Saturday, 5 March 2016

Free City Radio interview — Robin Yassin-Kassab on the book 'Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War'

 "We felt very strongly that the voices of the Syrian people have not been heard. With some great, and valiant exceptions, the media has done a very poor job of reporting what's happening in Syria; and unfortunately the leftist media has been just as bad, if not worse, than the rightist media, in this. As Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, he's quoted in our book as saying, he can't see the difference between the left and the right from a Syrian leftist point of view. So we felt that people approached this from inappropriate grand narratives. They zoomed out so far that they saw in it terms of  a fight between Russia and America, which wasn't actually happening; or between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which it's now become partly about that, but it certainly wasn't when it started; or they think that this is a rerun of Iraq 2003, when it's a completely different situation, there was a popular revolution.

 What's happened is that everyone knows about jihadists cutting people's heads off, and so on, they know about the movements of states, but they don't know about the remarkable things the Syrian people have done. Not many people have asked what are the Syrian people's motivations, what are their fears, hopes; what is their experience of what's happening. So in the book we've tried to amplify the voices of people on the ground. I'll give an example of why it's important before I go on. At the moment, there are over 400 local councils in the liberated parts of Syria - now by liberated I mean the areas that are not under the control of the Assad régime, and are not under the control of ISIS or Daesh or ISIL, I'm not sure what you call them in Canada; in both of those areas there is activism, but it must by necessity happen in secret underground - in the areas that are under the control of other oppositional militias, from Islamists to Free Army groups, in those areas there are over 400 local councils. The communities have organised themselves in those areas in the most difficult of circumstances, with bombs dropping onto them, in some areas under starvation siege. They've held elections, most of these local councils are democratically elected. This is a remarkable story. There's also an explosion of popular culture, of debates, there are over 60 Free newspapers in a country where a few years ago everything was controlled by the state. Lots of Free radio stations. Lots of exciting things that are going on and happening, that we should know about. It's not often you have a real revolutionary situation in history, it's a rare historical moment, and we've kind of missed out on this one, because we've been relying on very poor journalism, and poor assumptions, because we've started from a point where we've been very ignorant about the Middle East in general, and we've missed out on this stuff which is inspiring, and interesting, and necessary for us to learn from.

 At the same time, at the moment, this democratic alternative is being smashed by a full-scale international military assault. Iranian transnational Shia militias on the ground, and Russian planes cluster bombing from the sky. The country is being depopulated. There is another alternative, there was another alternative, but the Western and Eastern states seem to be collaborating in trying to crush this alternative, which we know so little about.

 We've interviewed a lot of people who've been involved in these experiments. We've interviewed a lot of activists, medical practitioners, fighters, organisers, refugees, intellectuals. We've deliberately tried to amplify the voices of revolutionary Syrians, of course that's a range of revolutionary Syrians with a range of different ideas; but we've also tried to give context, because I think without context, you're just left with assumptions and ideology.

 So we've tried to put the whole story, first into a historical context, so we start off with the history of Syria, and go to the Ottoman Empire, and then the French occupation, and then the the short experience of democracy after that, and then the rise of the Ba'ath Party, the militarisation of the Ba'ath party, the rule of Hafez al-Assad, and the neo-liberal economic reforms of the son, Bashar al-Assad; and then the revolution, how it started. How is was a wide-ranging, largely, entirely leaderless, a popular movement that involved people of all sects and backgrounds, and how that was savagely repressed, how the régime deliberately provoked a civil war and a sectarian war.

 Which sounds strange to people. Why on Earth would the régime do that? Well, they did it because they've done it before. They did it in the late 70s, when there was a movement of leftists and nationalists and liberals and Islamists against them. It wasn't a huge popular revolution like 2011, but it was a movement, and they crushed it so ruthlessly that by 1982 all that was left was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who staged an uprising in the city of Hama, and then the régime had a war situation, which they could deal with. They went in and smashed the city, and killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood, and left Syrians silent for the next three decades until 2011.

