Thursday, 22 February 2018

It’s not easy to get rid of Ghouta’s revolutionaries

 'The words “de-escalation zone” appear not to mean quite the same thing in Russian as they do in English.

 That, at least, is a conclusion one might draw looking at the present scene in Syria’s East Ghouta, where the Russian air force has assisted its Syrian client regime in an enormous escalation of what was already an extremely high level of violence in the district on the eastern fringe of Damascus that has been under choking siege for five years, and was also the site of the infamous August 2013 Sarin gas attack that killed over 1,000 in a single morning.

 The numbers speak for themselves: more than 250 people were killed by Syrian and Russian air bombardment, and over 1,000 wounded, on Monday and Tuesday alone, according to the Associated Press. At least four field hospitals have been rendered inoperative by apparently deliberate targeting, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization with medical staff currently on the ground in Ghouta.

 The same goes for the sole bakery serving the estimated 350,000-400,000 starving residents of the besieged suburbs, per reports from local citizen journalists. Video footage released by the Syrian Civil Defense volunteer aid force, also known as the White Helmets, shows apocalyptic scenes of fireballs erupting on razed, dust-darkened streets as rescuers scour rubble for survivors; an instance of what they called a “double tap” air strike.

 All this in an area Moscow pledged last September, in an agreement reached with Turkey and Iran, to keep peaceful and bloodless.

 That was back then. The new plan, in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is to repeat the “experience of freeing Aleppo” in Ghouta, a reference to what was in fact the massive, indiscriminate air and ground campaign in late 2016 that ended with the expulsion of opposition fighters, along with thousands of civilians, from Aleppo to Idlib Province.

 The last time the Aleppo “experience” happened, an official UN inquiry found it to have constituted a “war crime.” This time around, UNICEF could only issue a blank statement, explaining, “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”

 There is no doubt that, “on the humanitarian level, the situation is catastrophic,” said Orwa Khalife, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has previously lived in Ghouta. “By hitting all of Ghouta’s infrastructure and vital points, such as hospitals, medical centers, and Civil Defense positions,” the regime and the Russians have “suspended the most basic and essential services” for civilians.

 What is less certain is why this flare-up is happening now specifically, and what its ultimate outcome will be. According to Khalife, who writes regularly on military developments in Ghouta in the Arabic press, there have been a number of recent gains made by rebel fighters in the area that likely prompted the regime and its Russian patron to take decisive action to remove the mounting threat on the perimeter of the capital.

 “The recent battle for the Vehicle Management Base [a strategic military vehicles base held by the regime] in Harasta put the regime in a tight spot, for it lost one of its most important military positions close to Damascus,” said Khalife.

 “This loss was indicative of a general weakness in the regime army’s military striking force, and threatened it with the loss of further vital areas, which drove it to … focus on Ghouta, and try to tie it up militarily [and] impose an agreement on the opposition factions there.”

 That hypothetical agreement, assuming it were modeled on the Aleppo example, as Lavrov suggests, would potentially involve “the removal of the opposition factions, or at least the surrendering of their heavy weapons,” and perhaps their displacement to Idlib or Daraa Provinces, Khalife added.

 Of course, whether the leaderships of the opposition factions in Ghouta would agree to such a proposal is another matter. The symbolism of a total opposition defeat in Ghouta; one of the first regions to rise up against the regime in 2011, and the last stronghold of the rebellion in the capital’s vicinity; would be immense. Moreover, the numbers involved—of both fighters and civilians—are of an altogether higher magnitude than was the case in Aleppo.

 “To forcibly displace Ghouta would be tantamount to ending the revolution,” said Baraa Abd al-Rahman, a Syrian journalist currently present in Ghouta.

 “And it’s not easy to get rid of Ghouta’s revolutionaries, as we saw in recent months, when there was a campaign by the regime to take over Jobar, in Damascus, that lasted six months without success for the regime.

 “So, no, I think applying the Aleppo scenario in Ghouta is impossible.”

 For his part, Khalife thinks it is theoretically conceivable, “in the event that international pressure doesn’t lead to a suspension of the military campaign,” but it would still be considerably more complicated than the Aleppo precedent.

