Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Excerpt from “The Home That Was Our Country”
"The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria is a memoir written by journalist and civil rights lawyer Alia Malek about her time living in Syria, her parents’ homeland, from 2011 to 2013, during the start of the Syrian Civil War. In this excerpt, Alia reveals the events that took place during spring 2012, in the early days of the war, as peaceful protests by civilians were countered by violence from the Syrian Armed Forces. She details the pace of life before the Houla Massacre, which steeled the Assad regime’s resolve to “crush” the insurgency, where even small acts of dissent and resistance were cause for detention.
'I would meet many brave, ordinary Syrians, all very different individuals. Many of them didn’t believe in taking up arms, were civically minded, and espoused secular politics. Outside Syria, they would come to be called activists, but at the time, they were simply moved to act because they were horrified by what was happening and couldn’t ignore the suffering of their countrymen. Both the regime and the jihadists would want to eliminate them. In my cell phone and notes, I gave everyone aliases to avoid putting them in jeopardy, should my materials ever be seized by the mukhabarat—or if I was seized myself.
Not long after, I got word that the architecture student I would come to call “Carnations” had been taken for something she had done the evening before. With a few other friends—who were also young women—she had walked around downtown Damascus handing out carnations to pedestrians in the city’s center. Each flower bore a tag that said simply, “Stop the killing.”
The flowers operation had been a few days in the making: four young women were to carry bunches of carnations and hand them out to passersby on the street. They wanted to counter the regime’s image of the activists as terrorists or foreign-paid agents, and they wanted to register some resistance to the regime’s demand that Damascenes act as if nothing were happening in the rest of the country.
On that afternoon, the young women had set out in pairs. Her partner had finished handing out the last of her flowers, and Carnations still had three left and was about to cross a street when an Opel station wagon (they didn’t need to be marked, everyone knew these belonged to themukhabarat) pulled up next to her. Two men with large guns across their bodies jumped in her way.
“We got her,” yelled one of them. “Go find the other.”
But the other woman, without flowers in her hand, wasn’t so easy to spot. She had kept going even though she saw Carnations get stopped. They had agreed beforehand that if one got detained, the other should just walk away.
The man sent to find her returned alone.
“What’s in your hand?” asked the man blocking Carnation’s way.
She nervously laughed and answered, “Flowers.”
He snatched them from her and read the tag. “‘Stop the killing’? Who are you saying that to?” Before she could answer, he told her to get in the car.
“You don’t have a warrant,” she objected. Later, she would giggle at her own courage. “I don’t know where I thought I was! Europe? America?”
“Get in the car!” the mukhabarat man yelled again.
“On what grounds are you taking me?” she challenged him.
“Get in the car, or I will humiliate you on the street and drag you off in front of everyone.”
“Fine, I will walk,” she said, catching the two men so off-guard that they agreed. One man got back into the car, while the other walked alongside with her. They quickly reached the offices of the political affairs mukhabarat.
They took her bag and left her in a waiting room. Her mother and brother were coming to Damascus from Dara‘a that evening for a dentist appointment the next day. She had told them to come a day early so they could go out that night, since in Dara‘a, for safety, they spent a lot of time cooped up at home. Knowing they would soon panic, she was preoccupied with how to tell them she was okay.
After a long wait (though she had no way of telling time), she was led into a room with a man who was seated behind a desk, going through her bag.
“How much did Qatar pay you?” he asked with a heavy Deir al-Zour accent.
“Nothing,” she answered.
“You must be crazy,” he said as he rifled through her things. “Do you think you and your kind can do anything to the government? Think you can make revolution?”
As he flipped through her wallet, he saw she was from Dara‘a. “So you are a terrorist,” he said. And when he found simple blueprints (from a university assignment), he became agitated and suspicious. He asked her what the plans were for.
She was so afraid that she couldn’t stifle her laugh, and told him she was an architecture undergraduate.
“Shut up,” he told her. Then he turned to what he wanted to know. “Who was the girl who was with you?”
At first she denied there was anyone with her. And then she said it was a girl she had just met. He asked for a description, and Carnations said she was a very tall, fair-skinned girl, when in fact she was short and had olive skin. The other young woman had already been taken once, and Carnations didn’t want to give her up. When he asked for a name, Carnations invented one, “Lina.”
For the next several hours (how many she didn’t know) she was taken in and out of different interrogation rooms. Similar questions were asked while she remained standing: Who paid her? Who was the other girl?
Finally she was placed before a man who seemed to be in charge. Referring to the tags attached to the carnations, he asked, “What do you mean, ‘Stop the killing’? Who are you telling to stop?”
“All those killing people,” she said carefully. This is why they had left the tags ambiguous.
“Do you mean the Syrian Army? Do you mean the president?” he urged her.
“Is the president killing Syrians? Is the Syrian Army killing people?” she asked, in a way that turned it back on him for suggesting it.
On hearing this, I was in awe of her composure.
He got angry, hurling insults at her.
She decided to play the part of a vulnerable girl. “I’m afraid,” she said. “Afraid for the country and for the people.”
Seeing she was from Dara‘a, he criticized the town with disgust, calling it the place “where you have your revolution and demonstrations.”
She asked for water and to sit down; both requests were denied.
He wanted her email and Facebook accounts and passwords. She kept two different ones, and one of them was clean in case she was taken.
After he could find nothing incriminating, he said to her, “Do you think you are smarter than me? I know you have another [account].”
“I am a student, in class from morning to night. I don’t have time to be on Facebook all day,” she said.
Then he found a Lina among her Facebook friends. “Is this the Lina that was with you?” he asked triumphantly.
Carnations suppressed laughter. That Lina, from the university, was notoriously pro-regime.
He then moved on to who her father was, and what he did for a living, and whether anyone from her family had ever been in political prison.
Her mother was from Aleppo, which had once stood up to the regime (in the years when I used to come to Syria as a small child). Her maternal uncle had in fact been taken in the 1980s, and they still didn’t know where he was or if he was even alive. She also had a cousin from that side of the family who had been in political prison for ten years. But her interrogator didn’t seem to know, and she didn’t bother to tell him.
They took her back to the first interrogator from Deir al-Zour.
She was finally allowed to sit and drink water. She thought maybe she was going to be released.
“You are so stupid,” he said. “Your father is a respected merchant in Dara‘a. Why are you doing this? Who used you, who got you to participate?” He was sure she hadn’t been capable of deciding to get involved on her own.
Again, she insisted, truthfully, that no one had paid her. “I want to talk to my parents,” she ventured.
“Forget your parents,” he said.
She was taken back to the room where she had been left waiting. Then at some point, maybe after midnight, two men escorted her to a car.
“Are you going to let me go?” she asked.
They started laughing and put her in the car. They then blindfolded and cuffed her and told her to keep her head down. As they drove away, she started to cry.
“Shut up. Don’t lift your head,” one of them yelled. “If you do, you’ll see something you won’t like.”
When they arrived at their destination, her blindfold was removed, and they walked her down some stairs. She saw blood everywhere and then a sight that made her scream and cry. In the room before her, several naked men were hanging from the ceiling and were being flogged.
One of the men doing the whipping came over to her escorts and said, annoyed, “Don’t tell me you’re bringing in a girl now. Wait.”
The tortured men were roughly let down and led out of the room. A woman arrived to search her.
Throughout it all, Carnations wept. She was then taken to a cell and heard them bring the men back and refasten them to the ceiling. The beatings resumed.
The cell she estimated was no more than about three by six feet and smelled of rancid bodily fluids.
Another woman was in there as well; Carnations was aghast—she was eight months pregnant. She told Carnations they were in the Khatib.' "