Monday, 19 August 2019

Testimony of three detainees in Assad prisons

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 'Mohammed Eyad, former Syrian detainee, has unveiled with a heavy heart the details of his suffering in the Air Force Intelligence prison in the capital, where he had been held for four years between 2012-2016.

 “They were very painful years,” says Mohammed, who preferred to use a pseudonym as his current circumstances do not allow him to reveal his real name. In one of our meetings with him in Muadamiyat al-Sham, the western suburbs of Damascus, Mohammed was not the only one to speak, joined by Marwan and Massoud, two other detainees who were united by the scenes of "unbearable cruelty" in the regime's jails.

 Massoud was arrested at Al-Arbaeen checkpoint on the eve of the outbreak of the major battle the regime launched against Darayya and Muadamiyat al-Sham in November 2012 and was released at the end of the fifth year of the revolution, too. Marwan, despite the short time he spent in prison (not more than two months), lived a bitter experience that made him think he spent more months in imprisonment.

 “In that prison, I got to experience the horrible method the jailers forced us into. It was painful and frightening at the same time,” says Muhammad Iyad, “In which the jailer orders two of the prisoners to torture one another by beating his face. Once a young man from the city of Darayya was the victim, one of his friends was forced to beat him in this way for hours until he died."

 This talk of death led Massoud to recall another method that parallels it in brutality. "On holidays, the jailer would come in and mockingly wishes us happy holidays. ‘I will choose a number of you to get Eidiyah (gift as part of the celebration of Eid) he would say... choosing about 15 people… We were surprised by this apparent change in treatment. But, after only a quarter of an hour things started to get clearer. The poor young men were tortured, hit with a nylon hose on their feet until they all died."

 Marwan, who was imprisoned after the truce between the regime and the rebels of the Muadamiya early 2014, says his arrest was surprising. He passed through the Damascus barriers easily, but at the al-Jadida checkpoint near the capital he was arrested without any reason.

 “I stayed for 8 days in a solitary cell. Then they led me to a hall that was not more than 50 meters long, filled with dozens of prisoners. The surprise was not in the narrowness of the room, but in the prisoners. There were six bodies of detainees who died as a result of torture, malnutrition and disease.”

 "In fact, many of the internees were about to die as a result of medical negligence. For the rest of the time I stayed in the hall, other people died, the bodies living with us for several days, and when the number increases, the jailers come to take them away. It's been a terrible time, I can not imagine how I lived without going mad,” he continues.

 The three witnesses preferred not to publicize their real names because of their security conditions. Mohammad and Massoud recounted their experiences in the Air Force Intelligence prison adjacent to the cities of Darayya and Muadamiyat al-Sham. Marwan was detained in the 215th branch, one of the worst branches of the regime’s security, if not its worst.'

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Sunday, 18 August 2019

Assadist captured pilot in Idlib says orders given to burn land

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 'The Assadist pilot, who was captured on Wednesday (August 14), said, the task of his fellow Assadist pilots was to conduct the scorched land policy before the Assad ground forces could progress towards any town or village in the Idlib countryside.

 Speaking in pictures posted by Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Assad Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Ahmad Suliman, said, Russians gave orders and plans to Brigadier Suheil al-Hasan (The Tiger) to launch attacks on Idlib's town and villages.

 "Brigadier Suheil's campaign depends on the scorched land policy. When he intends to storm any axis or village, the task of the airforce is to burn that axis before he makes any progress. And thus he will advance towards a neutral land," the captured pilot said.

 HTS earlier on Wednesday posted footage of what its militants said was the Assadist pilot whose plane was shot down.

 "My name's Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Ahmad Suliman. I serve in the Brigade 70. While I was conducting a "Ramz Bayreq Mission" in the east Khan Sheikhoun, my plane was downed. I'm now captured by the opposition fighters," he said.

 Hundreds of airstrikes were conducted on Idlib countryside, killing more than 1000 civilians, injuring dozens of thousands and displacing 400.000 of the population to the north of the major opposition-controlled area.'

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Thursday, 15 August 2019

Time Is Running Out for Syrians in Lebanon

A young Syrian refugee peeks out of a bus window as fellow refugees prepare to leave Beirut on their journey home to Syria on Sept. 4, 2018.

 ' “They kill the kids. They kill everyone! We can’t go back!”

 For Fatima, the idea of returning to war-ravaged Syria with her five children is laughable. Besides, what would she go back to? “We had a home, a farm,” she said. “All are destroyed.”

