How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

 

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The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

 

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

 

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

 

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged.

How can one not be inspired by a people rediscovering their voices, transforming folk songs and football chants into revolutionary chants? How can one not be taken aback by protests choreographed in front of tanks?

 

The Syrian geography was much more diverse and rich than that promoted by the regime and the official narrative collapsed as Syrians from the margins reconstructed their own narratives. The Syrian rainbow had many more colors than those permitted by the regime. And Syrians could raise their voices in places other than football stadiums, using their famous victory chant in public squares and streets to curse Hafez al-Assad, the “eternal leader.”

 

If Hafez al-Assad’s name could only be whispered with trembles before 2011, people at last could vociferously curse him and his son, shaking both the physical as well as the symbolic hegemony of this dynasty to its foundations.

 

I could not remain neutral as Syrians redefined the feasible and stretched the boundaries of people power, albeit briefly, during those early months of fatal hope.

Wouldn’t remaining impartial have been an act of treason to anything I claimed to stand for? How could I possibly read out Howard Zinn’s quote “You cannot be neutral on a moving train” to those sitting on the fence on Palestine, while I was doing the same on Syria? The Syrian revolution crumbled the fence from under me. I rediscovered my voice thanks to the mass mobilization I witnessed in Syria. I would listen to clips from Syrian protests, memorize their chants, and repeat them in Palestinian protests. Thinking of the fearlessness of Syrians would immediately make my voice louder and help make me overcome any slight semblance of fear.

 

You do not choose the nationality into which you were born but you don’t have to be bound by its shackles.

My Syrian identity, my sense of belonging to the Syrian revolution, was not forced onto me. I chose to adopt it. I never stepped foot in Syria. It was not until 2013 that I first met a Syrian not from the Occupied Golan Heights in the flesh, face to face. My main way of connecting with Syrians was and remains through social media and Skype. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Syrian and completely identify with the struggle.

Until 2011, my talk about breaking borders and internationalist solidarity was but a soundbite, mere rhetorics. Thanks to the Syrian uprising, I finally understood what solidarity is really about.

 

I always expected people to support the Palestinian cause without imposing conditions, without preaching or lecturing, without dictating. When the Syrian uprising erupted, I acted exactly like those armchair preaches demanding a jasmine revolution from Palestinians, constantly asking us about the New Gandhi and MLK. But as the revolution went on, I could finally comprehend the true meaning of solidarity from below, a solidarity that is unconditional yet also critical. I saw how people like martyr Omar Aziz applied horizontal self-governance in some of the more conservative and traditional neighborhoods, and I learned from his model.

I learned the meaning of communal solidarity and Palestinian-Syrian togetherness from the Palestinian residents of Daraa refugee camp: they risked their lives to smuggle bread and medicine and break the siege on the rising city of Daraa. It was not just a humanitarian act; it was a political statement and the beginning of the formation of an identity, that of the Palestinian-Syrian revolutionary.

 

Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, and Zaradasht Wanly, a Syrian youngster from Damascus, were both injured by Israeli occupation forces during “return marches” to the Golan Heights in 2011. Both Khaled and Zaradasht were murdered by the Syrian regime: the former was killed under torture, the latter was shot dead during a peaceful protest.

 

Syrians marched in solidarity with Gaza amid the rubble of their houses destroyed by Syrian regime air strikes. The Syrian Revolutionary Youth put out posters against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Naqab when most of the group’s members were in hiding, jails, exile, or graves.

Such is the solidarity of the oppressed which Syrians turned from rhetorics to practice. How can one not admire it?

 

If the Second Intifada in October 2000 shaped the political consciousness and national identity of an 11-year-old girl who had just left her tiny village to move to the city; the first wave of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 rebirthed a woman making her more confident steps in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, my city, the one I chose to call home, could not by any means be liberated by the oppressors of my people, of Syrians. Jerusalem’s spirit cannot be hijacked by those bombing a hospital carrying its name.

Far from struggling to reconcile my Palestinian and Syrian identity layers, The Syrian uprising made me even more committed to the struggle for Palestinian liberation: the liberation of the land from the occupier and the liberation of the cause from dictators and bandwagoners.

