A death sentence for battling Syria’s censors?


This photo of Bassel Khartabil wearing a Palestine-themed necklace is one of only a handful that Noura Ghazi has of her husband after the Syrian government confiscated their computers.

In Electronic Intifada

Bassel Khartabil’s loved ones have been kept in the dark about his fate. Although the Palestinian software developer is believed to have been sentenced to death in Syria, this has not been officially confirmed. Some rumors suggest that the execution has already been carried out. Continue reading “A death sentence for battling Syria’s censors?”

The massacre will not be hashtagged

in Aljumhuriya.net

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He was arrested along with six of his comrades on 30 December, 2013, in a raid by Syrian security forces on their home in Damascus. It was his second arrest in as many years.

A founding member of the Revolutionary Syrian Youth, a nonviolent leftist collective based in the Syrian capital, Imad was arrested for the first time in November 2012. Almost three months in detention, thirty-seven days of solitary confinement, and non-stop torture might lead many to capitulate. Imad, then aged 24 and with little political experience prior to the Syrian uprising, held firm and did not wilt under interrogation.

Shortly after his release, he left Syria for Egypt. But he couldn’t stay away from his country and so decided to go back.

By then, Damascus had become even more strangled than before; if holding or organizing protest actions had been extremely difficult in 2011 and 2012, by 2013 it had become virtually impossible.

It was during Imad’s first arrest when his friends created a Facebook page demanding freedom for him and for the two fellow Revolutionary Youth activists taken prisoner with him.

Creating Facebook pages demanding the release of detainees was common during the first two years of the uprising. Their creation in itself illustrated a remarkable change in a country where political detentions before the uprising used to be cloaked with the utmost secrecy and censorship. But it was also a testament to the lengths that Syrians had come and of the various cracks they managed to break in the regime’s previously impenetrable wall of fear.

But the Facebook page created following Imad’s second arrest, this time with six of his friends, was quickly removed at the request of the detainees’ families. This time around, they said, they did not want any noise or publicity. A seemingly small detail, one illustrating a new shift taking place in Syria.

As the revolt eventually gave way to civil war, the initial sparks of hope and buoyancy were quashed and transmuted into utter despair. The cracks that Syrians had made in that impenetrable wall had all but faded, giving way to even greater fear: fear of the mere mention that a son or daughter had been detained; fear of demanding their release; fear of merely uttering their names.

Of each of Imad’s friends, news of their death under torture began to trickle in, one by one. Indeed, six of the seven who were arrested on that night, including Imad, were killed in this way.

It’s not uncommon to feel helpless when we hear that detainees are being tortured to death in another country, knowing that this has been the fate of thousands of civilians since 2011. But helplessness assumes a whole new meaning when our lips have been fused together by fear—this, to the point where we are unable to talk about those who have been killed; we cannot honor their memory, mourn their loss, pay them tribute, tell the stories, share their pictures.

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Here in Palestine, we have the opportunity to take to the streets in solidarity with political prisoners, scream our lungs out for them and get tear-gassed, shot and beaten in the process. We also have the chance to share the stories of our martyrs and pay them the homage they deserve.

In Syria, a country ruled by the tyranny of fear and silence, having a name is a curse in life and in death, and even sharing the stories and names of most victims is never taken for granted. This explains why we couldn’t write Imad’s last name and why so many of Syria’s detainees, alive and dead, remain unnamed. Not just because they are too many to be documented, but also because many fear to simply name them.

In this sense, forced disappearance in Syria doesn’t just target people’s bodies; it also targets their names, memory and legacy. It renders hundreds of thousands of people nameless, almost annihilating their very existence and stripping their loved ones of any tangible evidence to clutch at after their death.

In her essay in The New Enquiry, Genna Brager explains that forced disappearance is not just a euphemism for state murder, but a “necropolitical creation of disposable classes whose disposal is intrinsic to capitalism.” Brager’s deconstruction of the apparatus of disappearance as used in Latin America during the 1970s and the 1980s echoes in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

In Syria, the forced disappearance apparatus doesn’t only seek to conceal evidence, exonerate perpetrators, and intimidate the survivors. It also operates to subsidize the Syrian regime’s prison industrial complex. The numerous security and intelligence services use the information they withhold as a bargaining chip, misleading families and exploiting their need, powerlessness and vulnerability, eventually forcing them to pay millions of SYPs for the evidence that will never come.

Fear, silence, exploitation and intimidation become essential to the perpetuation of forced disappearance as an effective weapon in the state’s arsenal against the people, against the “unwanted” disposable class.

It becomes more than just a punitive measure for caging dissidents and squelching dissent. It carries a far more destructive and collective impact, constantly hovering over entire communities.

In the Syrian context, talking about “arbitrary detention” is a legal extravagance and standing even a sham trial is a luxury.

It comes as no surprise, then, when many Syrians tell you that they prefer to be killed by a missile or a shell over being detained. It’s not just the fact that the latter is far more tolerable and painless than the slow, daily death in detention. But also, even when the rocket tears the body of the victims asunder, it does, unlike death under torture, leave something for the family to mourn, material proof to grasp, and a grave to bury.

Forcibly disappearing hundreds of thousands, killing thousands of them under torture and then casually phoning their parents to tell them to come get their IDs, without even allowing them to see the corpse, is the epitome of systematic and deliberate dehumanization. Dehumanizing the detainees by vanishing them, turning them into numbers and dumping their corpses in mass graves; dehumanizing their loved ones by stripping them of the right to mourn, to shout, to say a final goodbye, to see and know the truth, and to have a closure—albeit heart-wrenching— to their agony.

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Few days after Maria was arrested by Syrian security forces, a family friend shared her picture on Facebook and called for her release. In any other country, that would be a basic, harmless act. Not so in Syria. Her friend was soon asked to remove the picture, her family fearing that even such a mundane post might have some negative repercussion on her. Maria was fortunately released, but hundreds of thousands of Marias are still languishing in Syrian prisons with their loved ones not even daring to call for their release.

A thought has to be spared to those whenever we write down a hashtag that includes the names of prisoners. Because in Syria, the hundreds of thousands of forcibly disappeared will never be hashtagged, and neither will be their tragedies.