 “There are essential differences [with Aleppo]. In Ghouta, the number of opposition fighters is greater, and the fighting fronts have been clear and continuous for years, which has allowed the development of wider military defense mechanisms” on the opposition’s part.

 “Moreover, Ghouta contains between 350 and 400 thousand civilians, a large proportion of whom are wanted by the regime.” Such numbers of people can’t simply be swept off in buses, as was the case with East Aleppo’s residents.

 “So the regime and Russia are left with limited options.”

 Limited options, perhaps. But, in the meantime, apparently unlimited freedom to act as they please.'

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

#ThemToo: Syrian Women Tell Stories of Rape in Regime Prisons

 'In December 2017, a French documentary broadcast by TV channel France 2 featured a group of women who had survived rape and torture in the secret prisons of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In the 72-minute film titled “Syrie, le cri étouffé” (Syria, the Muffled Cry), the survivors, who are now refugees in Turkey, Jordan and throughout Europe, speak about their arrest and subsequent detention, describing how the Assad regime used rape to settle scores with opponents and subjugate communities opposed to its rule.

 The documentary emerged at a global watershed moment which set off an avalanche of daring revelations by victims of sexual abuse who took to social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The campaign was sparked by the scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein who used his leverage to sexually blackmail a long list of Hollywood stars. The trend soon spread like wildfire, with increasing numbers of victims speaking up, knocking celebrities and politicians worldwide off their pedestals.

 In a bold move rarely precedented, two women opted to speak about their harrowing experiences with full names and uncovered faces. In a patriarchal Syrian society rife with blaming victims of sexual violence, discussing the issue is an entrenched taboo. Blowing the lid off horrendous stories taking place in a dark underworld of torture and rape dubbed a ”torture archipelago” in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, the documentary shattered the longtime silence that has haunted victims and kept the issue largely underreported.

 According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian security forces.

 "It was night..I was sitting at the bedside pondering what will happen next…the door opens..three enormous men entered. I heard one ask another: ”Who is to start first?” My blood ran cold. What does that mean?"

 The voice of one of the women featured in the documentary shakes as she remembers the dreadful moments leading up to her rape at one of Syria's notorious detention centers. Arrested at a military checkpoint in the southern city of Daraa for taking part in peaceful protests and medical efforts after a military crackdown, the woman says she was accused of “carrying weapons to terrorists,” a common charge leveled at Assad opponents.

 She describes how she was first made to watch another woman she identifies as Alwa being raped as a warning that should she withhold any information, the same fate will befall her.

 "Alwa's hands and legs were pinned down by three men, a fourth on top raping her. She was screaming. What an awful sight! Alwa was unmarried. The wedding dress, party, trills of joy, decoration…Everything she was robbed of came to my mind at that moment."

 Speaking in the dark and her face invisible, the woman's voice and movement of hands betray overwhelming emotion and visible agitation as she revisits these bitter memories.

 Her own rape took place at the notorious 215 security branch in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. She says:

 'Three monsters entered the room. The first started to unzip my jacket. He set off to forcefully remove my clothes. I was in denial as to what was happening. I was screaming…in so much pain…I felt my soul leaving my body. My whole world came tumbling down. I was stark naked when I woke up…the sheets were stained. I could not remember what happened…'

 On one occasion, five men took turns raping her.

 "With the fourth, I began to feel excruciating pain like I was in labor. I heard one tell another. ‘Go on, it's OK!’ I felt something unusual was happening. When I looked down, I saw a pool of blood underneath me. I tried to rise to my feet but I couldn't, at which point I lost consciousness.

When I woke up, I found myself in a hospital. A doctor told me that I suffered a stroke and lost a lot of blood. The nurse later told me that the doctor made them believe I was dead so that I can escape."

 Another rape survivor was Mariam Khleif from Hama, a university student, an employee as well as a mother of four. During the regime's crackdown on protests in her hometown, she engaged in rescue operations amid the staggering death toll and injuries, treating the wounded at a field hospital nearby. Mariam was arrested when security forces raided her house shortly after she secretly dropped by to visit her family whom she had not seen in four months. Speaking with her face uncovered, Mariam reflects on the day she was arrested:

 "They barged into the house, smashed the door and dragged me on to the street. Men stood watching with their faces cast down, unable to lift a finger."