 Sitting outside her tent this spring, concealed from view by an olive grove in Lebanon’s northernmost province of Akkar, the Syrian border is tantalizingly close. “I want to go back,” she said. “But we can’t.”

 Yet a ruling by Lebanese authorities, along with growing hostility to refugees in both media and political circles, may soon leave her with no choice. This spring, Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council decreed that any Syrian who entered the country without proper documentation after April 24 would be deported. The effect was immediate: On April 26, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 16 Syrians were summarily deported after arriving at the Beirut airport, despite most of the group expressing fears of torture and persecution should they return home. In total, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency, 301 Syrians were deported from the country in May.

 Firsthand accounts of forcible deportation, obtained by the Access Center for Human Rights in Beirut, allege violations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Lebanon is constitutionally committed. Other testimony includes allegations of refugees being tortured and beaten by Lebanese security forces, denied access to legal advice and representation, and returned to Syria, despite the danger this may have posed to them. In one account, a refugee was reportedly handed over to Syrian authorities by Lebanese security forces, transferred to Damascus, and has not been heard from since.

 The threat of forced deportation looms large of the refugee communities. “[The returnees] are imprisoned, or killed,” Fatima’s husband, Muhammed, said. “I could be conscripted into the army if I went back to Syria.”

 Naama, a young Syrian activist and journalist originally from Homs, was imprisoned for speaking out against the Bashar al-Assad régime in 2014. Now living in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, she’s in no doubt of the fate that would await her if she were to return to Syria. “When I come back to Syria, they will take me to jail,” she later said. “I am back to death.” She believes that a similar fate would await many returning Syrians, “especially the activists and journalists.”

 Along with forced deportations, Lebanese authorities are also engaged in a more insidious campaign to drive refugees out of the country. For one, new work laws are making it harder for Syrians to live sustainably in Lebanon. In June, the minister for labor, Kamil Abu Suleiman, announced a government plan to impose harsh financial sanctions on any businesses that employ foreign workers without work permits, a plan that has led to the dismissal of workers across the country. Given that a permit can cost up to $1,200, work is simply beyond the reach of many Syrian refugees. The inability to provide for their families will put further pressure on them to leave.

 According to Amnesty International, there are over 900,000 Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government counts a further 500,000 unregistered Syrians. Lebanese politicians have argued that such a huge influx of refugees is putting pressure on the economy and that Lebanese citizens are losing out on jobs to Syrians. New research from the Access Center has highlighted numerous instances of Lebanese politicians employing anti-refugee rhetoric in speeches and at rallies to turn public opinion against the Syrians.

 In June, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that “the Lebanese are above all.” He’s argued that the “genetic distinction” of the Lebanese makes them superior to their Syrian counterparts. And, according to an Associated Press story, a rally organized by Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement party under the slogan “Employ a Lebanese” saw protestors vandalizing a Syrian-owned shop and chanting “Syria get out,” as part of a wider campaign by the party to shut down businesses that employ Syrian workers.

 But according to Naama, the Syrians are just being used as scapegoats: “There is no education, there is no work or jobs for young people”—Lebanese or Syrian. She argues that joblessness leads to frustration, and officials encourage citizens to project their anger onto Syrians. “When you see all the tweets on Twitter from the political men, and you see how they deal with people and society, they play on people’s feelings,” Naama said. “‘You don’t have a job because the Syrians have taken your jobs.’ So the regular people will think that—‘Yeah, the Syrians are taking my job.’ But it’s not true.” According to statistics from the International Labour Organization, 92 percent of Syrian workers have no formal job contract, and less than a quarter earn a regular monthly wage. Most work in agricultural or domestic services, in jobs that, many of them argue, most Lebanese do not want.

 A recent survey by the Carnegie Middle East Center suggested that 96 percent of refugees fled Syria because of the deteriorating security situation there rather than for economic reasons. Many wish to return home when it is safe to do so. Some Syrians, like Mutasem, another refugee in Lebanon, understand the strain the large number of refugees places on Lebanese society. Overcrowding in host communities is leading to increased demand for public services, affecting both the accessibility and quality of health care and education, and rental prices have increased drastically in response to greater demand. Lebanon’s proximity to the Syrian conflict has damaged its tourism industry, and hundreds of camps are sprawled across its landscapes.

 From his family’s home, a U.N.-branded tarpaulin strung over a scaffold of wooden planks, Mutasem is aware of how he may be viewed by many Lebanese. But, he said this summer, he has no choice. “If I go back to Syria, I would be going to death,” he said. “If I’d get money, I’d go to Europe. But I will never return to Syria.”