In Assad’s Syria, families are tired of hoping that their loved ones will be free; all they can say, after an estimated 20,000 had been killed under torture is, “Save the rest!” They already know that no one will listen to their shattered voices and pleas.

Nasrallah’s blood-soaked road to Jerusalem

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In early March of this year, about 6,000 smuggled photographs of torture victims in Syrian regime jails were leaked on the internet and published on various web sites.

The eyes of parents, siblings, partners and relatives of Syrian detainees became transfixed on their screens. Sorting through pictures of hardly-recognizable corpses, they wondered if they might find a trace of their loved ones.

Known as the “Caesar” photographs, in reference to the pseudonym of the defected Syrian sergeant and forensic photographer who smuggled the images out of Syria, the photographs inevitably lead us to question the morality and ethics of disseminating graphic portrayals of dead bodies on the internet.

Important as it is, however, any normative debate in this case would sound almost preposterous and a form of intellectual temerity once we realize that what those pictures revealed was the tragic fate of at least tens of prisoners whose destination had been unknown for months or even years.

It is, without a doubt, unspeakably painful to first learn about the fate of a son, husband, or sister through a leaked photograph on the internet. Yet for those who spent months and perhaps years begging prison guards and intelligence officers for a scrub of information about their detainees; for those who were repeatedly blackmailed by informants throughout the search; for those who waited in vain and oscillated between hope and despair: for them, these images, harrowing as they were, represented a rescue from endless nights of waiting, releasing them from the indefinite confinement of the shackles called hope.

More “fortunate” Syrians learn about their family members’ death under torture through a phone call made by security services, one in which they are told to come and pick up the identification and any personal possessions the deceased has left behind. Victims’ bodies are not delivered back to the family for proper burial; the official cause of the death remains “unknown;” and people are deprived even of the right to mourn their dead or clutch at a physical evidence of their loss.

But with hundreds of thousands of imprisoned and forcibly disappeared Syrians, many do not have the “privilege” of learning about the death of their loved ones first-hand.

They are either forced to wait and hope, or be left to the mercy of serendipity and, as happened with the Caesar photographs, find out about their death through a leaked image of the corpse.

Since the publication of the leaked torture photos in early March, tens of victims were identified by their families. Those included at least 65 photos of Palestinian refugee victims recognized either by their families or by activists. The names of these victims were documented by the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria in April. The London-based monitoring group, tasked with documenting human rights violations inflicted upon Syria’s Palestinians, had published a report earlier in March entitled Photos Massacre that listed the names of 39 Palestinian victims of torture and forced disappearance. Their corpses were identified through the leaked images.

One of the most widely circulated photos was that of a corpse, apparently belonging to a Palestinian refugee, with a tattoo of the map of Palestine emblazoned with the colors of the Palestinian flag.

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Attached to the corpse, a scrap of paper displaying the torture victim’s number—the coup de grâce toward the obliteration of personhood in Syria’s myriad dungeons.

Being confronted by such a wildly symbolic image, it becomes impossible to not wonder: What if that image belonged to a Palestinian prisoner in Israeli occupation jails? Would Palestinians and pro-Palestinians who currently support the Syrian regime react otherwise if the caption on that picture were altered and if it stated that he was killed in an Israeli prison rather than in a Syrian one? One could be forgiven for assuming that, had this man died in an Israeli jail, his picture would become iconic among Palestinians and supporters of their cause, and would be pointed to over and over again as yet more proof of Israel’s brutality and Palestinian defiance in the face of it.

Yet as it stands, neither the photo of the slain Palestinian prisoner whose arm bore the Palestinian map tattoo, nor the photos of tens of Palestinians killed under torture in Syrian regime jails have caused outrage or defiance in Palestine or among Palestinian solidarity activists. They were not killed by ISIS or the Israeli occupation, but by the Syrian regime that still enjoys the support of large segments of Palestinian political factions, public opinion, and many left-wing circles associated with the Palestinian cause. And therefore, Palestinian victims of the Syrian regime had the misfortune of falling to the “wrong perpetrator.”

It is precisely the identity of the perpetrator that deems the images of Palestinian torture victims in Syria invisible, changes their status from revered martyrs and heroes to contested numbers, and renders their plight unworthy of our solidarity.

Since the eruption of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, more than 400 Palestinian-Syrians have been killed under torture in Syrian regime jails. When this fact is presented to Palestinians who support the Syrian regime, some of them dispute it, some have the audacity to dispute it and even claim that those mostly innocent civilians and peaceful activists had been actually killed by ISIS or Nusra front. Others simply say that, “Now is not the time; there are more important things to talk about.” For them, those thousands of Palestinians who have been either killed, imprisoned, or displaced by the Syrian regime are a superfluous group that needs to be dislodged, overlooked and sacrificed for a “greater cause”—that is, the liberation of Palestine—as if the liberation of Palestine means anything when Palestinians in a neighboring country die in their thousands while we look away.

Thus, when we affirm that our freedom and dignity as Palestinians cannot come at the expense of others, including our fellow Palestinians, we are described as naïve. They ask that we regard the deaths of fellow Palestinians at the hands of the Syrian regime and the siege, destruction and shelling of their camps little more than irrelevant minutiae that must be shrugged off for far more significant geo-political considerations.

Hassan Nasrallah says that the road to Jerusalem goes through Syria. The revered resistance leader must know what he’s talking about.

Little does it matter that this road is paved by the blood of hundreds of thousands of Syrians; little does it matter that taking this road means treading upon the dignity and rights of a people who have historically supported our cause like no other—and not thanks to the regime but in spite of it. It doesn’t even matter that Hassan Nasrallah’s road is filled with the corpses of Palestinians killed by the regime or that his compass is directed towards perpetuating oppression and monopolizing resistance.

One has to be pragmatic, they tell us, and we do not have the luxury of choosing our allies according to our ideological convictions. This is used to justify siding with and cheering on the Syrian and Iranian regimes and Hezbollah, just as it was previously used in the 1980s to support Saddam Hussein. “He scared the hell out of Israel!” they told us. This was supposed to be sufficient to make us overlook the fact that he gassed thousands of Kurds to death or that he committed unspeakable atrocities in Kuwait.

