Saturday, 21 October 2017
Yassin al-Haj Saleh:
"I hope we can do something to repair the huge damage that afflicted Syria in the last few years. It is already longer than the Second World War, it is already six years and six months;but first of all the killing machine should be stopped, so that we can try to trigger different dynamics. The dynamics of reconciliation, of moderation, of positive efforts to fix the huge damage done by the régime to Syrian society, to the Syrian spirit, and to the very meaning of the country.
So, the first thing is that the killing machine should be stopped. And I believe that so many Syrians are willing to come together and meet others from different backgrounds, from different ethnicities and different religious backgrounds, to repair the huge catastrophe.
While this régime is staying, only bad consequences will come out of it. The matter of accountability is very important to us. If the régime stayed in power, this is a very bad message to Syrians, and to all the people in the region and the world; that you can still stay safe while you are killing so many people, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs, killing people under torture in your slaughterhouses like Sednaya and other places.
So, the precondition is still the overthrow of the régime, and I don't think we'll see a new Syria, or any better future for Syrians, while the régime is here. It is easy for us to defeat Daesh, and it is already broken, and to defeat Nusra Front and any other extremist groups, but we first of all need to defeat the source of radicalisation, of militarisation, and of sectarianisation in the country, which is the Assad régime.
There is no future if Assad wins actually, because structurally the régime is based on staying in power forever, which means a war against the future. Since the days of Hafez al-Assad there was a slogan, "Hafez al-Assad forever", and now it is for Bashar al-Assad. What does staying in power forever mean? It means a permanent war against the future, and that we are living in a permanent present. So I don't believe we will have any future - our only opportunity to have a better future - is to end forever this stay in power."
'Today, there is much talk and lazy analysis of Assad and his backers having ‘won the war’, through a combination of military advances, under cover of heavy air bombardment, and a series of many hundreds of so-called ‘reconciliation deals’ with besieged communities, faced with the choice of surrender or starvation and bombing.
The propaganda machine screams reconciliation, while the military machine puts community leaders and civil society activists on green buses headed towards a dangerous and uncertain fate.
For all the complexity this war presents, I am confident still in three facts.
First, there is no such thing as a ‘win.’ There never will be a ‘military solution’ to this conflict. Assad’s forces stretch ever thinner and depend ever more on foreign militias and air power to prop them up. Behind the advancing front line, Syrian Arab Army and militias leave behind them a fractured landscape intimidated by local warlords seeking personal gain above all.
Of course it can be argued that Assad doesn’t care, so long as he keeps a chunk of ‘useful Syria’ and Syria’s seat remains warm at the UN thanks to Russian protection. The regime’s mission, after all, has always been to survive and dominate the country, not bring it peace.
But this should give us no comfort. The toll that the regime and its backers have exacted is staggering: well over 400,000 dead; over 13 million in need; over half the pre-war population displaced within Syria or forced to flee; an economy shrunk by over 60%; a people traumatised; a generation of kids with no education or hope.
Assad’s regime bears overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people, fuelled extremism and terrorism, and created the space for ISIS. The United Nations has before now called attention to the ‘devastation of the Syrian mosaic’ of the country’s diverse communities. Assad and his regime are largely responsible for this, while claiming to defend it.
This brings me to my second point: Syria can only find true peace with transition away from Assad to a government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. As Ibrahim al-Assil has written so eloquently in the Washington Post only days ago, Syria cannot be stabilised under Assad’s leadership: Syria’s institutions are broken and near destroyed; those in charge of them think only of enriching themselves; a regime which has perfected state sponsorship of terrorism and so-called ‘weaponisation’ of refugees will only go on to do so again.
Finally, the hatred of the regime and desire for a better future that propelled millions of Syrians into the streets in 2011 perseveres to this day – young Syrians from all walks of life tell me it is only a matter of time before the revolution will come again.
I am often challenged on my country’s focus on Assad’s wrongs. Why do we not shine a light on abuses by others?
First, I do not presume to ignore any and all abuses conducted in the name of this war. But second, Assad’s self-described ‘government’ has the primary responsibility to protect its population. And third, it is Assad’s war machine that has killed, maimed or forced to flee the vast majority of Syrian victims of this conflict.
My third fact concerns what’s happening now: de-escalation. The international community has a moral obligation to reduce and calm violence across the country.
Critics will say that de-escalation is a step by the international community towards normalisation with the regime, or, indeed, the exact opposite: that calming different parts of Syria in different ways is a step towards breaking up the country or at least freezing the conflict in perpetuity.
