Saturday, 24 March 2018

Remembering Free Harasta

 Fadi Dayoub:

 'Today we are at the end of a story that is more than five-year-old. A bittersweet story for sure, but one that saw people reach and touch the dream, even if they did not get to experience its full potential. Only six months ago, we were debating what's next for Harasta. We had just concluded the direct elections of a local council, a process that upheld electoral standards within our means--we even had debates among the candidates.

 Harasta, to be fair, was not the first to lead the way with direct elections of a local council; Saqba did it only a month before. And so, we were discussing what our next step should be. How to work with the council to increase the participation rate in the next elections, particularly that of women. We decided that the 'Center for Social Engagement"--which was established a few months prior and had taken part in overseeing the elections in Harasta producing a detailed report--should focus on encouraging higher electoral turnout.

 We did not know at the time those would be the last elections in Harasta... Harasta today, as those who remain there tell us, is almost completely destroyed. Part of its people has been made, under fire, to leave and go north. They wanted to still be able to smell free air, even if away from home. Another part decided to stay back, even deprived of their basic freedoms. A few days ago, several hundred people in Kafr Batna were filmed demonstrating, chanting "We do not want Freedom anymore!" They, thus, agreed to the trade the regime had asked of them: Their liberty for their life.

 And so, as some Harastans choose to let go of their freedom, while others choose to let go of their homes, remember that none of this was actually their choice. They made their decision at gunpoint. Today, as we turn the page on the five-year story of Free Harasta, I only hope for the safety and well-being of its people, wherever they are, and wherever they are made to be. We bow our heads to you in humility and we raise them with pride.'

Friday, 23 March 2018

‘Death and destruction all over’: Ghouta residents brave intense fighting to stay

 'Thousands of Syrians have fled from the shrinking rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta to government areas since February as government forces continue to take neighborhoods in the brutal battle.

 But others are fleeing deeper into rebel territory. They fear the government and seek to avoid them at all costs.

 Um Ahmad is one of them. A mother of five and the wife of a former fighter, she left her neighborhood Mesraba a month ago as the government advanced, leaving behind most of her possessions and braving mortar bombs all around her.

 She made her way to Douma – one of the last rebel-controlled areas. Despite the nonstop bombings, she thinks staying among the rebels is her best chance at survival.

“I could lose my husband forever,” she said of the prospect of going to safer areas held by the government. “I am ready to sacrifice here until the end.”

 The people in the increasingly small rebel territories face an uncertain and difficult future as the government continues to advance.

 Um Ahmad said she was staying in a basement as of 21 March with little food. Leaving Eastern Ghouta would spell a failure of the revolution and subsequent armed struggle that she doesn’t want to face.

 “We couldn’t imagine after all these years going back to the regime,” she said over the phone. “Leaving behind what we have been building and fighting for.”

 Despite her support for the rebel cause, she’s critical of the groups’ failure to stop the government offensive.

 “The FSA didn’t act to stop the regime, despite the big arsenal they have,” she said.

 The government began a major offensive to take Ghouta on 19 February, and split the rebel-held territory up on 11 March. The fighting has left over 1,000 dead, and caused immense damaged to Ghouta’s infrastructure, which has been pounded by Syrian air force bombs.

 The government's success in Ghouta is part of its momentum since the Russian intervention in 2015, which led to the victory in Aleppo at the end of 2016. The government has also benefitted from rebel infighting in Ghouta, where Jaysh al-Islam has clashed with Faylaq al-Rahman and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.

 Others remaining in rebel areas of Eastern Ghouta share Um Ahmad’s bleak view. Safwan Alo left his home with his wife and kids in Al Shefoney when government forces took it on 3 March. They bounced around rebel neighbourhoods before coming to Douma, where they are now. His travels were nightmarish.

 “In those days it was like judgement day,” he said. “Death and destruction all over.”

 Fed up with a life of war, Alo wants to leave Ghouta, but only under certain circumstances.

