Sean McAllister

Author: Sean McAllister

Documentary Filmmaker from Hull, England, specialises in giving the voiceless a voice

Today’s news from Homs

Amer gets a telephone call telling him that the Shahbiha (thugs) have attacked a Sunni area called Shamas in Homs killing 15 men – but before killing them the thugs disfigured the men’s bodies with knives, gorging out parts of their faces and bodies, cutting their fingers and penis’s off, and cutting out their tongues… before finally slitting their throats.

The wife of the muezzin of the area (the man who performs the call to prayer) was also taken by these thugs and using her phone to call him they demanded that he came home immediately telling him they would rape and kill his wife if he didn’t. On his return he was tortured, his tongue was cut out and his fingers cut off before his throat was also cut.

And this is just a little of today’s (16 May 2012) unreported news from Homs, despite the presence in Syria of UN observers… somewhere.

Athens Tear Gas

I tripped over a syringe yesterday as I walked past a shopping trolley which was half-full of empty cans; recycling other peoples rubbish is a good way of making money in a financial crisis – I flashback to my meetings with the hordes of homeless in Japan – but this shopping trolley is padlocked to a post so precious is it and its contents. Nearby two ‘homeless’ guys sleep slumped together awkwardly. As I make my way home I become aware of an eerie silence permeating the streets and the boarded-up shops.

The silence is broken here and there by moments of quiet action as I pass small groups of people sitting outside still open cafes. Is this the new face of Europe I ask myself as the crisis steamrolls onwards unabated uncontrolled towards an end that no-one really knows.

Here in Athens people still like to live life as much as possible – with a strong emphasis on eating and drinking – it takes ones mind off the bleak harsh reality of life.

Tonight, In the anarchist run square where I am staying a live band entertains a massive happy crowd into the early hours of the morning until a loud boom is heard, and suddenly people start to move. There is a strong stench in air and my eyes quickly become weary and irritated – “It is tear-gas!” someone announces, and the crowd pushes out of the square, groups of once happy party people are forced to cover their faces with handkerchiefs as they head off in the direction of the police who (although they remain outside the quarter) have made it clear that the party has gone on long enough, that now it must end. I decide to return to my room.

As I enter the hotel I joke with the hotel manager that check-in should include a gas mask, he laughs but I am kind of serious. This is nuts. A country at war with itself in a doomsday international economic crisis never seen before in history – but the manager laughs and tells me to wait for tomorrow night “You will get used to it soon” he says bidding me goodnight as I head upstairs to watch the night from my balcony.

Nazis in Athens

What a day… It feels like I’ve never stopped since I got to Athens, I was told about Exarcheia, a wonderful vibrant neighbourhood populated by anarchists, students and leftists for 40 years, so I have got myself a 4th floor room overlooking a noisy anarchic square. The square (which seems to be getting ready for a concert) is filled with amazing café’s and bars, it reminds me of East Berlin the air is filled with ideas, bubbling with alternatives to the “failed” economics and politics of Europe. The counter-culture. The killing of a 15 year old boy here sparked off a month of riots across the whole of Greece in December 2008.

Today I met a local Kostas who drove me around the town, highlighting the division that exists between leftists, and anarchists from the neighbourhood where I am staying, and the Neo-Nazis in another square, in another area of town.

I’ve only been here a day or two but it is clear that Athens has an air of fragile calm that could explode at any moment, with up and coming elections on the 6th May things don’t bode well. Support for the main parties has collapsed while support for ‘radical’ parties has grown. The experts predict a hung parliament while the Neo-Nazis hope to see their leader go into parliament for the first time in Greek history,

“This far-right ‘Golden Dawn’ party are not like Le Pen in France, they are Nazis” Kostas tells me… “They have copies of Mein Kampf, and salute like Hitler”. Earlier today they had a meeting in a neighbouring hotel and Kostas invited me to take a look, it was scary – I saw (the usual, expected) skinheads but there was also lots of families too, they were complaining about the economic crisis but also the lack of any effective immigration policy.

After we left Kostas took me to an ‘immigrant’ neighbourhood, it was once an area for the richest Greeks in Athens, and has one of the biggest church’s in Europe. Immigrants sit around looking hopeless, we watch as a little black girl plays hop-scotch on some massive graffitied letters at the entrance to the church that read, ‘Greece is for the Greeks all immigrants go home’. “It has been there for 2 years” Kostas explains, “but no-one dares to remove it, because of the power of the Neo-Nazis in this area of Athens.”

Greece

I’m writing this quickly during a break in my day-tour of Athens, a 3 hour crash-course Greek history lesson before I head into the night and the bars for some real research – I have arranged a meeting with a great Greek singer called Ghannis who I am hoping has some good contacts and leads for me.

Last night, soon after arriving here, I met a wonderful sculptor called Costa, we talked about Greece, its history, the people, the financial situation, the future, and we shared some great wine to help me acclimatize, but it was while we were eating that it dawned upon me how much I missed the Middle-East.

