The Forgotten Revolution in Salamiyah

On 21 January, a huge suicide car bombing rocked the Syrian town of Salamiyah, 30 kilometres southeast of Hama in Western Syria. The Salafist-jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra later claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted a gathering of pro-regime thugs (shabbiha) at the carpet factory, but also killed and injured many civilians, including children. The Syrian National Coalition, the leading umbrella group of the opposition, denounced the attack but refused to condemn the Nusra front. Another terrorist bombing with a similar pattern hit a military factory in Salamiyah on 6 February, killing tens of innocent civilians. The explosions of terrorist activity in Salamiyah bring the heated and complex debate involving the Syrian political opposition vis-à-vis jihadist groups back to the fore. They also highlights the increasing participation of such groups on the ground in Syria, the dangers they pose to the revolution, and their utter disregard for civilian life.

Leading the frontlines

A small district with a population of just over 100,000, Salamiyah is known for its diverse yet genuinely harmonious social fabric that goes beyond the hackneyed, empty slogans of “national unity” that dominate the tediously romantic and lustrous ba’athist discourse.  Salamiyah, which is made up of the largest Ismaili community in the Middle East in addition to Sunnis, Shia Twelvers, and Alawites, was among the first Syrian cities to join the revolution for freedom and dignity. The first anti-regime demonstration in Salamiyah took place on 25 March, 201a, a week following the deadly crackdown in Dara’a. As early as 1 April 2011, just over two weeks into the uprising, protesters of all sects took to the streets of Salamiyah again, chanting “The Syrian people shall not be humiliated” in solidarity with besieged Dara’a.

Since that day, raucous protests, street arts, flash mobs, candlelight vigils and other forms of unarmed resistance have become regular features of the public space in the city.

The women and girls of Salamiyah have been at the forefront of the uprising since its very beginning. They established a grassroots women coordination committee that is and has been remarkably active on the ground. These women act as citizen journalists; bravely stand in the front lines of protests undeterred by the heavy presence and assaults of security forces; and are subjected to arrests and persecution like their male comrades. Young activists Hadeel Sa’id, Mais Shihawi and Roua Ja’afar – to name but a few – are among several women from Salamiyah who have been arrested by the Syrian regime over the course of the uprising.

Students, too, are a pivotal constituency of the city’s grassroots revolutionary movement, leading and participating in protests inside and outside Salamiyah. The young revolutionaries also turned motorcycle protests and freedom rides into trademarks of the city. Other forms of dissent in Salamiyah include dyeing the streets in red paint following the bread queue massacre in Helfaya; spraying revolutionary graffiti; and participating in general strikes. The revolutionary movement in Salamiyah, however, continues to be forsaken by mainstream media outlets despite tremendous efforts by local media activists to spread the word and document protests, putting themselves under threat of arrest or injury.

Soft repression

In an attempt to quell the protest movement in Salamiyah, the Syrian regime wittingly used”soft” repression instead of naked power. It resorted mainly to daily arrests and kidnappings of both protesters and activists, deploying thugs to attack and intimidate anyone who would speak up against it. In addition, the regime tried – often to no avail – to stir up sectarian tensions among the Ismaili and Sunni populations in the city. One of the rare occasions when regime forces heavily used live ammunition in a demonstration in Salamiyah was during the funeral procession of martyr Jamal Fakhouri on 30 June 2012, killing Ali Qatrib and injuring several others.

“Soft” repression is an uncharacteristic tactic for a regime that is infamous for using unprecedented levels of violence to crush peaceful protests, firing live bullets as soon as the first cry for freedom bellowed in al-Omari mosque in Daraa, and at times attacking unarmed protesters with tanks and mortar shells. Inad Abbas, a defected colonel and high-ranking interior ministry official, explained that the choice of the regime to avoid lethal weaponry in Salamiyah was not a mere coincidence. Abbas claimed that while there were orders to fire at protesters in Hama and “exterminate” them, troops in Salamiyah were explicitly warned against firing even one bullet at protesters. Abbas attributes that dichotomy to the efforts of the regime to portray all protesters as terrorists and extremists, solidifying its image as the safeguard of religious minorities. Although less brutal, the measures adopted by the regime in Salamiyah were not less intimidating. The arbitrary detention of hundreds of activists and protest organisers – many of whom were re-arrested and tortured on several occasions – succeeded in grinding down the protest movement.

