps me pick up a cotton cap to wear under my hijab — where drivers on motorcycles whip through the streets, pedestrians crowd fruit carts and the neon signs hanging above the spice shops and bakeries splash pops of color across the sidewalks. The city and its people are alive. But at any moment, it could all go black.

 Dr. Ahmed Ghandour is a surgeon and the general manager of the al-Rahma Hospital in Darkush, a city roughly 55 kilometers, or 34 miles, west of Idlib city. He studied medicine at Aleppo University in Syria and graduated in 2009 before the régime began its lethal crackdown in 2011.

 Dr. Ghandour, dressed in faded green hospital scrubs, says he was arrested, like countless other Syrians, by régime military forces who converted public hospitals and schools into prisons.

 “After my release from Aleppo in 2012, I insist to convert every place which the régime [is] using as a prison to kill the people and torture them [and] I insist to convert every place to [a] hospital to a place for relief for them,” Dr. Ghandour says.

 Later, after a tour of the hospital, including its outpatient clinic and dialysis center, I sit outside with Dr. Ghandour, who admits he is worried about the future of medicine in northwest Syria. The civil war has caused medical professionals and students to leave the country in droves to practice in Europe. It’s an option that Dr. Ghandour says he has considered. “But I can’t leave my country,” he adds. “We have to prepare the new medical generation . . . we need them.”

 A report from the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization based in New York City, published estimates in 2021 saying that in Syria, “70 percent of the medical workforce has fled the country.”

 “When I started, I was young, but now I’m 46 years. Maybe [in] 10 years I will stop,” Dr. Ghandour says. “And if I don’t achieve my dreams maybe my son one day will come and complete my way.”

 I am back in my room at the health directorate when, at 8:07 P.M., a flurry of text messages begins popping up in our WhatsApp group chat. The first one says, “Please all come to the basement,” followed by, “Only bring your passport and phones,” and then, “No more social media posts.”

 If I had had Internet access there, which is hard to come by in Idlib, I would have known about the suicide drone attack in Homs earlier that day. Still, it wasn’t until we are all huddled in the basement and as the thuds from the falling bombs grow closer and the sounds of ambulances screeching past the directorate grow louder, when I realize the Syrian régime is responding to the Homs massacre.

 Soon after, we learn that the medical mission is canceled and that we have to leave Idlib city at 6:30 A.M. the next day.

 There are at least 20 of us in the basement waiting out the bombs, including members of the MedGlobal team and employees of the directorate. The room is filled with chatter as if we are one big group waiting to be seated at a fancy restaurant.

 For many of the people around me, however, this day is like any other. They have made peace with the uncertainty of their circumstances. For civilians living in this part of Syria, who have been enduring conflict for more than 12 years, they have no other choice but to keep living there.

 Standing to my left are two men in their mid-30s, whom I have not seen before. They’re talking to the hand surgeon, Dr. Ebrahim Paryavi, who works at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and is volunteering for MedGlobal. Afterward, Dr. Paryavi tells me that when the two men from the area — who were scheduled to meet with him the next day — learned that the mission had been canceled, they drove to the directorate, despite the bombing, to consult him.

 “They both have complicated hand injuries from the war,” Dr. Paryavi says. “One of them has significant nerve injury to his arm, and the other has a blast hand injury, and his thumb is mangled. He wanted to know if there’s anything we could do to improve his hand function. And so I talked to him about a flap procedure . . . and I told him I would do it in the next couple of days if we’re still here, but then we heard that we’re being evacuated tomorrow. He was pretty disappointed.”

 Dr. Paryavi adds: “I’ve seen a lot of war-related injuries here. There are so many people with blast injuries to their arms . . . shrapnel injuries, explosive injuries to the arms from bombings. Just a lot more than I’ve ever seen in my career.”

 The bombing slows and then stops around 10:30 P.M. Most of us leave the basement and head back to our rooms to try to sleep. Upstairs, someone has left a huge tray of freshly baked knafeh, a sweet, cheesy Middle Eastern dessert, in the common room. I think to myself, Who the hell went out to get that?

 We make it back to Gaziantep in the afternoon, having left Idlib around 6:30 A.M. After I book my return flight to New York City, I text Aisha, the translator who is still in Idlib. I want to thank her for all her help and make sure she is O.K.

 She replies: “I am good, and my family is good, but artillery shells are still falling on Idlib and its countryside, and we cannot get out safely. For my helping you during your job here is nothing. I just did my duty to the Syrian people. The Syrian people and I would like to thank you for coming to hear us to convey our suffering for the world.

 I am sad towards what happened yesterday because it forces you to leave. . . . I wish to meet you here again.” '

Friday 20 October 2023

A barrel bomb killed this man’s father. Four Syrian generals now face a landmark war crimes trial


 'Omar Abou Nabout is a man on a mission.

 Part diplomat-in-training, part legal campaigner, the 27-year-old Syrian spoke in Paris between meetings, flipping between his flawless French and native Arabic.

 He smiled as he talked on the banks of the River Seine. But his journey here was far from happy.

 He, his mother and siblings fled to France in August 2016, six years into the civil uprising against the brutal régime of President Bashar al-Assad. But his father, French-Syrian citizen Salah Abou Nabout, stayed in their home city of Daraa. He was killed in a barrel-bomb strike later that year.

 Since then, Omar Abou Nabout has sought accountability over his father’s killing while forging a new life in France. Today that fight for justice took a step forward, as French investigative judges issued arrest warrants for four high-ranking Syrian generals in Abou Nabout’s case.

 “It was exhausting, especially psychologically, we know the régime, but despite my fears I couldn’t be silent, and I will not be silent. This is a right for my father, and for Syrians,” he told CNN of his efforts.

 Legal cases have been filed against the Syrian régime before. Last year a German court sentenced a former Syrian army colonel to life in prison, in the first trial of a high-ranking régime official for torture carried out under the Assad régime.

 This case, however, is the first brought against senior members of the Syrian government for alleged complicity in war crimes in a military operation. It’s the first that directly indicts four Syrian military officials, including two former defense ministers.

 And it’s the first time that arrest warrants have been issued over the use of barrel bombs, crude devices made by filling oil drums, fuel tanks or gas cylinders with explosives and shrapnel. The Syrian régime used them extensively, and indiscriminately, in densely populated areas at the height of the war, which was considered a form of prohibited indiscriminate attack under international humanitarian law.

 The indictments are the result of a years-long investigation by French prosecutors, aided by Abou Nabout and a human rights-focused non-governmental group.

 Abou Nabout’s case dates to June 2017. His father, Salah, was politically active in his youth and, although his son says that by the time the revolution rolled around he had given up on politics, he was still jailed for more than two years in the early days of the Syrian uprising. When his wife and children fled Syria in August 2016, Salah was unable to leave.

 He allowed an education NGO to use his three-story home in Daraa city as a makeshift school. It was an old, rundown building, but artwork and motivational slogans peppered the walls. One, seen in a photo, read: “We need a little bit of thought to achieve great things. Think well.”

 The southern Syrian province of Daraa was the scene of ferocious battles. It was recaptured by the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government from rebel forces in 2018, but it was left looking apocalyptic. One year earlier, on June 7, as government bombs fell on the area of Tareek al-Sad, Salah’s building was hit. Children weren’t in class at the time. But Salah was there and lost his life in the blast.