Just as we are today being asked to overlook the suffering of Syrians and Palestinians at the hands of the Syrian regime for the purported “greater cause,” we were being encouraged to chant for Saddam and hang his pictures on the wall. He too, they said, was an enemy to Israel.

One of the many problems with this approach is that we only apply it to ourselves. We express our indignation if another oppressed people strikes an alliance with the US or Israel; we delegitimize an entire people’s uprising base on the fact that they received funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Incidentally, this was the very same Qatar that the “resistance” showered with gratitude not so long ago.)

We hypocritically deny them the very same pragmatism that we adopt to rationalize our support of oppressive regimes. We fail to understand that for Zabadani’s Syrians, Iran and Hezbollah are occupying forces trying to uproot and ethnically cleanse them, precisely the way Israel has been doing to us. We fail to understand that the Syrian regime and its allies have become to them what Israel and the United States have been to us. And so we do not take a minute to put ourselves in the shoes of Syrian resistance fighters in Zabadani who, for two months, have somehow thwarted a far more superior military force, backed by non-stop aerial bombardment.

If we continue to believe that Hassan Nasrallah’s road to Palestine is the only one open to us, we do not have the moral ground to condemn those who falsely or misleadingly claim that their road to salvation is through peace with Israel.

Combatting all the no-longer-ulterior agenda to normalize the relations between Syrians and Israel cannot be achieved by supporting Assad and Nasrallah. It starts with explicitly and vehemently refusing that our cause be used to condone the killing, humiliation and subjugation of Syrians; it starts by re-affirming our commitment to Syria’s liberation of all forms of oppression. It starts by realizing that our liberation struggle cannot and will not treat Syrians as pawns.

Unfortunately, Palestinians will continue to be killed in Syrian regime jails and so will Syrians; Palestinian camps will continue to suffer under Syrian regime siege and so will Syrian towns and cities. True solidarity with the Syrian people and with Syria’s Palestinians requires us to stand firm in the face of the regime that carries prime responsibility for this.

And for one, our solidarity must be principled rather than selective; it has to be based on the universal values that the Palestinian liberation struggle and the Syrian revolution are based on. It cannot be modeled on the identity of the oppressor, or dictated by the tone of Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches.

حكاية الشباب السوري الثائر

نشره موقع المنشور
English version

كانت مقاطع الفيديو التي حمّلها ناشطو تجمع “الشباب السوري الثائر” على قناتهم في موقع “يوتيوب”، كفيلة بمنحنا الأمل باس1266724_576049829125814_1369924856_oتمرار الحراك الثوري السلمي في سوريا، ودفعنا للوقوف بدهشة أمام قدرتهم على الخروج للتظاهر في قلب دمشق رغم إحكام النظام السوري قبضته الأمنية هناك. ولكن بعد مرور أكثر من عام ونصف العام على آخر مظاهرة نظّمها التجمّع في العاصمة السورية أصبحت مقاطع الفيديو إياها تختصر المأساة التي ألمّت بالثورة السورية. وهي كذلك تذكير قاسٍ أن كثيراً من الأصوات التي ضجّت بالهتاف والغناء في تلك المظاهرات مطالبة بإسقاط النظام تم إسكاتها مرة وإلى الأبد.

لكن ماذا حدث للشباب الذين ساروا في تلك “العراضة الحمصية” في حي ركن الدين الدمشقي متحدّين قوات الأمن المنتشرة في المنطقة، مردّدين الأهازيج الثورية والهتافات المناصرة لأحياء حمص المحاصرة؟ هل كانوا يعلمون حينها أن تلك العراضة في 12 حزيران/يونيو 2013، ستكون آخر مرة يتمكنون فيها من التظاهر في حاراتهم بعد أن اعتادوا الخروج في مظاهرات أسبوعية؟ كم منهم سيبقى ليشارك في بناء وطن الحرية والعدالة الاجتماعية والمساواة الذي لأجله قام تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر ولأجله اعتقل واستشهد وهُجّر معظم أعضائه المؤسّسين؟

تأسس تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر في الأشهر الأولى من عمر الانتفاضة السورية على يد مجموعة من الشباب والشابات من حي ركن الدين شمال العاصمة السورية دمشق؛ مؤكداً ومحافظاً على هويّته كتجمّعٍ يساري ومدني ووطني. ولكن الرؤية التي حملها تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر لم تقتصر على المطالبة بالحرية والديمقراطية والدولة المدنية. ففيما دأبت المعارضة الليبرالية بمختلف أطيافها وجماعة الإخوان المسلمين على اختزال أهداف الثورة بصندوق الاقتراع وإقامة الدولة المدنية وتكريس اقتصاد السوق، قدّم تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر رؤية أكثر وضوحاً وجذريةً انطلاقاً من الحرمان والتهميش والإقصاء الذي يعاني منه السواد الأعظم من الشعب السوري.

نادى الشباب السوري الثائر بالحرية وبإسقاط نظام بشار الأسد وبفصل السلطات واستقلال القضاء. لكن ذلك لم يأت على حساب مطالبتهم بالعدالة الاجتماعية والتعليم المجاني للجميع والاستشفاء المجاني وحقوق المرأة بالإضافة إلى التزامهم بدعم القضية الفلسطينية وتحرير الجولان. وكان هذا جلياً من خلال بيانهم التأسيسي ومن خلال الهتافات واللافتات التي قاموا برفعها في مظاهراتهم، فقد رفعوا العلم الفلسطيني إلى جانب علم الثورة ورددوا أسماء الشهداء الفلسطينيين مع أسماء الشهداء السوريين وشهدت مظاهراتهم وجوداً نسائياً لافتاً ولم تنفصل مطالبتهم بالخبز والمازوت والحياة الكريمة عن مطلبهم بإسقاط النظام وتحقيق الحرية كما وأصروا دائماً على رفض الطائفية وترسيخ الوحدة الوطنية. “حرية آزادي، حرة يا بنت بلادي”، “لا سنية ولا علوية نحنا مطلبنا الحرية” و”بدنا المعتقلين” كانت شعارات حرصوا على رفعها في كل مظاهراتهم.