 So they wanted to replicate this, and how did they do it? at the same time they were rounding up tens of thousands of peaceful, non-sectarian democratic activists for death by torture, in the Spring of 2011 they were also releasing thousands of Salafist jihadist terrorists from prison. People that they'd helped to go to Iraq after 2003 to fight the Americans, but more to the point, to fight the Shia population there, which helped to start the civil war there; when these jihadists came back from Iraq, the Assad régime put them all in prison, and kept them there until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, when it needed them again, so it sent them out. During the Spring of 2012 there was a string of sectarian massacres, organised by the régime, in the area between Homs and Hama; it was designed to create a sectarian Sunni backlash which would then in turn terrify the minority Alawi community, which the régime relies on, because 80% of the officers in the army are Alawis, because the heads of the intelligence services are Alawis.

 When we talk about context, we talk about the sectarianisation and the Islamisation, and then how foreign jihadist groups who had nothing to do with Syria exploited the chaos and came in. And how then how they were allowed to grow, because it got to the situation we are in now, where President Assad is saying, "look the choice in Syria is now between me and the mad jihadists." Most states in the world, and lot of the public in the world, because they think that is the only alternative, between him and the mad jihadists, the they think, yes we should accept what the Iranians and Russians are doing, we should maybe even help Assad get control of the country from these mad head cutters. But it was he who created the conditions for the head cutters to come in. It was his scorched Earth that helped them to come in. It was his effective non-aggression pact with ISIS for years which allowed them to grow.

 Even today, over 80% of Russian bombs are not falling on ISIS, they are falling on the opposition to both Assad and ISIS. The people who have driven ISIS out of their areas before. The people that we need for any kind of serious solution in Syria, these are the people being eliminated at the moment, having the Hell bombed out of them, hundreds of thousands of new refugees to add to the more than 11 million already displaced. More than half the Syrian population. It's an enormous and expanding tragedy, and the west, through the leadership - if that's what you would call it - of the United States, Obama and John Kerry, have effectively handed Syria over to Russia and Iran. In the name of disengagement from the Middle East, which did seem like a good idea when Obama arrived in power after the Bush experience, but his done it in such a precipitous and dangerous way that takes no account of the democratic movements and revolutions in the region, the hopes of the people there, and all he's ended up doing is handing over Syria and Iraq, in effect, to even more savage imperialist powers, Russia and Iran in this case, which sadly has become a regional imperialist, and the end result is that it is such a Hell, such a mess has been formed in these two countries, the United States is not disengaged at all, it's there bombing the Hell out of Syria and Iraq, but it's bombing the symptoms, and not the cause. It's allowing the Russians to set the terms, as it' is bombing the democratic nationalist opposition, the only hope for a long-term serious settlement of the problem.

  I think the proportion of leftists who were released from prison in 2011 was very, very small, in relation to the number of jihadists. The word jihad in English only has negative connotations. When you talk about a jihadist, it immediately sounds like someone who cuts people's heads off, in order to impose a very extreme and puritanical version of an Islamic state.  In Arabic the word 'jihad' just means struggle or effort. That's why you find Christian Arabs who have the name Jihad sometimes. It's a very positive word. Islamically, it means a spiritual struggle, so the first meaning of jihad is a struggle against the baser elements of your self, the struggle to be a better person, the struggle to be honest, the struggle to be a good parent, a good husband, this kind of stuff is the traditional understanding of the main meaning of jihad. Of course throughout history it has also had a warlike meaning, something that approximates to the English translation of 'holy war', and at times it's been used as a propaganda word for Muslim armies taking over other places. In the current situation I think when we are talking about the Islamists in Syria, we have to recognise there is a huge range of Islamists; and in the world, 'Islamism' is a very vague thing. It's the notion that some aspects of Islam should be applied in some way to social and political organisation. You even have some, though it's a few, leftists versions of Islamism, there's a feminist version of Islamism, there are anarcho-Islamists; these are little minority groups, but they exist, so it's a wide-ranging thing.