 

And while I parted company with people I once regarded comrades because of their support for the Syrian regime, I also gained new, lifelong friendships that have imbued my world with warmth and strength.

 

I owe so much to the Syrian revolution, which re-created me. I have no status or self-importance or willingness to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone on behalf of the Palestinian people, but I personally owe an apology to the Syrian people. I should have never hesitated in supporting their just cause. I should have never privileged geopolitical concerns over Syrian lives; and I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis.

I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause; to a people whose only encounter with “Palestine” was in a prison dungeon carrying this name; the people who were blamed and mocked for being so docile yet when they did rise up, they were abandoned.

I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.

One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.

 

Yet despite contradictions, Palestinians and Syrians do share the same yearning for freedom, the same burning desire to live in dignity and the dream to walk in the streets of the Old City of Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The road we shall cross to get there, though, is not the one that the regime and Hezbollah saturated with Syrian corpses, but one paved with the hands of Palestinian and Syrian freedom fighters: by people who know that their freedom is always incomplete without the freedom of their sisters and brothers.

 

 

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برصاص داعش وسلاح الأسد: لا تقتلوا ناجي الجرف مرتين

في موقع حبر

هكذا أحب ناجي الجرف (1977-2015) أن يصف نفسه. عمل ناجي مديرَ تحريرٍ لمجلة حنطة التي أسسها، ومدرّبًا للصحفيين المواطنين، وساهم في تأسيس المكتب الإعلامي لمدينة سَلَمِية وريفها مع انطلاق الثورة السورية، إلا أن الهوية التي طغت على كل هذه التعريفات المهنية كانت انتماءه لسلمية. «إنت سلموني، أليس كذلك؟» سألته في أول حديث بيننا فأجاب «سلموني، كتير كتير».

نحن نشبه مدننا وروحها تنعكس على وجوهنا وتعيش فينا، ولكن ناجي لم يشبه سلميته فحسب بل كان تجسيدًا لها. هي، على الرغم من سِلميتها وضعفها، وحّدت السوريين في بداية ثورتهم، متحدّيةً التنميطات الطائفية ومتجاوزةً الانحيازات الأقلوية ومحيلة «النسيج الوطني الجامع» من بضاعة كاسدة ومبتذلة يسخر السوريون ممن يحاول المتاجرة بها، إلى واقعٍ معاشٍ وملموسٍ في المظاهرات والوقفات الاحتجاجية ضد النظام السوري. ورحيل ناجي، الأعزل كمدينته والمنهك مثلها، وحّد السوريين بعد انهيار ثورتهم. هذه وحدة في الألم والحزن والرثاء، ولكن مناهضي النظام السوري لم يظهروا هذا التوافق الجمعي على شخصية عامة منذ زمن بعيد. Continue reading “برصاص داعش وسلاح الأسد: لا تقتلوا ناجي الجرف مرتين”

¿SENTENCIA DE MUERTE POR ENFRENTARSE A LOS CENSORES SIRIOS?

Traducción de Elena Cal Atán y Elisa Marvena
ORIGNAL

A los seres queridos de Bassel Khartabil se les sigue ocultando cualquier información sobre su paradero. A pesar de que se cree que el desarrollador de software palestino ha sido sentenciado a muerte en Siria, esto no ha sido confirmado oficialmente. Algunos rumores sugieren que la ejecución ya podría haber sido llevada a cabo.

La falta de información fidedigna está resultando extremadamente estresante para su mujer, Noura Ghazi.

“Esto perdiendo peso y mi cabello se cae” dice Ghazi. “Ni siquiera sé si está vivo o muerto” Continue reading “¿SENTENCIA DE MUERTE POR ENFRENTARSE A LOS CENSORES SIRIOS?”

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?”

خرافة الخندق الواحد

ليس ضرباً من الرومانسية الثورية أو الحنين المبتذل أن أقول إنني أدين بالكثير لانتفاضة الثامن عشر من آذار، وللسوريات والسوريين الذين فجّروها وساروا في ركابها وضحّوا بأمنهم وحياتهم وأحلامهم الشخصية دفاعاً عن مطالبها ومبادئها.