 The bombs in question were barrel bombs dropped from régime helicopters with devastating consequences. By their very nature, they are uncontrollable. An estimated 82,000 barrel bombs had been dropped in Syria as of April 2021, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, killing more than 11,000 people in the process.

 The Syrian government has repeatedly insisted its strikes target “terrorists.”

 When Omar Abou Nabout and his family sought refuge in France – where his father held a passport – they found the language and culture difficult to understand at first. But Abou Nabout went on to graduate from the country’s prestigious Sorbonne University, and now works with the French Foreign Ministry, with ambitions of becoming a diplomat.

 Back then, his one link to his new country was his father. Following his death, as Abou Nabout put his energy into the pursuit of justice, Salah’s French citizenship gave France jurisdiction in the case.

 “The past six years were tough, because it’s a new country,” Abou Nabout said. “We had to adapt first. I adapted and tried to mainly focus on the case and worked on my own at the start.”

 Abou Nabout initially took his case to French prosecutors. It was later picked up by Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer who leads the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) – an NGO that started work in Syria and is now based in Paris.

 The group has made a name for itself pursuing justice against both the Assad régime and Islamist extremist groups in Europe, earning Darwish a place on Time’s list of the most influential people for 2022. Last year, Darwish was instrumental in bringing the legal case that saw former Syrian army colonel Anwar Raslan sentenced to life in prison in Germany for crimes against humanity.

 Darwish himself has experienced the brutal extremes of Syria’s incarceration system first-hand. In February 2012, Darwish was arrested with his wife and other staff at the NGO. He was accused of “promoting terrorist acts,” he says, and was tortured. After three and a half years in prison, he was released; the charges against him were later dropped.

 Darwish moved to France, transferring the headquarters of SCM there in 2016. In 2020 he – along with the SCM – became involved in Omar’s case, assisting French investigators.

 But building a case in a foreign country about a crime in another country, which itself is entrenched in a civil war, isn’t easy. By the time the investigation started, Daraa had come under government control, making access for French investigators difficult. The SCM offered support as a civil party, using its network to collect evidence when French investigators couldn’t; taking photos, collecting samples, and interviewing defectors to put together a chain of command in a painstaking 14-month process.

 The decision by French investigative judges to now indict four high-ranking generals, including two of the country’s defense ministers, is a big step forward. “This is the first time the Syrian official army are being prosecuted,” Darwish said. “This is the first time we’re talking about the air force, the Syrian official army attacking schools and protected places.”

 On the list of indictments are Fahed Jassem al-Fraij – at the time, he was the second-highest ranking military official after Bashar al-Assad and one-time defense minister.

 Then there’s Ali Abdullah Ayoub – former chief of staff of the armed forces, and later defense minister. He was the third-highest ranking officer at the time of the attack.

 Brigadier Ahmad Balloul, who commanded the Air Force at the time of the attack, and Brigadier Ali al-Safatli also both appear on the list.

 Notably absent, however, is Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. “This is not because he’s not responsible,” Darwish said. “But because we are talking about local courts and presidents have immunity.” Assad would need to be tried through the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands, he added. Syria is not a member of the court, so a case would have to be referred by the UN Security Council, where Russia, which supports Assad, has veto power.

 The Syrian government has long been accused of war crimes, targeting schools and hospitals. It may deny targeting civilians, but Abou Nabout says the new indictments are a victory for him and others fighting impunity.

 “It was my instinct to pursue justice for my father. I grew up during the revolution. I was part of it … I watched people die including friends,” Abou Nabout said. “I couldn’t stay silent when I could do something. I didn’t want the day to come when I’m older and would regret missing the opportunity.” '

Sunday 15 October 2023

Eye on Syria: Past, Present and Future Part 4


 Celine Kasem:

 ‘It’s so nice to see what’s happening in Sweida right now. Unfortunately, the régime is playing on this narrative that it’s protecting minorities, and because it’s a minority itself, it’s going to have minorities’ interests at heart.

 Right now, in 2023, they have been out for over a month and a bit, protesting every day, and they are saying the same chants that people went out with in 2011.

 They’re being very loud, and prominent, and it’s beautiful to see once again. All these people together, and when it first started, there were protests all around the country. This just proves again and again, that even after all these years, and how the international community has failed us over and over again - they’ve put us on the burner, nobody is really talking about Syria, nobody has that up on their agenda - but they’ve proved that the people even inside of régime-held Syria, that are in Sweida, that are in the coast, that are in Daraa; all of those people, all of that, do not want to live under this dictatorship. Do not want to live under these economic conditions that you are making $10 a month, you are making $15 a month, that simply cannot even get you groceries.

 The living conditions in the régime-held areas are beyond what anyone can describe. Then when we go to Idlib, it’s crazy, because we see all these people, trying with the normalisation that’s taking place, trying to paint Damascus as a beautiful, wonderful, party scene, and people are coming out and Damascus is back to safety, and you guys should come visit.

 But it’s not that, and the war is still happening, and people are still getting bombed every single day. SETF have an app called SyriaWatch, which you can download off the App Store, and you get updates of every single attack that takes place. And this last week has been busy for that team. Every couple of hours.

 There was a thing that happened with Homs, and now they are blaming it on the Northwest, and these groups, on these people of Idlib. And they’re bombing them, and over 40 people, 50 people, have passed away. Nobody is talking about it, unfortunately, so we need to be that voice. We need to be more and more, even if it’s on the back burner, even if no one is discussing this any more, we need be the ones to do this, and bring their voice to the rest of the world.

 So I hope that all of us can see what’s happening in Syria, and support it. And see what’s happening in Idlib, and be a witness to it.’

 Dr. Aula Abbara:

 ‘What’s remarkable about Sweida is that women are very much on the forefront of these protests and the organisation. I think, for us, it’s very important, because it doesn’t tie in to the narrative, that I often have with people external to Syria, who think women are silent. Whereas women are the strongest advocates, we just have to look at Celine, in particular, to know that.

 We have spoken about the northwest. It’s always important to remember, we’re not trying to fragment the country, but we need to be realistic when we talk about health systems, and the political determinants across the country.

 The situation in the northeast of Syria is desperate. In areas under government control it is also desperate. I met doctors from Sulaymaniyah about a week ago, and they get in the region of thirty to forty dollars a month, and they don’t make it from week to week in order to feed their families.

 And many of us still have families in these areas, because they’re areas that were retaken by the government. And for us as Syrians, it is important to remember our shared humanity, and not to be divided; but, of course, never to forget the injustices that have occurred.'

 Dr. Mohammad al-Hadj Ali:

 ‘I’m optimistic by nature, but this is based on facts. Which is, the Syrian people, as we saw in Sweida, as we see in Idlib despite all calamities, despite all casualties, despite all of what happens there over years and years. After twelve years, we still see a strong, solid foundation for that hope, for that optimism.

 It is not a fake hope. When people dare to be out in the streets, thinking of our future, and thinking about a better Syria. We never knew that we’d be in the diaspora for a long time, and we’re going to miss our beloved people and family members, and all that stuff. But we still have the hope, that we’re going to rebuild it again.

 All my hope, when I was resident at Aleppo University Hospital, and I was doing my specialty in diabetic endocrinology before I came here to do my PhD; all my hope, I was looking at a place in the campus of Aleppo University, which is very much close to Aleppo University Hospital. I’m reminded at that time, that there were three or four rooms, very much attached to the hospital, they’d had been occupied by the intelligence forces, over years. They’d been part of the hospital, taken over.

