Friday, 20 July 2018

What’s going on in Syria—the cruelty of the Syrian government since 2011

Karam Alhamad's profile photo, Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor

 'Wafa Mustafa is in the Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought degree program at Bard College Berlin. “I’m from Masyaf, a small village in the middle of Syria,” says Wafa. “I moved to the city to study journalism and media. Two months after I went to a protest in support of the revolution I was arrested by the regime. When I was released I went back to my college, but I was told I wasn’t a student there anymore. Then, in July 2013, our dad got arrested in Damascus.”

 His arrest meant that the family had to flee immediately to ensure that the regime wouldn’t come after family members and use them to force their father to talk. (Sana happened to be in the United States at the time on what was supposed to be a six-week exchange program; without a home to go back to, she was eventually granted political asylum.) They went to Turkey with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs. “It was me, my mother, and my youngest sister,” Wafa continues. “One of us had to work because we needed money and we knew nobody and had no help from anyone. For three years I worked in Turkey, first with a radio station and then with a newspaper and then with a website as an editor and a reporter.”

 She worked 16 to 17 hours a day. The work helped push down the understandable depression she was experiencing: one of her closest friends had been killed, she was far from home and from the revolution she continued to believe in passionately, her father’s condition and whereabouts remained unknown, and the bureaucracy of applying for asylum was worthy of Kafka. “In Syria I always had the hope that I would continue my studies at some point,” Wafa explains. “But in Turkey it felt like: That’s it. This is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.”

 Karam Alhamad, who is studying for the Economics, Politics, and Social Thought degree at Bard College Berlin, also has a rich—and horrific—store of such firsthand knowledge. And he has shared what he witnessed through photographs and videos. Although he had always been interested in journalism, and even worked for the main newspaper in his hometown of Deir ez-Zor, a city on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, it wasn’t until protests broke out in 2011 that he took up a camera. Over the following four years, he was jailed by the Syrian regime four times, the longest stint being 11 months in 2014, nine and a half of which was in the notorious Branch 235 prison (also known as the Palestine Branch). While there, ever the journalist, he kept track of the number of people who died. The total reached 73 before he was released.

 “When I got out I went into a Free Syrian Army area of the city, or so I thought, but I was shocked to find ISIS there,” recalls Alhamad. “That’s why I decided not to stay in Syria. But I couldn’t get a passport. I had a red line under my name. I was wanted by the regime. I still am. So I wasn’t allowed to leave. This led me to (cross illegally) into Turkey.”

 Once there, Alhamad found work with the Syrian opposition government and won a Leaders for Democracy Fellowship to study at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “I applied for a visa from the U.S. Consulate and I got it, but the Turkish police wouldn’t allow me to leave,” Alhamad says. “So I talked to a French journalist I’d worked with and she did a story about the situation. After that I got a call from an assistant to the prime minister of Turkey telling me to go to the airport, that I could go, but officers there didn’t allow me to leave. They refused to talk to the prime minister’s assistant, so he told me to put him on speaker. Finally the officers allowed me to leave by the diplomatic gate.

 Though Alhamad is referring to his research and consulting work, his photography and video are also certainly creditworthy. His YouTube page is full of powerful images of what it means to live a life surrounded by violence. To see small children being pulled from a bombed-out building is, of course, terrible. To see the lack of surprise on their faces makes it clear that this is all they have known. That is more terrifying than anything Hollywood could conjure. The videos are difficult to watch. But for Alhamad they can also be a salve. “After what I’ve been through and what Syria has been through, the way I think about the photos, the videos, my experiences, my body—it all makes me stronger, it makes me who I am,” says Alhamad, whose legs still show the scars of the torture he endured in prison. “I took the photos and videos and posted them to show people what’s going on in Syria—the cruelty of the Syrian government since 2011. Those photos touch my heart. Sometimes when I feel disconnected I go back to the photos and videos and I get tears in my eyes, but I need that to stay connected to what’s happening. I understand that for most people it’s a new thing, they have not witnessed such cruelty. But for me it’s an experience that should and must be understood by other people.” '

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Syrian civil society turns to factions after US funding freeze

 'Joining a hardline Islamist faction was never part of Khaled Abdul Kareem’s plan.

 Just a few months ago, the father of two was steadily employed as a logistics officer with the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB), a collection of US-funded civil society organisations in Syria’s northwestern opposition-held Idlib province.

 The work was reliable and with the help of a monthly salary of $100, Abdul Kareem’s office was a relatively stable place to earn a living in a country at war. “I delivered the goods on time,” he recalled, “and I was truly dedicated to the job.”

 But at the end of March, the Trump administration announced a freeze on some $200m in stabilisation aid to Syria. The URB was one of at least 150 recipient organisations whose funding abruptly came to a halt.