تعلّمت الكثير من شجاعة ثائرات وثوار سوريا، شجاعتهم في استعادة فضاء عام كان اختراقه محرّماً عليهم طيلة عقود من هيمنة الطغمة الحاكمة. تعلّمت من أناشيد التائقين للكرامة والحرية، ومن أهازيجهم في وجوه الدبابات وتحت هدير الطائرات، ومن أصواتهم وأياديهم المتشابكة وهي تحوّل المجاز إلى واقع ملموس، ومن مواصلتهم الغناء حتى بعد أن تستهدف القذائف مظاهراتهم السلميّة. تعلّمت كيف يُصرّ الحالمون بالانعتاق على إيجاد طرق جديدة وخلّاقة، يتجاوزون بها رقابة النظام التي كانت تبدو عصيّة على المراوغة، تماماً كما يصرّون الآن على تحطيم الحدود بأجسادهم ودمائهم، وعلى شقّ طرق جديدة لم يسلكها غيرهم من قبل نحو أوروبا، بدءاً بقوارب الموت المبحرة في المتوسّط، مروراً بالصهاريج التي تنقل الشوكولا من فرنسا إلى بريطانيا، وصولاً إلى الالتفاف حول القارّة عبر الدائرة القطبية.

قد يبدو غريباً أن يصدر هذا الكلام عن فلسطينيّة، ونحن الذين اعتدنا أن يخبرنا الجميع أن نضالنا وصمودنا ألهمهم وكان مَثَلَهم الأعلى، ولكن ما تعلمته من السوريات والسوريين في الأعوام الأربعة الأخيرة، وما أحدثته انتفاضة 18 آذار في وعيي وحياتي، لا يقل جذرية وتأثيراً عما منحتني إياه فلسطين منذ الانتفاضة الثانية.

أكثر ما أدين به لثورة السوريين هو تجاوز فكرة البوصلة الواحدة والوحيدة، والتجرّؤ على تحطيم أيقوناتنا النضالية، دون أن يؤدي بي هذا إلى التشكيك بعدالة القضية الفلسطينية أو التنازل عن ثوابتنا، بل بالعكس. ما تبدّل هو أن أولوية تحرير فلسطين أُضيفت لها أولويات أخرى، وأنني تمرّنت على رؤية القضية بعيون المقاومين السوريين المرابطين على جبهة الزبداني، وليس من عيوني الفلسطينية فحسب. لم يعد السجل النضالي لأي شخصية وطنية، من ليلى خالد إلى سمير قنطار، قادراً على تبرئتهم من جرم خذلان السوريين ومعاداة ثورتهم.

كان الالتزام بتحرير كامل التراب الفلسطيني وبحق العودة للاجئين الفلسطينيين، وبالعداء المطلق للصهيونية، معياري الأول والأهم في الحكم على الأشخاص والقضايا والسياسات، وكل ما عدا ذلك تفاصيل وآراء سياسية، يمكن مناقشتها أو غضّ الطرف عنها باسم القضية الأولى والبوصلة الأوحد. كان يكفي تاريخ حزب الله في مقاومة الاحتلال وفي الاستمرار بمقارعته، ودوره في مدّ المقاومة الفلسطينية في غزّة بالعون والسلاح، للتغاضي عن طائفيته ويمينيته. كل هذه كانت «أخطاء» يمكن السكوت عنها ضمن المعركة الأهم ضد الاحتلال. كانت معاداة النظام الإيراني الصريحة للاحتلال الإسرائيلي كافية كي أتلعثم في موقفي من احتجاجات الإيرانيين عام 2009، تلعثماً شعر به الكثيرون ولم يدفع ثمنه الإيرانيون وحدهم بل ما زلنا ندفع ثمنه جميعاً.

