Saturday, 24 November 2018

Raed Fares: Kfar Nabl rebel writing his last signs with blood

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 'Seven years have elapsed since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. During this period of time, the peaceful activist Raed Fares did not stop protesting and demonstrating against the Syrian regime. He wrote the signs that he held during these demonstrations and organized the peaceful movement for which his city in rural Idlib, Kafr Nabl, has become well-known. Despite the threats he was exposed to, in these recent years, he insisted on staying in Syria, calling to overthrow the regime, and to reject the authority of the militant groups.

 Fares was assassinated along with his fellow activist Hammod Junaid by hooded men in the center of Kafr Nabl, and the news of his “martyrdom” became a grim day in Idlib. The way he was linked to the Syrian revolution and his impact throughout the years he spent fighting for peaceful activity give the impression that the revolution ended with the news of his assassination, especially with the attention that was drawn to Idlib recently and the attempts to portray it as a black spot away from any peaceful civilian movement.

 Born in 1972, he was known as the “famous sign designer” in Kafr Nabl. He was one of the prominent activists who committed themselves to taking part in demonstrations against the Syrian regime since the first day of the revolution until today.

 Fares was the director of the local radio station “Fresh,” which criticizes militant groups, including the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. He was chosen as information officer for Kafr Nabl signs, and also the director of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

 On the other hand, Junaid works as a photographer and has documented the events of the revolution and bombing over the past years.

 Fares studied at the Faculty of Medicine in Aleppo. He started in 1990 and left after three years for personal reasons. He later moved between Lebanon and Syria, and occupied himself with several things, including trade and handling transactions.

 Raed’s name stood out in March 2011, when he was active with his fellow, lawyer Yasser al-Saleem. Speaking of the spark that ignited the signs of Kafr Nabl, Raed said during an interview with Enab Baladi in July 2012 that the spark of revolutionary movement and the propaganda lies of Addounia TV channel (pro-regime) were both the main reasons behind the emergence of the idea of signs.

 Originally from Kafr Nabl, Raed refused several international offers to leave Syria. Despite being threatened with assassination, he insisted on staying in Idlib. An assassination attempt by unknown people who shot him in 2014 put his life at risk. Back then, he was taken to the hospital and underwent a sensitive chest surgery.

 The assassination attempt coincided with threats from al-Nusra Front, which repeatedly raided the headquarters of Fresh radio station where he worked in the early years of the Syrian revolution.
Al-Nusra Front, which has been merged into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has arrested Fares twice, first in 2014 with the photographer Hammod Junaid at a checkpoint in Maarat al-Nu’man, and the second time when he was with activist Hadi al-Abdullah in 2016 while they were at the radio station in Kafr Nabl.

 During a previous interview with Enab Baladi, Fares said that “the pressure exercised by al-Nusra front was overwhelming. Therefore we had to stop.” He also clarified that the girls working in Fresh radio station and the music played during programs were excuses for al-Nusra to shut the radio station down.

 Together with dozens of activists in Kafr Nabl, Fares was able to make it one of the most important cities interested in the affairs of the revolution and distinguished by its civil activity that was characterized by paintings and signs. These have caught the attention and were displayed in the most famous exhibitions, for they reflected a peaceful state aiming to express the Syrians’ point of view.

 He was “modest” and always caught on camera during demonstrations in Idlib, along with his comrades. Some of them were martyred, such as photographer Khalid al-Issa, while others were arrested. The most notable figure was lawyer Yasser al-Saleem, who was arrested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham when he was at home in Kafr Nabl in September 2018.

 Since the arrest of al-Saleem, Fares has been calling for his release from the prisons of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. In early 2018, he posted on Facebook: “keep going with this hatred and continue igniting the strife, but I warn you that Kafr Nabl (…) is patient but when furious it will defend its children like a lioness and a roaring fire.”

 Fares also stated that his friend al-Saleem was arrested while he was home because he spoke up and expressed his opinion. He is neither a criminal nor a murderer, but was arrested only because he expressed himself.

 During an interview with “al-Ghad al-Arabi” in 2014, in the US, Fares sported the shirt he came wearing from Kafr Nabl, saying that he represents the people. He talked about the media work in the north of Syria, and that “media professionals, activists and journalists have become a target assuming the responsibility of protecting the Syrian revolution.”

 Fares also declared that fulfilling achievements during revolution needs “sacrifices.” He pointed out that “the revolution destroyed al-Assad’s farm, but the homeland will be left for the Syrians to live in.”

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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Syria's Druze reject Assad's call to serve

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 'Nearly eight years into the Syrian war, Selim still refuses to perform his military service, just like many fellow Druze from Sweida province rejecting the régime's conscription call.