 Now, in Syria, in terms of the militias fighting, firstly we have the Free Army groups, who I think are the people who should be getting much more consistent support, and should be allowed to have anti-aircraft weapons to defend their people from this terrible aerial assault. Those people have no political agenda other than to get rid of this régime, to defend people against the régime and its foreign backers, and then to arrive at a situation in which the Syrian people themselves can decide what happens next through some kind of democratic process.

 After that you've got a group of militias who are collectively known as the Islamic Front. The most famous include Jaish al-Islam, the leader Zahran Alloush was recently killed by a Russian airstrike in the Damascus suburbs. Jaish al-Islam is strongest in some of the Damascus suburbs, in the Ghouta area. And then we also have a group called Ahrar al-Sham, which is Turkish backed. It operates mainly in the North of Syria. It's probably the most extreme of these ones in the Islamic Front. Now, the position of many revolutionaries with regard to these Islamic groups is that they are both counter-revolutionary and revolutionary at the same time. It's very complicated. In this war situation, people like me feel torn by an obvious contradiction. On the one hand, supporting these organisations in their fight against the régime and its foreign backers, and in defending their communities, which is what they're trying to do. And we recognise that they are Syrians, these are Syrian organisations, not foreign organisations, and they do have a constituency, they do represent some Syrians. They also allow local councils, women's centres, free newspapers, in the areas controlled by Syrian Islamic militias, this kind of democratic civil society is allowed to continue. There are obvious exceptions. The biggest exception is the case of the Douma 4, where four revolutionary and human rights activists, primarily Razan Zaitouneh, who our book is dedicated to, were abducted, almost definitely by Jaish al-Islam, this Islamic Front militia, in Douma, in the Damascus suburbs, and we've never seen anything of these four since. Of course, Jaish al-Islam denies doing it, they say it was the régime, or some other group, it wasn't them, but the families of these activists, and the friends of these activists, people who know, are convinced it was Jaish al-Islam. So there are these terrible authoritarian tendencies, and they've made very sectarian comments at times, which helps Assad by continuing to alienate scared minority groups from the revolution. So in this sense they are counter-revolutionary, but as I've said, they are much better than either Assad or ISIS. In a war situation, people will put up with this kind of people, and we would hope that in a future where the régime is gone, and the bombing has stopped, the civilian councils, which are allowed to operate in these areas, will call for the disarmament of such militias, and as they consist of Syrian men who are of the people, I hope they would listen.

 Now I have to go on to the transnational salafist jihadists, who have a global agenda, not just a Syrian agenda, and there are two of them. There is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the Syrian wing of al-Qaida, it is al-Qaida. And then there is ISIS, or Daesh. These two, of course, are at war with each other, and ISIS is at war with everybody. It's at war with the Free Army, with the Islamic Front, with Jabhat al-Nusra, with al-Qaida, and the states in the region, and the world. I think ISIS, because it's apocalyptic, and millenarian, and at least its propaganda is that these are the End of Days, and its declared war on everybody. It doesn't have a Syrian constituency. It's trying to engineer one, by brainwashing children in schools and so on at the moment, but it doesn't have a Syrian constuency, It's an occupation force, though many Syrians have joined up for various reasons, because they see no option, or whatever. But because it has declared war on everybody, I think that everybody will finally defeat it. If you could stop the chaos in Syria, it would naturally be defeated by the people, if you stop the bombing, and so on. Jabhat al-Nusra, traditional al-Qaida if you like, is a different matter. It has learned a lot of lessons from its past experiences, and it's been very intelligent in Syria in not trying to impose total control in certain areas. It's working in coalition with other militias, it's working inside communities. There are women's centres, for example, that are open in towns where the dominant militia is Jabhat al-Nusra. They've sometimes made trouble, but in general they haven't, because they're embedding themselves deeply in Syrian society, they're showing the tormented Syrian people, "Look, no-one has come to your aid, now the West is openly collaborating with the régime, it's agreeing with the Russian and foreign onslaught on you, and we are here as your Muslim brothers from all over the world to support you."