ما كان ينبغي أن ننتظر حتى يشارك النظام الإيراني وحزب الله نظامَ الأسد في سفك دماء السوريين، وتهجيرهم وتدمير بلدهم، حتى ندرك أن البوصلة التي تستند إلى قمع البشر وإذلالهم وإعلان الحرب عليهم لا يمكن أن ترشدنا نحو فلسطين. وحتى لو كانت فلسطين هي وجهتها فعلاً، كل بوصلة تكفر بحرية البشر وكرامتهم هي بوصلة ضالّة ومضلّلة.

لم يكن ينبغي أن ننتظر حتى ينكر الأمين العام لحزب الله حدوث أي شيء في حمص، حتى ندرك أنه لا يمكن أن نكون في خندق واحد مع مدافعين شرسين عن الظلم والاستبداد إلا إذا حُفر هذا الخندق لا ليمهّد الطريق نحو تحرّر جمعي بل ليُماشي مصالحنا الضيّقة.

ما كان ينبغي أن ننتظر استشهاد أكثر من 400 فلسطينيّ تحت التعذيب في سجون النظام السوري، كي نخبر حسن نصر الله أن طريقه نحو القدس لا يمكن أن تلتقي مع طريقنا، فطريقه مغمورة بدماء فلسطينيّي سوريا وسوريّيها، معبّدة بركام مخيّمات الفلسطينيين التي دمّرها النظام، مملوءة بجثث أكثر من 170 فلسطينيّاً من مخيم اليرموك؛ استشهدوا نتيجة نقص الغذاء والدواء الذي منعه النظام عن المخيم في حصار مطبق عمره أكثر من عامين. «القدس» التي يتحدث عنها نصر الله ليست القدس التي نعيش فيها، فقُدسه بطاقة اعتماد تستلّها الممانعة لتثبت تفوقاً أخلاقياً في معاركها مع خصومها، وهي الآن شعار يسوّغ حرب تطهير عرقي في سوريا، ويبرّر الزج بالآلاف من فقراء الجنوب اللبناني في معارك لا ناقة لهم فيها ولا جمل. قُدسه فيلق حربي إيراني تأسّس على القمع، وفلسطينه فرع أمني قتل وعذّب من المعتقلين الفلسطينيين ما يزيد عن كل ضحايا القتل والتعذيب في سجون الاحتلال الإسرائيلي.

وما كان ينبغي أن يستمر بعضنا، تحت أي ذريعة، مبدئيةً كانت أم براغماتية، في محاولة التبرير لما يقوم به حزب الله، أو في الفصل بين النظام السوري وحزب الله وتصوير الأخير على أنه ضحية جيء بها لتشارك في هذه الحرب.

لا شك أن ما رُوّج في بداية الثورة السورية، عن مشاركة مقاتلي حزب الله والحرس الثوري الإيراني في قمع المظاهرات، لم يتعدَّ كونه هذياناً طائفياً أرادت به فئات من المعارضة ومموّليها فرض الصبغة الطائفية على الثورة. ورغم المبالغات التي أُلصقت ببدايات تدخل حزب الله، لم يعد هناك، منذ سنتين على الأقل، أي مجال للتشكيك بأن هذا الحزب شريك مباشر في الحرب على السوريين، بل وأنه، مع النظام الإيراني، أصبح يشكّل قوة احتلال وغزو. وإن كان من الممكن «التساهل» مع عداء حزب الله الخطابي للثورة السورية، تلك الثورة التي أنكر وجودها قبل التسليح والعسكرة والتطييف، ثم ليعود بعد ثلاثة أعوام ويدّعي أن «الثورة السلمية انحرفت عن مسارها»، إن كان يمكن التساهل مع هذه الانتقائية والازدواجية في معايير من يناصر ثورة البحرين ويعادي ثورة سوريا، فكيف يمكننا الاستمرار بالتصالح مع حزب قتل وهجّر السوريين في القصير وحمص ويبرود والزبداني والنبك، وتعهّد أنصاره بـ«تطهير» القلمون وزرعه بالبطاطا؟

قد تكون النفعية ونظرية التقاء المصالح المبرّر الوحيد المتاح، ولكن علينا أن نتذكر أننا، في حال تبنّينا هذا المبرر ودافعنا عن حزب الله وإيران بسبب تحالفهما مع المقاومة الفلسطينية، لن نملك حينها أي جدارة أخلاقية لانتقاد المعارضة السورية المسلّحة بسبب مصادر تمويل لا نتفق معها، أو بسبب تحالفات نسجتها مع أنظمة أو قوى نعاديها، إذ لا يمكننا تبرير البراغماتية والدفاع عنها حين يتعلق الأمر بنا وبمصالحنا، ثم تخوين من يفعل الأمر ذاته في الجهة المقابلة.

