Friday, 21 December 2018

Of the people, by the people, for the people

 ' "I’ve come to take part in the free elections. They make us proud." In January 2017, these were the words of a voter in the city of Idlib in north-west Syria, quoted by the news agency Agence France-Presse. The man was pleased about a particular event in the city: the first elections to the local council. It was hoped that this assembly would steer the fortunes of the local community through difficult times. Eighty five candidates were standing for election to the 25 seats. A 10-member executive committee was later chosen from its ranks, the head of which served as mayor for the city with its population of around 2,00,000 at the time. Anyone over 25 years old and born in Idlib was entitled to vote.

The vote was a small-scale sensation in the last province still in the hands of the opposition. In the year 2015, the Syrian government army withdrew from the region on the Turkish border. Fateh al-Sham jihadists had captured the city and initially governed it. But during the course of 2016, the citizens of Idlib were able to convince the jihadists that the city needed a civilian administration. This resulted in the election and establishment of a city council.

 Since then, Idlib local council has been managing the daily business of the community. It guarantees supplies of drinking water, electricity and fuel, ensures that roads are repaired and debris is cleared following bomb attacks. Rubbish needs to be disposed of and sewers maintained. People are needed to distribute aid and somehow take care of the many sick and injured. The Idlib local council co-ordinated and organised all of this, as well as could be expected amid a humanitarian catastrophe with many internal refugees and conflict damage.

 As the Syrian opposition movement gradually brought large areas of the country under its control from 2012 onwards, public structures initially imploded in many places. Opposition-held territories became a laboratory in which people had to experiment with new forms of self-administration.

"The local councils arose out of pure necessity," says Leila al-Shami, British-Syrian activist and writer. "They were attempts to establish day-to-day services in local areas from the bottom up."
Al-Shami believes that the local councils arose spontaneously and were not the expression of a political ideology. At a village, municipal and provincial level, they filled a vacuum that the government had left behind and that no-one was prepared for. Initially, mostly young activists improvised, distributed aid and tried somehow to cope with the emergency. They wanted to develop a democratic alternative to the Assad state, but they lacked clear ideas for this.
Some 600 city and provincial councils were set up primarily in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Daraa, as well as in the Damascus conurbation and Raqqa. They gradually consolidated their structures. After the most pressing humanitarian questions, the councils tackled projects such as school and hospital reconstruction. Local councils conducted negotiations with militias, tried to curb the influence of radical Islamists and mediated between hostile groups.

The civic representations enjoyed varying levels of success according to region. A 2017 report by the Swiss Peace Foundation appraising five case studies from all parts of the country found that local councils had certainly succeeded in guaranteeing a minimum level of services and supplies for day-to-day life. To a certain extent, they had also created a regulatory framework for democratic decision-making within the local authority area. According to the study, opportunities for public participation had significantly improved since the councils were first set up in 2012. Whereas initially, a small group of activists drew the local representatives from their own ranks or appointed dignitaries, more and more genuine elections were held between 2013 and 2015.

 Nevertheless, the study critically notes, in many places powerful families exerted a great influence on the composition and decisions of the councils. Despite this, the authors of the study say that in view of the difficult situation and the lack of a democratic tradition in Syria, the councils’ achievements have been remarkable. They report public meetings, opportunities to make complaints and healthy discussions on Facebook.

 This impression is confirmed by Leila al-Shami from her conversations with those involved in the local councils. "Not all areas have managed to overcome undemocratic structures," she says. There were cases of nepotism and corruption in the distribution of aid. Other local authorities struggled with prevailing quarrels between clans, or the overpowering influence of political and religious groups. But they were the only institutions to rightly claim, to a certain degree, that they were representing Syrians’ concerns.

 One major deficit was the lack of female involvement. Only very few women stood for election. Not because of any official sanctions, but "because of social norms", as one anonymous council member put it. The only exception was the city council of eastern Aleppo. Following the area’s recapture by government forces, it now operates in a rebel-held rural enclave. With the 38-year-old teacher Iman Hashem, it elected a woman to chair it in 2018.