 “We want to leave from here, not through regime or Russian corridors for sure. It’s not a safe passage for us. We don’t know if they will arrest us or leave us alive,” he said.

 “Everyone here is desperate to leave. However, they are frightened by what will happen to them after through these corridors.”

 Jaish al-Islam’s fighters are defiant despite defeat being all but certain.

 “They have been relentlessly trying to gain more area, destroying buildings and clearing the path to the ground forces, which have succeeded so far in many areas,” said Maher al-Ghoutani, a soldier from the Arbin area. "We are doing what are capable of so far and always will.”

 Al-Ghoutani said that the different groups are working together, and denies rebels are preventing people from leaving. He has no intention to leave himself, nor stop fighting.

 “I hope and we will fight the regime until the end, we will not leave the east and will fight until the last man,” he said.

 “We will continue fighting here and everywhere we could as long as we have breath running blood in our bodies.”

 Staying in eastern Ghouta means staying in horrible conditions from the war.

 “Relentless strikes, very little food…Entire families in tatters on the roads,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

 Kayyali said bombing has been nonstop and that many families are staying in basements to avoid death, and that the healthcare situation is deteriorating.

 “Doctors claim to receive hundreds of injured a day, and more are stuck under the rubble,” she said.

 She echoed concerns that people going to government territory could face detention or worse, citing past executions of civilians.

 “The current choice is between staying and risking death, and leaving and risking retaliation,” said Kayyali.

 Until a solution or a complete government victory is reached, Alo will stay put, hoping for a UN-brokered evacuation from his part of the city.

 “They should guarantee our safety,” he said. “Otherwise we would rather stay here and not die in the regime's jails.” '

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Syrian rebel victory in Afrin reveals strength of Turkish-backed force

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel army soldiers take control of Afrin in northern Syria.

 'The Syrian rebel commander Abu Ahmed was smiling. His troops had played a key role in Turkey’s assault on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, a fight they have won.

 Abu Ahmed is a senior officer in the 10,000-strong rebel force that, with Turkish backing and instigation, took control of Afrin on Sunday after a two-month battle. His name has been changed, along with others, to freely discuss their sensitive relations with their backers in Ankara.

 Their quick victory in a fight against an adversary trained and armed by the US, which had ousted Islamic State from vast tracts of territory, underlined the growing power of a rebel army in Syria’s north, armed and paid by Turkey, that now comprises three legions and controls a growing swathe of territory.

 Throughout northern Syria, bands of disparate rebel groups have fallen in line behind the Ankara-backed project, which has imposed military discipline on fighters that Washington, while covertly backing, had deemed too fractious and weak to defeat Isis.

 “I mean, even Bashar al-Assad didn’t succeed in uniting us,” said one rebel official. “We are militarily and politically weaker than the regime, which is using scorched-earth tactics and areas are falling while we are accusing each other of betrayal.

 “The people now hate all the rebel factions, and this will change when there is a unified army,” he added.

 Critics, including within the opposition, say they are no more than mercenaries fighting Turkey’s battles, pitting Syrians against Syrians. Their fighters, while acknowledging they have no ultimate say in the broad contours of the war, disagree.

 “If Assad stays with his apparatchiks this will not be over, but if there is a transition away from Assad and his top echelons in the leadership, we can work together with the army with the support of the international community to impose security on all the liberated areas,” said Abu Ahmed’s political aide. “And if we are tricked, the weapons are still there, and the fighters are there, and it will be a fight to the death.”

 It was Ankara’s second major campaign in Syria. In August 2016 it launched Euphrates Shield, an operation that relied on Syrian rebel groups to clear towns controlled by Isis from the border and halt Kurdish expansion west of the Euphrates river.

 After the campaign, Turkey sought to better organise and train the rebels allied with it, providing them with training, arms, and even a monthly stipend for the fighters in the military factions that join the alliance. The three legions that form the rebel army, which nominally falls under the authority of a barebones transitional government formed with Turkish backing, are led by defected Syrian soldiers who are themselves advised by senior Turkish military officers, according to rebel officials and commanders.