ليست هذه المرة الأولى التي اضطُر فيها الفلسطينيون للمفاضلة بين الدفاع عن المضطهدين والدفاع عن نظام يدّعي مناصرتهم ويزعم معارضة إسرائيل، وقد يكون من المجحف «لوم» شعب يرزح تحت الاحتلال على تبنّيه توجّهات نفعيّة، كتأييد فئة وازنة منه لغزو الكويت، وكاستمرار الكثير من أبنائه بالهتاف باسم صدام حسين حتى بعد قتله آلاف الأكراد في مجزرة حلبجة.

ولكن تبنّي هذه المصالح النفعية، وهنا أقصد الناس، لا القيادات والنخب، لا يقلّل فقط من مصداقية نضالنا ويناقض القيم التحرّرية التي ينبغي أن يرتكز إليها، بل أيضاً يضعف تضامن المضطهَدين معنا. نحن لا يمكننا مطالبة المظلومين والثائرين بدعم قضيتنا إذا نحن لم نبادلهم الدعم، ولا يمكننا لوم المضطهدين والثائرين على التحالف مع قوى قمعية واستعمارية إذا نحن تحالفنا مع قوى تقمعهم وتحتلّ أرضهم.

لا شك أن هنالك مشروعاً لم يعد خفيّاً يهدف لتطبيع العلاقات بين السوريين والاحتلال الإسرائيلي، وفي تصوير الاحتلال الإسرائيلي كدولة إنسانية «عادية» تُسعف الجرحى السوريين، ويقدم أفراد وجماعات منها الدعم الإنساني والطبي للاجئين السوريين في تركيا. لا شك أيضاً أن هنالك محاولات لاختراق الوعي السوري، المعادي بفطرته لإسرائيل، وهي محاولات تتخذ من الإغاثة الإنسانية غلافاً لها. كما أن من الواضح أن أمثال كمال اللبواني، الذين يتجرؤون على المجاهرة بصداقتهم مع إسرائيل، سيزيدون.

من الضروري والملحّ مقاومة هذا المشروع، ولكن مقاومته لا تتأتى بتخوين السوريين والوقوف مع النظام وحلفائه. مقاومة هذا المشروع تبدأ بالرفض الواضح والصريح لاستخدام هذا النظام وحلفائه قضيتنا لتبرير حربهم على السوريين، ثم إدراك أن المسؤول الأساسي والرئيس عن إضعاف القضية الوطنية هو النظام. سيكون من غير الإنساني، مثلاً، لوم السوريين الذين يتعرّضون للقصف اليومي من قبل طيران النظام إذا هم احتفلوا باستهداف طيران الاحتلال الإسرائيلي للجيش الذي يقتلهم ويقصفهم ويهجّرهم منذ عدة سنوات. الملوم هنا ليست الضحيّة التي يمكن أن تفرح بأي صفعة يتلقّاها جلّادها، بل الجلّاد الذي أجبر الضحية على ذلك، ورد على كل غارة إسرائيلية استهدفته بقصف المدنيين السوريين في الغوطة وحلب وإدلب ودرعا.

كما سيكون من غير العادل أن نخوّن شعباً دافع عن القضية الفلسطينية كأنها قضيته، ليس بمعزل عن النظام فحسب بل في أحيان كثيرة رغماً عن أنفه.

قد لا يمكننا التعويل على حتمية استمرار هذا الدعم في ظل النكبة اليومية التي يرتكبها النظام السوري بحق السوريين، ولكن يتحتّم علينا ألا نكون شركاء للنظام السوري وحزب الله والنظام الإيراني، ولا وقوداً لدعايتهم الإعلامية، ولا ورقة توت تغطّي حرب الإبادة التي يمارسونها على المجتمع السوري.

