Saturday, 8 December 2018

After years in jail without trial or hope, Syria’s hunger strikers fight for justice

 'In the shaky mobile phone video, around a dozen men with grim faces stand in silence, their arms above their heads holding placards. The corridor’s yellow light reveals exposed wires and damp, peeling paint.

 The protesters are detainees at Hama central prison: some were arrested during Syria’s peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011 and have been held without trial since.

 “We have been imprisoned for many long years in the darkness of detention cells, breathing in and breathing out agony,” one says, reading from a piece of paper explaining the decision for a hunger strike. “We are exhausted. We have the right to live and for our story to be taken seriously.” The powerful message is a rare glimpse into the invisible world of Syria’s hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. In Hama central prison around 200 men have now entered their third week of hunger strike in protest against their continued detention – and a decision to transfer 11 prisoners to Damascus’s infamous Sednaya prison.

 If sent to Sednaya, the 11 are as good as “dead men walking,” said Mustafa, a local activist, who added that relatives have gathered outside Hama police station in solidarity protests. “Please, all human beings, all Syrians, I am not a terrorist. I never held a weapon, I just participated in a demonstration for freedom,” one hunger striking detainee said in a WhatsApp voice note. “We spent years in Sednaya and now they want to send us back to execute us. We did no wrong to the Syrian people, from any background or sects. Listen to our voices. Listen just for once.”

 Hama central prison, a civilian facility supposed to be more humane than notorious intelligence detention centres and Sednaya, has been a hotbed of resistance since 2012, when a riot led to prisoners taking guards and members of the administration hostage. Negotiations for hearings and better conditions have failed time and again, leading to fresh riots and intermittent hunger strikes.

 The new hunger strike is being held in protest at the decision of a military judge last month to send 11 men back to Sednaya and try another 68, including minors, in what detainees feared would lead to lengthy sentences and the death penalty. They are calling for a general amnesty.

 Since the summer Damascus has issued a flurry of hundreds of belated death certificates for the disappeared. Many have taken the official acknowledgement as a sign that at this late stage of the war, Assad no longer fears repercussions – either at home or from the international community – in admitting that so many have died in state custody.

 Damascus, along with neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, tired of shouldering the burden of large refugee populations, is now insisting that it is safe for Syrians to return home to “the nation’s embrace”.

 Despite the strident promises of amnesty and reconciliation, however, new evidence is emerging that in areas recently retaken by the government from rebel forces, dozens of opposition figures and those who defected from the Syrian army are being disappeared. Their numbers add to the thousands who already languish in Assad’s prisons.

 Inside Hama central prison, inmates are weakening from a diet of water, sometimes taken with salt or sugar. Posts in support have flooded Syrian social media. “The Syrian revolution is strong,” one supporter wrote. “May God protect you”.'

Bashar al-Assad at a mosque with worshippers

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The deterioration of the service situation forces the people of al-Ghouta to move to the neighborhoods of Damascus

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 'Hundreds of families who remained in the eastern towns and villages of the Ghouta fled to the neighborhoods of Damascus and its environs after the Assad régime took control of the area amid deteriorating security, living and economic conditions, as well as the massive destruction of their homes and cities.

 "After my family and I refused to go to the north of Syria, we decided to stay and repair what I could from my house. When the Assad régime came in, things became complicated because of blackmail," said Yasin Mohammed, a resident of Douma. Elements of the régime forces threaten civilians by publicly stealing shops and homes."

 He pointed to the negligence of the Assadist public services in the city, targeted to punish the remaining civilians, by not removing the rubble and garbage from the roads, which led to the spread of odors and diseases, and fear of the spread of epidemics among civilians, after the rodent population multiplied.

 "There is no commercial movement in the markets, in addition to the difficulty of securing jobs and continuing arrests campaigns, harassment by elements of the Assad forces and the weakness of the régime's protection of civilians, and the difficulty of restoring homes and shops destroyed by bombing by the régime during the military campaign to control Ghouta."

 He stressed that the cities and towns of the eastern Ghouta were almost ghost towns, when there were about 350,000 people before the invasion by the forces of Assad and the militias supporting them, and a million and a half before the siege, while the streets of the capital Damascus and its environs are crowded 24 hours a day, as he put it.

 Adnan Maikeh, vice president of the municipal council in the city of Douma, said that the population of Douma is now about 200,000. He told the pro-regime daily Al-Watan: "Among the population, more than 100 families came from outside city, and rented homes within it."