 It’s not hard to understand why. He shows a recently received video on his cell phone of his old street in Aleppo. He won’t say who sent it to him. “In my city, there is no electricity, no water. Every building has been destroyed. There are no roads. There are no people,” he said.

 Like many here, Mutasem is aware of the Lebanese government’s efforts to push Syrians out of the country. His brother was killed in a Russian airstrike somewhere in Idlib, and he plans to defy the Lebanese government’s aims. “I’ve heard it, yes,” he said. “But I can’t put my family at risk. I can’t go back.”

 With fighting continuing in parts of the country, peace in Syria remains elusive. It is dangerous to send refugees back into the thick of a conflict, yet that is what is happening, with pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon increasing day by day.'

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Wednesday, 7 August 2019

An artist's 'explosive' works convey hope amid death in Syria


 'A large missile incubator stands in the middle of the room that Akram Swedaan uses as his studio. In a few days, he will completely transform the weapon of war into a work of art with the strokes of his paintbrush.

 Born Akram Abo Alfoz in Douma, eastern Ghouta, Swedaan, a self-taught painter, has made a name for himself in the last three years by transforming the remnants of shells, missiles and bullets he collects from the street in “defiance of the death plaguing Syria.”

 “Painting on instruments of death is no easy task,” Swedaan said, in his studio in al-Bab, in Aleppo’s eastern countryside. “It is not by coincidence or by sheer necessity that I use shells and missiles. Both are tools for killing. Rather, it is my attempt to convey a message to the world that the Syrian people love life and do not deserve such death and suffering. I convey that the Syrians can find life amid death and destruction and turn their sadness into art.”

 Swedaan started using missiles and shells as canvases in 2014 while still in Douma, which at the time was under the control of the armed opposition and under siege by regime forces employing air and ground bombardments.

 “I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid,” Swedaan said. “I loved drawing scenes of the old Damascus, streets with jasmine trees, as well as Damascus motifs.” While in Douma, he started the series “Painting on Death,” in which he painted Damascene and Oriental motifs against mostly bright backgrounds.

 In April 2018, Swedaan left Douma after a grueling Russian-backed government siege of more than five years against eastern Ghouta. Arriving in al-Bab, he began working on “The Returnee,” a series about his dream of returning home no matter how long it takes.

 “The paintings and the art pieces from ‘The Returnee’ are not that different from ‘Painting on Death’ in the sense that they both focus on the will to live,” Swedaan explained. “But the works in ‘The Returnee’ series are more nostalgic, longing for home and the city of Douma in particular.”

 Swedaan’s work is characterized by dark and sad colors, drawings of his comrades killed in Douma and inscriptions such as “O homeland, my beloved,” “Jasmine of Peace” and other expressions reflective of the longing for peace, home and life. The figures he paints on the missiles are of people who have died or have been detained or displaced.

 “The Returnee” aims to draw attention to the plight of displaced Syrians from Douma and elsewhere. One piece in the series is a Russian cluster incubator, or bomb tank, covered with the names of the Syrian cities and towns whose residents have been displaced due to operations conducted by or backed by the Russian military.

 Swedaan cites dates and specific events to highlight the plight of the Syrians. For the International Day of the Arabic Language, Dec. 18, 2018, Swedaan wrote the following in Kufic, one of the oldest calligraphy forms, on an empty incubator for a Russian-launched missile: “No to displacement, yes to home, no to arrest, yes to freedom, no to terrorism, yes to peace, no to murder, yes to life.”

 “These missiles kill Syrians and their children, demolish their houses, displace them and destroy [infrastructure, hospitals and] schools,” Swedaan said. “On these missiles, which I turn into art pieces, I write or sketch the disastrous consequences of their attacks. I also [paint] the names of the Syrian detainees in the prisons of the Syrian regime and those persecuted and displaced.”

 For Valentine's Day this year, Swedaan used ammunition to commemorate the occasion. “On Feb. 14, while the world was celebrating Valentine's Day, and Syria still suffered under war, I turned a collection of empty bullets into a red [bouquet], expressing love and life,” Swedaan noted.

 “One of the unique pieces that I made was a drawing of Damascene motifs against a black backdrop on a cluster missile incubator for the 8th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, March 18, and writing at the bottom ‘Revolution persists until victory,’” he said.

 During the holy month of Ramadan, Swedaan created “Ramadan Cannon” from an empty 23-mm machine gun shell. Muslims fire a cannon each day during Ramadan to signal the end of fasting. This past Ramadan (May 5–June 3) was the second Ramadan he had spent away from Douma.