كما حاول تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر المحافظة على زخم الحراك السلمي والمدني مع انتقال الثورة التدريجي إلى العسكرة وآمنوا أنه يمكن للنضال السلمي والكفاح المسلّح السير يداً بيد إلا أن دعمهم لشرعية المقاومة المسلحة وحق السوريين في الدفاع عن نفسهم لم يحل دون انتقادهم الصريح لما اعتبروها أخطاء وانتهاكات ترتكبها جماعات المعارضة المسلحة.

ولم ينحصر حراك الشباب السوري الثائر في تنظيم المظاهرات في حي ركن الدين فقد شاركوا بتظاهرات بعض الأحياء الدمشقية الأخرى وشملت أنشطتهم توزيع المنشورات الثورية في دمشق وبخّ شعارات معارضة للنظام على جدران العاصمة. وقد شكّلت صفحتهم على موقع التواصل الاجتماعي “فايسبوك” منبراً لنشر بياناتهم بخصوص الأحداث السياسية الهامة. وهكذا قدّم الشباب السوري الثائر شكلاً مغايراً للمعارضة الوطنية، هذا المصطلح الذي تم تفريغه من محتواه وابتذاله بعد أن أصبح يراد به وصف قوى المعارضة المهادنة للنظام والعاملة تحت السقف المنخفض الذي يفرضه. ولكنّ طرح تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر كان طرحاً وطنياً أصيلاً دون الانتقاص من ثوريته مما جعله هدفاً مباشراً لأشد أنواع القمع والتضييق حيث قامت قوات النظام باعتقال وتصفية الكثير من مؤسسي التجمع بينما اضطر بقيتهم للخروج من سوريا خشية الاعتقال. وعلى الرغم مما تعرض له من ملاحقة وقمع بقي تجمع الشباب السوري الثائر أحد التجمعات المدنية القليلة في سوريا التي لم تسيطر عليها عقلية المنظمات غير الحكومية ولم يتمكن المال السياسي من تدجينها فقد كان مصدر تمويله الرئيس هو تبرّعات أعضائه.

رفض ناشطو الشباب السوري الثائر مراراً وتكراراً المساومة على رؤية التجمع ومبادئه في سبيل الحصول على تمويل خارجي. أما الفضائيات الخليجية، التي لم تكن تتوانى عن بث مقاطع لمظاهرات ذات طابع طائفي ومطالب التدخل الخارجي، غيّبت في تغطيتها المظاهرات التي كان ينظمها الشباب السوري الثائر على الرغم من قيامها في قلب دمشق. كانت تلك إحدى الضرائب التي دفعها التجمع نتيجة تمسكه بالاستقلالية ونبذ الطائفية ورفض التدخل الخارجي إذ كانت قناتهم على يوتيوب تشكل المساحة الوحيدة لعرض أنشطتهم.

إلا أن أحد أبرز مكامن الضعف التي اتّسم بها تنظيم الشباب السوري الثائر هو انحصارهم إلى حد كبير في رقعة جغرافية واحدة، ألا وهي ركن الدين باستثناء إنشاء فرع صغير للتجمع في مدينة حمص. لا شك أن ضمان موطئ قدم في حيّهم وكسب ثقة ودعم أبناء الحي كان ضروريّاً للغاية خاصة في المراحل الأولى من تشكيل التجمع إلا أن الإخفاق في الارتقاء بالمستوى التنظيمي وتجاوز حدود الحي أدى إلى الحد بشكل كبير من تأثير التجمع وانتشاره. مكمن ضعفٍ آخر كان من شأنه إطباق الخناق على التجمع هو مركزيته الشديدة واعتماده الكلّي على الأعضاء المؤسسين مما سهّل مهمة النظام في تقويض حراكه خلال زج الأعضاء المؤسّسين في السجون وتصفيتهم تحت التعذيب. أما ناشطو التجمع فلم يتّخذوا تدابير الأمان والحماية اللازمة فساهم تسرّعهم وقلة خبرتهم في جعلهم عرضة للوقوع بأيدي أجهزة الأمن بسهولة، وتفسر كل هذه العوامل اضمحلال نشاط التجمع على الأرض منذ النصف الثاني من العام 2013.

وجاءت الضربة القاصمة للتجمع عندما اعتقل سبعة من أعضائه في 30/12/2013 حين اقتحمت أجهزة الأمن البيت الذي اجتمع فيه الناشطون السبعة وألقت القبض عليهم جميعاً.

ومنذ تلك الليلة توالت الأنباء عن استشهاد الشبان تحت التعذيب فمن بين الشباب السبعة الذين اعتقلوا في تلك الليلة وصل خبر استشهاد ستة منهم.

أحد المعتقلين الذين استشهدوا تحت التعذيب هو رودين عجك، لاعب كرة سلة واعد لم يتجاوز الـ 21 من عمره بالإضافة إلى رفيقه عامر ظاظا الذي أُعلن عن خبر استشهاده تحت التعذيب في 1/12/2014. كان عامر ورودين، بالإضافة إلى رفيق ثالث في التجمع استشهد هو الآخر تحت التعذيب، قد غادروا سوريا في أيار/مايو من العام 2013، وأمضوا فترة وجيزة في مصر إلا أن التزامهم بالثورة وتعلّقهم بسوريا دفعهم للعودة القاتلة.

ما يزيد من فاجعة استشهاد هؤلاء الشباب المناضلين هو عدم القدرة على ذكر أسمائهم جميعاً حتى بعد استشهادهم بالإضافة إلى التعتيم الشديد الذي خيم على قضية اعتقالهم، إذ خشيت أسرهم أن يؤدي الإعلان عن اعتقالهم إلى إلحاق الضرر بهم، إلا أن التكتّم عن الخبر لم يشفع لهم هو الآخر.

تذكر تجمع الشبابا السوري الثائر الآن ليس نابعاً من مجرد حنينٍ إلى ما كانت عليه الثورة السورية في بداياتها أو تحسّر على سوريا التي كانوا يحلمون ببنائها. تذكرهم هو تحية متأخرة لطلاب وشباب يافعين دفعوا دماءهم ثمن الحلم بسوريا أفضل، وثمن النضال من أجل خلق بديل ثوري ووطني معارض للنظام لا يتبنى أجندة من شأنها إرضاء المعارضة الخارجية والإسلاميين. بديل يساري لا يخجل من يساريته.