 That's why they are better rooted in Syrian society, because no-one has sent any anti-aircraft weaponry, which would be more useful than millions and millions of pounds of charity, to the Free Army, to help them defend their communities from this constant aerial bombardment, but Muslims from all over the world have turned up and said we're willing to help. So that's a long-term danger, the abandonment of the Syrian people by the states of the world, but also by the left, who often believed silly conspiracy theories about it, and didn't engage, and didn't find out what was actually happening. And then Islamists came from abroad, and actually engaged. As a result, they've got a stake on the ground now, sadly. This is very dangerous for the Syrian people, because some of the Syrian people are Islamists, and have different ideas about different kinds of Islamic state. To some Syrian ears, the notion 'Islamic state' doesn't mean head cutting and amputations, it means good, honest, clean government, and moral government. So there are Syrians who are Islamists, but I think the vast majority of Syrians, what they would like, and we're so far from this, is a society in which they can choose, and nobody will impose upon them. What these foreign jihadist groups have in common with the Assad régime, and Russia, and Iran, and the powers of the world, is that they don't want democracy in Syria, they don't like revolutions, they don't want people organising themselves, they don't want people making their own decisions. They want to impose their ideas by force. So Syrians are now at war with all forms of authoritarianism, and it's not a struggle that is well understood, which is why we wrote the book."

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Louder than bombs: Syrians take to the streets, again

Louder than bombs: Syrians take to the streets, again

 'Saturday's ceasefire has given residents of "free" areas a rare respite from war and allowed civil movements to re-emerge from the periphery of Syria's war. Over the past five days, activists and residents have taken to the streets in rebel-held towns to protest against the regime. They also reaffirmed their commitment to freedom and democracy, and called for rebel unity.

 Many of these colourful protests were led by the same activists who organised demonstrations in 2011, but were later made impossible due to regime sniper fire, mortars and bombs. "The people want the downfall of the regime," people chanted on the streets of Damascus' suburbs this week, just as they did during the early days of the revolution in 2011.

 "In many ways it wasn't surprising, because I've often thought that if the bombs stop falling civil society may regain its former place in the movement," said Leila al-Shami, a British-Syrian writer who co-authored Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War"But it's amazing to see Syrians' strength and courage and their unwavering commitment to be free. It's also good to see women taking to the streets in some areas. They've often said that the security situation has prevented them from doing so."

 The Syrian regime has sought to exterminate these sights from the eyes of the world, since pro-democracy, peaceful and civilian protests sprung up across the country five years ago. Mass rallies calling for reforms in 2011 were broken up with broken skulls, when riot police charged into the peaceful crowds. Later, bullets did the job, and led brave soldiers to defect their posts and join the demonstrators. 

 Damascus had sought legitimacy by portraying itself as a secular government protecting Syria's mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity. When mentioned in the media, Syrian opposition and rebel groups are often faithfully affixed with "Sunni", "Islamist", "extremist" and occasionally "terrorist". Meanwhile, Damascus bolstered the ranks of its army which was decimated by defections. Shabiha gangs, Shia militias and Iranian troops have now transformed the so-called Syrian Arab Army into a confederation of theistic tribes and thuggish militias.

 The protesters' calls were not for sectarian-tinged revenge, or even sharia law, but stayed true to the original principles of the revolution - freedom for all, and oppression by none. When the bombing and fighting ends for good in Syria we might see a country emerge from the ashes that people hoped for in 2011. But at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead. Yet the past week has shown that it is possible for Syrians to overcome the nightmares they have experienced, and perhaps one day their differences will become the building blocks for a better, stronger and united Syria.'