Yet others will question whether Western countries can meaningfully use reconstruction as leverage to force transition. After all, Assad – not the Russians – has made clear that he won’t let his enemies ‘accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism’.
The regime, it is argued, will survive on what limited help it can gain from something generally described as the East. Assad, then, will wait us out until we give in.
These are hard challenges to contemplate, but contemplate them we must. It means very clearly that any work on de-escalation has to preserve the Syrian identity of de-escalated areas. And it means that the West needs to hold firm to the position that it will only help with Syria’s reconstruction when comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is ‘firmly under way’.
These last words are critical: reconstruction at transition, and not before. To engage early is to bet that we can reform Syria from within, as Assad and his regime remain in power. That is naive and ignores the regime’s singular focus on itself, rather than on Syria and Syrians.
This leads me to a fourth fact where, unlike the previous three, I am not confident on how it plays out: that transition must proceed and that Syrians will decide how this happens.
The easy and lazy way to look at this is that Syrians will decide transition, and leave it there. After all, there is the Geneva Communiqué and UNSCR2254. Both are clear enough.
The harder way to look at this is to recognise first that negotiations in Geneva have not made progress in 18 months, notwithstanding the sustained and patient work by UN Special Envoy de Mistura. For all the criticisms made of the Opposition, again it is the regime that bears overwhelming responsibility; it has never shown it is prepared to negotiate, but rather has played for time while attacking Syrians back home.
What to do about this is no clearer to me than when these Geneva talks started in January 2016. I can only recall that if the Geneva talks had not been invented, they would have to be, that there are a number of firm principles which de Mistura has already reached, and that the onus for advancing a peace process lies firmly with those who back Assad to win, even if that victory looks pyrrhic. Meanwhile, we should ensure that Geneva understands and reflects the views of millions of Syrians out there without a real voice.
One thing that is clear is that Syrians must see accountability for human rights violations and abuses conducted throughout this war, again if there is to be enduring peace.
It pains me that the Geneva process has been unable to make progress on the critical issue of detainees and the disappeared. The pressing challenge is to discover where people are and ensure their welfare and that they are released. The longer-term task is to ensure accountability for the suffering inflicted on them.
Moving to peace — and a just peace at that — in Syria matters, for Syria, for the region, and for the world. Absent movement forward, Syria’s tragedy will continue, a stain on the world’s conscience.'
Friday, 20 October 2017
"I was a university student in Aleppo, but there was civil unrest in my city. The Syrian government was responding to that violently. At the time, the Syrian government had no trouble with Western and Arab reporters report on these events. At the time, I was working with a few Arabic channels, giving them the news, and telling them what was happening in my city. I was broadcasting live to the news channel Al Arabiya, covering the funeral of someone who'd' been killed the day before by the Syrian government. There was extreme anger on the streets and at the funeral that day. My goal was to document and film for people outside and inside Syria to see what was happening in my city and how the Syrian government was responding to the protests with violence. People were chanting for democracy and freedom and denouncing the violence that the Syrian government was using. I was carrying a cellphone to film and I stood up on a car to get a higher view to what was happening and to show how the security forces were targeting protesters. But unfortunately, I was the one who was targeted because it was very clear that I was filming. And the Syrian regime has always been afraid of journalists, of the cell phone, the camera, because that's the eye through which the world can see what was really happening in Syria.
There was a lot of civil unrest and protesting. My job as a citizen journalist was to show people what was happening. I had to be there to show people the reality of the crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime. I had to be there. The Syrian government targeted me directly and on purpose because I was carrying the cell phone.
Because they were watching us, and Syrian security forces were targeting the protesters. And I was filming that, live. So as I was filming, that's exactly when they hit me - and others - who were filming. They're so afraid of any pictures or videos being transmitted live to news stations, or any involvement at all of citizen journalists because that would prove their crimes.
As soon as I was shot, I hoped that I died. In that moment I really wished I was dead. I was so afraid of being injured and falling into the hands of the Syrian government and being tortured. I have a lot of friends who have died while being tortured by the Syrian government. So I was terrified of that. My friends took care of me, they gave me first aid, and then took me to a private hospital. Of course, the security forces found out where I was being treated, they came to my room, and they put me in handcuffs and shackled my feet until I told them what they wanted to hear. I basically said that I didn't see who hit me, that I had no idea who it was, and that I happened to be at that funeral by pure coincidence. They told me I had to go to court, and then told me I couldn't travel. That's when I left Aleppo and snuck out of the country, and towards Turkey.