 My idea at that time, was that I would go back at some point, and establish what I’d call the Aleppo University Diabetes and Endocrinology Centre. So that was my dream. I don’t know why I pinpointed on that place, but I always thought, why they took it from the campus? There is no need for their existence in that place, among the civilians.

 And I thought, one day, even if I return to academia, I’ll return to see that place as a nice, academic place, research and for training people in diabetes and endocrinology.

 I had an emotional chat last week, with my cousin. And I had to hide the fact from him, that when I came to the UK for the first time, I started reading everything forbidden inside Syria. I was in a city where there was no Syrian diaspora at all, I started my journey in Syria.

 And I came across a document, naming people who’d been killed in the Tadmor massacre, and buried alive. And that was the first story where they had the big bulldozers in the desert, buried them, and that was the story. And I spent nights looking through this story, done by the Syrian Human Rights Committee. I reached after 1500 names, the name of the husband of my auntie.

 I saw his name, and we’d always been told, that he’d disappeared, and he was taken, but nobody knew his fate. And every time we asked about his fate, they say, don’t ask about it, next time, don’t think about this name any more. Right, can we get a death certificate for him, because there’s inheritance to sort out here? No, we can’t give you a death certificate for him. Is he alive then? Nobody would answer that question. I know that fact.

 On one of my visits to Syria before the revolution, before I was banned then for protesting, I can’t go back until that régime falls; I say that to my mum and dad. Should I share that with my auntie, who passed away later? Should I share that with her? They said to me, if you say anything, it will be like a big trauma in the family. Just keep it quiet, and leave the woman alone.

 I had a chat with my cousin last week, and it was very emotional. I said to him, that’s the story, this is your dad, and that’s the details, after all the long period of time. He said to me, three months ago, I was in the middle of my sleep. I woke up with the nightmare, of my dad saying to me, why don’t you come to my grave in Tadmor, and make fatiha for me? Why don’t you come and visit my grave?

 I call my brother, and my brother say to me, this is ridiculous. They told us it’s a safe area, he’s somewhere else, and that was a fact. I say no, this is what has been documented ages ago.

 So I wanted to just go back to that trauma, and that flashback. Because in my conversation with him, he was a bit pessimistic. I said to him, look, the blood of your dad, won’t be wasted. And the blood of many of our people, won’t be wasted. And all those dead detainees won’t be wasted. I know the suffering, the struggle, of children, who are out of school, or are forced to be displaced to other countries; all that calamity and struggle won’t be wasted.

 There will be one day we will come for justice. And one day there will be accountability. And one day we will build a better future for Syria. Even if we are a diaspora now, this is our beloved country, and we will never leave Syria alone. We will always be attached to our beloved country, and we will continue, and this lovely audience tonight is a big push , and a big inspiration, that the march is going to continue, for a better future for Syria.’

Eye on Syria: Past, Present and Future Part 3


 Ellie Nott:

 ‘He said, can I show you some pictures on my laptop. I said okay. He showed me photo after photo of extraordinary injuries that people were facing. There was one video in particular, that made me gasp out loud. It was of a baby being born by caesarean section, and the mother had been shot in the abdomen. Which I learned was an amusement of régime soldiers. They would choose a different body part each week to target, of the civilians who tried to get bread or reach the market.

 David showed me this video of an emergency caesarean. There was an awful moment when this baby came out in silence. And suddenly, the baby cried out. And tears came to my eyes. And I probably fell in love with David that day, and I probably fell in love with Syria that day. And since then, we’ve set up a foundation together. We’ve trained some 500 Syrian doctors, surgeons, anaesthetists, in the surgical skills they need to treat injuries inflicted by conflict.

 And there’s been a lot of conflict. And the health system has coped in such a remarkable way, that it’s really taken a toll on the healthcare workers who are trying valiantly to hold it up.

 One of the amazing things about the Syrian revolution, is that it also gave a space for an extraordinary opening of civil society, and an amazing number of humanitarian organisations, and healthcare organisations as well, where doctors, and physicians, and pharmacists, work together to create extraordinary organisations, that have provided a health system, in areas where there has been no government for a decade.

 And that’s something we’re really proud to support, and I’m also so delighted to see one of the surgeons that David operated with, side by side, as brothers, in Eastern Aleppo in 2013-14, here tonight. These are friendships that were forged in the most extraordinary circumstances, and we’re never going to let them go. And we’re here, with Syrian organisations, even after the large NGOs have lost interest, even after the multilateral institutions are lacking funds, we’ll be there for the long-term.

 Celine Kasem:

 ‘If we go back to what inspired people go out and ask for such a low bar of human rights. And they went out with flowers, and water, in the first protests. And they were asking for freedom and their dignity, because there was simply over the last fifty years, none of what we in the rest of the world expect.

 The very simple pleasures of, you in high school being able to write about a conflict somewhere around the world. You were not able to get good resources to be able to write about this. You were not able to ask questions as to why certain branches look like this, and why do they act like this. Why are there so many photos of this President, everybody that we know? It’s really interesting, because I was outside of Syria, and I would come and visit in the summer.

 You don’t realise this as a child, but then recently I was in Turkey with my family, and my baby sister asked, who is this? And I wonder if I asked that as a child, when I would go and visit.

 It was simply a dictatorship, and we have a famous saying in Syria, that says “The wall’s listening”. Even if you were home, even if you have these private book clubs which my dad’s friends had in Syria, and they would meet up, and they would talk about a certain book that was banned in Syria. That was never allowed to be there.

 But they were arrested. And they spent tens of years in prison. They were tortured, and their stories are just like all of the detainees stories.

 So they wanted just a simple, average life, that all us can be so privileged to live all around the world, under a non-dictatorship.'

 Dr. Mohammad al-Hadj Ali:

 ‘So, unfortunately over the last few years, if we look at the twelve year story; I’m sure everyone here has their own stories, their own problems, their family attachments, and all that stuff. So over twelve years, we can see a decreasing appetite towards supporting Syrian people. As Ellie said, even NGOs, they recently started dropping down their funding and support to Syrian people. People are fed up with their story, and it’s a dictatorship, and Russia intervened in this story, and there’s no hope at all.

 Until the earthquake came. And came to the story. And I believe it was not only shaking the Earth to destroy and damage the infrastructure and the buildings in part of Syrian territory, but it shaped the whole situation around politics around Syria. When the time, people were talking about normalisation with Assad régime. There’s no way we can bring them back to justice, and accountability, and all that stuff.

 So, the best way is to normalise with Assad, and forget about all these stories, and the earthquake came. It came, actually, to revive the rights of all those being detained, and all those being killed, and all those being forced to be displaced. And all refugees, it was a shake, not only for the Earth, but I believe, in the politics around Syria as well.

 And unfortunately, eight thousand people died, in the northern part of Syria, and some parts of Syria under régime control as well. But if we look at the overall situation in Syria, the economic situation, in the areas under régime control, in northwest Syria, in northeast Syria, in Rukban camp where Syrian Emergency Task Force takes fantastic job to break the siege there; if we look at all these fragments of our beloved Syria, the situation is not that great.

 But, to be honest, I remain an optimist, and I say, that if we are not under barbaric attacks, from airstrikes from Russian side or régime side, then the other parts of Syria will flourish very quickly. Because we have the will of Syrian people. We have the desire for a better Syria, and a future which is rosy for the Syrian people.