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Genocide in Syria

 'Children are often collateral damage but Assad’s deliberately targeting children makes Syria “disturbingly unique.”
 War Child UK released, Syria: A War on Childhood, documenting how Assad’s forces take children from their parents, schools and communities and transfer these children to detention centers or military units for use as human shields. The children are brutally tortured, raped, and murdered. “Children and young people have been summarily massacred; illegally detained; sexual abused; used in combat; abducted and tortured; denied schooling and access to humanitarian aid; and deliberately targeted in violent attacks.”
 In November 2011 the UN’s Human Commissioner for Human Rights (HRHC) presented a detailed report on Syria. Over 223 people were interviewed. Anal rape of young boys, the summary execution of a two year old girl, and the severe torture of young children resulting in death were all documented.   In March the High Commissioner said, “They have gone for the children… in huge numbers. Hundreds detained and tortured… it’s just horrendous.” In June the Commission released a second report documenting the massacre in Al-Houla were children and women were executed in their homes. In Homs parents were forced to watch the rape of their daughters.
 In July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, based on over 200 interviews, detailing Syrian state torture centers where children are detained.  In June HRW reported children were being shot in head and raped. One witness from the Latakia state torture center said “one boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn’t walk. It was something they just did to the boys.”
 The government is slaughtering our children.
 When asked why he defected, a former Syrian Army Captain responded “the government is slaughtering our children.” Six independent bodies confirm this.
 The false-fuzziness “we’re not really sure if it is a genocide” is the by-product of self-serving politicians more interested in political careers and elections than upholding international humanitarian law. The legal definition of genocide, however, is remarkably clear. It has been met in Syria. How long will the world stand by and watch?'

Assad vows to 'do our part' on holding Syria ceasefire

 'The ceasefire has brought relative calm to swathes of territory in Syria's north, south, and around the capital, where civilians were back on the streets demonstrating against the regime. In the besieged rebel town of Daraya, near Damascus, dozens of young men chanted against the government and carried signs reading "Daraya will not kneel!"

 "Of course we're going to seize this opportunity (to protest) because the rest of the time there were constant barrel bombs and shelling," said activist Shadi Matar.
 "There are much fewer airplanes, which is very good... (But) there's still artillery, mortar fire, and we hear the planes flying above us," said Hasaan Abu Nuh, an activist in the flashpoint town of Talbisseh. "People still have the same routine -- they still go down to the shelters when they hear the planes."
 Speaking in Washington, top NATO General Philip Breedlove said Russia and Syria had turned the refugee crisis into a "weapon" against the West.
 "Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve," he told US lawmakers.'

Living Under Assad's Siege, Again

smaer abu amr

 'The Assad regime's brutal murder campaign on Syria has destroyed my life back home. Four years ago, I had a lot of dreams that I planned to implement in my hometown. Today, I write this plea as a refugee who has lost family members to indiscriminate bombs and arbitrary detainment.

 My name is Ameenah and I am 25 years old, yet somehow I feel much older. I have experienced the siege on Moadamiyeh by Assad's forces in 2013. It's an experience I can never forget. To be besieged means to see tears and depression. You see grown men and women crying because they are not able to feed their starving children. You hear the voices of the children at night crying, unable to sleep because of the piercing pain of hunger.

 Moadamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus, has been part of the Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad and has suffered from the regime's oppression and violence since. On December 25, 2015, 45,000 residents of the city were placed under a strict siege, surrounded by Syrian regime forces and its allies.

 The December 2013 truce stated that the regime had to release all the detainees from Moadamaiyeh, uphold a ceasefire in fighting, allow all the employees and students from Moadamiyeh to go back to their work\study, remove all of the regime's forces who had surrounded the city almost since mid-2011, and open all the crossings to the city.

 Though I was able to escape during this brief truce in Dec 2013, the agreements outlines under the ceasefire were never honored by the regime. The regime ended up only opening the crossings to the town for a few months; arresting more than 200 civilians who tried to get in and out of the town during that period. Meanwhile, people were allowed to bring in food, but only in specific amounts that were only enough for one or two days.