 "I don't want to get involved in the Syrian bloodbath," said the 27-year-old, who gave a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

 The Sweida region south of Damascus is the Syrian heartland of the country's Druze minority which follows a secretive offshoot of Islam.After the anti-government protests that sparked Syria's war in 2011, the Druze obtained a de facto exemption from military service in exchange for their tacit support of the régime.

 Last week however, Bashar al-Assad urged the minority, which accounted for around three percent of Syria's pre-war population, to send its young men to the army.

 After rotating out some very long-serving conscripts, the régime is looking for fresh blood to beef up its ranks and exercise real control over the swathes of land it reconquered from the opposition.

 Assad's appeal came after the government helped release, earlier this month, a large group of Druze civilians who had been taken hostage by ISIS in Sweida.

 His call appeared to terminate a deal whereby the Druze were allowed to organise their own militia rather than serve in the army, but its implementation could prove tricky.

 "I don't want to have to kill the people of Hama, the people of Homs or any other province, for the sake of keeping one man in power," Selim said by phone from Sweida.

 "The army is your grave," said the young man, explaining that the lack of a time limit on conscription during war means recruits will not be able to know when they can return home.

 To be on the safe side, Selim never leaves Sweida, a province in southern Syria that borders Jordan and where the Syrian security services have a limited presence.

 Young Druze men have in recent years enlisted in local militia to protect their region from jihadists and the régime's interests.

In July, Selim was among hundreds of other residents who took up arms to pin back ISIS after a series of attacks that left at least 260 people dead.

 During the assault, the deadliest to have hit the Druze community since the start of the war, the jihadists kidnapped about 30 people, mainly women and children.

 The last of the surviving hostages were released on November 8, leading to Assad's demand that the Druze contribute to the national war effort.

 "The régime is trying to tell us: it's Daesh or the military service," said Selim, using a acronym for the Islamic State group.

 Khattar Abu Diab, a Paris-based professor of political science and a specialist in Druze affairs, said Assad was attempting to intimidate the minority.

 "He wants to use the residents of Sweida as cannon fodder for future battles," he said.

 Sweida was mostly spared by the deadly Syrian conflict.

 Residents on several occasions in 2014 besieged detention centres to obtain the release of men who had been rounded up to join the army.

 At the time the central government was at its weakest, stretched very thin on many fronts and had humoured the Druze not to risk opening up another.

 That level of autonomy now comes at a cost for Sweida, where security is all but guaranteed by the presence of the Syrian police.

 Some residents see a deliberate government effort to maintain a level of chaos in the province.

 "The régime uses other means to punish Sweida: the Islamic State instead of barrel bombs, crime and disorder instead of arrests," activist Hamam al-Khatib said.

 Around 30,000 Druze men are liable for military service.

 ISIS fighters who had been holding out in the volcanic area of Tulul al-Safa, between Damascus and Sweida, finally retreated last week after heavy régime bombardment and a government-negotiated deal.

 Regardless of the agreements being cut in Damascus and by their leaders, Druze youngsters willing to serve in the national army are hard to come by.

 "The war just keeps going on ... we are not killing machines," said Uday al-Khatib, a 25-year-old Sweida resident. "Yes, the Sweida youth don't do military service, I'm one of them, but we are the ones who pushed back ISIS and the army didn't help us." '

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‘We Do Not Ask. We Act’: A Syrian Women Activist Tells It Like It Is

 'When the Syrian Revolution started, I couldn’t look anywhere else. And I saw that there were very few women at the forefront or being seen. So a few of my friends and I started talking about how to get more women included in the talks that were happening. This was back in 2011, even before the armed groups had changed the nature of the conflict.

 When the Syrian National Coalition was established, they actually came to me and said that they wanted more women in. And I agreed to join them, with the understanding that I would work on the inclusion of women in the peace process and in all talks about Syria. I thought it would be an easy job, but it’s proven to be very difficult. It’s not just a Syrian issue; it’s a global issue that women are not present at the tables and aren’t part of the political scene. Because of that, I became part of a group of women that wanted to do something different. We started the Syrian Women’s Political Movement last year. It’s a movement that addresses all the issues the general opposition is not addressing: inclusion of women, women’s rights and a feminist foreign policy perspective.

 Being included in bodies that already exist has proven to be very difficult. You’ve got a woman here and a woman there, but we’re not systematically included. For the last six years, we have tried different ways of how to be included. One way was to form our own advisory group within the opposition, following the model the UN created with the Women’s Advisory Board to Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria at the time. But in practice we found that this further marginalized women because they may be consulted, but they’re not sitting at the table. They’re actually not even in the room. They’re only involved in ways men define.

 And as much as I respect the Syrian Negotiation Commission, within it, the military forces were positioned to have the loudest voice. It became very apparent that we, as Syrian women, needed to come together in one front — because the whole of us together is so much stronger and influential than the sum of our parts working separately.