 What I want to say, unfortunately, when we talk at the present moment about Syria, and what’s happening in the region as well, not only in Syria; it’s sort of the dynamics in the region, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq: all that stuff unfortunately influences Syria. Even Turkey, the internal politics inside Turkey, very much affecting Syrian people there, and refugees there.

 I would describe the moment at the present time in Syria, that this régime changed Syria, from what we call the land of civilisations. All ancient civilisations started there, in Syria. And now, it’s from the land of ancient civilisations, to the land and the country and the state of Captagon, and the drugs. This is unfortunately, when you see a country and régime, failing to control the country, in their own way, they have to become a state of drugs. And they have to shift the country from a place, to another place.

 So this is how I describe the moment here, we are stuck under the dynamics of the region, the régime wanted to label the country as a country and as a state of drugs. They want to put pressure on other countries and our world as well, to follow their own agenda.

 Hopefully there is time to talk about the Syrian way. The airstrikes may break more infrastructure, streets, country, buildings, all that stuff. But it will never break the Syrian way, and the Syrian human beings, and the free people. And those who have the real desire to change Syria from a place to another place, they wanted a land and a state of narcotics and drugs, and we want Syria to be back again as the land of civilisation.'

 Dr. Aula Abbara:

 ‘This issue of Captagon, and I’m sure many of you are following it, is based on Fenethylline, which is an amphetamine-based narcotic. We are talking a multi-billion dollar industry, that essentially is continuing to fund the conflict in Syria, the weaponry in Syria. But also because of the spillover into the region, is also making other countries stand up and notice, and so it’s a very frightening development. I can tell you many anecdotes of factory owners being forced to produce this drug, and feeling that they had no choice. They may have been loyalists, but have now had to leave, because of the threats to their lives, and that of their loved ones.’

 Ellie Nott:

 ‘I remember the first conference I went to in Gazientep in 2014, and it felt like a Ministry of Health in waiting. There were data analysts, people from Yale, people from Harvard, it felt like a shadow Health Ministry. I found it extraordinary, the idea of governments where there is no government. So often we’re fed a picture in the media of failed states. If there is conflict, people are helpless victims, everything has collapsed, no life as we know it is carrying on.

 That’s not the case, and I find, not to denigrate the huge challenges and struggles that exist, there’s a huge amount of industry, of agency, of people working together supporting their communities, and grounding some of these things, like human rights and democracy.

 The Idlib Health Directorate, which is an extraordinary body, which was dreamed up in someone’s sitting room earlier in the conflict; that’s a body that co-ordinates health governance across the northwest of Syria. And it’s amazing. Just small things, which might seem small if you’ve lived in Britain all your life, but they have elections to their boards. And at the end of someone’s term, that person steps down, and they have a new election.

 For Syria, that’s very revolutionary. It really is. So there’s this idea of the micro-level of democracy, democratic practices, and the idea of health care workers as advocates, and voices, for human rights. I think that’s especially powerful in the siege, and forced displacement, from eastern Aleppo. Especially in 2016, when healthcare workers were the most articulate voices calling for a stop to the barbarity of what was happening there.

 A point on Idlib at the moment, I had a very dear friend who got back last Friday, from being in Idlib. He said as soon as he left, he had a sense of peacefulness. He was training doctors, obstetricians, gynaecologists, to do a cervical screening programme. And he said that kind of work, was now having the space to take place.

 And how quickly that changes. Between the 4th and the 8th of October, I think 52 people have been killed, 11 of whom are children, another 246 injured, dozens of facilities damaged including four hospitals. It’s just a reminder that the northwest is so vulnerable. And the predations of the régime and its Russian allies, we just have to keep talking about it, there’s no other way.’

 Dr. Aula Abbara:

 ‘Having observed the evolution of the health system, particularly in the northwest of Syria, but also comparing it to what’s happened in the northeast of Syria, and the areas under government control, we can see the resilience, determination and imagination of the healthcare workers, and leaders within healthcare, in the northwest of Syria.

 It always amuses me how challenging it is for international organisations to work with Syria. Because Syria, before the conflict, had a functioning health system: not perfect, but functioning. Far more so than many of the other conflict-affected countries around the world. And the international humanitarian organisations are not used to this. They want to dictate across the border.

 I hate figures, because behind every figure there’s a human, but at least 950 healthcare workers have been killed in the course of their work, let alone secondarily, let alone those detained, let alone those tortured, or forced from their homes.’

Friday 13 October 2023

Eye on Syria: Past, Present and Future Part 2


 Omar al-Shogre:

 ‘We have the guy who was operating the machine to open the graves, and he also is with us here today.’

 The Bulldozer Driver:

 ‘I was tasked by the régime for one year to prepare the graves of innocent people, and I did that, it wasn’t optional, I couldn’t do anything about it, I would have died if I didn’t do it. Every single day we used to bury over 400 people on a daily basis, so over one year, I had to witness, and open the grave with my bulldozer, for over a hundred thousand people, myself with the people that are involved, who are recruited by the régime. And that is proof, unfortunately, it is still happening today.

 The régime is still running its detention centres, which are more like torture chambers. And people are being arrested on a daily basis, people are being killed on a daily basis, and here comes our responsibility.

 I want you to understand that the régime is not going to stop its brutality, and your involvement is very necessary. Those people that are being killed on a daily basis are humans. Humans that deserve your attention. Humans that look like you. Regardless of where you’re from, they look just like you. They have lives, they have stories, they have families.

 And therefore I will stand before you today, telling you that you need to be involved, you need to care, you need to talk to politicians, you need to make actions, you need to have consistency, so that we at some point can reach not only freedom, but justice for the Syrian people and the Syrian victims.’

 Omar al-Shogre:

 ‘It is very sad that we have to discover more of Caesar, more of Gravedigger; but Syria is full of Caesars and Gravediggers. And Omars, and we will suffer for years. And it’s enough to suffer for one hour, under the régime, to start a revolution.

 A lot of people ask that question, maybe it is better if you didn’t start anything. No, that’s not true. You life is not more important than that person who has been arrested since 1982, being tortured on a daily basis. Why would he be there? He is innocent. For one person, for one individual, we should start a revolution. Because this is not about the one individual, this is about the life of a human being. If the régime doesn’t have respect for one life of a human being, the régime should never exist.

 How much do we sacrifice to get freedom from that régime? Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Because if the régime is able to dehumanise one person, they will dehumanise the rest. If they can kill one person without your opposition, they can kill the rest.

 Back to the darkness, the worse it gets, the more likely you are to find hope in there. I know that the régime’s trying to sell a narrative where there is no change, no life. Oh, Russia is with me, China is with me, the US is with nothing, it wants to do nothing. That’s the narrative of the Syrian régime. Don’t spread that. There are enough people that care. We just need to organise our forces, come together, try to find creative ways of helping.

 That creative way, I like to say, is by doing something you like doing. I used to say, I hate writing. So I don’t write an article to bring awareness about Syria. Guess why? Because I hate writing, you wouldn’t like my article, it would suck. It could be so bad. But there’s something I love doing, that I can usefully do. I love public speaking, so I can deliver twenty speeches a day, not being tired. I know that the revolution in Syria won’t end today. Even if the régime falls tomorrow, we will still need to work a lot. And I keep still using the things that I love the most, which is public speaking in this case. And I wouldn’t get tired of it. I can be consistent, and I can bring awareness of what’s happening for a very long time.