Damascus’ stifled voice from the left

Published in Open Democracy

The story of Syrian Revolutionary Youth: the rise and fall of a grassroots movement offering a third alternative beyond the regime/Islamists binary, whose clear, principled stance made it the target of extreme regime persecution.

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The Syrian Revolutionary Youth symbol graffitied on a Damascene wall.

It has been over a year and a half since the last organized anti-regime protest in Damascus. The protest, which you can watch through this link, was held on June 12, 2013 in the Damascene neighbourhood of Rukneddine in solidarity with besieged Homs. It featured wedding-style revolutionary chants and singing. It was a typically brave evening protest by the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, a self-avowed leftist and civic collective, despite heavy security presence and tight regime control of the area.

From the beginning of the Syrian revolution and well into 2013, the Syrian Revolutionary Youth injected a breath of fresh air into the lungs of an uprising that was being increasingly suffocated by the Syrian regime and counter-revolutionary forces. Established by a group of activists from Rukneddine, the collective embodied a clear political vision that was not restricted to vague demands for a democratic, civil state. At a time when such ambiguous yet sweeping calls were being made by liberal and moderate Islamist opposition groups, the Syrian Revolutionary Youth advanced a more clear-cut vision of social justice where free education, free health care, gender equality, the liberation of the occupied Golan Heights, and liberation of Palestine, were central to their demands.

This was apparent from the first chants and banners raised during the collective’s protests in the Syrian capital. The Palestinian flag was lifted alongside the Syrian revolutionary flag; chants in solidarity with Palestine, and Gaza in particular, were chanted alongside slogans in solidarity with besieged and rebellious Syrian towns and cities; the names of Palestinian martyrs were mentioned in protests alongside the names of Syrian martyrs; young women and men protested and sang side-by-side; and calls for bread, gasoline and a dignified life for all were inseparable from their calls for the downfall of the regime, and the achievement of civil liberties and political freedom.

As the uprising went through its gradual transition towards militarization, the Syrian Revolutionary Youth attempted to sustain the peaceful side of the uprising, maintaining that peaceful activism and armed struggle can go hand in hand. While generally supporting the Free Syrian Army, they frequently held banners criticizing what they considered violations by the armed opposition groups and insisted on defending national unity and rejecting sectarianism.

The Syrian Revolutionary Youth’s mobilisations were not limited to organising protests in their native Rukneddine and a few other Damascene districts. They also distributed revolutionary pamphlets across Damascus, scrawled anti-regime graffiti on the city’s walls, used their Facebook page to publish statements and communiqués regarding important political events, and uploaded videos of their actions on their YouTube channel.

The principled, unassuming stance of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth made it a target of the most extreme regime persecution. Most of the collective’s founding members have been arrested, killed, or forced out of Syria. In watching videos of their protests in 2012, the year in which their revolutionary activism reached its peak, it is hard to recognise the voice of a protester who wasn’t imprisoned, killed or displaced. As they struggled to keep active, the Syrian Revolutionary Youth remained one of very few unarmed civil groups who resisted being hijacked or domesticated by the NGO mentality or politicized funding. Their main source of funding remained the donations of the group’s members and they refused to compromise their vision to earn more financial support or television time. While videos of demonstrations with explicit sectarian slogans or pleas for foreign intervention were broadcast on corporate Gulf-based media, the protests and actions of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, vehemently anti-sectarian, pluralist and opposed to foreign intervention, were published only on the group’s YouTube channel, despite the fact that their actions were held in the heart of the Syrian capital.

Perhaps one of the shortcomings that would prove fatal to the collective, however, was that it remained largely confined to Rukneddine. Although the connections with activists in Homs led to the creation of a smaller Syrian Revolutionary Youth chapter there, the group’s main centre of activity remained the neighbourhood of Rukneddine. As important as it was to ensure a foothold in their local community, the inability of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth to achieve a similar feat in other areas meant that its impact and outreach remained extremely limited. It was also extremely reliant on its founding members, which meant that by the time most of the founding members were arrested, killed, or forced out of the country, the group’s on the ground activism had all but evaporated. Even their Facebook page has barely seen activity in recent months. However, for a group whose main strength was their movement on the ground, virtual activism had never been their central focus.

The group’s inexperience, and at times lack of organisation, exposed members to even greater danger and made them incredibly vulnerable to being easily rounded up by security forces. In a country like Syria with a strong repressive security apparatus, recklessness and the smallest mistakes can be extremely costly, and in the case of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, the price they paid came in the form of some of Syria’s bravest and brightest lives.

Now almost fully dissolved as a collective, members of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth continue to languish in Syrian regime jails.

This December 30 marks one year since the arrest of seven of the collective’s activists from a Rukneddine home by Syrian security forces. Their arrest remained largely unpublished with the families of the detainees demanding anonymity out of fear for their children’s well-being. Anonymity did not help.  All but one of the seven detainees taken during that night raid have been reportedly killed under torture as confirmed by their cellmates.

Photo of the martyr Amer Zaza.
Photo of the martyr Amer Zaza.

On 1 December, Syrian activists circulated on social media news of Amer Zaza’s death by torture. Zaza had been arrested a year before together with six other friends from their Rukneddine home. Roudin Ajek, another of the Rukneddine Seven, a talented basketball player and the captain of his youth team, was killed under torture in May 2014. Both Amer and Roudin had briefly left Syria in mid-2013 for Egypt, but their commitment to the revolution and their love for their country pushed them to return. Fayez al-Ayoubi, along with brothers Muaz and Qusai Burhan, were also among the Rukneddine detainees killed under torture. On 14 December, we received news of the death under torture of another Syrian Revolutionary Youth activist and founding member, whose name shall remain anonymous at the request of his brother. Just like Roudin and Amer, the latest martyr briefly left Syria in May 2013 before returning. Much of the information, in fact, in this article about the collective was through an interview I conducted with him through Facebook in June 2013. He was sharp, eloquent and extremely committed to both the Syrian revolution and the Palestinian cause. During his first arrest in November 2012, this 26-year-old Damascene survived 37 days in solitary confinement and held firm despite suffering torture. It only adds to the cruellty of his killing that he cannot be publicaly eulogized and given the tribute he deserves as a revolutionary and courageous leftist.