 Abu al-Ala al-Halabi, a human rights activist in Aleppo, said, “Despite the tragedies Swedaan has suffered under displacement, he continues to document the revolution and the war in Syria. His works pay homage to his homeland and the artistic heritage of his country. He proves that art and beauty can resist guns, death and destruction, and he conveys hope, with art, to the suffering Syrians.”

 Somewhat unusual for a painter, Swedaan is reluctant to part with his works, saying they are too personal. “I received an offer to sell some of my work, but I refused,” he said. “I cannot sell the works that have become a testament to the most difficult stages of the Syrian revolution. I want to show my work in international exhibitions, but that is not possible at the moment.” '

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Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Reporting on the War in Syria as an Unveiled Woman

 Zaina Erhaim:

 'Five long, shapeless tops; a pile of loose-fitting, dark-colored jeans; a knee-length coat; and a video camera. Those were the contents of my wardrobe for more than two years, when I lived in and reported on the rebel-held area of Aleppo, known as eastern Aleppo city. Few things changed between the seasons, as we had to dress conservatively year-round.

 In my “real life” — my life as a layperson and not a journalist — I have only two to three dark pieces of clothing in my closet, hidden among dozens of green, blue, pink, and red garments. When I reported from Aleppo, the hardest thing for me was putting on a dark headscarf just before leaving the house after I’d carefully chosen my outfit for the day.

 Back in early 2011, when the uprising erupted in Syria, I finally started to feel like I belonged in my own country. The anti-government demonstrations demanding democratic reforms from President Bashar al-Assad represented everything I’d long hoped for: freedom of expression, a free press, elections, and an end to fear.

 But even after experiencing all of that hope, I found myself fighting the same fight that I had won so many years ago: the fight not to wear a hijab.

 If you ask anyone why women in Syria should be covering their hair, they might cite the Qur’an. But why is this rule enforced so much more strictly now than it has been in the past? The answer is simple: many fundamentalist Muslims are now armed, giving them the unlimited power and impunity to suppress women, whom they believe to be the weaker gender.

 I come from a conservative community in Syria, in Idlib city, and my family had tried to force me to wear the hijab at 15 years old. I won that battle: I refused to cover my hair simply because I couldn’t see why “all the women in our town do” was enough of a reason for me to do so as well. I will never forget the shame I was forced to feel when I was harassed and called names on the streets. I can’t count the number of times I was groped while on my way to school, in broad daylight. Even though I had adamantly refused to put on the headscarf, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for being touched inappropriately. But I never gave up.

 After the uprising, 15 years later, I fought the battle again and lost. I had tried to resist. I had thought: I am not a foreign journalist who’s in Syria for a short trip to do some reporting before heading back home. This is my home, and I should force these people to accept who I am. I should once again fight the same battle I had fought as a teenager, this time with strange, armed men in a chaotic corner of my country, known as the most dangerous area in the entire world for journalists.

 But I and other women activists and journalists had become “minors” in Syria. Any man had the right to check the length of our sweaters, the color of our outfits, who we were moving around with, and who we were talking to. They even had the right to scrutinize the fabric of our pants. Jeans signaled that we were not locals, or that we were activists, since many consider them to be a Western form of clothing.

 I needed a man by my side to travel, to be able to move from one neighborhood to another. The chaperone had to be a mahram, meaning an allowable escort — a man who has a close blood relationship with me, such as my father or uncle. In my final couple of years in Syria, I had to fake having two brothers (I used their sisters’ IDs), four maternal uncles (my mother’s surname is not written on my ID, so this was easy), three cousins, and two husbands.

 I ran into trouble many times. At a checkpoint in northern Aleppo in 2014, when I was still refusing to wear a headscarf, a guard asked my male chaperone, “Who is she?”

 “She’s a Syrian journalist from Idlib,” my friend answered.

 “A journalist? From Idlib? Are you kidding me?” the armed man mocked. “She’s obviously a foreign journalist. We don’t have any women journalists here.”

 “Well, I’m from Idlib city — the Dabeet neighborhood, to be exact — and I have a heavy dialect, too. Here’s my ID,” I interjected, waving the document at him.

 “Wow, you speak Arabic well,” he said. “Where did you learn it? And this ID could easily be fake.”

 The idea of an impostor with fake Syrian identification papers who speaks in an authentic Idlibi dialect was, apparently, easier for the armed man to accept than the idea of an unveiled Syrian woman journalist.