 She was put in an armored vehicle in which five other women were rounded up, among them a 55-year old called Um Mustafa who was beaten and kicked all the way to the prison.

 Mariam describes the unspeakable physical torture she underwent that caused severe damage to her kidney.

 "I was hanged from the ceiling…My hands tied to the wall…severely beaten in an unimaginably brutal way."

 The beating happened as a song extolling Bashar al-Assad was being played all the time. As she describes the torture, her voice trails off and she bursts into tears:

 "I thought that was all and they were done with torture. How naïve I was! Everything that happened up to that moment was nothing compared to what was to come…

 When the night falls, they would pick beautiful detainees, take them to someone called Lt. Colonel Sulaiman from Tartous. His room had a door leading to another room, equipped with two beds and a table on which all kinds of alcohol were arrayed. He even invited friends to watch the rapings, one of them was a usual visitor called Colonel Jihad, who took part in raping women.

I watched them rape my friend. Another woman was seven months pregnant when they raped her. She had a miscarriage due to brutal rape and the kicks to her belly. I saw it with my own eyes. I was screaming hysterically. No one ever heard…

They would pour Arak [alcoholic spirit] on the bodies of women…"

 Mariam herself was gang-raped by four men, among them Colonel Jihad. She describes the daily torture routine for women in the prison as a cycle of beatings during the day and rapes at night.

 A female officer from Deraa who served for eight years in the Assad military before her defection says rape, in the beginning, happened only in detention centers. Speaking with her back to the camera, she says that later on, rape became more systematic: women were raped at checkpoints, in the streets, inside their houses before their husbands.

 "The regime used rape to humiliate the Syrian man. Women were detained to blackmail Syrian men. When a man is engaged in the revolution, his female relatives were detained as a blackmail tactic."

 Acting upon the orders of military commanders, female relatives of anti-Assad fighters were raped during raids. Rapes were filmed and the videos sent to the fighters to “crush the men's spirits,” she says.

 A recently released woman confirmed a sharp increase in the numbers of detained women lately, especially from rebel-held areas, attributing it to the regime's intention to use them as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps with the opposition.

 The raped women's tragedy does not end with their release. In another twist of the knife, the social stigma attached to rape and sexual abuse make their lives nearly impossible.

 While men who survive detention are mostly feted as heroes, women receive little or no sympathy, often blamed for bringing dishonor to their families.

 According to one of the women interviewed in the film:

 "In a conservative Syrian society, like all Muslim societies, rape shakes basic Islamic values. It desecrates a sacrosanct thing that is a woman's body. It is hard for a Muslim society to reconcile itself to such thing, that's why utmost secrecy is enforced. When the raped woman is a mother, the life of the entire family is upended."

 For another woman, death would have been easier than rape:

 "My self-image was tarnished because of a bunch of monsters. Rape is much worse than death. Many of the raped women were disowned by their families, stigmatized by society. People tell us that we should not have allowed it to happen. How is that possible? It happened against our will."

 This culture of intolerance plays into the hands of the regime which uses rape to inflict as much infamy and dishonor as possible.

 Fawziah Hussein al-Khalaf, who survived al-Houla massacre in Homs, also speaks with an uncovered face. Shabiha militia invaded her house. Her pleas for them to rape her but spare her daughters went unheeded. She was raped along with her daughters before the Shabiha militia members slit their throats one after another. Only Fawziah and her daughter Rasha survived the massacre. Engulfed with shame, they never mingled with people thereafter. They avoided gatherings and never took buses.

 A former prisoner in a secret prison called “Afaq” who was released in a prisoner swap between the regime and opposition factions said she counted five suicides by raped female detainees in the course of two months.

 “Raped women are caught between the anvil of the regime and the hammer of society,” says the woman from Deraa.

 Like many of the other women, Mariam became a refugee to escape the stigma and start a new life. As she describes how much she misses Syria, tears roll down her cheeks. She says that Alwa had a much worse fate. Her ambiguous death led many to assume she was killed by her father.

 "I am now divorced with four children. I am a stranger here…I am nothing…a soulless body."