 The fair distribution of aid posed a further problem. Primarily in the early years, opposition-held areas did receive food and medicine from foreign donors such as France and the USA. But these shipments were irregular and uncoordinated, says Agnes Favier in a 2016 study of local administration in opposition-held territories. This led to conflict over its distribution, which undermined the legitimacy of the councils.

 Pressure on these councils increased further from mid-2014 onwards. With the rise of the terrorist group ISIS’, local authorities slipped out of public view and lost their international support. In western public view, the Syria conflict was increasingly perceived as a battle between Assad and the Islamists. In any case, Arab donors in the Gulf gained little from the democracy experiments. The idea that compared to the extremists, Assad was the lesser evil, began to prevail. The champions of a democratic alternative were pulverised between dictatorship and jihadists.

 This is one of the biggest failures of western politics — that the local councils did not receive more financial and above all political support. One of Favier’s criticisms back in 2016 was that international donors never had a co-ordinated strategy to bolster the local authorities in the long-term. Because of this, every local authority and every province in opposition-held areas tried to muster as much support as possible from foreign donors and exiled Syrians. This resulted in inter-authority competition which further shattered the already fragmented opposition.

 At the same time, the local councils became the favoured target of the regime. "The regime saw civil organisations and democrats as the greatest threat to its totalitarianism," says Laila al-Shami. After all, it questioned perception of the Syrian conflict as a battle against terrorism.
The example of eastern Aleppo is especially illustrative of this. As observed by Kheder Kaddour, Syria expert at the Carnegie Foundation in Beirut, the notorious barrel bomb attacks on the eastern part of this city of nearly two million began just at the point when the city council in the opposition-held area had established a functioning administration. It was the regime’s aim to destroy any impression that others might be in a position to shape the nation’s future.

 But the councils’ own weaknesses also played a part. "Despite their local prominence, the local councils were not in a position to consolidate their institutions," says Khaddour. "In addition, the Syrian National Council lacked the power to make decisions and the necessary authority. The local assemblies were not adequately represented in the Syrian National Council." This meant they did not succeed in presenting themselves as a legitimate alternative to the Assad system. The opposition not only failed because of the military superiority of Assad and its allies Russia and Iran. It also failed because of the lack of a political concept for a new Syria.

 With Russian support, government forces have been able to recapture large areas of the country since the autumn of 2015. So what has happened to the local councils? "They were mostly dissolved," says Leila al-Shami "once an area was again brought under government control." In some areas, council members were also arrested. The Assad government then installed its own councils, called baladiya. They report directly to the local authority ministry in Damascus. Members of the baladiyas are generally appointed directly by the regime. This has put an end to democratic experiments for the time being. But recollections of such experiments will remain in the collective memory.'

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Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The displaced Syrian mothers still fighting for change – who say ‘I want you to feel our suffering’

 'Seven years in, campaigns and aid are beginning to dry up in Syria. The suffering of those still facing untold hardships fades from public view as the world moves on to the latest crisis.

 Thousands are still displaced, living with limited access to basic necessities such as food, electricity and fuel. Unknown numbers are detained or missing.

 Many of those left behind are women doing what they can to support their families, often mourning the loss of loved ones. Even though there are fewer battlefields, fighting continues, leaving civilians in mortal danger. The message from women in Syria rings clear: “I want you to feel our suffering.”

 Nivin Hotary, a 38-year-old mother of two and former project manager and teacher, was displaced seven months ago to the Aleppo countryside by the Assad regime’s siege of eastern Ghouta.

 Her former life “surrounded by close friends and family” was suddenly uprooted when Ghouta was besieged in 2012.

 She says: “The hardest moment during the conflict was when a bomb would be dropped near my house and I wasn’t able to protect my children, even though I was holding them tight in my arms. I used to wish that my body was bigger and stronger to protect them from harm.”

 Years later, her children now six and 12 years old, Nivin still has memories of “a weird smell in the air”, which she says she “knew was due to chemical weapons”. When the airstrikes hit, Nivin and her family would be forced to hide underground. “I’d have nightmares about my children being unable to breathe,” she adds.

 Her family now lives in Azaz, a town in the northern Aleppo countryside. But her new life is still full of complications and fear is never far away.

 “Although I live in a rented house and not in a camp, which is a privilege here, every night I suffer from feelings of instability like every displaced person,” Nivin says. “There are no guarantees for the safety of those who want to return, and the regime continues to arrest returnees. The number of forcibly disappeared people in its prisons remains high.”