Syria’s disappeared Palestinians

Published in Electronic Intifada

Palestinians who fled Syria protest in Gaza City in October 2013. (Ashraf Amra / APA images)
Palestinians who fled Syria protest in Gaza City in October 2013. (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

Aidah Tayem, a Palestinian woman from Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus now living in the occupied West Bank village of Beitin near Ramallah, has gone through a lifetime of trials.

She was hardly seventeen when her father was imprisoned by Syrian security forces in Damascus during the 1980s for his affiliation with the Fatah party which had split with the government. She quickly became the head of the family, running her father’s business and supporting her younger siblings.

Among only a handful of Palestinian refugees in Syria who received permits from the Palestinian Authority to enter the West Bank, her parents were among the Palestinians who came there after the signing of the Oslo accords in the 1990s.

She appears incredibly tough but behind her stoic demeanor is a woman clutching at the straws of hope — the hope of kissing her eldest son, Oday.

Oday Tayem, a 21-year-old Palestinian refugee born and raised in Yarmouk, was detained by Syrian security forces in August 2013 during an evening raid on his home in Jaramana, southeast of Damascus. Oday was an activist — “peaceful” is the description emphasized to this writer by his friends — and contributed to relief work both in Yarmouk refugee camp and in other besieged areas. This is believed to be the reason for his arrest.

Since he was taken into custody, his family has yet to receive any confirmed news regarding his whereabouts. Aidah knows too well what it’s like to have a loved one languishing in political detention; after all, her father was imprisoned for ten years, most of them spent in the notorious Tadmor desert prison.

But it’s the scarcity of information that makes Oday’s absence even more excruciating. When Oday’s favorite song pops up on her phone, Aidah hangs on to his picture as tears well up in her eyes.

Aidah is among many women who, as Syrian journalist Jihad Asa’ad Muhammad writes, “do not seek consideration or sympathy from anyone. They ask for only one thing: to know the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared loved ones.”

It is impossible to estimate the number of Palestinians detained in Syria. The Syrian government doesn’t provide any data regarding political prisoners. Neutral local or international monitoring and human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are not granted access to the numerous prisons and detention facilities across the country.

And many families keep quiet about the detention of their loved ones. They stay anonymous, fearing the repercussions and backlash of publicity both on them and on the prisoners.

The Action Group for Palestinians in Syria, a London-based monitoring organization founded in 2012, has documented the names of 756 Palestinians currently being detained and nearly 300 more missing.

Death under torture

The vast majority of prisoners documented are held in the various detention facilities run by the Syrian government, but some are detained by jihadist or armed opposition groups. One of those is Bahaa Hussein from Yarmouk, detained by Jabhat al-Nusra in late January for blasphemy.

The same group has recorded the death under torture of 291 Palestinians in Syrian government detention since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Each of them has a face and a story, but very few of them have made the news.

Among them is Khaled Bakrawi, a prominent activist and cofounder of the Jafra Association for Aid and Development, which works to improve conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.

A refugee from Lubya, Bakrawi was active around Palestinian refugee rights well before the uprising began and was shot by Israeli occupation forces in June 2011 during theNaksa Day march to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. But after masses of displaced Syrians sought refuge in Yarmouk, he directed his efforts towards organizing humanitarian aid to them.

Bakrawi’s friends told me that he was arrested by Syrian security forces in January 2013 and his family learned of his death in September of that year. One of the most tragic aspects of death in Syrian prisons is that families are not even allowed to pay a final farewell glance to their dead and their bodies are not delivered back to them. Instead they are called up by security services only to claim the ID cards and the personal possessions of slain prisoners. Not only is it believed that Bakrawi was tortured to death, but his family and friends couldn’t even bury him or give him a proper funeral.