 After a series of clashes like these with soldiers at checkpoints — many of which caused my male chaperones great distress — I decided to start covering my hair with the Palestinian keffiyeh, carefully wrapping it around my head in the way Arab men traditionally do to protect themselves from the desert sun. The change didn’t help to lower my profile, however, so in 2015, I started to arrange the keffiyeh around my head as if it were a full headscarf, covering my hair completely. By the time I left Syria for southern Turkey for good in 2016, I was wearing a long, dark coat along with a formal, regular hijab.

 The only way I could challenge those dim colors while living in Syria was by wearing bright underwear and colored pins on my scarf. They were tiny dots of color, yes, but they made me feel better. I didn’t quit using my expensive antiwrinkle cream either. “There’s a helicopter hovering above our heads and a barrel bomb could be breaking both of us into pieces at any minute, so why the hell are you worried about aging?” my husband at the time, Mahmoud, would ask. There’s a chance we may live through this war and come out of it in one piece, I thought. And if we do, all of the hard work I put into sustaining my skin’s elegance will have paid off. I want to live a long life and to write about what I witnessed so that no one will forget what happened here. And I want to have supple, crease-free skin, too.

 Helmets and bulletproof vests are common in my country: they’re used for protection by male reporters stationed at the front lines or as accessories for people to take photos with. Mine were mostly needed when I went shopping for groceries or when I filmed from hospitals and schools. Those were the most dangerous places to report from, because they were continually targeted by the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, the Russian forces.

 I have two particularly precious photos — souvenirs, you could say — of myself in a bulletproof vest. I was with my friend Hamoudi Bitar in the suburbs of Latakia. He was only 21 years old at the time, an ambitious architecture student, and he was acting as my fixer, helping me to arrange meetings and travel logistics. We’d just passed some extremist-controlled areas in the Jisr al-Shogour area. Even though we claimed we were cousins, we faced great difficulty when crossing through checkpoints. Hamoudi, in particular, had to bear the brunt of the questioning — why was he traveling on his own with a young woman?

 After we’d finished the reporting trip, we drove along the beautiful mountains of Akrad, but I started to feel overwhelmingly depressed. I was where I belonged — my homeland — but I could not accept that I had to be this dependent on someone else. I felt weak. Hamoudi sensed my sadness and suddenly stopped the car at the edge of the road. “Get out of the car and bring your camera,” he said firmly. I thought someone was following us or that he’d spotted a land mine, until he said, “Take off your headscarf. Enjoy the air in your hair and be yourself,” and began to snap some photos of me.

 Hamoudi was a conservative man from my city, Idlib. All of the women in his family were veiled, and he wouldn’t propose to a woman who didn’t wear a headscarf. However, in that moment, he supported me, risking his own life to give me a few precious minutes of relief.

 In September 2013, a year later, Hamoudi was killed while filming a battle on the outskirts of our city. The journalistic norm of “keeping a distance with your sources” is, to me, an abstract concept, as removed from reality as “living alone on an island.” My sources are my schoolmates, relatives, and family members. And those death counts flashing on your screens contain my first lovers, teachers, neighbors, and friends.

 After deciding to revolt against the patriarchal society I lived in, I had to deal with the consequences of my rebellion. There were many. “You will go to hell.” “Surely, you will end up a spinster.” “You will ruin the family’s reputation and destroy our honor.” “You will bring shame to the city of Idlib.” These are some of the attitudes that I had to fight.

 I have committed all the sins that could potentially be committed in such an awful war zone. I am a Syrian; a woman who lived in the most masculine of spaces; a journalist in a land of warlords; a secularist living among different kinds of extremists and foreign jihadists; and a human rights defender among war criminals, some claiming to be fighting for the other side, and some claiming to be pro-freedom, on my side. All of these combined meant I was far more scared of being assassinated than of being randomly killed by the Syrian army. I would be a great target, someone a fighter would be proud to have killed. After my murder, the killer would be guaranteed a place in heaven, where they’d be gifted with pretty girls. They would be a proud patriot because they would have eliminated a voice that threatened the image of Assad’s Syria.

 One of the few common threads that run through the different parts of Syria (including territories controlled by the Kurds, ISIL, the Assad regime, rebels, Turks, or al-Qaeda) is that if you are deemed a propagandist or a traitor, you must be killed. In my weakest moments, I couldn’t even share stories, photos, or bits and pieces of news on my social media accounts. I had to harshly censor myself. My loved ones volunteered to do so on my behalf as well. They would read what I intended to make public, then tell me to either publish or not publish the content. Then I started taking notes of the things that I couldn’t make public — at least for now. Over the past four years, I have barely had 10 articles published, even though I have written 80 pages of outlines and notes saved in a file on my laptop entitled “Can’t Be Published.”