Remembering the Syrian Revolutionary Youth and mentioning its fallen members is not a mere act of nostalgia to the revolution that once was, or to the Syria that might have been; it is above all a tribute to students, neighbourhood kids, and previously apolitical youth in their early and mid twenties who have paid the price for dreaming big and peacefully fighting to reclaim their city from the dictator and his shoe-lickers. They paid a further price for offering a third alternative beyond the regime/Islamists binary and for refusing to sell out or adopt the agenda that would please the outside opposition.

As the shadow of death under torture hangs over the entire group, it is difficult to end the story of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth on an optimistic note. It is also a tragedy that one of the most inspiring and promising grassroots groups to emerge out of the uprising has been stifled. But it is safe to say that their legacy will live on and that they will never be forgotten, and neither will the ideals that they fought for and sacrificed so much for at such a young age.

“Siding with life in the face of death”: photographer captures siege on Palestinians in Syria

Published in Electronic Intifada

Yarmouk camp on 14 February 2014. (Niraz Saied)
Yarmouk camp on 14 February 2014. (Niraz Saied)

Niraz Saied says he’s good at taking pictures, but not at speaking.

Yet when he begins talking about Yarmouk refugee camp, he speaks with a passionate lilt, captivating eloquence and a vivid amount of detail which is almost as powerful as his photography.

A refugee from the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Awlam, south of Tiberias — it was completely destroyed in April 1948 during the Nakba, Israel’s foundational act of ethnic cleansing — 23-year-old Saied was born and raised in Yarmouk refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Syrian regime air strike that hit the camp on 16 December 2012 was a decisive moment in Niraz Saied’s life, as it was for the hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians and Syrians who lived in the camp.

Saied was not in the camp when the MiG fighter jet bombed Abd al-Qader al-Husseini mosque, but it was the airstrike, and the exodus and blockade that followed, which prompted him to return a few weeks later.

Just as the Syrian regime and its allied Palestinian militias imposed a partial siege on the camp after the emergence of armed opposition fighters such as the Nusra Front, Saied returned to the camp, armed with his camera.

“There were many media activists and citizen journalists who were covering the shelling and the clashes back then,” Saied told The Electronic Intifada in an interview conducted via Skype.

“But I’m a photographer, not a journalist. So I did not return to document events but to narrate the camp’s untold stories through my lens,” he explained.

“Many focus on transmitting graphic images of charred corpses, blood-soaked faces and intense shelling. I tried to capture the daily life reality in the camp, to accentuate the human face of the suffering and transform the smallest details into a work of art.”

Breaking the siege

This detail was precisely what Saied captured in his award-winning photograph “The Three Kings,” which received first prize in a 2014 photography competition organized by the European Union and UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

Saied took the picture in March 2014 when the siege was at its height.

“The three children were supposed to travel to Europe to receive medical treatment, but the Syrian regime refused to grant them a permit to exit the country,” said Saied. “Their pale and tired faces tell the story of Yarmouk. But I haven’t been able to see the children again and no one in the camp knows anything about them.”

Niraz Saied’s award-winning “Three Kings” photograph. (UNRWA)
Niraz Saied’s award-winning “Three Kings” photograph. (UNRWA)

This photograph, along with fifty or so of Saied’s other images, were showcased in an exhibition at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah in June.

Titled The Dream Lives On, the exhibition illustrates Saied’s view that Yarmouk is not merely a pile of stones and destroyed buildings; it also contains human beings who love, dream, struggle and persist.

The pictures broke the siege imposed on the camp and made it into occupied Palestine, bridging the distance between the homeland and the diaspora and sharing with Palestinians at home the anguish, fear and hunger that their brothers and sisters in Yarmouk go through on a daily basis.

A similar message is conveyed in the new documentary Letters From Yarmouk, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Mashharawi. Saied assisted in the production of the documentary by filming and photographing from within the camp.

In Masharawi’s words, Letters From Yarmouk carries “messages captured at Yarmouk refugee camp in moments of extreme complexity; messages siding with life in the face of death; moments of love in a time of war and questions of homeland and exile.”

According to Masharawi, the documentary “presents stories that are still being told through still or moving images. Watched or heard, they are stories colored with hope for a better life. They are letters written by a lifelike documentary film.”

“Indispensable”

The primary target audience of the documentary, according to Saied, is the Palestinian people.

“For so long we Palestinians have been trying to convince Westerners of the justice of our cause,” he explained. “But this film is aimed at telling our fellow Palestinians about what’s going on in Yarmouk. We do feel that we have been let down. We always insist that the Palestinian people should be unified, but we feel that Yarmouk has been ostracized.”

A scene in Yarmouk camp. (Niraz Saied)
A scene in Yarmouk camp. (Niraz Saied)

For Saied, the camp is what connects us Palestinians to our homeland. Camp streets named after Palestinian towns including Haifa are “an embodiment of how we cling to the right of return and Palestine. We want Palestinians to know that Yarmouk is an indispensable part of the Palestinian cause.”

Saied dedicated the film to his good friend Hassan Hassan, a young Palestinian-Syrian actor and director who was killed under torture in a Syrian regime prison. Hassan was arrested at a regime checkpoint in October 2013 while trying to leave the camp with his wife, Waed; Syrian security forces seized his laptop and arrested him after finding that he had downloaded anti-regime videos.

One of the scenes in Letters From Yarmouk was filmed just outside Hassan’s home when both he and Saied were nearly hit by a shell. But even when close to death, Saied remembers that Hassan remained jocular and sarcastic.

“We’re not begging”

“For months after Hassan’s death, I couldn’t film anything,” said Saied. “I only took still images — his death broke me. But I realized that if Hassan were alive he would have urged me to continue this film. His contagious smile and our shared memories accompanied me in every step in preparing for this film.”

Saied is critical of the purely humanitarian discourse that only focuses on starvation or water cuts in the camp without holding the Syrian regime responsible.

“Even media outlets run by the Syrian regime circulated pictures of starving children in the camp because for them, our plight sells,” he said.

“We are not, however, begging for charity. We want an end to the siege imposed by the regime, release of our detainees held in Syrian regime prisons since the start of the uprising, and anyone who committed a crime, killing or torture to be held accountable,” he added.