My Yemen film (The Reluctant Revolutionary) aired on Japanese television last night and Atsushi my best friend in Japan sent me an email “They say we are going to be the next Greek tragedy, you should come and make another film here after Greece”, he wrote. But… I still have my Syria film to finish first – and getting to grips with Greece and the enormity of what is going on here, feels quite daunting.

Following Wednesday’s meeting at the BBC (after successfully getting this film commissioned) Nick Fraser and I were discussing what it would be like if it happened here “Do you think the British ever stop to think what they will do if Britain becomes the next Greece?” he asked me, “No”, I replied, “First, I don’t think most people here have the slightest idea about how bad things really are in Greece for the ordinary people, the television and the papers certainly aren’t telling them, and anyway, this is Britain, it might be bad, but that sort of thing could never happen to us.“

Welcome to our garbage life

I watch them swinging their batons, bored in the empty half-built building that has stood unfinished for 35 years, a building which somehow symbolizes the many promises of reform given by the authorities.

The empty streets and the baton wielding thugs are the sign that it is yet another Friday in Syria, another day of death as the country pushes for change, I take a cab that leads me away from the clean streets of the old city, past the empty 5 star hotels and restaurants, the endless empty stores inside an empty Souk. Once again Damascus is a ghost town; it is difficult to believe there was a 15 billion tourist industry here just a few weeks ago before the government crackdown on the protests; protests which have up to now resulted in over 1000 deaths and, it is said, 10,000 people missing.

We drive away from the plush ‘model city’ which the government liked tourists to believe was a rapidly developing and ‘reformed’ Syria, a place where it’s citizens are ‘free’ to drink alcohol and wear what they liked. As I arrive in the cramped bustling camp, I start to get a feel for the real Syria, poor and undeveloped for sure, but also full of colour, and life, amidst the dirty streets and thousands of unfinished buildings.

A trademark of any refugee camp are the bare breeze-block exteriors of buildings where the walls are left unrendered and exposed, it is a sign of the speed at which the Syrian authorities built this camp to house the Palestinians when they were kicked out of Israel in 1948 and 1967. It is, or it was, supposedly a temporary solution – the intention was that they would go back home once the conflict with Israel was won, but this place now looks and feels pretty permanent, and the ‘temporary’ status of the Palestinians means that they exist without passports or Syrian ID’s and are therefore denied many of the basic rights that other Syrians have.

I pass an empty open area where garbage burns in small neat piles – making an almost beautiful picture against the strong sunlight in the background, Ali’s kids meet me smiling, “Welcome to our garbage life”.

Inside the small unfinished ‘temporary’ building that has been a home for more than 10 years to Ali’s sister I watch as the kids are transfixed by ‘foreign’ news footage of a 13 year old boy who has been tortured to death by the Syrian secret police, “They even cut off his dick” they tell me. What has happened to the ‘benign dictator’, the modern reformer, the smart ‘Western Eye Hospital’ (London) educated leader I wonder. “We loved him before, you know” the kids tell me, “He protected us, the Palestinians, here, he gave us a home in this camp but now he has turned out to be a killer like the rest of them. You must be careful here Sean” they tell me, “We don’t see foreigners here, they are not supposed to see the garbage life we lead”.

The next news item is of a teacher 27 year also killed whilst being tortured “One of his legs had been skinned”, they tell me. As their mum and dad are out at work I watch the 11-year-old tend to the 3-year-old whilst the 15-year-old’s study in the next room. “We like to try and talk English with each other for at least 4 hours a day” they tell me in almost perfect English. We have exams soon so we study for around 8 hours a day. Since Ali isn’t around at the moment (he is still ‘on the run’ from the authorities and hasn’t seen his kids for a few days) they take time out to eagerly talk to me and practice their English, telling me of their dream of one day finding a ‘better life’ in the West. It is a real inspiration to be around these kids – I know that some days they don’t even have enough money to eat but yet they have this urge to study, a credit to their absent parents who are either working or on the run.

Last week I met Ali’s son coming out of the house with a large bag of sugar, he told me they didn’t have food or money and his father was missing so he was trading it in for coffee and food to eat. Luckily Ali’s family live close to his sisters family, this is true survival where the family come together to support the struggle.

When I finally meet-up with Ali he is looking tired and dejected, he never went on the protest this Friday, fearing an ambush by the secret police, “This revolution is taking too long, it is killing us with more than Syrian bullets, having no tourists means no work, no money, we are starving ourselves”.

Looking down at his kids studying hard for the future, he smiles at me with resignation. “This isn’t our revolution, this is for our kids, we need to give them a chance in life… But we are caught, I feel my family is suffering too much, my kids can’t go to school properly with me on the run, they are paying a heavy price, I don’t know what to do or when it will end.”