The Syrian security forces are known, they're the ones that are there, with weapons. At the time in Aleppo, there were no other factions or militias, or anyone else who would have had weapons except the Syrian regime. I saw them with my own eyes, firing from their cars, wearing their uniforms. It was clear, and I was filming that, but unfortunately that's when I got hit. Even international observers came to Aleppo, the month after I was injured, they came to Aleppo and saw with their own eyes too how the Syrian regime was targeting protesters, and how protests at the university in Aleppo were dispersed, and how people were injured, and started to leave the city in droves.
I was shot in the back, in my back, and it came out through my arm. So it went through my back, and came out through my arm. I'm very lucky. I see that incident as a huge push for me. I could've died because of the work I was doing, but I'm going to live so that I can keep going and encourage and tell people that we can make our voices heard and that journalism can be strong in our country.
It wasn't just that I got shot, it was because security forces were after me too. I used to use pseudonyms to report for different channels, I used the name Noor, or Reem, or Abeer, or Lana. But once I got shot, a lot of people found out my true identity and name. So there was a lot of fear. There were security raids, looking for me, at my house, luckily I wasn't home. I was in training with Al Jazeera in Gaziantep, Turkey. I learned that security was after me at my house. My family told me never to come back to Aleppo. And from there, I thought: how can I keep going with my journalism work if I can't go back? And I came up with the idea to start the radio station.
My focus was on local residents. When I started this work, I wanted to know how I could get our voice out to the world, to say, listen world, and look what's happening to us in Syria. Look at the violations taking place, look at the demands that we're making. When things started to get worse and the world wasn't paying attention, the Syrian government began to punish residents. They cut off electricity and the internet in Aleppo, and all people could hear was the sound of shelling and attacks. And through it all, residents couldn't even communicate with each other, even if they were in the same city. That's when I thought FM radio can help. It can be broadcast over wide areas, and you don't need special equipment to use it. That's when I thought we could do a local broadcast to help Syrian citizens figure out what was going on in their neighbourhoods in case of emergencies, when the shelling started, the security situation, the living situation.
I saw the radio as a platform for people to tell their stories. Official media channels were under Syrian government control. But Nasaem Radio gave people the chance to express their opinions, to send text messages, to speak their minds without phone lines disconnecting. So for people, this was a space for expression. And we were trying to provide them with information, news, with hope, with music, songs.
When someone has a will to do something, that's something that keeps you going. The people around me also really encouraged me. My family, the people who wanted to help me work on it. It was like a dream for Syrians to have radio that's different from what they'd been hearing every day, the same old speeches, the same agendas. They wanted to hear the truth, to look for the truth. To go after the truth whether you're the person behind this idea or part of the public, that's something that really helps. I got so much support from our local listeners in the beginning. At first we would only broadcast for a few hours a day and our listeners would say, we want to hear more, we want to hear you longer, we get so bored after you go off the air. So that reaction really gave us courage to keep going.
We talked about everything. Sports, art, lifestyle, emergencies, sewage problems in the city, the intensity of the shelling, the lack of hospitals available, the school situation, whether they were closed or open because of the attacks. We talked about how children in the city were doing, how they needed vaccines. All the things you need to live, from education to women, to work, that's what we talked about. We saw our job as radio people as connectors between all these subjects we were talking, and our listeners, and organizations doing aid and relief work. For example, an issue we're facing is the landmines that have been left behind by Daesh, or ISIS, after they leave the areas they had taken a hold of. So we go to organizations that remove landmines and ask when can they remove them? How safe are the fields and the farms now? So it becomes a source of connection between average people who need help and organizations that can help these very people through radio and our programming.
We’re getting a lot of threats. These are hard to face for our reporters, our journalists inside Syria and outside in Turkey. But journalism is a line of work that's rife with danger. Whether they're from the Syrian government, or Daesh, or ISIS or corrupt groups who don't want our attention on them, it's dangerous work. So if you're a journalist, you have to live with the risks and be up to it, you can lose your family, your friends, and it'll change your life but it's a choice. I chose this line of work, and I know it's a job that's full of risks.
Of course. Our news, our radio, covers Northern Syria, in cities like Azaz, Jarablos, Kafranbel, we're doing a lot of work in these areas. Because this is where Daesh was in control, and now they're gone. So these areas need a lot of media attention and work because people were so scared to talk or express their opinions for so long. These people there were under the very strict control of extremists, so as a media organization we are trying to help them get back to living normal lives.
As a media organization, we want to help Syrians live their lives, democratically, where they have freedom of expression. We want to support Syrian women to get to decision-making positions, helping children with their education, to fight extremism and terrorism. So we have so much work to do.