“In fact, we are paying the price for welcoming displaced Syrians, for siding with the people rather than the regime, for refusing to turn the camp into a military base for pro-regime militias.”

Despite trying hard to remain optimistic, Saied believes that Yarmouk may never return to what it once was.

Niraz Saied’s award-winning “Three Kings” photograph. (UNRWA)
Niraz Saied’s award-winning “Three Kings” photograph. (UNRWA)
A scene in Yarmouk camp on 26 February 2014. (Niraz Saied)
A scene in Yarmouk camp on 26 February 2014. (Niraz Saied)

“Yarmouk as we know it is gone forever,” he said. “It is either heading towards complete decimation or becoming an Islamic emirate or towards maintaining the status quobecause no one seems interested in solving the crisis, not the regime, not the rebels and definitely not the Palestinian factions.”

It is often repeated that the camp has been under full siege since July 2013 and that the camp has been cut off from water since 8 September 2014, and the human toll of this is massive, making everyday life a constant struggle.

“I have to wake up early in the morning and fill several buckets with water from the well using very modest equipment,” Saied said.

“It tastes like anything but water, but we’ve gotten used to it. Then I have to collect firewood … [from] demolished houses. The gasoline inside the camp is incredibly expensive … [but I’m] relatively lucky because I have a gas cylinder and a generator. Electricity has become such a rare luxury that many children who were born during the siege are growing up without even knowing what it’s like.”

For Saied, the siege also means being away from his fiancée and his family, who were forced to leave the camp. Yet he still clings to the hope of capturing with his lens that happy day when people of Yarmouk “return” to the camp en masse. To a camp without siege, shelling and persecution.

عُدَي تَيِّم: سلسل الانتفاضتين

عدي

نُشر في موقع المنشور
English version

حين تصبح “فلسطين” فرعًا أمنيًا لاعتقال وتعذيب الفلسطينيّين، وحين يصبح أيُّ معتقلٍ فلسطيني مشروعَ شهيد، ومجرد رقمٍ عابرٍ لا يكترث له جلُّ من يدّعون مناصرة القضيّة الفلسطينيّة ومساندة الأسرى الفلسطينيّين، فاعلمي أنّكِ في “سورية الأسد”، حيثُ يقبعُ آلافُ الفلسطينيّين في الزّنازين الدّامسة والأقبية الموحشة دونَ أن تكونَ هنالك أيّة وسيلة لمعرفة مكان احتجازِ معظمهم، ناهيك عن استحالة الدّفاعِ عنهم، فلا يتبقى لذويهم وأصدقائهم غير التأرجحِ بين فكّي الانتظار المتوجّسِ والعجزِ القاتل متشبّثين بكلِّ ما أوتوا من أملٍ ضبابيّ. ومنهم من يفضّل التكتّم على أسماء المعتقلين لئلّا تؤدّيَ الضجّة الإعلاميّة إلى نتائجَ عكسيّة.

فكم من شابٍّ لم نعلم باعتقاله إلّا بعدَ ورود أنباء عن استشهاده تحت التّعذيب في سجون الطّاغية! وهل ثمّة ما هو أقسى وأكثرُ إيلامًا من أن تضطرَّ عائلةٌ للتّعتيمِ على اعتقال ابنها وعدم المطالبة العلنيّة بالإفراج عنه، خشيةَ أن يُلحقَ ذلك الضّررَ بها وبه؟ وعلى سبيل المثال لا الحصر، استشهاد المخرج والممثّل الفلسطيني حسّان حسّان والناشط البارز خالد بكراوي، وكلاهما تم اعتقاله على أحد حواجز النّظام السّوري قرب مخيّم اليرموك، شكّلَ صدمةً للكثيرين ممّن لم يعلموا أنهما كانا معتقلين أصلاً.

قد لا تنجح الكتابة عنهم وإثارة الضّجّة حول اعتقالهم بإطلاقِ سراحِ المعتقلين، فالنظام السوري لن يلتفتَ إلى مدوّناتنا ومقالاتنا، ولن تقضَّ بياناتُ وتحذيراتُ المؤسّسات الحقوقيّة مضجعه قيد أنملة، لكن أقلّ ما يمكننا فعله للحؤول دونَ تناسي المعتقلين هو التحدّث عنهم باستمرار. فإنْ غيَّبت السجونُ أجسادَهم وغيَّب الإعلامُ التّقليديُّ وجوهَهم، علينا ألّا نسمحَ بتغييبِ قصصهم وأحلامهم وأسمائهم وصورهم. حتّى لو لم تتمكّن نداءاتنا وصرخاتنا من كسرِ قيودهم إلّا أنها ستضمنُ أن تبقى حرّيّتهم التي سُلبوها وهم يناضلون من أجل حرّيتنا أولويّةً لدى الثوار والمعارضة السياسيّة سواء على طاولة المفاوضات أو في صفقات تبادل الأسرى.

 عُدي تيّم هو واحدٌ من آلاف الفلسطينيين والفلسطينيات المعتقلين في سجون الأسد، ولا يزال مكان احتجازه غير معروف مذ اعتقلته جهةٌ أمنيّةٌ تابعةٌ للنظام، في التاسع والعشرين من آب الفائت من المنزل الذي كان يقيم فيه في مدينة جرمانا الخاضعة لسيطرة النظام.