 We are going to get pushback, of course. Let’s say I’m sitting comfortably in a chair. It’s not human nature that I stand up and let someone else sit down. You go in the New York City subway and you see it. There could be a pregnant woman looking for a seat, and most of the time nobody stands up for her. No one’s going to give you their seat. You have to talk to them, and say: “Hey, maybe we can share the seat. Maybe I can take the leading seat here, and you can watch a little bit from the side.”

There are different tactics that we can use. But it is a fact about the world that it’s difficult for somebody with privileges to give up those privileges. So, we do not ask. We act.

I need to be honest that at the beginning I thought maybe it was a good thing for women to have a formal advisory role. But it was done, as the UN has done so often in the past — as much as I respect that institution — with the view that women are one single entity who can sit at the same table with different political opinions, and should come up with wonderful solutions by finding the common denominator. But mostly, this was a mistake because it made women just advisers.

We created a different kind of advisory committee for the opposition, which I was a part of. In hindsight, however, that committee also became a systematic way to marginalize women. So, we dissolved that committee, and now with the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, we work to include more women in the negotiation committees that already exist.

It’s not about land. The media talks about what the régime has, and what the opposition has, who are the allies to the régime, and who are the allies to the opposition; they focus on this dichotomy. But they leave out the civilians, who started the revolution and continue to be engaged on the ground.

When Syrians came out to the streets, we had zero land. The conflict originally started with people resisting a régime that imprisoned, tortured and detained with impunity, and had an emergency law in effect. We had zero land, and zero support from the international community. People still came out. Syrian people felt that they actually deserved to be free.

Civil society groups are still working very actively on the ground. We’re still in the same place, that we want to create democracy, freedom, dignity for all Syrian people, not have a dictator that is just killing and detaining and executing with impunity.

 Syria is destroyed. It’s been destroyed at the hands of the régime and its allies. Because nobody else has the kinds of air power that the régime and Russia have, or the kind of ground power that the régime and the Iranians have. The destruction has affected the Syrian population en masse. There are over three million children that are in school age that are not going to school.

 And Syrian refugees have left a situation on the ground that was not conducive to their livelihood. They could not survive. That has not changed. How are they going to come back to a place where there are no guarantees they won’t be arrested, detained, tortured, or killed?

 One of the very striking statistics that I keep talking about, is that a 17-year-old teenage girl in Syria is more likely to be raped, tortured or detained than to graduate high school.

 A lot of talk is happening about reconstruction — this is what Russians and Iranians are actually trying to push for. But the international community is saying that no reconstruction money should be sent unless there is some kind of transition. How could you give money to a régime, to a government, that has actually destroyed Syria? You’re going to give them money, to rebuild and then destroy again? The reconstruction money has to come in through different means, in order to actually benefit the people.

 When the Syrian revolution started, there were about 700 civil society groups registered in the country. And they were under the auspices of the government. But since the revolution started, over 2,500 organizations have sprung up in Syria and in the surrounding region. When I talk to people on the inside, and organizations on the ground, I get inspired by their resilience, by the ideas they have, by the work that they are doing. Because most people want the same things: respect of human life and human dignity, respect for children, respect for the elderly, respect for education, respect for health care and respect for what makes a better country.

 This has given momentum for Syrian people to make decisions for themselves. Yes, we are coming together as women, but we are coming together because we want a solution for our country. We want to find a way to protect our citizens, our people and create a space that respects everybody equally under the law, where everybody has equal citizenship.'

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Sunday, 18 November 2018

Interview with Captain Abu Salim, Jaysh al-Izza's spokesperson

 Abu Salim, Jaish al-Izza's spokesperson:
 "It seems there is a problem between some of the guarantor countries such as Iran and Russia concerning the Sochi agreement. Of course the treachery of the régime, Iranian militias and Hezbollah is nothing new. They attacked a position belonging to Jaish al-Izza under the cover of Russian drones. The aerial cover lasted almost 24 hours. They used modern nightvision and thermal weapons to attack a point belonging to Jaish al-Izza. After a few martyrdoms in our ranks, we were able to retake our position. 

 Regarding Jaish al-Izza, neither Sochi or any other agreement stopped the bombs falling on us. Starting from the Russian invasion and until now, we get bombed by artillery, rockets and airstrikes on a daily basis. The response was an assault on a régime checkpoint known as al-Tarabee. There are more responses coming, the bullets are still in our hands. We will teach them a lesson they will never forget.

 The reality is noone has details about HTS' own response except themselves.

I think there is some disagreement between some guarantor countries of Sochi like Russia and Iran. It looks like Iran is trying to make this plan fail and wants the resumption of war after it was paused for a bit. It seems like it is trying to remind everyone it is still there after sanctions were imposed on it by the USA. It appears it is trying to achieve something, working secretly or openly to make this agreement fail. In my opinion, if it continues like this, the agreement will be dead in the water. 