 And I want you to think about the thing that you enjoy doing. What is your power? And what cause do you care about? It could be Syria, for others it could be Afghanistan. It could be you here in your community in London. Think about the thing that you’re most talented in doing. And what’s the cause you care about. And how do you combine that. How can you organise something you love doing? That thing, is what’s going to help you survive, what’s going to help you receive that trust from those that surround you.

 For me, it was in that tiny cell, that it all started. I started to learn things that were useful, I started to enjoy teaching people things. And there, I used that on a daily basis to save lives. In your scenario, it could be something else. It could be math, it could be physics. It could be games, it could be art. It could be anything, anything you do in your life, could be useful work. And if you can’t find a way with your thoughts, ask ChatGPT. How can I use my talents to bring awareness about Syria? You would be surprised how many ways you would find, from ChatGPT, Google, any AI or non-AI platforms; there are many ways of doing something.

 Most importantly, the worst thing you can do, is not doing anything. The worst thing you can do is think, huh, there’s nothing that can be done. You will be helping the régime killing more people. If you haven’t seen the Caesar photos, you should go by the exhibition.

 The régime is killing people on a daily basis. Those people have stories. Those people had love stories like mine. And they ended up, maybe married to the girl they love. The girl I love, when I get out of prison, she called me. I would have loved that call, for a few minutes. Before she started talking about her engagement party. It is the anniversary of our story of love, and now they are just dead. We don’t want that to happen to other people. If you don’t want it for you and your beloved ones, you shouldn’t accept it for other people.

 And not accepting it is not just a thought. It’s not just a word you say. An action you take. We want you today, before you leave this room, to think about an action. Come, discuss it with us in person. There’s another panel coming after me, and I’ll be outside, waiting for you. All of you. Come and shake our hands, and ask us a couple of questions. We would like you engaged, involved. Thank-you very much.’

 Dr. Mohammad al-Hadj Ali:

 ‘We started this story twelve years ago, exactly with any man like Omar al-Shogre. When we lived our life, and were thinking about our future. And we were thinking of building Syria again, in the next decade, in a better shape.

 And this was when we were looking at other countries as well. But in fact, the picture was not that rosy when the Arab Spring started, and then Syrian people dared to go to the streets. Just thinking about a better future for everyone in that country. And that was the biggest crime we did, in a country being dictated over decades.

 This is what we did actually, in 2011. Just dreaming was a big problem, in a country that had been dictated over decades by the same family. Our people dared there, to think about just expansion of human rights, improving their rights, and thinking about employment, opportunities, and freedom as well. Just a little word, freedom, written on walls by schoolchildren, the whole story started.

 From peaceful demonstrations, that have always been proscribed in Syria, to a full-scale war launched by whom? By the government, on its own civilians, its own people. As Omar said, when he saw the soldiers, this is the army, this is our army. These are the police officers who are meant to be protecting us, working for us, and working for security, of this country, and its own people.

 In fact, the story, it’s completely different. These forces, and that army, is to protect a family, and to protect a ruler, and to protect a dictatorship. And it’s never been meant, to protect their own people.

 I had to hear, unfortunately, two witnesses, and eyewitnesses. And when I looked at the figures today, I just tried to refresh the figures in my mind again, about those who have been refugees, or forced to be displaced, or those who have been detained, or those who have been lost.

 In my beloved country, it’s shocking. Because the estimation is always higher than what’s been documented, or what you can see by Google. We talk about more than 50% of the population of my country, now they are refugees, or internally displaced. More than seven million people internally displaced, inside Syria. More than six million people in the neighbouring countries, and more and more in diaspora.

 So these are the figures of refugees. If we look at the figures of those who are detained, we talk about more than half a million people lost their lives there, just because they talk about freedom, and they protested.

 But the reality, if one day all the facts come in, from bulldozer drivers, not driver, and gravediggers, we’ll listen to more shocking figures. We believe that the figure is higher and higher, than what has been documented there. So we talk about a high figure of those who have been detained. I want to talk about the 140,000 people being detained. In reality the figure is much more higher.

 When we talk about figures over twelve years, the country now, it’s being unfortunately under four regions, with four different authorities. I would like to talk about always one united Syria. And our perspective is for all united Syria, for all our population. So we talk about the half of the population refugees, internally displaced; and we talk about, by some estimations, nearly one million people being killed, and announced dead, and talk about hundreds of thousands of people being detained.’

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Eye on Syria: Past, Present and Future Part 1

 Omar al-Shogre:

 ‘I was madly in love. I could do nothing but think about her. I could do nothing but imagine. I could do nothing, but every thought was around how she is, how she looks, what she does. All of that, all the time, non-stop.

 But I was that very shy guy. I would never dare to look at her in the eye, I would never dare to tell a girl that I love her. But I was tired of that. Especially because she was sat in the seat in front of me for two years in a row. So I can’t breathe without seeing her. All the time, six hours a day, in the classroom. And I was very challenging. But I was so shy.

 I would find tricks. I would come to the exam without a pen. So the teacher would give us the paper to write the answers, and I said I didn’t have a pen. So she turns around, to give me a pen. And I would write the answers with hers, and I would keep the pen in my hand. And I wouldn’t give it back. So she would come to me, and say, “Hey, can you give me the pen?” So I could see her, looking me in the eyes.

 But every time she would come to me, I wouldn’t know what to do, hide behind my finger. I was so nervous, so shy a guy, as a little boy. At some point I decided, this cannot go on. I need to have a revolution in my life. I need to dare; to do something that is so important to me.

 So I decided, to take a pen, and paper, and write the first letter of love, in my life. And I take it, and I think, and I think, for hours and hours, what should the first letter say? Is it a poem, is it a painting, what should it be?

 So with the paper, and pen, I came with the most brilliant idea. I wrote the first letter of my name, O, and the first letter of her name, H, and a heart in the middle. And I filled it with red. And I folded it, and put it in my pocket, next to my heart. And I go to school, and during the break, I sneak into the room, and put it on her chair.

 And then, when everyone comes back from the break, I go to the corner of the room. I don’t want to be too close when she falls in love. I stand here, and I see her coming in with her friends. You need to understand how beautiful she is, how funny she is, how strong, so many things. And the way she walks, like a queen. Like she doesn’t care, her shoulders to the back, saying hey it’s me. She walks, and with every step, my heart is just beating faster.

 And she comes in, and she sees that note. She takes the note, and she opens it up, and she reads it. Doesn’t take a long time to read it. She holds it in both hands. She’s imagining how much she should love me. And she is walking, and walking, with the note in one hand, and next to the door, there is a trash can. My heart was put in a trash can.

 I can’t stand sitting behind her all these hours after that moment. It’s only the first trick. I go home, and I’m so upset, so angry. I don’t know what to do. I walk to the door, my mum calls on me; no, I’m studying. I sit in the corner, I want to cry, I’d rather not do anything else. And in the darkest moment, hope comes. How would she know it’s me? You know, there are seven Omars in the classroom. How would she know it’s me. So I decided, to have that brilliant idea. I take the pen, and the paper, and write her a letter. O, H, and a heart in the middle, and put some glitter on it, and my perfume.

 And I drop it, she comes in, and she takes the note. She’ll know it’s me, it’s my perfume. It’s very cheap, I always use it. She’ll know it’s me. She opens it up, holding the note in both hands, Walks, My heart is about to pop with that attention. No, it goes in the trash, That monster, she never cared.