 Rebels say they conducted the vast majority of the fighting in Afrin, backed by Turkish artillery and fighter planes. They are convinced that the battle was an overall strategic victory, because it will open a ground corridor into nearby Idlib province, and link them up with other rebel factions that want to join the coalition there.

 While acknowledging their lack of agency in determining the course of the war, they see no problem in aligning themselves with Ankara, given what they see as a convergence of interests in Syria. The prospect of a united rebel army, as the war in Syria enters its eighth year, appears to overpower their dependency on an ally with whom their goals might not always align.

 “The main goal is to build an army for the opposition, and we built a nucleus,” said one rebel commander. “The regime doesn’t make its own decisions, it’s basically a military faction like all the rebels, and neither does the opposition. When the international powers agree, [the war in] Syria will be over, and when that happens, time will help everyone forget.” '

Sunday, 18 March 2018

How the war in Syria destroyed my childhood idyll in Eastern Ghouta

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 'As the bombs rain down on the rebel-held area on the edge of Damascus, Steve Ali remembers the idyllic summers he and his friends spent there as children — and how their young lives were torn apart by Syria’s civil war
In Syria, we don’t say, “Once upon a time …” We say, “There was and there wasn’t a long time ago …” So that is how I shall start my story here.

 There was and there wasn’t a long time ago a boy called Mustafa who had a friend called Mahmoud. The most exciting challenge in Mustafa’s life was to climb the tallest oak tree in a field owned by Mahmoud’s family in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta. The field was by the Barada river that ran all the way from Western Ghouta and across Damascus to Eastern Ghouta. From the top of this oak Mustafa felt like he could see the whole world. He loved to ride the bendy branches as the howling wind rocked them back and forth.

 Mahmoud’s father would scold Mustafa. “Get down, you monkey! You’ll hurt yourself if you fall, son,” he’d shout, but Mustafa did not fall.

 Mustafa and Mahmoud and their friends Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad were a tight summer crew. They played football in the long, wide field, through the emerald plants and the dark red soil. They chased each other through the trees. They planted vegetables, fed the farm animals, swam in the river and found adventures in the woods until the sun went down. Then they pulled aubergines and potatoes from the field and cooked them over an open fire under the moonlight. Then they rode back to the house on their bicycles.

 Mahmoud’s older brother Karim was a teacher and sometimes he would manage to gather the scattered children into the house to teach them maths. He had kind, twinkly eyes and a warm heart and stealthy means to make the children laugh as they learnt that “numbers are important”. After lessons the whole family would sit in their large living room full of treasures, on a beautiful Persian rug that Mustafa thought looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet. They would share a picnic of traditional Syrian dishes made by Mahmoud’s adoring mother.

 When the children were tired of running outside on the long summer days, they’d visit Samer, whose father was a master craftsman. Sometimes he would take the boys to his workshop in Hazeh where he taught them how to make wooden clocks. Each child had a role in the production line and at breaktime Samer’s mother would reward the little workers with sandwiches and a huge kettle of tea.

 Ahmad wouldn’t come to the workshop. He was too shy. He preferred to work in his father’s florist’s, more excited by flowers than people. He would lecture Mustafa about orchids with a spark in his eye and a passion in his quiet little voice. Mustafa loved watching his friend leave his awkwardness to one side whenever he was able to be an authority on orchids.

 Amer and Rami were brothers. The children were sometimes invited to their father’s factory in Hamoryah where he produced generators and electrical products. The boys fiddled with the machines and tools and broke them as often as they learnt how to get them going.