Salamiyah has also been hit by a wave of abductions in recent months perpetrated by some Islamist militias. That could not, however, stifle protests completely. Demonstrations are continuing, albeit not with the same regularity and large size that characterised the early months of the revolution. Even the terrorist blast that shook Salamiyah on 21 January did not stop the youth of the community from demanding the downfall of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and singing for freedom.

Aiding the Displaced

Salamiyah’s contribution to the Syrian uprising has not been limited to protests and creative dissent. The city warmly welcomed thousands of internally-displaced persons who fled the brutal crackdown on Hama and Rastan and Talbiseh in the Homs countryside. Activists from Salamiyeh also volunteered to smuggle food, aid, and medical supplies into besieged areas. Activist Mulham Rustum was shot dead by a regime checkpoint officer while trying to smuggle medical aid into Rastan. His martyrdom affected Salamiyah so profoundly that his funeral procession on June 22, 2012 morphed into one of the largest anti-regime protests the city has seen since the eruption of the uprising.

This is Salamiyah: the city of rebellious carnations and never-fading candles; the ancient town of RomanCanals and castles that was completely destroyed three times in its history, only to rise up from beneath the rubble. It is rising up for a fourth time against the tyranny and subjugation that has suffocated Syria for over four decades. Salamiyah, one of the epicentres of unarmed resistance, is not a city of minorities. Rather, it is city where the masses flocked to the streets as one to demand a free and just Syria for all. It is the birthplace of the great Syrian poet and playwright Muhammad al-Maghout, who wrote of his hometown:

Salamiyah is the tear the Romans shed
over the first prisoner who broke his manacles with his own teeth…
Salamiyah is the little girl
who tumbled at the margins of Europe
while toying with her Fatemid earrings and golden hair.
Ever since, she has been kneeling and weeping, her doll in the sea and her fingers in the desert.
She is bordered by fear on the North; sorrow on the South; dust on the East and by estrangements and ruins on the West…
In each handful of her soil, there is a butterfly’s wing or a prisoner’s chain;
A letter by Al-Mutnabbi or a whip of Al-Hajjaj;
A Caliph’s teeth or an orphan’s tear.
And she never knew hunger,,for her children are as many as her clouds…
But she is forever melancholy for her birds have no shelter.”

salamiya

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Druze youth faces jail for refusing to serve in Israel’s army

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Photo: Omar Saad (uncredited photo from “Support Omar Saad” Facebook page)

Omar Saad, a Palestinian musician and high school senior from the Druze minority religious community, faces imprisonment over his refusal to take part in a recruitment test for the Israeli military on Wednesday (31 October).

Saad has bravely made his views known to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Ehud Barak, its defense minister. In a letter to both men, Saad stated: “I will not be fuel to the fire of your war” (“I’m Omar Saad and I will not be a soldier in your army,” Abir Kopty’s blog, 27 October).

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Saad elaborated on why military service repelled him. “As a believer in nonviolence whose only weapon is his viola and as someone who believes in the right of all people to live in freedom, dignity and equality, I can never serve in an army that intrinsically opposes these values,” he said.

Hailing from the Galilee village of Meghar, Saad belongs to a family with a proud tradition of defying Israel’s diktats.

“I was raised in a politically-aware household. My father refused to serve in the Israeli army and, together with my mother, they entrenched in us a sense of belonging to the Palestinian people,” he said. “From a very young age my siblings and I understood that we are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people.”

Whereas most Palestinian citizens of Israel have been exempt from military service, conscription was forced on young Druze men in 1956.

Some 84 percent of Druze men serve in the army, according to data from the Israeli military (“My uncle, the hero,” Ynet, 25 April 2012). While that figure indicates that Druze are even more likely to perform military service than Jewish Israelis, there is a strong refusenik movement within the Druze community.

Severe punishment

Saad’s stance appears all the more courageous, considering that Druze tend to be punished more severely than Jewish Israeli conscientious objectors.

“Unlike pacifist Israelis, Druze objectors do not get exemption on conscientious grounds, as if we have no conscience,” said Ajwad Zidan, a Druze citizen who has spent six months in prison for refusing to be conscripted. “We suffer from extremely harsh treatment during our imprisonment, which aims to intimidate us and scare other Druze from taking a similar decision.”