 I go home. I’m so sad. I don’t know what to do. That was the most important thing that was happening in my life. What, you think school was important? No! The only reason school was important was because of her. There was nothing else relevant, importantly relevant, in my life; except that love, that good feeling I had. And in the darkest moments, hope comes along.

 What girl would want in her purse, a note that’s so guy perfumed, that she’s going to smell like it now? Of course she doesn’t want that in her purse. So I come up with a brilliant idea to write her a letter. So I put O, H, a heart in the middle. I colour it red, put glitter on. I go to my mum, can I use your perfume? I go to my sister, can I use your perfume? M other sister, can I get your perfume? My third sister, I have four sisters, my aunt, my neighbour, any female perfume; and I perfumed it so much, and take it the day after.

 This is it, I’m going to make it. I put it there, she’s coming in from the break, and I have had my heart broken so many times, that I see images playing faster than the reality. I see her picking it up, walking to the trash and throwing it, faster than the reality. And she comes in, takes the note, and she opens the note. And this note smells so much of perfume, it can kill the whole classroom.

 She opens the note, the glitter’s dropping, and she is walking. My heartbeat is racing, oh so bad, and she’s walking next to the door. She gets to the door, she puts it in her pocket, and she walks out. And I knew she was in love, severely in love. She could do nothing without me any more. And I could not be happy. I could not sit. I would raise my hand to any question the teacher asked. I just wanted to be visible. I’d go home, “Mom, can I clean, wash dishes?” I’d do anything. I was so excited.

 That excitement ended a few days later. When I was off to the first protest, for the first time in my life. I see the police standing, in front of a crowd of people, with their guns, aiming in the faces. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Are they going to shoot, or not? Those are the police the military, of my country, they are my people.

 And in the middle of your thoughts, your questioning; Boom! Boom! And they start shooting people. People die. For the first time in my life, I see people dying, blood. Not random people, people I didn’t know, my friend was dying. Before calling on me to run away, Omar run away, but I didn’t run away, I froze in my place. I didn’t know what to do.

 And they took me to prison from there. And they tortured me. And they tried to break me, not only physically, but mentally. To disconnect you from humanity. They see you in pain, but to make sure you are in mental pain, they would force me to torture my favourite person in the world, my cousin. They forced him to torture me, so we would lose our humanity. To lose our love for anything.

 But in that dark cell, I would sit; and although it was terrible, it was sad, it was dark, it was annoying, it was hateful, I was starved; I would have a lot of good moments to think about something beautiful. One month, two months, three months, I was holding images in my head, like a school time, like going to school every day. I would try to remember our home town, I would remember her, sitting behind her, the first time she opened a letter. The first time she threw it in the trash. All these things that were painful, it was beautiful, because it was outside.

 And half a year later I couldn’t see her any more. I couldn’t reconstruct her image in my head any more. I was starved, I was in pain. The only thing I see are people dying. I never seen anyone get out. And I start to lose memories; not only her, but my family. And you start to disconnect from any life outside the prison cell.

 That was fantastic. Because, sitting in a cell, even though its painful and terrible, and sitting in a pose like this is so tiring; you are not surrounded by walls, you are surrounded by other prisoners, a human wall. Those prisoners, none of them are criminals. Those people are well-educated, the top people of your country. They were arrested for that reason, because they are so good, the régime needs to get rid of them.

 Next to me sits a prisoner, who was a doctor. The other side, a psychologist. In front of me, he’s a lawyer. There’s an engineer. What do you think the doctor’s talking to me about? How to survive physically. What does the psychologist talk to me about? How to survive mentally. What do you think the lawyer talks about? Human rights. How we construct a mechanism so we don’t kill each other because it’s starvation, steal each other’s food.

 So everyone was using what they had done in their life, to build a system, so we could survive. Teach the people round them something useful. So instead of being that little boy, seventeen years old in prison, I had no function in life, except for that love I had; suddenly I’m sitting in the darkest place you could ever imagine, and sometimes when it’s the darkest, that’s when it’s easiest to have hope.

 So I would learn everything they teach me. Those people will die, because when a doctor’s sixty years old, and they break his arm or leg, he will die. He won’t heal, because he’s being tortured every day. I could heal faster, and they will teach me everything, because they wanted their legacy to stay alive. They invested in me all the time, because I could physically survive much longer because I was much younger. I heal faster. And the doctor would teach me, and make sure the other prisoner whose arm is broken, I could help them. And the one who is mentally suffering, I have learned so many techniques; I have processed my trauma on a daily basis, I have talked about it. I have managed to find ways to succeed my trauma with a reward. For me, pain was a state with something good I would receive after it, so it would minimise the impact, the pain, that comes out of it, of the torture. And I could teach that to other people.

 That gave me a function, in my life, for the first time. Something useful to do, something important, I was saving lives. When you save life, do you think you feel good about that or not? I was saving so many lives on a daily basis. I was loving my life. I wasn’t loving torture, of course not. But I was used to it, two years later, being tortured on a daily basis, what do you think? You get used to it. Your body is capable of getting used to pain. You can try it yourself, hit your hand fifty times. It hurts the first thirty times. But then you get numb to it. Physically and mentally, over time. So I get numb from that perspective, and I invest in time, because people have decided to invest in me.

 And that’s the power of caring about each other. You cannot survive on your own. In prison, you don’t survive because you are strong. You don’t at all. You survive because you have people around you to protect you when you are at your weakest. Someone to fight for your food when you can’t fight for your own food. Someone to feed you when you feel like you can’t eat. Someone to kick you when you do the wrong thing. That is the only reason you will survive.

 That doesn’t only apply to prison. That applies everywhere. If you don’t have a community of people around you you trust, you have nothing. You wouldn’t survive to have a good life. So that’s the most important thing we’re going to have. And that’s what we try to create for everyone coming out of Syria. Everyone who’s trying to be a witness, everyone who’s trying to bring awareness of suffering. Everyone who’s suffering, coming out trying to share their story. We decided, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, to protect them. To make them trust us. They’re in a safe place, they can share their story, in a way that fits them, their profile, their experiences.

 Not everyone can come publicly the way I do. There’s a risk you take, and some people can not take risks the way I can. If Syria, we’ve had multiple people come out with a lot of evidence, strong evidence. We’ve had evidence of mass graves in Syria. Caesar you’ve already heard of, but also we have the Gravedigger, who was part of the mechanism the régime built to massacre hundreds of thousands of people. And today we have him with us. I want him to say some words in my ear, to say to you, because you’re not allowed to hear his voice for safety reasons.’

 The Gravedigger:

 ‘I was tasked and forced to work for the régime for eight years, opening mass graves, and burying innocent people that had been killed under torture, under starvation, and shot outside in the street for protesting by the Syrian régime; and this eight years, if you listen to the courts who worked out these cases, there are over a million people who have been buried, and that’s just the simple estimates of the brutality of this régime.

 And for eight years, I was not allowed to have a vacation. Because of my family, I could not have a break even for a single day. And every time they brought a truck of dead bodies, a fridge of dead bodies, the régime would give me a list. The list would have the name, the number of dead bodies, the branches, the prisons they were coming from, and the numbers were usually higher than the official numbers. So they would give you 250 on the paper, sometimes it would be 400 people.

 Just like the ones who were alive who were treated with the most brutality, the Syrian régime has even treated the dead body, the corpse, with that brutality. You’re not allowed to show any mercy with those dead bodies when you bring them, you have to throw them in that big hole that you made. Because they wanted to remove any connection between this dead body, and their story, and their life.

