Saturday, 27 May 2017

A Syrian violinist's journey 'from brutality to hope'

 'Syrian violinist and composer Alaa Arsheed plays the violin with his eyes closed, following the rhythm and moving slightly to the notes. When he reopens them, he smiles widely at his friend and fellow composer, Isaac de Martin, who smiles back at him.

 Music is their passion, and they aim to use it to send a message of peace. After being invited to perform with their band, the Adovabadan Jazz Orchestra, at a journalism festival in Italy last month, the duo opted to launch a crowdfunding campaign to play their music along a route well-travelled by Syrian refugees.

 "The idea is that of a music tour by camper through the Balkans, driving from Italy to Greece, walking [along] the refugees' route, meeting artists and recording an album, as well as providing music sessions and workshops for refugees," said Arsheed, a Syrian refugee who has lived in Italy since 2015.

 Although he misses his family, who are split between Syria and Lebanon, Arsheed decided to seek asylum in Europe after he was granted a music scholarship by the Italian organisation Fabrica. In the meantime, he holds regular jamming sessions over Skype with some of his family members who are also musicians.

 Playing the violin takes Arsheed back to his memories of his home city, Sweida, in southern Syria. In 2006, his father founded an art space and library called Alpha, where artworks were exhibited monthly and young musicians used to gather, listen and play music.

 To Arsheed, this represented the beginning of a broader cultural revolution in the Arab world, culminating in the 2011 uprising.

 "If you entered this art space, you could see someone painting while another was playing an instrument, and a lot of people were coming in and sharing," Arsheed recalled. "Every week, we had a different cultural event: fine arts exhibitions, poetry nights and music concerts. And so, every week, we had also a man from the [Syrian] intelligence, sitting at the table, watching and listening to our talks.

 "But I felt his human side," Arsheed added. "When he was looking at paintings and listening to music, he was touched by that."

 During the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011, Sweida's citizens also began to demonstrate peacefully in the streets, expressing a sincere desire for change. The state's reaction, however, was swift and harsh.

 "Men of pro-government militias came to destroy and attack our space, burning books and musical instruments," Arsheed said. "When these violent men see art, they see freedom; this is the reason why they arrived there to steal our dreams. They were afraid of change, and they wanted everyone to be like them. On the contrary, in that period, someone wrote in a cafe [the famous phrase]: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'"

 The art space was forcibly closed by police and Arsheed's father was jailed for a month. At that point, Arsheed and his sisters realised that it was no longer safe for them to remain in Syria.

 Arsheed left with his violin and a few belongings, and moved to Beirut to finish his studies in music. He also taught music in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra andShatila, worked in television, radio and theatre, and had the chance to play violin for a performance of Majnoon Yehki alongside Lebanese playwright Ziad Rahbani in 2013.

 But only after he arrived in Italy was he finally able to produce his debut, Sham, an eight-song album inspired by his life and musical journey. Along with de Martin, Arsheed later founded Alpha Art to pursue the construction of a new international art gallery based on the one founded by his family in Sweida.

 After many concerts and a festival in Italy, the duo are now focusing their energies on the next big project: their tour through the Balkans route.

 "The journey will take approximately one month," de Martin estimated. "The camper will serve us to move, to sleep and to record. In fact, we want to transfer our studio in there: speakers, mixers, PC, microphones, cables, musical instruments. At each stage of our journey from Italy to Greece - crossing Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia - we will interact with talented artists and with people and register a track for the album Seeds."

 At the same time, the music tour will become a documentary film, with a director and crew joining them along the route.

 "I hope this project also produces seeds of hope for Syria," Arsheed said. "Music has to become the turning point from brutality to hope." '

'Throw him in the room of death'

(L-R) Yassine Alharaisi and his mum Nazira Hijazi, Mona Al Dafan and Chadi Amiri spoke at an event run by North Lanarkshire Council entitled For Humanity We Speak, held in Airdrie's Sir John Wilson town hall.