 There were, nonetheless, advantages to being a woman journalist. If I wasn’t a woman, I wouldn’t have been invited to the closed segregated women’s community of Idlib. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to film the women there moving about freely in their houses and as they worked. I was called hurma repeatedly during this time. This Arabic word carries with it multiple insulting connotations: haram, or “forbidden”; a form of weakness; someone who is dependent; a minor; a man’s tool for pleasure; his property; his possession; her gender role; and, finally, the eternal circle that a woman shouldn’t break — fertility and giving birth.

 Because I was given access to these women, I stopped being bothered by the word hurma. Instead, I was choosing to be hurma to be able to capture their stories. I was able to obtain access to a very private gynecological clinic in Aleppo city, which men are not allowed to enter. I went in with my camera, and I was terrified at first. It was a place where women covered themselves up in black from head to toe. And their male relatives could have had me killed for showing their faces on camera (to preserve their “honor,” women should be kept hidden from the public eye).

 While I was at the clinic, a 15-year-old girl wearing a black face veil walked in with her mother. She lifted her scarf to reveal the bright, youthful face of a teenager. Her mother then told the doctor that her daughter had been married for six weeks but wasn’t yet pregnant. She was worried. “What’s wrong with her?” she demanded. The girl started to blush and looked at the floor. Her mother requested a “pregnancy catalyst,” something that would “please” her husband.

 Another woman in her mid-forties visited the clinic with her pregnant daughter-in-law. She whispered to the doctor, “I want to have a baby, too. If I get pregnant, my husband will sleep in my house more, instead of going to his new, younger wife’s home.”

 These stories aren’t surprising to me, not only because I come from a community where such anxieties are common but also because I have witnessed firsthand that even empowered women activists who challenge the regime, their families, and tradition voluntarily turn into hareem (plural of hurma) after getting married.

 It’s been two years since I left that version of Syria, and I’m still struggling to find my voice and my freedom again. I’m a 32-year-old journalist, but I’ve reported freely for only two years of my life, between 2010 and 2012, as the uprising escalated into a brutal civil war. The years 2012 and beyond constitute an awful chapter of my personal and professional experience.

 I have survived extraordinarily painful conflicts — both external and internal — to be the woman I am today. A man would have been able to do it all quite easily, while I and other women have had to fight for our achievements. And I don’t want my daughter to have to do the same.

 To be frank, if I were sent back in time to the age of 15, when I had that very first argument about putting on the hijab, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I would choose to recommit all of the sins that have accompanied my being born into the original sin of womanhood. I would still choose to become a journalist, a secularist, and a human rights defender. I would choose to travel along this same path. Every thought I can change or eye I can open to help people see the difficult lives the women in my homeland live — and the inequality they experience — makes this battle a worthy one.'

The Evolution of Syrian Revolutionary Art

 'When protests broke out in Syria in early 2011, the demonstrators demanded the end of the national emergency law—in place for over 40 years—, and other basic democratic reforms. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid lip service to all of these demands well before 2011 so, in light of protests sweeping the Arab World, demonstrators must have felt that such requests were not especially outlandish.

 Then, in February 2011, a groups of boys scribbled anti-regime graffiti walls outside their school in Daraa. “It’s your turn doctor,” they spray painted, referring to Bashar al Assad, who was formerly an ophthalmologist. Graffiti certainly wasn’t rare, but the regime understood its possible implications to the point where ID was needed to buy spray cans if the government needed to find the buyers. The boys, who painted graffiti on their school as a lark, were arrested and brutally tortured. Disregarding the danger of dissent, the community came to protest in large numbers in the streets. As my interview with Dan Gorman, director of the Shubbak Festival said, “the curtain of fear had been pierced.”

 Perhaps, it is unsurprising then, that political posters and street art became so ubiquitous in the Syrian Revolution. The importance of graffiti, murals, and political posters is not unique to Syria or the Middle East. The Cuban and Russian revolutions produced iconic images synonymous with those struggles. The Vietnamese struggle against outside interference produced propaganda posters still sold in Hanoi today. Many of the political posters of the Syrian revolution actually seem inspired by the Palestinian struggle.