Death is better than losing sanity in prison - woman jailed in Assad's prisons

 "My name is Sarah al-Abdullah. I am a 29 year old computer and control engineer. My husband was killed three years ago. I only have one daughter, she is three.

 On August 19th, 2017, my home in Mazzeh was raided and I was detained by the General Intelligence. I was first held in Branch 40, and then I was transferred to al-Khatib or Branch 251. After that, I was transferred to the Central State Security Branch, and then to Adra prison pending trial at the counterterrorism court which eventually ordered my release.

 However, the Air Force Intelligence Directorate refused to release me. Theoretically, and on paper, I was released. But in reality, as was the case with many other detainees, my situation was presumed to have been resolved by the Civil Court, but instead I was handcuffed, blindfolded and transferred to the Air Force Intelligence Branch.
 In total I was detained for one year and four months, or 1 year, 3 months and 20 days to be more specific. 

 Interrogation techniques varied from one branch to another. In al-Khatib branch, they prey on detainees' morale or psychological makeup. Interrogation techniques vary from one detainee to another. They also inflict neurological pain. Prior to being tortured, the guard would place me in a position where my nerves are tight, and deliberately beat me on the parts that have clusters of nerve endings, to ensure a rapid nervous breakdown. 

 Torture has left me with a chronic knee injury. Other women developed mental problems. It varies from one to another. Cells in the Air Force Intelligence Branch are 1m². They are also dark.

 Water drop sound torture is one of the most brutal torture techniques. It had the biggest impact on me personally. For a prolonged period of time, one is made to listen to dripping water in a consistent pattern. But then it suddenly shifts to an inconsistent pattern which puts you on alert. Until today, I scream whenever I hear an unexpected noise as if I am still in prison.

 At first, I thought my husband was the reason for my detention. But later, during the interrogation, I found out the reason for my detention was my work in delivering relief assistance to besieged people, along with my media activity in documenting the violations of the 'non-Syrian' army or the Assadist army, including the shelling, torture and destruction.

 Many detained women lost their sanity. One inmate was beaten to death. She was a mother. They took her son away from her. Her cries went unheard. She didn't fear their beating. So, despite the fact that they knew of her heart condition, they kept torturing her until one day she died in our arms. I think that those who died have found some relief. Losing your sanity is harder.

 There was another detainee from Daraya. The interrogator used to apply pressure on her through her son, despite the fact that her son was living in the liberated areas. In order to make her confess, the interrogator repeatedly led her to believe that they detained her son and he confessed. They used the same technique in four or five interrogation sessions. Until one night, we were confused when she started screaming and banging on the door. Meanwhile, we could hear a young man clearly being tortured. At that point, we didn't really know the reason she was screaming, but later we realised that she believed the man who was being tortured was her son. The interrogator's threats misled her to imagine hearing and seeing her son.

 For three days, whenever the guard opened the door, to take her or someone else for interrogation, she would rush to the guard and ask him for the 'document'. 'What document, calm down,' we said. She said, 'I want them to give me a certificate to be able to bury my son. My son was killed four days ago. I need to bury him.' She started suffering from numerous nervous breakdowns, until one day, the major at the prison was tired of hearing her cries. So they took her out, and brought her back five minutes later. Her face was numb, and she was unable to speak clearly. Apparently she was given something. For the following 72 hours, she didn't eat or say anything. She was unable to speak. Instead she used signs to communicate with us.

 Less than 15 days later, she lost her sanity. You wouldn't believe she was the same person she was 90 days before. She was well educated and knowledgeable. She would charm you with her words, her way of thinking and her maturity, how she and her son were seeking and fighting to eliminate injustice. But if you met her after those 20 days, you would think that she was born this way.

 I can't get her memory out of my head. I keep thinking that I too could have lost my sanity. She is just one example of numerous women who collapsed. I can't imagine what is waiting for them, or where they will end up. That said, sometimes I think death is less painful. But unfortunately, death has become a blessing we don't have. 
Every night, detainees pray that they don't wake up in the morning. Particularly, when they know they will be taken to interrogation, they hope they cease to exist. They would pray to God to acknowledge the good they have done in their lives and not to wake them up in the morning. And yet, we can't even die.

 Here I am, after eighteen months in the liberated areas. Many others, however, are still inside. Many young women and men, old women and men, mothers and children. What hurt me the most while in detention was to hear a child crying, or yelling because they needed to use the bathroom, or because they were hungry. The Air Force Intelligence Branch is packed with children, five year olds and even babies under twelve months. There was one kid who was four. Imagine, a four year old detainee. He has been there for two years with his mother.

 It's difficult. There are no words to describe it. You can only feel it."