 ' “I remember being caught by tear gas used by the security forces. It burned your eyes and throat and we were scared that it was chemical weapons.”

 Words that no teenager should have to utter but the harsh reality of Yassine Alharaisi’s terrifying childhood in Syria. Yassine, Nazira and three other refugees – husband and wife Chadi and Mariam Amiri and Mona Al Dafan, who were among those provided with homes through North Lanarkshire’s Syrian refugee resettlement programme, took to the stage at Airdrie town hall last Thursday to share their memories of life in Syria – and thanked the people of Monklands for “making them feel welcome”.

 Mariam spoke of Syria being “a river of blood filled from women, the elderly and children” and highlighted that children “get killed every day from bombings and a lack of nutrition and medical care”.

 The sound of helicopter blades still fills Mariam with dread as every time she hears them “it says to my family and I, ‘I’m here to kill you all’.”

  But in a wonderfully upbeat conclusion to her story Mariam said: “In two months’ time I will be giving birth to my third child. I have a birthing plan already set up.”

 Mona shared her horrendous experience of finding out over the phone that her husband had been captured and killed, and how this made her lose “all hope and life”.

 For Coatbridge-based Nazira, bringing up sons Yassine and Badr in Syria meant every day was potentially their last.

 The terrified trio’s family home was bombed twice and Nazira and Yassine were both poisoned by chemicals, “escaping death miraculously”.

 A typical school day at St Andrew’s High is a far cry from Yassine’s early teenage years:

 “I could not afford school because I had to work to pay for rent and food. Between the ages of 12 and 16 I had many different jobs. When I first started work I got paid very little. I usually worked 12 hours a day, sometimes longer.”

 Yassine also described some of the “very frightening” experiences he endured during his time in Syria:

 “I remember one night being in a shelter with many other people while bombs dropped by jet aeroplanes exploded outside. I have watched from a distance as buildings were blown up by missiles fired by heavy artillery. It is different from watching it in the movies.”

 The final speaker of the night was Chadi, who spoke with loud passion about his heart-breaking experience as a prisoner.

 Chadi was preparing to travel to Lebanon when he was captured at a security checkpoint and severely beaten.

 He said: “The beatings started to come faster; the voice said, ‘throw him in the room of death’. Then they started to taser me. When my family came to visit they weren’t allowed to see me until they paid money and I had to stay behind bars. I thought I was never going to leave this prison or get the opportunity to hug my unborn son. I was eventually released after payments were made and I couldn’t believe I was free. It was like I was born again. I cried happy tears for days until I met my family once more.

 The media and human rights groups are not allowed into the detention facilities so nobody can know the real story. The only window into this world is the stories of the lucky ones like me who get out to tell the tale.” '
Yassine Alharaisi addresses the audience

Friday, 26 May 2017

The people's power in combatting those in the way of their revolution is profound

 'Several months ago there was the video* showing a JFS fighter taking a protester's revolutionary flag. He was surrounded by protesters and was forced to return it. Consequentially, today the flags of the revolution were flying freely in demonstrations in the heart of Idlib city.'


' "Freedom Generation" school ceremony for outstanding students held today in N. Idlib village of Aqrabat.'

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A showdown in the desert is imminent

 'Syrian Desert : A showdown in the desert is imminent as Iranian militia advance against the FSA forcing the US to decide who they support.'

Revival in Idlib City?

 'Idlib city in northwest Syria is facing political, economic, and security challenges — but activists says there are signs of revival in one of the centers of the Syrian opposition in the 74-month conflict.

 Although bombing has eased since Russia’s announcement of a “de-escalation zone” earlier this month, local authorities are struggling to provide water and electricity amid the influx of displaced Syrians and the ongoing attempt of the Assad regime to restrict any provision of essential goods. Four hours of water is provided every ten days to each of the ten sectors of the city, and electricity is available for about three to four hours per day.