وُلِدَ عُديّ في 12 أيّار/مايو من العام 1993، في مخيّم اليرموك، جنوب العاصمة السوريّة دمشق، لوالدٍ طُردت أسرته على أيدي الميليشيات الصهيونية من قرية الشجرة المهجّرة، ولوالدةٍ لجأت عائلتها إلى سورية من بلدة كفر كنا المجاورة لمدينة الناصرة إبّانَ النكبة الفلسطينية في العام 1948.  لم يكن عُديّ قد بلغ الثامنة من عمره بعد عندما شارك في اعتصام لدعم أهله في فلسطين المحتلّة، مع اندلاعِ الانتفاضة الفلسطينية الثانية، وكان يرافقُ والدته يوميًا إلى خيمة الاعتصام في ساحة عرنوس وسط دمشق مردّدًا الشعاراتِ المناهضةَ للاحتلال الصهيونيّ والأغاني الفلسطينية الثورية. وبعد 11 عامًا على اندلاع الانتفاضة الفلسطينيّة، شاء عشقُ الحرّيّة الذي لا يتجزّأ أن يشاركَ عُديّ في الانتفاضة السوريّة أيضًا ناشطًا سلميًا وفي مجالِ الإغاثة. ويقول أحد الناشطين السوريّين الذين التقوا عُديّ، بدايةً في اعتصام ساحة عرنوس في العام 2000، ومن ثم خلال الثورة السورية: “عندما التقيته مجددًا أثناء الثورة لم أعرفه طبعًا لكنه ذكّرني بنفسه، وأخبرني أنه نفسه ذاك الطفل الذي كان يأتي مع أُمّه إلى خيمة الاعتصام. لا يمكنك تخيّل مقدار فرحي فقد شعرتُ كأنّه كان لديّ ولد ضائع ووجدته”.

عُدي، ومعه جيلٌ كاملٌ من الشباب الفلسطينيّ في سورية، أدركوا مبكرًا ما عجز عددٌ كبيرٌ من أيقونات اليسار الفلسطيني الصدئة والمناضلين السابقين عن فهمه، وهو أن الانتفاضة السورية –كالفلسطينية تمامًا- جاءت كي تطالبَ بالحرية والكرامة والعدالة، وأنّه لا يمكن لمن أيّدَ انتفاضة الفلسطينيين أن يخذل انتفاضة السوريين أو أن يقفَ على الحياد. ليست مصادفةً أن يقوم الذين هتفوا مطالبين بالحرية لفلسطين بالهتافِ مطالبين بالحرية لسورية، بل المفارقة هي إصرار الذين هتفوا لفلسطين، وحملوا السلاح في مقاومة الاحتلال، أن ينكروا على السوريين ثورتهم أو أن يصفوها بالـ “أزمة” والمؤامرة والحرب الأهليّة حتى عندما كان المتظاهرون السوريون يوزّعون الورودَ على رجال الأمن الذين كانوا يطلقون عليهم الرصاص! والمفارقة أن يدّعيَ من خذل ثورةَ السوريين منذ أن انطلقت سلميّةً في درعا أنّه كان سيدعم الثورة لو لم تحصل العسكرة! وأن يتباكى على “سرقة ثورة” قام بذمّها وتخوينها في يومها الأوّل!

عُدي، ومعه جيلٌ كامل من الشباب السوري والفلسطيني، اختاروا البقاء لاستعادة الثورة من المتسلّقين والأصوليّين عوضًا عن رثائها والتفجّعِ على سرقتها، وآثروا العمل بصمت لإغاثة سكّان الأحياء المحاصرة على السفر ومواصلة دراستهم والاستمتاع بحياة آمنة.

وبينما يستمر النظام السوري في احتجاز عُدي والكثير من الشباب الفلسطينيين والسوريين الذين نشطوا في مجال الإغاثة وعملوا على فكّ الحصار يستخدم تيّارٌ عريضٌ من الفلسطينيين، الذين لم يتذكروا أهالي اليرموك المحاصرين إلّا بعد مرور ستة أشهر على الحصار، خطابًا محايدًا يتعامل مع الأزمة في اليرموك كأنها أزمة إنسانية فحسب، متجاهلًا المسؤول الرئيس عن الحصار وعن استشهاد العشرات جوعًا ملقيًا اللوم على “الطرفين” ومتناسيًا الشباب الذين اعتقلهم النظام لمحاولتهم فك الحصار! لن تسمعي من معظم دعاةِ الحياد الزّائف من يساريين كلمةً عن الشهيد أنس عمارة، “رفيقهم” في الجبهة الشعبيّة الذي استشهد قنصًا على يد جيش النظام وهو يحاول تهريبَ المساعدات إلى مخيّم اليرموك في نيسان/أبريل الماضي! وهنالك من تبلغ بهم الوقاحةُ حدّ أن يرْثوا أنس وخالد بكراوي وحسّان حسّان وأحمد كوسا وشحادة الشهابي وآخرين، دون أن يذكروا في معرض الحديث أن هؤلاء استشهدوا على يد النظام. فـ “حيادهم” يقتضي التغاضي عن المجرم الأساسي واقتطاع الأزمة الإنسانية في سورية من سياقها السياسي وتجاهل انتهاكات أجهزة النظام الأمنية بحق المعتقلين والمطالبة بـ “إنقاذ اليرموك” مقابل الصمت عن باقي المدن والأحياء السورية التي يحاصرها النظام! هم أنفسهم ينادون بالحرية للأسرى الفلسطينيين في سجون الاحتلال ويطالبون بتبييض السجون، ويغضّون الطرف عن المعتقلين الفلسطينيين في سجون الأسد ويتّهمونك بتجميل صورة الاحتلال الإسرائيلي عندما تذكّرينهم أن عدد الفلسطينيّين الذين استشهدوا تحت التعذيب في سجون النظام السوري خلال السنوات الثلاث الأخيرة يفوق عدد الفلسطينيين الذين استشهدوا تحت التعذيب في السجون الإسرائيلية منذ العام 1967.

لا تختلف دموعُ والدةِ عديّ وهي تنظر إلى صوره، وتستمع إلى أغنية “طلّت البارودة” عن دموعِ أمهات الأسرى الفلسطينيّين في سجون الاحتلال. كما لا تقلّ قضية المعتقلين في سجون الأسد عدالةً عن قضية المعتقلين في سجون الاحتلال الصهيوني، ولكن ازدواجية المعايير لدى شريحة ليست بمحدودة من الفلسطينيين ومدّعي التضامن مع القضية الفلسطينيّة تجعلهم يدعمون نضال الأسرى الفلسطينيين في سجون الاحتلال ويصمتون عن المعتقلين في سورية.

لا يزال مؤيّدو النظام السوري الفلسطينيون والانتقائيّون ومدّعو الحياد عاجزين عن تحرير “فلسطينهم” من ربقة الاستبداد واستغلال ومتاجرة الطغاة التي أسقطها عُديّ وفلسطينيّو سورية مع أول صرخة “حرّيّة” انطلقت من حناجرهم.