Samer Swaid, secretary of the Druze Initiative Committee, a group opposing military service, argues that the 84 percent statistic cited by Israel does not tell the whole story.

“A study conducted by a Haifa University professor in 2010 shows that two-thirds of the Druze youths would not enlist if given the choice,” he said. “Moreover, the national security conference in Herzliya has warned for two years against the increasing number of Druze youth who refuse to serve in the army,” he explained (see also “Druze and military service in Israel,” Alternative Information Center, 17 June 2012).

Swaid, who works as an assistant to Hanna Swaid, a member of Israel’s parliament, theKnesset, added: “Despite [more than] five decades of mandatory conscription, Druze villages suffer, like the rest of Palestinian villages in Israel, from institutionalized and systematic marginalization and discrimination. Many Druze youth see themselves as part and parcel of the Palestinian people and refuse to cooperate with a system that kills and oppresses fellow Palestinians and occupies their own land.”

Sowing divisions

The introduction of military service for Druze citizens followed talks between representatives of the Israeli state and a few Druze community leaders. The Druze people themselves were never given an opportunity to say if they consented to this move.

Israel forced military service on the Druze as part of plan to sow divisions among Palestinians. The Zionist leadership wished to exploit the status of the Druze community — a small minority without an organized leadership — to create a separate Druze identity that would be hostile to other sections of Palestinian society.

Conscription encountered significant resistance. In 1958, the Free Young Druze Movement was set up. One of its founders, Jamal Zidan, became the first Druze to be jailed for refusing to serve in the army. Other outspoken opponents of conscription included the poet Samih al-Qasim, who was also jailed for refusing to serve, and the writer Mohammad Nafa.

Inspired by the Free Officers Movement in Egypt, the group mostly worked in secret due to the harsh martial law conditions imposed on Palestinians in Israel between 1948 and 1966.

Later — in March 1972 — activists from this group, along with members of the Israeli Communist Party, met at the house of Sheikh Farhoud Farhoud, and created the Druze Initiative Committee. It remains the leading Druze organization fighting compulsory service.

Fifty-six years after conscription was forced on his community, Saad underscores why Druze must keep on opposing it. “I want my Palestinian brethren to know that, even though there are Druze who serve in the army because they are convinced it is the right thing, the majority are against it,” he said. “Many of them are scared of paying the price of objection. But there are many who believe like me and many who have paid a hefty price for refusing.”

Unfortunately, the issue of Druze conscription is often ignored by Palestinian journalists. This reflects an unjust generalization against Druze Palestinians. The perception that the Druze community are traitors plays right into the hand of the Zionist system that sought to divide and fragment the Palestinian society along sectarian lines. As it happens, collaboration with Israel is not confined to any sect or religion. Hundreds of Muslim and Christian Palestinians serve in the Israeli military voluntarily.

It is vital to understand that the Druze are victims of the Israeli occupation and militarism, just like the rest of us Palestinians. Understanding this reality is a necessary first step to encourage more Druze teenagers to refuse military service, thereby increasing Palestinian unity.

Published in ElectronicIntifada.net

Nawar Qassem: Challenging the Discourse of Sectarianism in Syria

نوار

It is an arduous task to write about someone you have never met or talked to, but it is even harder to explain how that complete stranger has invaded your thoughts and haunted your dreams.

Nawar Qassem, an incredibly courageous young man from Tartous, has turned into just another number on an endless list of nameless detainees in Syria. I first read about Nawar on Twitter upon his arrest – or abduction, to be precise – by Syrian regime forces from his parents’ house on Wednesday June 28th. Nawar had been shot in the thigh earlier this month and his injury requires a surgery outside Syria. Sounds like a tediously familiar story, doesn’t it?

As desperately as we try to deny it, most of us have normalized mass-killings in Syria. We have lost count of the number of martyred, injured, detained, disappeared and displaced Syrians since the start of the Syrian uprising. In today’s Syria, a day is considered relatively “quiet” if the death toll does not exceed 50.

In today’s Syria, the sudden, painless death by a sniper’s bullet is a luxury many Syrians dream of: before his arrest, citizen journalist Hassan al-Azhari from Latakia said that he preferred death over arrest. But even that was too much to ask. He was arrested and tortured to death.

In today’s Syria, the basic rights of paying farewell to your loved ones, mourning them in peace, and burying them properly are privileges that thousands of bereaved families have been deprived of.