 Nivin adds: “When we were displaced, my daughter would ask me about the different kinds of foods she saw at the market.” That’s because she had lived all her life under siege in Ghouta, and had never seen many of the goods for sale.

 But things are tough. “International aid to local organisations has begun to dry up,” Nivin says. “The cost of living is very expensive here, with few job opportunities.”

 51-year-old Ahlam – who could not give her surname because she fears for the safety of her son, who is detained by the regime – lives in Idlib. The province is now believed to be home to three million people and is one of the last areas of Syria outside the regime’s control. About half of the Idlib population have been displaced there from other parts of the country.

 Ahlam, a former maths teacher, and her husband, a former surgeon, have four children and several grandchildren in Idlib city. They used to live a busy, happy life, but when the fighting began, Ahlam says “no voice was heard but the voice of weapons”.

 Common to many Syrian parents, Ahlam’s sons were taken, a subject she struggles to talk about. “My two sons were kidnapped by the regime’s military intelligence,” she says. Through tears, she adds: “Two days later my third son got arrested too during a protest at his university. Can you imagine losing your three sons within two days and not knowing their whereabouts for days?”

 Two of her sons were released within three months and now live in Idlib, but her oldest has been in detention since February 2012. “I still don’t know his fate,” she says.

 The economic situation is dire in Idlib. There is a lack of jobs, while medical equipment and drugs are scarce. Many are waiting for humanitarian aid – which there is simply not enough of. Ahlam says that this high poverty and desperation has led to a rise in kidnappings for ransom money.

 “The situation in Idlib is still unstable,” she says. “We buy clean water when it’s available and when we can afford it. We also pay a monthly subscription to get electricity for a few hours a day. When there’s electricity, you see people running around so fast to use washing machines, heaters and phone chargers before it’s cut again. When there’s electricity, it’s hard work time for mothers!”

 Muzna Aljundi, 30, was a technical engineer and is now the manager of Women Now for Development in Idlib, a civil society organisation aiming to empower women in the northwest.

 “Of course war has a large effect on women, particularly psychologically in terms of causing depression and anxiety,” Muzna says. “Losing their husbands can make women more vulnerable as they have to provide for their children on their own.” The mother of two adds that women make up 60 to 70 per cent of the population in opposition-held areas, so “empowering women to play their roles and make use of their capabilities is very necessary for the whole community”.

 Muzna’s home village was bombed for days when it was being liberated from the regime. Her family would go out to help distribute food baskets to people in need, despite the risk of bombs.

 “I believe that the revolution is not over,” she says. “Our role as civilians and activists starts now. I look back at the days I had to live under fear of bombing and siege, and although it was the hardest time of my life, it really made me see life differently and definitely made me much stronger. My experience gives me a reason to wake up and go to work everyday because I want to help make positive change.”

 The world may be starting to forget about Syria, but these three women demand to be heard, and they will not wait for change – they will orchestrate it.

 Ahlam, who despite the detention of her son continues in local activism and works with NGOs, says: “My message to women everywhere is: I want you to feel our suffering, and to call your governments to remind them that there are millions of innocent people in Idlib and everywhere in Syria who deserve to live in freedom and dignity.”

 Displaced Nivin is now the director of the Women’s Empowerment Unit, a civil society organisation that helps provide women with the training and tools they need, encouraging them to play bigger roles in decision-making in their communities.

 Communities in Syria have seen high numbers of women continuing to get an education, despite their age or the war. “When the revolution started, there was a lack of expertise and qualifications among women, but then the war pushed them to work harder and improve their skills,” Nivin says. “I’m surrounded by courageous women. We have hope that Syrian women will help build a better Syria, just like German women did after the Second World War.”

 Nivin adds: “I hope you hear our voices. I’m one of many mothers who decided to join the revolution because I didn’t want my kids to live the same way I did, to live under the control of a corrupt regime. I hope that you won’t let the decision makers, who let us down for their own politics and interests, affect the way you think of us.

 “I hope that you will stand in solidarity with us if you do believe in our rights to offer our children a better life, to live in freedom and dignity and to have a Syria for all.” '