 As part of the public space, the use of graffiti and murals as a form of expression naturally connects with the general public more so than art hung in galleries. The internet amplified these images beyond their walls and shared their messages with millions of people, not just in Syria, but worldwide. It made street art—vulnerable to weather, bombardment, and whitewashing—permanent. When Abu Malik Al-Shami, the young street artist made famous by his murals in Daraya, was forced to evacuate to Idlib in 2016, he took pictures of his murals, which have since spread online.

 To the regime, nothing could be more horrifying than the ability to disseminate these images widely. This is why the instigators of these ideas were often eliminated. In October 2013, a Palestinian actor named Hassan Hassan, was taken by the regime as he was trying to leave Yarmouk Camp south of Damascus. Hassan had taped sketches of himself mocking the regime. His family was informed of his death two months later. In October 2015, Palestinian award-winning photographer, Niraz Saied, was arrested. Niraz had photographed the conditions of the government-imposed siege on Yarmouk. His images were shared widely around the world. At the end of 2018, his family was informed that he died in prison. These young artists challenged the regime’s narrative that it was the protector of the Palestinian struggle.

 The regimes of the Middle East knew the political potential for art. For this reason, it has always been closely monitored. Prior to the revolution, writers and artists in Syria were encouraged to join government-sponsored unions. Syrian dissident artists had to play a delicate balance between a desire to criticize the regime, the risk of publicizing genuine criticism, and the fear that their work would be co-opted as government propaganda, as what Miriam Cooke calls “commissioned criticism.” The regime expertly understood how small allowances of dissent improved their image without lobbing any real threat at the system. After the Russian Revolution succeeded, the Soviets too, understood the possible dangers of artistic free expression. To combat this, they strictly enforced socialist realism, their own brand of acceptable art. Anything that diverged was considered a threat. Sergei Parajanov, a Soviet film director and artist of Armenian descent, who invented his own unique cinematic style, was jailed for years along with other artists during the Soviet period; their work banned across the USSR. Others like artist Aleksander Drevin were killed for their work.

 The role of political art and murals may mean little to millions of IDPs in Syria and refugees today. Photos and paintings did not change the outcome for the victims of the Syrian war. Rather than instigating positive change, the protest songs and graffiti put a price on their heads. With Raed Fares and Abdul Basset al-Sarout, icons of the Syrian revolution, killed in just the past few months and the regime edging closer to its goal of taking every inch of Syria, the heady days of the Syrian revolution seem long gone.

 At the same time, Russia, the Syrian regime’s stalwart ally, is waging a highly effective international war on the cheap; spreading fake news to sow chaos in Europe, former Soviet republics, Syria, and the US. In addition to interfering with the 2016 US presidential election, Russia has spread misinformation on the Syrian war, suggesting that peaceful protestors were part of a global conspiracy, that the civilian victims of aerial bombardment are actors, and that search and rescue workers are terrorists.

 However, the Russian and Syrian regimes’ efforts in the media and online betray their desire to win, not just the military war, but the narrative war. In this respect, thousands of political exiles, artists, and cartoonists scattered around the world, have an important role to play along with archivists. Since 2011, various collectives have been archiving hundreds of images, from political graffiti to the infamous political satire posters from Kafranbel. The sheer number of images from across Syria demonstrate how widespread the revolution was and still is.

 Kesh Malek (meaning Check Mate) is a civil society organization that aimed to reach the world through its Syria Banksy initiative. Recently, they countered the regime propaganda, espoused by the musician Roger Waters against Syrian search and rescue volunteers, with a poster targeted to the Pink Floyd artist’s misinformed statements. The image in Idlib, Syria depicts Waters carrying an assault rifle with a caption that reads, “A message from Syrians in Idlib to Roger Waters: Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light,” referencing Pink Floyd lyrics.

 These images continue to be a part of Syria’s collective memory, a call to arms, and a venting of frustrations. As Malu Halasa, co-editor of Syria Speaks - Art and Culture from the Frontline, said, the Syrian revolution is a story of “how the street became visible.” In so doing, these works have leaked out of Syria onto our collective conscience, both as pieces of artwork and political expression. Even the establishment British Museum displayed various pieces of Syrian protest art as part of the museum’s “Living Histories” exhibit. The collection featured many works by the anonymous poster collective Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh (The Syrian People Know Their Way). The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution has also archived hundreds of images with statistics on the words used and the number of walls painted per month.