 But on Tuesday, local groups highlighted the positive in the city, circulating photographs of the inauguration of a Clock Tower, surrounded by the creation of an urban garden and fountain, and a store distributing free goods for women and children.

 Writing for Waging Nonviolence, Julia Taleb portrays a city in which civilians have successfully challenged rebels for political and legal space:

 "A state of repression was imposed, and there were continuous violations of basic human rights and freedoms under the pretext of applying proper Islamic Sharia law.

 This brought activists and civil organizations into direct confrontation with the armed group, which assumed the administration of all public services, including education, health, security and justice. In response, residents and civil resistance groups have been working to establish a local council of qualified civilians to prevent military factions from interfering in civil affairs and protect peoples’ rights and freedom."

 Quoting local activists, Taleb cites groups such as al-Idlibi House, with more than 400 members and weekly meetings on tactic to pursue the handover of civil administration to the community. She portrays demonstrators pushing back the efforts of the rebel bloc Jaish al-Fateh to put down the protests.

 Women have established organization such as Women’s Fingerprints, Glimmer of Hope, and the Association of Educated Women. They have provided educational and vocational courses, set up orphanages and care centers for people with special needs, and initiated projects for women who cannot leave their homes.

 Taleb says the women have also challenged the attempts by female preachers, recruited by rebels, to impose a strict Sharia law which prohibits women from walking outside without men or showing their faces. “We formed volunteer groups of female psychologists and sociologists to visit vulnerable women and raise their awareness of basic rights and freedoms to counter the extremists’ views,” says Shadi Zidani, a member of the Idlib Local Council.

 Having held elections in January to establish the local council, managing most services in the city, activists are looking for further advances. Abd al-Latif Rahabi, the head of al-Idlibi House, says:

 "Our next goal is to pressure armed factions to abandon the courts and security services and hand them over to civil entities, along with the rest of the directorates, including the civil and private land registries. We are working on uniting all local groups and organizations under one body to make our voice even stronger." '


Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Revolution Began

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 'From We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, a collection of interviews with Syrian refugees that were conducted and edited by Wendy Pearlman between 2012 and 2016.

 Iliyas, dentist, Rural Hama

 "Syria looked like a stable country. But it wasn’t real stability. It was a state of terror. Every citizen in Syria was terrified. The regime and the authorities were also terrified. The more responsibility anyone had in the state, the more terrified he was. Brother didn’t trust brother. Children didn’t trust their fathers. If anyone said anything out of the ordinary, others would suspect that he was a government informant trying to test people’s reactions.

Every state institution re-created the same kind of power. The president had absolute power in the country. The principal of a school had absolute power in the school. At the same time, the principal was terrified. Of whom? Of the janitors sweeping the floor, because they were all government informants."

 Adam, media organizer, Latakia

 "Tunisians had mass demonstrations and Syrians were like, “Hmm, interesting.” And then Egypt started. People were like, “Resign already!” And then Mubarak resigned. We thought, “Holy shit. We have power.”

Then Libya got in line, and that’s when Syrians really got interested. Because Qaddafi was going to let the Army loose on his people straightaway. We knew that and the Libyans knew that. The Libyans started calling for help, and we thought, “Exactly. This is us.” The international community intervened, saying, “We’ll protect the Libyans.” And everybody in Syria got the message: If shit hits the fan, people will back us up.

Of course we would make sacrifices. Some people would die. But we never thought that we’d have the Army attacking us, because the world would protect us. We believed that the minute international forces set foot in Syria, the whole Army would defect."

 Walid, poet, Damascus suburbs

 "We started talking about the situation in Syria. We agreed that Egypt was ready for an uprising. We figured that we needed at least five more years of political mobilization and activity before we could reach the stage that Egypt had reached. And then there was a call for the revolution to begin on March 15. And we went out. Just like that: The revolution began. Were we going to say, “Wait, we’re not ready, we need five more years”?"