 Little Ziad, the last of the gang, was from Douma. His dad had a convenience shop on the corner in the main square where he chatted and chain-smoked. Mustafa always warned him the smoking was very bad for his health and he always promised to quit but never did.
 Many blissful summers in Eastern Ghouta and peaceful school years in Damascus passed. Mustafa and his friends laughed and argued, played and studied, and grew tall — even little Ziad. Eventually the crew split up to travel to different universities. The idyllic years of their childhood grew into their first days of adulthood. Then the war began. It was and it wasn’t a long time ago … the kind of slaughter that belonged in a savage ancient myth. Except this time it definitely was — and it was happening now. It was happening to me and everyone I’d ever loved.

 None of us living in Damascus knew what was happening in the country at first. We lived under the relentless brainwashing machine of national television, where we were told that the rumours of torture and killing were lies to turn people against the government. We couldn’t imagine life being any other way than it had been when we were riding bicycles in the woods.

 But soon everyone could smell the blood. The sickeningly dry and suffocating smell of burning flesh made it hard to breathe. As the conflict intensified, we all had to be identified as either a loyal supporter of the regime or the enemy. For them or against them. Damascus was turned into one massive fortress, crawling with army officers, with checkpoints on every street. Walls were painted with the regime’s flag and propaganda. Veiled figures walked the streets at night writing revolutionary phrases on walls. The regime responded by threatening to knock the walls of people’s houses down if they couldn’t keep them clean.

 From my room at night I could hear the peal of cannons. My house would tremble as I watched the bombs like shooting stars in the distance. A walk to see friends would turn into a battlefield, running through bullets from armed soldiers and rebels, like something out of Mad Max. Bombings, explosions, assassinations and arbitrary arrests became the norm.

 I was a student, so immune to being called up to shoot and gas Syrians my own age and younger. But soon young men my age were randomly pulled off university campuses and forced into uniform with a gun in their back and a threat to kill or be killed. So on March 13, 2013, I packed as lightly as possible, dressed as discreetly as I could and left my home for the last time.

 I set off with the intention of passing through about 20 military checkpoints, including one known as the checkpoint of death. My ID card was torn, which would have signalled disloyalty and meant certain death. I slipped it into a clear plastic folder, masking the tear, and showed my passport instead wherever I could. At each checkpoint I was waved through, my heart beating in my mouth — until the final one.

 An enormous, bald, armed man with huge bushy beard and a face from hell approached me and asked for my ID. He stared at the torn document for a long time and I knew my time was up. I was going to be taken away. I knew not where, except that I would not return. After what seemed like a short lifetime, he handed it back to me wordlessly and walked away. I have no idea why, to this day. I didn’t look back. Not long afterwards, I was in Turkey. I felt born again, but I had no idea how far away peace would be for me.
 I walked across countries where Syrians were not welcome and there were no rights for refugees. I crossed seas in dinghies and I slept rough. I avoided arrest from ruthless police, dealt with unscrupulous, terrifying smugglers and nearly died of exposure. After three years, I finally arrived in the Calais Jungle refugee camp, where I lived for a year. By night I worked as a firefighter. It was a very flammable place, in every way. The French police tear-gassed and intimidated the traumatised population and threatened to bulldoze our shelters to the ground. Eventually they did.

 I tried every possible death-defying way to get to London until one of them worked. I was sofa surfing while waiting for asylum. Then a friend asked me to do a panel show podcast called Global Pillage with some stand-up comedians who were doing a refugee season for TimePeace, an app that connects refugees with local people. Deborah, the host of the show, said she and her husband, Tom, were going away and needed a cat-sitter. I agreed immediately.

 When they returned, we all stayed up for hours chatting, drinking tea and stroking Toast, their cat, in front of the fire. It was the loveliest night I’d had in a long time. Like something I would have done in Syria before the war. It felt … normal.

 Afterwards, Deborah said that if I left it was clear that Toast would leave with me, so I should stay on in their spare room. I feel very lucky and grateful in every way to have met them. The sense of family we’ve developed and the calm stability that I have being there has meant I’ve found some of my old self. I’ve unpacked in more ways than one and made my bedroom my own space, like it was in Damascus. I haven’t had any room except a shelter in a refugee camp from the age of 20 to 25, so I love this one.