 To make this nightmare even worse, of my immediate family who are still alive, they have been besieged now for the second time in the last 4 years by the Assad regime - at risk of dying from starvation and cold. And despite our phone calls and their messages of reassurance, I know that any attempts to save them are not in my control. It requires international intervention to stop Assad's belligerence. Unfortunately, we Syrians have learned the hard way not to place faith in humanity after the international community has failed over and over again to support us with even the most basic amount of dignity.'

Monday, 29 February 2016

The Morning They Came for Us review – unsparing account of Syrians’ suffering

Homs, Syria, one of the many flashpoints in a protracted and bitter civil war.

 'When I chaired an English PEN committee that campaigned on behalf of imprisoned writers, I heard first-hand about the torture that went on in the country’s prisons. One of the most notorious jails was close to Palmyra, where opponents of the government had their joints ripped apart on a horrific instrument of torture called the “German chair”. I used to wonder what would happen when decades of this brutal repression became intolerable and ordinary Syrians rose against Assad.

 The answer turned out to be an extraordinarily savage civil war. It is a story that encompasses a massive refugee crisis and a whole series of war crimes, including rape of the regime’s opponents, male and female alike, and the use of chemical weapons. Now Russia’s entry into the conflict appears to have turned the odds in President Assad’s favour, while causing significant civilian casualties.
 What life is like for ordinary Syrians who have stayed behind is the subject of Janine di Giovanni’s heartbreaking book.
 A young woman called Nada, who carried medical supplies to opposition fighters and broadcast reports calling for a democratic Syria, describes how she received a panicked phone call from a friend, telling her he had been arrested. “Can you get here right away?” he begged. “They want to talk to you, too.”
 It was a pre-arranged signal, giving Nada time to run, but she had nowhere to go. She destroyed anything that might incriminate her, but it made no difference when the knock came in the early morning, two days later. Nada spent the next eight months being tortured and made to listen as other prisoners were stripped, beaten and forced to drink urine. She was also raped, something confirmed by one of her friends, although Nada herself is unable to talk about it.
 Di Giovanni confronts the nightmarish subject of sexual violence as a means of terrorising prisoners early in this extremely harrowing book. Her account of rapes in Assad’s prisons is unsensational but unsparing, a tone she maintains when she meets Hussein, a student. Hussein was never a fighter but that didn’t stop him being arrested and his story about being tortured by men who described themselves as doctors is too graphic to repeat. He survived only because another doctor took pity on him, certifying him dead so he would be taken to the morgue, where a nurse helped him escape.'


A boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueA boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueA boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueImage result for A boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosque

 'The sound of the azan marked the end of fasting and the beginning of the barrel bombs. Throughout Ramadan the crude bombs—oil barrels packed with explosives and metal—had been dropped from helicopters at the start and end of each day’s fasting, intending to strike while people gathered. One night, a barrel bomb hit while people were gathered at the Ansari mosque. Fifteen people were killed and several wounded.

 One day we met the First Brigade’s media activist at his home. First Brigade was one of the largest and most powerful Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo. On the floor was body armor, torn to shreds. The media activist who had once worn it survived the bullet to his torso, but not the one that hit him in the face. At least six Syrian citizen journalists had been killed over the last few days, either on the front or from barrel bombs. The body armor would be refitted and reused again by another media activist or fighter.

 Jaysh al Fatah (“The Army of Conquest”), a large rebel operation, had conquered Idlib, a large city west of Aleppo, and were swiftly moving south towards Latakia and Hama, where Abdul happened to be working in the operational command based in a hospital in Jisr Shughour, a nearby town. Seeing another opportunity to flee, Abdul escaped and began negotiations with the rebels for his surrender. Al-Nusra Front accepted him, and he was able to contact Nasser and his family who lived on the rebel side of Syria. After a month of detention, Nusra decided that Abdul could return to his family.