 The régime has been an expert in forced disappearance. Including children, who are three months or three years old. And during my time there, I was responsible for burying the bodies of kids who were just a few months old.

 They used to bring children to that location of the mass graves. The children had torture marks, just like the adults. In addition, some of them, their skeleton would be destroyed just by jumping on it with the military shoes of the soldiers.

 I started in 2011, and managed to escape in 2018, and still the régime is creating these crimes.’

Tuesday 3 October 2023

'Left to die': Report exposes horrors at Syria army hospital


 'Syrian authorities abused and left detainees to die at a Damascus military hospital, using the facility to cover up the torture of prisoners, a rights group and former detainees said.

 Sick prisoners sent from detention facilities to the capital's Tishreen Military Hospital for treatment rarely received any medical attention, according to a report released Tuesday by the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), a Turkey-based watchdog.

 Instead, security forces at the hospital jail and even medical and administrative staff inflicted "brutal torture" on detainees, including physical and psychological violence, according to the report titled "Buried in Silence".

 It covers abuses from the start of Syria's war in 2011 to 2020, but the authors said they believe many of the practices persist today.

 Abu Hamza, 43, said he was taken to the jail at the Tishreen hospital three times during his incarceration, but only saw a doctor once.

 "Prisoners were afraid to go to the hospital, because many did not return," said Abu Hamza, who was jailed for seven years, including at the notorious Sednaya prison on the Damascus outskirts.

 "Those who were very sick would be left to die in the hospital lockup," said Abu Hamza, who like others used first names or pseudonyms for fear of reprisals.

 "If we could walk, we'd be sent back to prison," he added.

 ADMSP was founded by former detainees held in Sednaya, Syria's largest jail which has become a by-word for torture and the darkest abuses of the régime.

 In a report last year the group described Sednaya's "salt rooms," primitive mortuaries designed to preserve bodies.

 The latest ADMSP report is based on interviews with 32 people including former detainees, security personnel and medical staff, as well as leaked documents.

 Rights groups have long accused President Bashar al-Assad's government of torturing detainees and executing prisoners without fair trials.

 In 2011, Syrian government forces cracked down on peaceful protesters, triggering a complex war that has left more than 500,000 dead and forced millions to flee.

 Up to one-fifth of that toll died in government-run prisons.

 Some of the horrific images of dead Syrians smuggled out by "Caesar," a defector who had worked as a photographer for the military police, were shot inside Tishreen hospital, according to human rights groups.

 Abu Hamza said guards at the hospital prison "once barged in and ordered us to lie on the ground," beating them for 15 minutes before leaving.

 According to the ADMSP report, inmates who died in custody from torture or poor conditions, particularly at Sednaya, were taken to the Tishreen hospital and then to "mass graves" near the capital.

 Inmates arriving at the hospital were first held "in the same room where bodies of detainees were collected," and sick detainees were forced to help transport prisoners' corpses, the report said.

 Abu Hamza said he was made to toil for hours, barefoot and in the bitter cold, loading bodies into a vehicle at Sednaya prison and then offloading them at Tishreen hospital near its jail.

 There, security forces wrote a number on the corpse or on a piece of paper. A photographer would then take pictures of the dead.

 The ADMSP report said no autopsies were conducted and the hospital issued "death certificates with false information," often citing heart attack, kidney failure or stroke as the cause of death.

 Sometimes inmates "between life and death" were placed among the corpses and left to die or even killed, according to the report.

 Abu Hamza recalled a detainee who was "fighting for his life" in the hospital jail.

 "They did not bring a doctor. Instead, they put him aside, among the corpses. They left him to die," he said.

 The report said a jail officer would sometimes kill very sick detainees, or prisoners would be ordered to take part in doing so.

 Tishreen hospital plays a "central role in enforced disappearances, covering up torture, falsifying the causes of death" and other abuses amounting to "crimes against humanity," said ADMSP co-founder Diab Serriya.

 "What happens inside Tishreen hospital and other military hospitals is a systematic policy" adopted by the authorities, he added.

 A Syrian doctor is currently on trial in Germany accused of torture, murder and crimes against humanity while working in military hospitals in his homeland.

 Lawsuits have been filed elsewhere in Europe, as well as the United States and at the International Court of Justice, against the Syrian government and officials on accusations of torture.

 Mahmud was only 16 when he was jailed in 2014 and sent to Tishreen hospital, where he said other detainees beat him severely.

 "They held me to the ground, stepped on me and covered my mouth … [until] I passed out," he said.

 "I woke up a short time later and found myself among corpses in the corner of the cell," Mahmud said, adding he was taken back to Sednaya prison without receiving any medical attention.

 During the rest of his time in detention, he was too scared to visit a doctor, despite contracting tuberculosis.

 "I could no longer chew food at one point, but I didn't tell anyone so they wouldn't take me back to Tishreen hospital," Mahmud said.'

Monday 11 September 2023

Syrian Economy Continues to Spiral Toward Collapse

 'It was almost as though nothing at all had happened. In May 2023, Arabic leaders welcomed long-ostracized Syrian dictator Bashar Assad back into the fold at the Arab League summit – complete with brotherly kisses, warm embraces and the proverbial red carpet, which skewed violet in this particular case. Syria had been blacklisted in 2011 when the régime in Damascus began shooting at demonstrators, who were still largely peaceful at the time. In the years that followed, Assad’s troops – with the enthusiastic support of first the Hezbollah and then the Iranians and Russians – transformed the rebellious parts of the country into smoking heaps of rubble, killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians and forcing millions more to flee.

 At the summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, though, all seemed to be forgotten – as if it had merely been a minor misunderstanding. Syria was readmitted with the appropriate pomp. "We stand together against the currents of darkness", said Assad, portraying the mass murder he committed to cling to power as a noble undertaking.

 In Syria’s dictatorship, meanwhile, nothing has changed, with mafia-like structures still flourishing in the economy as well. Drug smuggling, in particular to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, continues apace – and all this despite hopes from Arab League member states that welcoming Damascus back into the group might slow down the illicit drug flows.


 Instead, Syria’s ruling family is deeply involved in illegal business dealings. That is illustrated by the case of a Syrian executive whose activities have been uncovered by a team of Syrian and international journalists together with DER SPIEGEL. In early March 2023, the travel agency FreeBird Travel and Tourism announced on its website: "Hello Europe – we’re back." After more than a decade of isolation, the airline Air Mediterranean, flights on which accordingly could only be booked via FreeBird, was offering direct connections to Europe. The first flight from Düsseldorf to Damascus via Athens took place on June 24, and since then the airline has been servicing the route once a week.

 The FreeBird website lists two offices, one in Dubai and another in Athens. The agency is actually registered in the Damascus Free Trade Zone, where no information about company owners is made public.

 FreeBird’s chairman would have remained a secret – had he not gone public himself with the information: Mahmoud Abdullah Aldij, a major player in the transportation industry, both from and to Syria. On Facebook, Aldij presents himself as the head of FreeBird as well as a representative of the Syrian airline Cham Wings, which is on the U.S. sanctions list for transporting both militia fighters and munitions on behalf of the Syrian régime. But it seems that Aldij has made a name for himself in another transport sector as well: as a drug smuggler who, according to investigators, was involved in at least three large shipments of the synthetic stimulant Captagon to Libya. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported on the investigation into Aldij back in 2021.