 I make silver jewellery, so I got a desk from Freecycle and began collecting tools. As soon as I got my papers, I started selling my jewellery and called my company Road from Damascus, because I had my epiphany coming the other way.

 Being granted asylum is like becoming a person again. Life is getting better and normality is returning. Recently, I was offered a job as an interpreter for a news agency. I speak Arabic, Turkish and English, and this is quite well-paid work for someone who loves languages. For the first time in years, I have an appetite for the future.

 I wake up. My phone reminds me it is 1,808 days exactly since I left Damascus. Numbers matter. Karim taught me that, but now I understand what that means in a way perhaps he didn’t. I go to work at the news agency and I am distracted because it is my best friend’s 26th birthday, but he only lived 21 of them. Our university was bombed just after I escaped. We spoke the night before he was killed. He was making plans to join me.

 I sit behind a desk, going through videos and reports. They come through thick and fast from Eastern Ghouta. The region is being bombed and devastated. I need to prepare for a report for the 6pm news on national American television. I interpret a speech from a man they call “The Tiger” — Brigadier Suheil Salman al-Hassan, commander of the government’s Tiger Forces. He is leading the attacks on Eastern Ghouta. I translate his words into English but they stick to the roof of my mouth. He says: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.”

 I feel sick. Furious, devastated, sad, battered and broken. How much longer will this last? How much longer do my people have to suffer?

 I can’t see the screens any more. My mind blocks the carnage with all the summers with Mahmoud, Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad. I can hear their laughter, feel the softness of the magic carpet, taste the roasted aubergines and smell the orchids. Every colour is vivid. A hundred images in a second, as if their lives are flashing before my eyes.

 I realise my tea is cold. And I am numb. I have forgotten where I am. And remembered where I’ll never be again.

 Mahmoud died in an airstrike when a bomb fell on the house with the big Persian rug that we had picnicked on so many times. His father was killed beside him.

 Mahmoud’s older brother Karim, who taught us to love maths, came home to find his loved ones dead and his kind eyes stopped twinkling when he buried them and four more of his siblings. Not long afterwards, Karim’s warm heart stopped beating. He was shot in the head by a sniper.

 Samer left his house full of wooden clocks one day and went to a protest to call time on Assad’s regime. He was arrested and so badly beaten by the police he was unrecognisable. When his father went to the police station to try to get his son back, he was arrested too. Neither of them has been seen again.
 About a year after that, Samer’s mother who had made us so many sandwiches and big pots of tea was killed in an explosion alongside her seven-year-old daughter.

 Shy Ahmad got on a bus to go to university one day. It was stopped at a checkpoint. They ripped his student card out of his hand and forced him into the military. Ahmad was killed in a battle and thrown into a large ditch with many other young, violently conscripted men. A young soldier who knew Ahmad recognised him while trying to cover his body with some soil. He contacted his family to let them know. There were no orchids on his grave.

 Amer and Rami’s father’s generator factory was stormed by the regime. Everyone working there was arrested and the place was looted. Their father was accused of having connections with terrorists and put on trial. All his possessions and property were taken and he was sent to the notorious military prison of Sednaya, where later he was executed.

 In response Amer and Rami joined the rebel forces. Amer got shot in one of the vicious battles during the siege. Rami saw his brother go down, ran directly into the line of fire to try to save him and was instantly shot dead.

 Little Ziad, barely grown up at 20, tried to flee Syria with his family, who left their convenience store and everything they knew behind, but he was detained at a border. His father went back for him and paid someone he knew to get his son out. They took his money and sent him Ziad’s dead body. Soon after, Ziad’s father had his last cigarette and died of a heart attack.

 And then there is me, Mustafa, nicknamed Steve by my Syrian friends, which is easier for my English ones. The only one left who can remember the tallest oak tree in the field in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta.