 Abu Thair, engineer, Daraa

 "The first protest was on a Friday. Then there were funerals and demonstrations. On Tuesday night, a sit-in began at al-Omari Mosque. Around three in the morning, regime forces stormed the mosque from all sides. They killed dozens and injured more. They burned holy books and wrote things on the wall like do not kneel for god. kneel for assad.

People in the surrounding villages heard about the massacre in al-Omari Mosque and started coming to Daraa. They entered, calling, “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.” Security forces opened fire on them.

This is how the revolution exploded in the entire province. The government sent the bodies of dead civilians to every village. The funerals began. Each funeral became a demonstration."

 Mahmoud, actor, Homs

 "I was too scared to protest. I went only once, because my girlfriend wanted to go. In the taxi and then at the demonstration, I thought that everyone was a security agent about to arrest me.

A guy I know got arrested that way. They brought him in for interrogation, but he wouldn’t confess that he’d gone to a protest. Then they showed him a video and asked, “If you didn’t go, who is this?” He turned yellow. In the video, he was in the middle of a demonstration, sitting on someone’s shoulders. It turned out to be the interrogator."

 Jamal, doctor, Hama

 "It was impossible to get big numbers to demonstrate in Damascus. People were enormously afraid. So we’d mount “airplane demonstrations”: We’d chant for five minutes, then run away.

People came up with alternative ways of showing that they were against the regime. We would agree on a time and place, and then everyone would show up wearing the same color. For example, everyone would come to the same café wearing black. Nobody would say a thing; it was just a way of showing the size of the opposition. Eventually the security forces figured out what was happening and came after people dressed in the designated color.

If we’d listened to our parents, we never would have gone out at all. That generation lived through the Hama massacre of 1982. My generation is afraid — but not like them. I now say to my father, “Why were you silent all those years?” We say this to their entire generation."

 Sana, graphic designer, Damascus

 "I was very scared on my way to the demonstration. It was night. We put scarves over our faces so the security forces couldn’t recognize us and walked through narrow streets to the square. The square was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands, but we started singing and dancing and jumping. It was a party to overthrow the regime. At that moment I didn’t care about anything else. I was so happy. It was a moment that I will never forget for the rest of my life: standing together with strangers, shouting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

My husband and I agreed that only one of us would go protest at a time. The other would stay home, just in case something happened. He went before I did, and came home crying: “Anyone who doesn’t live this moment cannot consider himself alive.” When I came back from my first demonstration, he asked me how it was. I told him that he was right."

 Ayham, web developer, Damascus

 "There was a systematic effort to give the movement a bad image. Every time a demonstration passed by a street, the police would run after it and break windows and lights or sometimes spray-paint graffiti. On YouTube you can find a lot of videos of them doing this. The regime would show these images of destroyed property on TV and say, “This is the freedom they want. The freedom to destroy the country, the freedom to disrespect religions, etc.”

We always faced this question: What is the freedom you’re calling for? So we tried to define it. We wanted freedom of speech. We wanted release of political prisoners because we knew that they were potential leaders. The regime puts all the leaders in prison, and then comes and says the movement has none. How do you expect there to be leaders when you arrest them all?"

 Ashraf, artist, Qamishli

 "The problem is not that the world did nothing. It’s that everyone told us, “Rise up! We are with you. Revolt!” The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdo gan, declared that the bombing of Homs was a red line, and President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. And when the regime crossed these lines and no one intervened, the population was left in a state of desperation. It understood that it could count only on itself."

 Khalil, defected officer, Deir Ezzor

 "I was a colonel serving in the 4th Brigade. We were sent to put down demonstrations in Darayya and Moadamiyeh, in the suburbs of Damascus. The commanders told us that we were fighting armed gangs. I knew this was false, but these were military orders, and you don’t debate military orders.

For the first two weeks, we used batons, and Air Force Intelligence officers and snipers would shoot from behind us. By the third week, they gave us orders to open fire at demonstrators’ legs. If they approached within two hundred meters, we were supposed to shoot to kill.