 The documentary caused a stir on social media, with many sharing the video. Some changed their profile picture to the photos of the women who appeared in the documentary. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po at the Paris School of International Affairs, wrote an article urging the French President Emanuel Macron to revoke France's Legion of Honor (France's highest civilian distinction) from the Syrian dictator as he did with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, reminding the French president of earlier statements demanding Assad's ouster and trial for war crimes.

 Syrian, Lebanese and French activists launched a campaign on social media led by the French philosopher Frederic Lonoir, signing a petition addressed to the French President, calling on him to intervene for the release of the Syrian female detainees.

 However, many saw nothing but a very slim hope of a concrete action despite the furor sparked by the documentary.

 Anwar al-Bunni, Head of the Syrian Center for Studies and Legal Research voiced pessimism over efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

 "The Syrian people now realize that pleas for the world to stop these violations are futile."

 Speaking to Arabi 21, al-Bunni said the Syrian regime is blocking progress on this file which it considers a lifeline.

 "The regime is using this file as a weapon. It is impossible to make progress as long as Assad remains in power."

 Russia and China have repeatedly used vetos to block UN resolutions against the Syrian regime, shielding their ally from sanctions over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

 The French president has shown a softening attitude towards the fate of Assad. Rounds of peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition have failed to achieve a breakthrough in the file of detainees.

 Jaundiced by a history of inaction, this pessimism was echoed by the women in the documentary. For Mariam:

 "I am convinced that people will see the documentary, look the other way and carry on with their lives as normal. For over five years, we have been calling on the West to push for the release of Syrian women. Nothing has happened. This is a call for the women of the West…Do something to help Syrian women…" '

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Surviving as a child in the longest military siege in modern history

 Muhammad Najem:

 'I am from eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, I am 15-years-old I live here with my mother and siblings. I am in eighth grade but I stopped studying three months ago because of the constant bombardment of the place in which I live. My school was bombed by warplanes more than once but after each raid, we would return and try to complete our studies. But my school was bombed until it was completely destroyed and I no longer have a classroom within which to study or a playground to play in. The other schools in Eastern Ghouta have also been targeted and destroyed. I want to tell the world what is happening to us today and convey my suffering, which I live through every day because of the bombings and the siege. I want to tell the truth and to tell people what is happening to us. We are besieged, we are hungry, we are under constant bombardment, we are exhausted from the displacement and the killing.

 This war is not ending, but we are forced to grow up in these conditions and no one has done anything to protect and support the vulnerable here. Conferences and meetings and false peace talks fail while the Arabs and the rest of the world are still silent. In this war we have already lost everything, and we are still losing more, every single day, every single one of us has lost something precious. Losing my home and my father I lost my house, which my father built with with hard work and the sweat from his forehead. Then my father was killed two years ago after a shell landed on the mosque where he was praying. Many of the children here have lost their fathers or their mothers, many of us have lost siblings and many of us have lost our homes. We have been dismembered, we have lost parts of our bodies, our hands, our feet and our eyes. The world will not be able to compensate us for anything that we lost. We have lost sight of the sky and the sun because of the war planes that fly over us day and night in order to bomb civilians.

 The siege surrounds us. The specter of death and starvation hovers over us. Last week the regime began to escalate its violent campaign against us. Planes indiscriminately drop bombs of hatred and destruction on us. On Thursday, warplanes mounted yet more raids on residential buildings. Everyone went down to the cellars and we could hear the roar of the jets above us as we held each other’s hands.

 I was walking in the street with some of my friends, including my friend Salim who lives next door to us when we heard the sound of jets approaching. We fled to the cellar, but Salim ran to his home to hide with his family and uncle. He did not know that at that moment six missiles were on their way to his house. Smoke and black dust filled the cellar, choking us and filling the cellar with darkness. Children cried and the women screamed as they tried to check on their terrified children. When the dust settled, we saw that Salim’s house was completely destroyed and the Civil Defense teams were attempting to rescue the people, including Salim and his family, trapped under the rubble. After hours of searching through the rubble, I found out that Salim had miraculously survived. But his younger sister had died, his mother suffered life-changing injuries and his younger brother is still missing. Salim’s little cousins Mohammed, Majid and Raghad were also killed in the air strike. I find it hard to believe the life we are witnessing here in Ghouta. Today I am reassured at least because Salim has left the hospital, he is unable to move because of his injury. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.'