 I walk back to the desk and see a post from Hassan Akkad, a friend from Damascus who is now in London. “A few years from now, there will be a huge Hollywood film about Syria. It will tell the true story of the systematic torture and rape Assad’s troops used against millions of peaceful protestors to shut down the revolution. A film we will watch, weep and then say, ‘Never again’.”

 It was and it is and it’s happening now — and every day nobody stops it. I feel as if I have climbed to the top of the oak tree again and I can see the whole of Ghouta from here. I can hear Mahmoud’s father’s voice in my head, warning me to be careful, but I am the lucky one. I did not fall.'

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‘I screamed, but no one came’: The horrifying sexual violence facing Syria’s women and girls

 'Syrian government forces, under the control of Bashar al-Assad, have systematically used rape and sexual violence as a tool to victimize and humiliate its perceived enemies.

 That's the conclusion of the United Nations' Human Rights Council, which just released a new report on the horrific sexual violence facing the people of Syria.

 The stories in the report, written after interviews with more than 450 people, document a terrifying and systematic pattern of sexual abuse by the government during house raids, at checkpoints and in detention centers.

 Rape and sexual humiliation weren't a bug of the system — they were a feature, designed to break combatants and destroy the structures of family life.

 The report documents the way rape was deployed during government raids on the homes of people it suspected to be in the opposition.

 As one women explained: “My home was invaded ... One security officer told me to go to my room and he followed me in. He began insulting me and telling me he would 'do me' and that I would never 'be clean again.' I screamed, but no one came.”

 In some instances, women and girls recounted being raped outside or forced to walk naked in the streets in front of tanks. One woman told interviewers that she'd been raped in front of her brother. Another woman said she'd been raped in front of her husband and three young children. Some women who resisted were killed, or were forced to watch their relatives die.

 In other cases, women and girls were taken to detention centers as a way to pressure their male relatives to surrender.

 At government checkpoints, particularly in opposition-held areas — a near-daily reality in Syria, where most roads are controlled by someone — women and girls suffered similar humiliations. Sometimes women were separated from their groups and raped. One woman recalled being pulled off a bus and taken to a house with eight other women, who were all naked and injured.

 Even elderly women were not safe. Many were subject to “intimate searches.” One woman recalled being taken to a basement and beaten by a militia member, who also touched her breasts and genitals. Another said she had “an object inserted in her genitals.”

 The worst abuse, however, was reserved for the girls and women in detention. As the report explains, “thousands of women and girls were also apprehended, including female lawyers, journalists and activists expressing anti-Government sentiments. Large numbers of female relatives of men perceived to be opposition supporters, or suspected of belonging to armed groups, were also arbitrarily detained.”

 For those girls and women — some as young as 9 years old — there was a parade of horrors: Pregnant women were raped. At least one interviewee miscarried as a result.

 On arrival, women were sometimes stripped naked in groups and forced to squat in front of an audience as a male officer inserted his fingers into their genitals. In detention, many women reported rape. Some reported electrocution of their genitals and breasts. Others said they had been gang-raped.

 All reported horrific conditions and frequent beatings. According to the report, one detainee said that at one point, the fact that she was covered in blood, urine and lice prevented officers from raping her.

 “The officers of the Syrian forces were not only aware of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls,” the report found. “They ordered it or were themselves the perpetrators.”

 In detention centers, men suffered too. According to the report, several reported that they had been raped in front of other detainees. Some said that pipes or rods had been used, “seemingly for amusement.” Others reported that male relatives were forced to have intercourse with one another.

 “Survivors of sexual violence and defectors of the Syrian army linked rapes of women and girls during house raids to the arrest of men, with the rapes considered as punishment for rebellion and a way to deter opposition.” This kind of assault eased up after 2015 as the government's forces shifted to air raids.

 These were not isolated incidents, but rather reported countrywide, in Daraa, Homs, Damascus and Latakia.

 There are accounts of sexual violence against women from armed groups too. But the report finds that that was sporadic, or at least not part of an organized campaign.'