 It was rare, after years of war, for people to stay positive. Wiam, on the other hand, bore a streak of cynicism. She was Kurdish, from Homs, and was there during the early days of the war. She documented everything with her camera. She started with the early protests, and then when everything went to shit she found herself filming the regime firing mortars into the crowds.

 When Homs fell, she was invited to speak in France and elsewhere about what was happening. Everything seemed to fall on deaf ears. Wiam disliked the Islamists because they were obliterating any sense of freedom in her country. Women in Syria had been able to choose whether to wear a headscarf or not. They could choose to work or study. Now Wiam was often told to wear a black abaya. She refused.

 The orphanage was huge, home to more than 800 children. Most of the orphans’ fathers had lost their lives fighting with the Free Syrian Army. One of the first trips I made to Syria was to find an Australian kickboxer named Roger Abbas, who had reportedly been killed in Aleppo by a regime sniper. As I followed his trail, I learned that he had been working in the camps of Baba Salam before joining the fight in Aleppo with the FSA. When you see the living conditions of the children here, the hundreds of refugees fleeing, the bombings, it seemed to me that it would be easy to pick up a weapon and fight.

 We made it to Kafranbel on a Friday. Helicopters were in the air, so the protest was on hold. We made it to the radio station and met the organizer of the protest. He showed us the posters and the banners, which ridiculed the regime, ISIS, and American policy. One featured Assad feeding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, drawn as a baby drinking from a milk bottle filled with the blood of Syrian civilians.

 On the way back to Idlib, I fell asleep in the back of the pickup and woke to the sight of regime flags. The pickup stopped at the front of a government office. It was an empty husk of a building. A large, torn poster of Assad flapped in the wind. The battle had only lasted a week, and the government was driven out. Jaysh al Fatah now controlled the city.

 Civilians were returning to Idlib. A coffee house was being built and the marketplace was being stocked. A Corolla taxi rolled into town with bedding and luggage attached to the roof. With so many leaving Syria, there were still a few returning to their lives at home. The battle in the city was rather quick, and the visible damage wasn’t as bad as Aleppo.
“We will stay,” a man who had returned to the city with his wife and children said to me as they were unpacking. “There might be nothing left. We might be bombed. We might be gassed by chemicals, but I would rather be home than to be miserable without my homeland. We live and die in Syria.”
 We spent mornings monitoring the helicopters. We heard radio reports of the neighborhoods they flew over. Each helicopter could carry two or three barrel bombs, depending on the weight. The larger ones were about 500 kilos of packed explosives and shrapnel. Between 6 a.m. am to 10 a.m. they would do two or three runs. The White Helmets sat ready and waiting for the reports to come in. Several bombs dropped, but there were no casualties; some didn’t explode.
 Most of the medical equipment at the hospital was from the 1970s. It had been targeted several times before and had to constantly change its location. Many of the doctors had fled Syria; the few who stayed could now be counted on two hands. They worked tirelessly with the wounded.
 “The regime punishes us. It makes us want to flee Syria,” a surgeon told me as he prepped for another patient. “If we leave, we never want to come back. There is nothing left for us.”
 Later, we went to the blood bank. It had narrowly avoided the wrath of a regime barrel bomb, and a large hole now took the place of a window. The manager was happy to see us, so happy that he set us up to give blood while giving an interview. “If I had a message for the West but also the whole world: If you have the power to stop the war in Syria, do it,” he said. “If you can’t, please do not fan the flames of war.”
 The next day we visited a school. It was hidden away in the marketplace. The classes were filled and the teachers running it were women. Zeina, the head principal, allowed us to walk around and see the classes, each filled with children.
 “At first, we were too afraid to send our children to the schools because of the barrel bombs,” she said. “But now we send them. Bashar al-Assad, he wants the next generation to be ignorant, illiterate. He bombs us into fear, he makes us flee, we lose our heritage, we lose our culture, we lose our religion. The fear we have is ingrained into our children.” '