Saturday, 12 March 2016
' "When I arrived in Germany, I felt like I was living with an open wound, like I'd lost my soul. I felt guilty for leaving everything behind," says Jimmy Shahinian, a 28-year-old activist with sharp features and jet-black hair. "We had made a promise that we would change things."
Syria's conflict erupted on March 15, 2011, when protesters massed on the streets to demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down. Shahinian, a Christian, joined the movement, and was subsequently jailed and tortured.
When the jihadist Islamic State group took over his native city Raqa in 2013, he began receiving terrifying death threats. Smuggled into Turkey in an ambulance, Shahinian became one of nearly five million Syrians who have fled the country since the conflict began.
Yazan lived through a brutal, nearly two-year siege in the Old City of Homs, once known as the "capital of the revolution" but now squarely back in regime hands. "In Syria my body was besieged. Here, I am besieged in my head," says the 30-year-old. He admits he can't move on while his father and brother remain among the estimated 200,000 people held in the regime's hellish jails.
"Here I can eat, I can sleep in safety. But however hard I try, I can't imagine the future," Yazan says. "My whole life is on hold until the regime falls."
Ahmad al-Rifai, a 24-year-old who spent months taking photos in opposition strongholds across northern Syria, is also in Germany -- where more than one million asylum requests were registered last year. He blames the Syrian government but also the international community for the transformation of the revolt into a war that has killed 270,000 people.
"In the good old days, the people would decide when and where to protest, or when to go on strike," Rifai says. "Now, the Syrian people have no decision-making power at all. Syria has become a playing field for major powers like Russia, the United States and Iran." '
Thursday, 10 March 2016
"Before the uprising, Daraya was a sleepy middle-class suburb for Damascus residents. By 2011, it had become an epicenter of peaceful protests, as thousands marched in the streets calling for Assad to step down from power. As a member of the Syrian Christian community, I was overwhelmed with excitement to join this grassroots people’s movement that called for democracy, freedom and rights for all Syrians, no matter our differences.
Syrians were united then. The church bells rang in Daraya in solidarity with the protesters. From their balconies in the narrow streets, Syrian Christians showered protesters below with rice and flowers. They marched hand in hand.
By 2012, the Assad regime intensified its armed crackdown against the unarmed protesters in Daraya. A terrible massacre occurred there on Aug. 24, 2012, as Assad’s regime sent troops, secret police, and members of the elite 4th Division to prevent residents from fleeing the city by any means necessary. Families were executed in their homes, whole buildings of women and children were machine-gunned in the streets, and residents were even decapitated — long before the so-called Islamic State even existed.
The state-run media launched an aggressive propaganda campaign claiming Muslims were massacring Christians, aiming to stoke fear of the opposition in the Christian community. As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them.
Assad attempted to break Daraya with chemical weapons in 2013, launching a horrific sarin gas attack that killed over 1,000 across the Damascus suburbs — many were children still in their pajamas when the nighttime attack happened. Images of asphyxiated children lined up on the ground are etched in our memories of that night. The international community was on the verge of holding Assad accountable for that atrocity, but the Russians intervened at the eleventh hour with a negotiated settlement. Before the ink was dry, Assad instituted a brutal starvation siege upon Daraya and neighboring Moadamiya.
The Russians and Assad have proven adept at shifting the narrative surrounding the peace talks. We are asked to discount the atrocities that Daraya and other towns in Syria continue to suffer at the direction of Russian-manned command centers in Damascus. The fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the narrative goes, is paramount.
But how can one fight these extremists, who threaten to slaughter Christians and Muslims alike, without a moral commitment to ending the humanitarian crisis? And how can Moscow claim that it is fighting terror in Syria when it systematically contributes to the destruction of the very antidote to terror — civil society activists, women, and, yes, even us Christians who once lived in harmony with our countrymen in Daraya?
Syrian priests to this day continue to defy the regime by covertly smuggling food into besieged Muslim neighborhoods, at the risk of their lives. The Bible tells us: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. The threat this principle poses to Assad’s and the Islamic State’s authoritarian worldviews is more powerful than any man-made weapon.
Just this week, Daraya’s local council reported to me that regime tanks are encircling the town and seem poised to stage a ground raid. Despite this threat, Daraya residents are taking advantage of the relative calm to organize peaceful demonstrations and a children’s festival. These demonstrations are happening throughout the country — after nearly five years of war, even a brief respite from the indiscriminate attacks was enough for Syrians to return to the streets to peacefully demonstrate their commitment to freedom from tyranny in all its forms.
If Assad remains emboldened and enabled to treat peaceful opposition as terror — I myself have been charged by the regime’s terrorism court — it can only ensure that the church bells of Daraya never ring again."
Wednesday, 9 March 2016
'Sick children dying as lifesaving medicine waits at checkpoints, youngsters forced to survive on animal feed and leaves, and families burning their mattresses just to find something to keep them warm.
Schools moving underground for shelter from barrel bombs, the crude, explosive-filled and indiscriminate crates that fall from the sky and are so inaccurate that some observers have said their use is a de facto war crime.
The wounded left to die for lack of medical supplies, anaesthetics, painkillers and chronic medicine; children dying of malnutrition and even rabies due to the absence of vaccines, while landmines and snipers await anyone trying to escape.
Tanya Steele, Save the Children’s chief executive, said: “Children are dying from lack of food and medicines in parts of Syria just a few kilometres from warehouses that are piled high with aid. They are paying the price for the world’s inaction.”
At least a quarter of a million children are living in besieged areas across Syria, Save the Children estimates, in conditions that the charity describes as living in an open-air prison.
Rihab, a woman living in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, which has been besieged by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was quoted as saying: “Fear has taken control. Children now wait for their turn to be killed. Even adults live only to wait for their turn to die.”
A truce negotiated last month by major powers was supposed to bring relief and aid into the besieged areas, but humanitarian workers and activists say the Assad government, which is conducting the vast majority of siege warfare in the country, has repeatedly delayed access, potentially in violation of the truce agreement.
Ahmed, a boy living in the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma, told interviewers: “When I hear the sound of a shell or a plane then I get very afraid and I hurry to escape and hide under my bed.” '
Tuesday, 8 March 2016
'Before the revolution began in March 2011, Osama Saed worked in construction, restoring mosques, churches and other ancient structures. He lived in Damascus, the second-largest city in Syria, and enjoyed lifting weights at the gym.
He hopes to see peace in his home country.
"I believe the Syrian people are just asking for justice," he said. "There was a lot of injustice in Syria and this is the only thing that the Syrian people are asking for—basic justice for all the people." '