 As the situation grows to be more desperate in Syria and the regime continues to bombard marked hospitals without international interference, the number of political images emerging from Syria has dropped markedly since the first years of the revolution. For Syrians, it does not seem as though anyone is listening, but that doesn’t stop some from writing captions in English to reach a wider audience. There is still a movement to save those left in opposition-held areas from aerial bombardment, release prisoners, and find information on the disappeared. For Syrians in danger every day, the war is not over and the narrative war for the history of the revolution has just begun.'

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Syrian Turkmen groups return from Turkey to support opposition

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 'Several Syrian Turkmen groups have relocated their headquarters this year from Turkey to Syrian areas occupied by Turkey and controlled by Turkish-backed opposition groups.

 The Syrian Turkmen Assembly (STA) political coalition met July 28 with members of the Turkmen Shura (Consultation) Council at the STA's new headquarters in al-Rai, Syria. The STA moved last month from Istanbul to the town in Syria's northern Aleppo province. STA leader Muhammed Vecih Cuma said that Syrian Turkmens are actively participating in the Syrian revolution against the régime and receiving support from the Turkish government, which encouraged the move to al-Rai, a town controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

 Cuma said about the meeting, “Several issues were discussed, including the STA’s relocation to the liberated territories, its work method and how to solve the problems of the Turkmen community and alleviate its suffering.”

 He added, “The work plan for the next round of STA elections was also discussed, in addition to how the parties in the liberated territories will operate and how the meetings will be held. We also discussed the method of choosing candidates [and] the STA’s capacity as the political cover uniting all Syrian Turkmens under its wing."

 The STA's goals include returning Syrian Turkmens safely to their lands and guaranteeing their rights under a new Syrian Constitution through democratic and fair elections.

 On its Facebook page, the STA writes about how it consulted with experts to develop new by-laws that comply with international law. The by-laws are designed to facilitate STA management inside Syria, help Syrian Turkmens return and allow for representation of all Syrian Turkmens in the STA.

 The STA was established in 2012 in Istanbul, through direct support from the Turkish government. It was known as Syria’s Turkmen Association at the time, and was limited to independent members, most of whom were migrant Turkmens. The name was changed to STA in 2013 after other groups joined, including the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, the Syria Turkmen Bloc and the Turkmen Development Party, along with FSA-affiliated armed Turkmen factions. It now includes independents, political parties and the armed factions. STA is the biggest Turkmen political assembly and includes most Syrian Turkmens.

 The STA is one of the components of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition.

 The STA convenes every two years and is made up of a general secretariat and an executive office. There are 42 members in the secretariat, which elects the 14 members of the executive office. Parties are represented as follows: The Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party and the Syria Turkmen Bloc each has six members and the Turkmen Development Party has three, while the remaining seats are divided among independents and the FSA-affiliated armed Turkmen factions. Independents' representation in the STA is based on Turkmen population distribution in Syria.

 There are members from Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, Latakia, Hama, Homs and other provinces. The most active Turkmen groups are located between Azaz and Jarablus in Aleppo province, and they constitute the majority in al-Rai and surrounding villages.

 The groups' movement from Turkey is logical, Cuma explained.

 “There is a general inclination to move Syrian opposition institutions from Turkey to Syria," Cuma said. "The [Syrian] National Coalition, for instance, opened headquarters in northern Aleppo on April 24. As STA is part of the Syrian opposition, it was important to move [the coalition's] headquarters to the liberated Syrian territories.”

 The Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party also relocated last month from Istanbul to al-Rai. During its first meeting there, the group elected Ziad Hassan president to succeed Bassam Barq, and presented an overview of its new strategy, which generally aims to increase activity in the FSA-controlled areas in Aleppo. A movement member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the FSA-controlled areas in Aleppo are the natural places for its activities: "[The move] helps us get closer to our Syrian Turkmen fellows in liberated towns and cities. The [areas have] become free from terrorism, and it was the right step to move our party inside Syria.”

 Syria’s Turkmens consider themselves the second-most-dense population in Syria, after Arabs. There are no exact statistics on the number of Syrian Turkmens there, but there are unofficial estimates of half a million, constituting 3% of the citizens. Syrian Turkmens, especially in northern Aleppo, have protested the Syrian régime. They have also established political parties and opened Turkish learning centers in the FSA-controlled areas. Syrian Turkmen groups affiliated with several military factions also have been established.

 Cuma said, “Syrian Turkmens are preserving the national project of the Syrian revolution, and they are seeking, alongside the remaining Syrian constituents, to reach a free Syria, without Bashar al-Assad and his régime. We want Syria to be united and democratic and to respect people and their rights, while respecting its neighbors and abiding by international norms.” '

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