It's important to me that people know that to this day in Syria, people are dying, through shelling, arrests, drowning at sea, at the borders, people are still dying. And as Syrians, we need a lot of support. From Canadians, from the people, governments, from the Americans. These people are all far from us, but it's important that our voices get to them so that they know what's really happening. It's not just about refugees and helping them settle. Let's also ask how we can help them and support them, and find out what organizations can do to help them. For example, I'm here with Journalists for Human Rights, and they've really helped us with how to think about our news, our stories, and our storytelling, and our strategies, so that we can get the voices of Syrians out to the world. If people can't support us, they can at least listen to us. Listen to our stories, and find out what's happening in this world that's so far away from them.
We're after the truth, and credibility. All we do is relay the realities of what's happening, convey what's being said and talked about, and give it to people. And it's the people that can decide and say what's right and what's wrong. We're trying as much as possible to speak out, and shine a light on things that governments, and other groups don't want people to know. We're just a light that's highlighting these problems."
Wednesday, 18 October 2017
'Sharif King has been shot at, punched so hard his teeth have shattered and had an iron bar forced all the way through his leg.
The 21-year-old now studies IT programming at Whitireia, a few minutes north of Wellington.
Sharif was 16 when civil war broke out in Syria. He and his mother were living in Moadamiyah, a rebellious suburb of the capital, Damascus.
Moadamiyah was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, according to the UN, and was subject to a three-year Government siege that destroyed much of its infrastructure and caused its population to dwindle.
The gas attack killed anywhere between 281 and 1729 people. As it overcame its victims, they suffered from convulsions, coughed up blood and foamed at the mouth. Images of the dead wrapped in white sheets in the street provoked international outrage towards President Bashar al-Assad.
“I remember I was walking with some friends and we were shot at by soldiers. Some of my friends were hit. I only avoided being hit because I hid behind a car,” he recalls.
Sharif doesn’t know why he and his friends were targeted: “Maybe it was because we were a group of people together?”
A short time later he was arrested by government soldiers on a bus. Again, he doesn’t know why.
“When you travel on the bus, you are stopped at many checkpoints and the army checks your ID. If they have any doubts about you, they will arrest you,” he says.
“Maybe it’s because I was from Moadamiyah. If there is fighting or explosions in an area, they try to check everyone from this area. They persecute the people from this area in order to keep them silent.”
While in custody, he was beaten and tortured for any information he might have - information he didn’t have.
He was kept in the dark for three days until suddenly being released. Friends of his weren’t so lucky. His mother didn’t expect to see him again.
“It was very hard - if a criminal commits a crime, that person knows how long they might have to stay in prison. But if you are arrested for no reason and it is a political issue, you don’t know what will happen. I thought I might die in the prison. I had no idea,” he says.
“We knew people who had been kept in there and they were never seen again. My mum was so happy and she said we had to pack up our important things straight away and leave to Lebanon.”
And so a teenage Sharif and his mother headed to the border, hoping for the best.
In Syria, men must serve in the military from 18. Those caught trying to evade can be imprisoned and tortured.
Sharif was yet to serve and his identification papers showed as much. Yet, another stroke of luck fell his way.
“I was so lucky the soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t fully check my papers.”
And so he and his mother moved to Lebanon.
“Lebanon was difficult. There was no war, no shooting, no explosions, but the Lebanese army persecuted us. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees aren’t respected and [are] looked at as dirty people. If you go to work, they don’t pay you what they should. If you are walking in the street and someone knows you’re from Syria, they come up and hit you,” he says.
“Sometimes I wish I had died in Syria. Better than being persecuted in Lebanon.”
Sharif turned to writing rap music as a vessel for his pain: “It was the only way I could express my feelings because I didn’t have anyone to complain to. I wanted to explain the way I was feeling through music.”
The first verse he wrote was about Syria and wanting to unite the country.
Sharif still writes whenever he feels low, but admits that’s not so often anymore. The inspiration doesn’t flow as quickly in New Zealand.
“Recently I felt lonely and started to write about that, but I can write about Syria easily. It has to be a very strong feeling for me to be able to write the words,” he says.
He is also waiting until his English improves so he can begin mixing the language with Arabic.
He thinks he’s adapting well to life in a new country, although some things take time. He’s been able to buy a car and loves working on it while he’s not studying.
“I have met some friends at Whitireia and they help me with my English. I also already know every Syrian around here,” he says.
“I like it here because people respect everyone.”
He still misses his home, though: “I miss playing in the streets in Syria and my family. I want to go back one day, but only if things went back to the way they were before.” '