In today’s Syria, having a name is a curse in life and death. Few dissidents afford to reveal their identity out of fear of persecution, arrest and torture. At times, even the dead must remain unnamed since the mere mention of their names may be too great a threat for their families and comrades.

In today’s Syria, martyrs have become numbers flashing across our TV screens and their stories remain untold. Think of the man who was killed a few days before his wedding. Think of the medical students who were shot dead a day before their graduation. Think of the little girl who fled the heavy shelling on Baba Amr only to be murdered along with her entire family in Deir Ezzour.

In today’s Syria, there are tens of thousands of detainees; most of them do not get Facebook pages calling for their release or trending campaigns raising awareness to their plight.

In today’s Syria, only one side bears the burden of proof. And no, it is not the side that has enslaved Syrian citizens for four decades. The oppressed in Syria have to protest, document the protest, get shot and shelled, treat the injured, live-stream the shelling while risking their lives in the process only for couch “anti-imperialists” to reject their reports blithely because they are anonymous peasants who do not have celebrity status or hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers like Tahrir Square’s superstars; because their reports are unsubstantiated; because some of the pictures posted in social media are outdated or unverified which must mean that the entire uprising is fake or exaggerated. It matters not that with so many massacres across Syria, we get virtually identical images of charred corpses and graphic injuries. It matters not that spreading unverified or false photos and news is not by any means exclusive to the Syrian uprising, but rather transpires everywhere including in Palestine; it matters not that the very people demanding utmost accuracy from Syrian protesters in the name of integrity unthinkingly quote sources sympathetic with the Syrian regime.

In today’s Syria, massacres and protests define towns and cities with the stench of death replacing the scent of jasmine.

Why, then, at a time when massacres and mass arrests became a routine, has Nawar Qassem’s story occupied my mind and touched me so profoundly? Perhaps because it challenges the paradigms and stereotypes that have come to characterize the Syrian uprising and dominate the discourse over Syria. Nawar is an Alawite. And it is painful that we are obliged to mention a person’s sect to show that the revolution is not a Sunni insurrection. Nawar is a Syrian Alawite who has been active in the revolution since its outbreak. Nawar has dedicated his time and energy to assist Homsi refugees, working in Tartous, a city that has been a stronghold for the regime. Nawar is a Syrian Alawite non-violent activist meaning that he faces a serious risk of torture and an extremely vengeful, wrathful punishment at the hands of his jailers.

It is precisely because Nawar Qassem does not fit the accepted narrative that you will not hear about him in the media. Writing about a guy from the “minorities”, who is one of many activists working behind the scenes, does not sell copies like the “Sunni market” story. Speaking about solidarity and unity in Syria is not as contentious as publishing Adnan Arour’s disgustingly sectarian statements. Covering the protests of Salamiyeh – a mixed town of Ismailis, Sunnis, and Shia Twelvers, all of whom have been protesting since the very beginning of the uprising as well as aiding the injured and the displaced – does not serve the narrative that “minorities” staunchly support the regime.

By no means am I trying to paint the Syrian uprising as a utopia or as a perfect uprising. It is not. The revolution has indeed been stained by sectarian sentiments and random violence at times. While it is the regime that is chiefly responsible for sowing sectarianism and driving revolutionaries into armed – and at times religious-motivated – resistance after months of largely peaceful protests, sweeping the flaws of Syrian society and the Syrian revolution under the rug is wrong. So, too, is condoning sectarianism and any crimes committed by the Free Syrian Army against civilians.

The Syrian uprising is our window into the Syrian society; after years of being accustomed to viewing the Syrian society through the eyes of the regime, we finally got the chance to see a different, unfiltered Syria with all its flaws, tensions, heroism and accomplishments. Despite the savagery of the Syrian regime and the insistence to portray the revolution as a civil war, acts of sheer courage, creative non-violent resistance and inspiring – albeit criminally under-covered – solidarity shine through amidst the incitement and hate-mongering.

Nawar Qassem was shot and arrested because he shakes the very foundation of a regime built on fear mongering and divide and rule tactics.

The Syrian regime proves again that the clever signs of Kafranbel, the cartoons of Ali Ferzat, the lens of Bassel Shehadeh’s camera and the roaring chant of “The Syrian people are one” pose a much greater threat to its existence than any armed battalion.

Published in friend DarthNader’s blog