Friday, 25 March 2016

The surprising ways fear has shaped Syria’s war

 'Syrians’ stories about life before 2011 call attention to a silencing fear that served as a pillar of the authoritarian regimes of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad. People consistently describe a political system in which those who had authority could abuse it limitlessly and those without power found no law to protect them. As one man explained: “We don’t have a government. We have a mafia. And if you speak out against this, it’s off with you to bayt khaltu — ‘your aunt’s house.’ That’s an expression that means to take someone to prison. It means, forget about this person. He’ll be tortured, disappeared. You’ll never hear from him again.”

 A lawyer described a world in which “a single security officer could control an area of 20,000 people holding only a notebook, because if he records your name in it, it’s all over for you.” Undercover spies and pervasive surveillance led parents to warn children not to speak because “the walls have ears.”

 “Nobody trusted anyone else,” a rural dentist noted. “If anyone said anything out of the ordinary, others would suspect he was an informant trying to test people’s reactions.” A drama student joked, “My father and brothers and sisters and I might be sitting and talking . . . And then each of us would glance at the other, [as if to think] ‘Don’t turn out to be from the security forces!’ ”

 A Syrian in exile since childhood noted: “When you meet somebody coming out of Syria for the first time, you start to hear the same sentences. That Syria is a great country, the economy is doing great. … It’ll take him like six months, up to a year, to become a normal human being. To say what he thinks, what he feels. … Then they might start whispering. They won’t speak loudly. That is too scary. After all that time, even outside Syria, you feel that someone is recording.”

 The spread of peaceful protests across the Arab world in 2011 helped launch a dramatically distinct experience of fear as a personal barrier to be surmounted. Syrians who participated in demonstrations explained that, aware of state violence, they never ceased to be afraid. However, they mobilized a new capacity to act through or despite fear. A mother told me that “no amount of courage allows you to just stand there and watch someone who has a gun and is about to kill you. But still, this incredible oppression made us go out … When you chant, everything you imagined just comes out. Tears come down. Tears of joy, because I broke the barrier. I am not afraid; I am a free being.”

 Syrians I meet follow each new crisis, from the Assad regime’s use of newly horrific weapons to the rise of the Islamic State, and lament the fate of a revolution that now fights tyranny on multiple fronts. Nearly all expressed despair with the foreign agendas distorting what began as a popular groundswell for dignity. “Many countries have interests in Syria and they are all woven together like threads in a carpet,” a Free Syrian Army commander shook his head. “We don’t know where this is leading. All we know is that we’re everyone else’s battlefield.” The 20-somethings who led demonstrations count lost comrades with a pain tinged with depression, even guilt. “I belong to the revolution generation, and I’m proud of that,” one young woman explained. “We tried our best to build something. We faced a lot, and we faced it alone. But we lost control. We don’t know what is useful anymore.”

 Many people’s most urgent fear is for their loved ones: children who have lost years of schooling, family scattered among Syria and several other countries, and relatives who have been arrested and never heard from again. A Syrian colleague articulated this fear in reaction to the January 2014 revelation of photographs evidencing systematic torture in regime prisons. “The most difficult part of the torture pictures,” he told me, “is not the decomposed flesh, the starved bodies … or even the knowledge that the torture is both widespread and systematic. These things have always been elements of our Syrian reality. What is so difficult that I do not think we have the strength to overcome is the fear that some of these pictures may show us the body of someone we know and we hope is still alive.”

 In describing how they have experienced the Assad regime before and since 2011, citizens are transforming its power from something too menacing to be named into something whose naming renders it contestable. When a state uses fear to silence subjects, their talking about that fear — articulating its existence, identifying its sources, describing its workings — is itself a form of defiance and an assertion of the will to be free.'

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