 Within a matter of weeks, Abdul Kareem and more than 650 other employees at the union were thrust into a vast pool of unemployed residents in the northwestern rebel-held territory, where more than a million displaced people fleeing reconciliation agreements and pro-government offensives across Syria have gathered alongside rebel fighters, activists and those wanted for mandatory military service.

 Hundreds of the URB’s former employees are now working on a voluntary basis to maintain operations as the organisation’s leaders desperately seek alternative sources of funding, URB president Raed Fares said. But others have turned toward the patchwork of armed factions ruling the area to look for much-needed income.

 Abdul Kareem quickly found a job with hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), the dominant faction in Idlib. HTS was designated a terrorist organisation by the US government in May.

 “I’m fundamentally opposed to all of their policies,” said Abdul Kareem, who now serves on the faction’s police force, “but I need money to provide for my children.”

 Two other former URB employees found positions within Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. All three men now carry a weapon on a daily basis. They asked that their real names be withheld, fearing repercussions from local rebel groups.

 The sudden shift from office jobs to frontlines reflects the fragility of a nascent Syrian civil society movement that often hinges on shrinking pools of foreign aid - and the potential for armed groups with deeper pockets to fill the void left behind by funding cuts.

 At the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus - where more than $3m in US funds has been implemented in recent years - paid work in most of the union’s offices officially came to a stop more than a month ago.

 Although limited funding from UK-based NGO War Child has been enough to keep 12 local children’s centres open, a number of centres dedicated to women’s empowerment and adolescent support are now temporarily closed because the operational costs were too high. Volunteers are maintaining other activities for the moment, including medical services, athletics programs and the most widely listened-to radio station in opposition-held Syria: Radio Fresh FM.

 “Everyone still has hope that we’ll find an alternate funding source,” said Fares, who is courting donors in the US and beyond in an attempt to preserve the work he helped launch years ago as a community leader in central Idlib province’s Kafr Nabl, the once-sleepy town whose vocal residents earned it the moniker of “conscience of the revolution”.

 But cuts are already beginning to bite, pushing some employees to look for alternative work in a northwestern province where displaced persons make up more than half the population and most people rely, at least in part, on humanitarian aid to get by.

 With work already hard to come by, residents say that the myriad opposition groups on the ground in Idlib can provide a key source of employment.

 “Searching for a job in the north is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Muhammad al-Ali, a 27-year-old native of Kafr Nabl. “We’ve been forced to take up arms in order to survive.”

 Until recently, Ali’s voice was a staple of the local news coverage broadcast by Radio Fresh. But after the funding freeze, he said he grudgingly accepted a position as a liaison officer with a Free Syrian Army faction, taking advantage of a personal connection to another officer.

 “I never imagined that one day I’d leave my job, join an armed group, carry arms and head to the frontlines,” the father of two says. “I was forced to do so in order to provide for my family.”

 Ali now moves throughout the rebel-held northwestern countryside, monitoring dormant frontlines facing government-held areas while reconnaissance planes circle overhead. It’s a role that earns him about $100 every two months - half of what he made at Radio Fresh.

 Ali’s former colleague at Radio Fresh, Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahmoud, said he made a similar move after the aid cuts left him “looking for any job in order to survive".

 He found work with the FSA-affiliated National Liberation Front, as part of the group’s media team. The former radio editor now carries a weapon alongside his camera, documenting the battles on the ground rather than from the Kafr Nabl office where he still volunteers a few hours of his time each week.

 But even with his monthly salary of about $130, Mahmoud says debts are piling up.

 “Everything, from food and drink to rent, is extremely expensive,” the 27-year-old father of five said. “The costs are greater than a person’s income.”

 HTS is not only the dominant military force in the northwest, but also maintains a growing presence in administrative and civil affairs through the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) - a civil authority formed in late 2017 and backed by the hardline group.

 Since its founding, the SSG has sought to usurp local governance by challenging the opposing, western-backed Syrian Interim Government and asserting its strict interpretation of Islamic law on residents of the province.

 “HTS is eager and willing to step in” and provide community services like those funded by stabilisation assistance, said Mark Strohbehn, Senior Program Manager for Syria programs at the Washington, DC-based firm Development Transformations (DT), which is the State Department’s largest contractor for civil society programmes in Syria. By doing so, the group may “gain greater control over how people are required to live their life,” he added.

 It is a fear shared by URB president Fares, a longstanding, outspoken opponent of the northwest’s Islamist factions and manager of the Radio Fresh station. “The vacuum that we leave behind will be filled by terrorist groups,” he warned.

 Fares said he remains committed to building up civil society, which he sees as essential to a “future Syria that will respect the rights of its citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity".

 “Civil society is the only tool by which we can reach that point.” '