The first time I saw a demonstration was like ecstasy. My heart was with the people from the beginning, but if the Army knew you were going to defect, they’d kill you. Before I could defect, I needed to ensure the safety of my wife and children. Once I did that, I fabricated a scenario to make it seem as though I’d been kidnapped, and then I disappeared. For a while, it wasn’t clear to the Army whether I’d been captured or had defected. Then the regime came to my house in Damascus. They stole what they could and burned the rest. They did the same thing to my family home in Deir al-Zor. I’m not crying over the loss of the houses. The point is that I have nowhere to go back to."

 Amin, physical therapist, Aleppo

 "I found myself working in a camp for the internally displaced. I had the idea that I was going to help people. But I realized that, three years after the start of the revolution, people didn’t care anymore. We’d approach a patient, saying, “We want to treat you so you can walk again.” He’d say, “I’m finished. I just want to die.” Or there would be kids, and we’d tell them, “You need to get an education.” And the children would say, “I don’t want to be dragged around in a wheelchair anymore. The other boys make fun of me.” There was one child from the camp with polio. He used to come and say to me, “When I was a little kid . . . ” He was only ten years old.

 Every time someone dies, we say we need to continue, we need to continue. But continue what? We’re coming to a dead end. I saw so many of my friends die in the revolution, and friends in my Army unit when I was still doing my compulsory service. They were so young. I’d open my phone and look at my contacts and only one or two were still alive. They told us, “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to Martyr. ” That way, if you got a text from that number, you knew that someone else had gotten hold of the phone and might be using it to entrap you.

 I’d open my contact list and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr."

 Um Naji, mother, Yarmouk camp

 "We should have left when the blockade was partial, but we never expected it to become complete. I lived under the siege for nine months. We had food stored at home, but time passed and we ate all of it. Armed men or regime agents raided the shops and there was nothing left for civilians. We had money, but there was nothing to buy. Instead, my husband would collect grass and leaves and we’d fry them in olive oil. Later we couldn’t even find grass. My four kids would lie on the floor without the energy to speak. They were starving to death in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything about it."

Yousef, former student, rural Hasakah

 "I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when the Islamic State showed up.

 Syria’s oil is located in our area, in the eastern part of the country, and the Islamic State recognized how valuable it was. They took over our village and regime planes backed them up. The regime bombed the rebels and the people, not the Islamic State. Now the Islamic State has all the oil in the area. It has the weapons, the wheat, everything.

 Islamic State militants aren’t aliens, as some people describe them. They’re regular people. They’re an organization like other organizations. There were many men ready to fight the Islamic State. Women, too. We could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons. No one supported us. Instead the U.S.-led coalition started bombing. Two months ago, twenty-seven people in my village were killed by coalition planes while waiting in line for bread. Air strikes have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and the Islamic State doesn’t have planes."

 Sham, relief worker, Douma

 "The Army wasn’t supposed to bother the Red Crescent. But some days they’d take an injured person right out of our ambulance. We couldn’t open our mouths.

 Once, soldiers detained my friend’s team. They lined them up against the wall and shot my friend in the head. We followed him to the hospital and waited. When a person came and told us my friend was dead, I fainted. Another friend carried me away and a third treated me. The two of them were later killed.

 When the intelligence officers arrested my husband, Munir, for the third time, they said, “Everything is fine. We’ll keep him for only an hour.”

 That hour lasted a year and a month. For the first five months, I didn’t know if Munir was alive or dead. He disappeared and that was it. Every lawyer told me, “We’ll get him out.” But they were lying so I would keep paying them.

 That August was the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. In the streets you saw people frozen in their cars, suffocated to death. My colleagues told me this was the first time that when they picked up corpses, there was no blood. I got news that the gas had spread to the prison. I was so scared for Munir that I thought I would die.

 Meanwhile, someone connected to the regime told me that if I paid enough, he’d get Munir out of prison. I paid, so Munir was released.

 Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We’re the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this whole thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country." '

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