Unlike Bakrawi, Samira Sahli was not a known activist, but some details of her life are known from a profile published by the independent news site Siraj Press. A mother of four, Sahli regularly cooked for displaced Syrians filling Yarmouk’s schools back when the camp was still a refuge for people fleeing violence in neighboring areas. As siege intensified, she and her kids, like the 20,000 residents trapped inside the camp, relied on the sparse food aid sporadically allowed in.

According to Siraj Press, the 53-year-old was arrested at a government checkpoint while going to receive her food basket. Five months later, her family was informed of her death, making her the first Palestinian woman known to be killed in regime prisons since 2011.

“Tortured in the name of Palestine”

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada conducted via Skype, Abu Julia, a Palestinian activist who sought asylum in Germany at the end of 2013, where he remains, gave a glimpse into the horrors faced in Syrian regime jails.

The 29-year-old asked to be identified as Abu Julia in reference to the name of his first-born. When he was arrested by Syrian security forces, his daughter Julia was only five months old. He was arrested in October 2012 and released a year later, but there were moments when he thought he’d never live to see her again.

Abu Julia told the Electronic Intifada that he faced eighteen charges, the most serious of which was inciting against the state, as well as charges related to working in makeshift hospitals; sowing division and fueling chaos in Yarmouk camp; working with local coordination committees; making contacts with foreign agents and aiding the wounded.

“I was held in a detention center called ‘Palestine,’ which is a security branch established by Hafez al-Assad specifically for Palestinian factions in Syria,” he said, referring to the father of the current head of state. “That’s the most painful thing: being tortured in the name of Palestine.”

Abu Julia recalls being “welcomed” with a beating as soon as he entered the branch. He was placed in Cell One, which held 48 prisoners upon his entry. Detainees crammed in the 36-square meter cell reached as many as 120 in the hours before Abu Julia’s release.

“Following the first interrogation, which included beating with electric wires, I was told to forget my name. They handed me the number 16/1,” he recalled. “When you get in you lose everything: you lose your name, your confidence in people, in your family and in yourself. You lose your hope and love for life even though you hang on by the hope of returning to life.

“You are stripped of your feelings and turned into an animal who is only allowed to eat and drink, and even sleep is only permitted by a military order. Perhaps the only thing you don’t lose is your ability to dream while asleep.”

The decisive day of Abu Julia’s life came two days after his arrest. Following the interrogation in which he refused to make a confession, the interrogator ordered his torture for a week in the narrow corridors near the cells, he recalled.

“I was hung in the air several hours each day and I was subjected to whips and burns,” he explained in graphic detail. The physical torture was accompanied with cursing, such as being called “Palestinian dog,” and being told “we hosted you in our country and now you betray us, traitor.”

The week of torture in the corridors, in which Abu Julia remembers that at least six inmates were killed, was followed by another, longer round of torture after he refused to confess to any of the charges again.

As Abu Julia meticulously detailed what he went through, it was hard not to wonder how he actually coped with all of this.

Defiance

“You know what really made me survive? My Palestinianness. This feeling of being Palestinian is what helped me persevere throughout all of this. Somehow, Palestinians would be on the verge of death and remain defiant,” he said.

For Abu Julia, this feeling, this added “Palestinianness” he found after his detention was not a cliché but an actual harbor. “It was a kind of response we developed during times of need. We drew strength and solace out of being Palestinian. When we were tortured or faced the interrogator, we just reminded ourselves that we are Palestinian,” he added.

After ten months in the Palestine branch, Abu Julia was transferred to Adra, the central prison in Damascus, and when he was moved from the car that transported him to a military court that he saw sunshine for the first time in ten months.

“I spent nearly a month and a half in Adra before being released … and then I hugged Julia; she was able to walk and say baba and mama,” he recalled.

Even while telling his harrowing story, Abu Julia still cracked jokes. “I weighed 129 kg when I was arrested and was only 65 kg when I was released. This free diet is the only good thing that happened to me there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ammar, Aidah Tayem’s son and Oday’s seventeen-year-old brother, is still hoping for his brother and best friend to get out.

“I’m waiting. Actually waiting for him is the only thing I’m doing.”

Waiting is the punishing ordeal to which thousands of Palestinians and Syrians are sentenced.

“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.