 It is noteworthy that the Assad forces and militias supporting them, launched and supported by the aircraft of Russian aggression, a violent military attack on the cities and towns of the eastern Ghouta several months ago, resulting in the control of the area after massive
 destruction and dozens of massacres that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, including children and women, and the displacement of people to the north of Syria and housing centers in the capital Damascus.'

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Inside Assad's hellholes: No daylight for Syrian women

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 'Twenty-five-year-old Ummu Ala has finally found shelter with her two children in Reyhanlı, a town bordering Syria in southeastern Turkey's Hatay. Ummu Ala fled Syria three years ago. She left her hometown, Homs, in tears; but there was nothing else she could do. First, the Bashar Assad regime officers killed her husband and father in 2012. Then, her 9-year-old brother was shot by a regime sniper while playing on the street in front of their house. At the end of 2012, Ummu Ala was arrested by regime forces and imprisoned for three and a half months after her older brother joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

 I was curious about her story. I asked her, "Did they imprison you just because your brother joined FSA?" She said, "Yes … It was for revenge. I was just a housekeeper in Homs." I was overwhelmed and wanted to learn more. I asked her if she had participated in the protests. She responded, "I didn't go out to join the protests even for a day."

 I kept asking and tried to learn about the place that she was held in and what happened to her there. She told me that she was held in a 25 square meter room with 45 or 50 other women. Showing me her teeth, she said they were all broken when they struck her with metal rods.

 "They were torturing us according to a schedule. My turn was on Fridays," Ummu Ala said, "I still hate Fridays." Her toenails were hammered one by one; she was beaten over and over again. Bursting into tears, she said that she was raped many times and all the women there were treated the same way she was. Some of them died as their bodies couldn't withstand the torture anymore.

 Ummu Ala's elder brother managed to find money to get her out of the prison. He gave a $1,300 bribe to one of the guards. As we know, the infamous regime is also known for its corrupt officers and bribe-taking. If you're a lucky person to know a regime officer, it is often a chance to save your family or friends from prison by giving a bribe of anywhere between a thousand to millions of dollars. Ummu Ala was finally out of prison, but her elder brother was going to be arrested soon. She said that she has not heard from him ever since.

 Until she found a way to escape to Turkey to save her children and herself, Ummu Ala was trapped in Homs, which was under a long and heavy siege for months. I asked her, "How were your days in Homs?" It felt like I had opened another page of a memory she would rather forget. She said that one day her cousin shot a cat and a dog, brought them to the house and skinned them; that was supper. They ate wood chips, leaves, grass and so on for a very long time.

 There were no words on earth to make her feel better. I know that talking about Syrians and their struggles is not a hot topic anymore. If you talk "too much" about Syria in the media, you can easily hurt your reputation. After all that has happened, the number of the people who say, "We must compromise with Assad," is growing. Assad is acting like the Hitler of this decade, but there are many who want to bow down in front of him.

 Assad's victims were not only men who decided to fight against his brutal, bloody regime. There were also women and children. Estimates of the number of the deaths in the Syrian civil war, per opposition activist groups, vary between 366,792 and 522,000. However, it is believed that the number is much higher than those as there are many missing and their relatives have not heard from them for a long time.

 Over 600 detainees and prisoners died under torture in Assad's prisons starting from 2012. According to Amnesty International, between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in the Syrian regime's prisons. In August 2013, a military defector, code-named "Caesar," smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria. Human Rights Watch received the full set of images from the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group that received them from Caesar. The report focused on 28,707 of the photographs that, based on all available information, show at least 6,786 detainees who died in detention under severe torture. There is no doubt that the numbers are still growing since no one is doing anything to stop this tragedy.

 Today, world leaders are talking about defeating Daesh, finding a political solution to the never-ending war, and even working on a new constitution. But, it looks like the people in Assad's jails, including civilians, women and children are no one's problem except for some humanitarian groups. According to Amnesty International, the majority of female prisoners are held in Adra prison in Damascus. In the early days of the uprising, female detainees were mainly political activists or humanitarian workers. But as the crisis escalated it became more common for other women, often relatives of opposition fighters, to be arrested and used as bargaining chips, sometimes for prisoner swaps; just like Ummu Ala.

 Recent estimates from the activist groups show that 13,581 women have been put into Assad's prisons starting from March 2011 to the end of 2017. At least 6,736 of them are still in jail and 417 of them are teenage girls. Also, at least 55 women were killed during torture. Under non-stop humiliation, horror, beating, torture and rape, I can't imagine how long someone can survive. And disgracefully, it looks like the whole world left them to their fate in Assad's hellholes.'

Merve Şebnem Oruç