 In early December 2018, the Greek Coast Guard intercepted the ship Noka in the Mediterranean south of Crete as it was cruising at top speed, later finding more than six tons of hashish and 3.1 million Captagon tablets onboard. The street value of the pills, according to the Greek authorities, was around 100 million euros. The Noka had put to sea from the northern Syrian port of Latakia and was headed for Benghazi in Libya. The dramatic operation was the product of a lengthy investigation, with the Greeks, European investigators say, having been tipped off by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has been intensively monitoring Captagon smuggling from Syria for many years.

 As is the case in most such smuggling operations, the Captagon pills were carefully hidden in containers beneath false floors. According to OCCRP reporting, the Syrian company Altayr, based in Latakia, had booked the shipment of the containers. The company’s director and owner? Mahmoud Aldij, who has both Syrian and Libyan citizenship. His photo and birthdate on his Libyan passport match up with photos and personal information kept in Syrian records. After a tipoff from Greece, Libyan customs officials apparently searched storage facilities that had been rented by Aldij in Benghazi, where they also found large quantities of hashish and Captagon pills.

 For his suspected involvement in the Noka drug smuggling operation, in addition to the discovery of additional illicit drugs in the Libyan port cities of al-Khums and Tobruk, Mahmoud Aldij was sentenced in absentia by an appeals court in Benghazi in July 2019 to death by firing squad. The online publication The New Arab published excerpts of the verdict on its website. In comments to DER SPIEGEL about the verdict from Benghazi, Aldij said that it was part of an intrigue and claimed that powerful Libyans had been trying to extort part of his business from him. "When I refused, I was threatened. The ruling is illegitimate and has been appealed. I am certain that a fair trial will soon take place." According to his statement, his employees were "brutally tortured. They confessed to things and actions we did not do. My name has been attacked through hideous media campaigns by my competitors." However no legal actions was taken against the respective article in The New Arab.

 Still, despite the discovery of the drugs and the incontrovertible evidence turned up by the Greek investigation, the rather barbaric death sentence from Benghazi nevertheless seemed odd. The city is home to General Khalifa Haftar, the de-facto ruler of the eastern half of the civil war-torn country. Haftar maintains excellent contacts to Damascus, and Western investigators believe that he, too, is deeply involved in smuggling people, weapons and Captagon out of Syria. It is, in short, an unlikely place for a Syrian drug smuggler to be sentenced to death.

 Either way, the Benghazi authorities don’t seem particularly set on carrying out the verdict: On his Facebook page, Mahmoud Aldij also claims to be the "exclusive representative for Libya" for Cham Wings, which U.S. officials believe to be deeply involved in operations carried out by the Syrian security apparatus, including the transport to Damascus of foreign mercenaries and money laundering at the behest of the military intelligence agency. Aldij doesn’t deny that he is a Cham Wings representative, but he added the word "exclusive", he says, "only for marketing reasons". He claims to have no ties to General Haftar.

 The booming business with the production and export of Captagon brings in several billion euros in profit every year and has long since exceeded Syria’s legal exports. The Captagon trade is firmly in the hands of the dictator’s family. In an initial trial against those in charge of the foreign smuggling operation in a regional court in Essen, Germany, in 2022, the obviously central role of Maher Assad, who is the dictator’s brother and commander of the Fourth Army Division, became clear from witness statements and intercepted telephone calls. As the Essen case made evident, the division controls transportation to all of the country’s ports, collects money for export permits and also operates its own drug factories. It’s not that the leadership in Damascus simply stands by doing nothing, Joel Rayburn, the former U.S. special envoy for Syria, said at the time: "They are the cartel."

 It is extremely unlikely that Mahmoud Aldij would have been able to ship large amounts of Captagon to Libya without the knowledge and permission of the rulers in Damascus.

 The Greek family of Air Mediterranean’s majority owner also has – through a rather bizarre detour – ties to Syria’s leadership. The last shareholders' meeting lists the brothers Andreas and Fadi-Ilias Hallak as owners of a 51 percent stake in the airline. Their father George was received in June 2021 as a state guest by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad. According to reports from the state-owned Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), George Hallak traveled to Damascus as a special envoy to the president of Guyana, one of the smallest countries in South America. According to SANA, the two affirmed the continuation of bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

 Air Mediterranean presents itself to its foreign customers as an apolitical, European airline. Even as its partner agency Freebird advertises direct flights from Damascus to European cities, the airline itself doesn’t explicitly mention connections from Damascus to cities in Europe. A spokesman for the Düsseldorf airport confirmed: "Air Mediterranean flies to Düsseldorf. From and to Athens. Damascus is never mentioned."

 In May, Assad and his henchmen had high hopes of receiving more than just warm words from the wealthy Gulf monarchies. Damascus was looking for billions in aid to begin the process of rebuilding the destroyed, impoverished country – or at least the two-thirds of Syria over which the régime has regained control.

 But the Arab League wasn’t focused on development aid. The hope was that by reaccepting Syria into the group, stability would improve to the point that millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey would begin returning home.

 In addition, they apparently also hoped to encourage Assad’s régime to put a stop to the illegal smuggling of Captagon pills from Syria, consumption of which has turned into a massive problem in Saudi Arabia and Jordan especially. Even before the summit, Jordan’s government made clear just how important the issue was: After being a primary driver in favor of bringing Syria back into the fold, Jordanian warplanes – just one day after the Arab League’s formal reacceptance of Syria – bombarded the estate of the most powerful drug smuggler in southern Syria, killing him and his family.

 Now, four months later, it is clear that everything has turned out rather differently than expected. The political backing provided by the Arab League has encouraged Assad to resume his military offensive against those regions of Syria that have thus far been able to fend off his attacks. The northern Syrian province of Idlib, crammed with millions of residents and internally displaced persons, was bombed 60 times in just the first few days of September. In the Kurdish-controlled northeast, dozens of people have died in battles. Syria, it would seem, is further away from stability and the voluntary return of refugees than it has ever been in recent years.

 And the country continues its long slide into economic purgatory. Before the summit in Jeddah, the black-market exchange rate of the Syrian pound stood at 7,500 to one U.S. dollar. Since then, it has fallen to 14,000:1. There have also been protests in the southern city of Suwayda after Damascus canceled fuel subsidies there in August. Suwayda is a stronghold of the Druze minority, which have long managed to retain a small degree of autonomy in exchange for loyalty to the Assad régime.

 Meanwhile, Syria’s Captagon production continues apace. According to the U.S. analyst Charles Lister, deliveries of the drug with a street value of around a billion dollars were confiscated within three months this summer in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries in the region. Syria has become a mafia-like network with a flag.

 The country is stuck in a vicious cycle. In order to secure loyalty, Assad’s régime has transformed the country’s already shrunken economy into a criminal conglomerate. Only those who support the dictator are allowed to take part. Syria was always home to plenty of corruption, to be sure, but today, there are no longer any rules at all, say business owners and executives who have left the country.

 The Arab League’s decision to reaccept Syria into its ranks has done nothing to change the situation. On the contrary, Assad’s régime now feels empowered to resume its war and to allow the population in those areas under its control to sink further into poverty. Only those who are linked to or loyal to the ruling family are allowed to participate in the economy.

 For a brief moment, it looked as though the protests in Suwayda might spread to Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. But that hasn’t yet happened. "Anyone who might demonstrate in the country has long since fled, been killed, been locked up or is too afraid", says one Syrian refugee.'