Category: Syria

Freedom and a normal life

“Sean they are shooting people in the streets of Beirut” said Adad’s message, written to me from the cramped flat I’d visited him in just a couple of days before. The gunfight that had killed 8 in Tripoli had spread ominously to the streets of Beirut just as he had predicted / feared it would.

After being forced to flee from Syria and Assad’s onslaught he thought he had found some sort of safety in the Lebanon, though he always knew it was a relative, delicate safety which could end any-time. His and his family’s situation is made more all the more precarious because he doesn’t have a passport or any papers – if he were to be caught living there he we probably be sent back to Syria and to an end I don’t wish to think about.

But for now Asad keeps to the shadows as he looks for work and money to help feed the family. He locks the gate to his flat keeping Asu inside, the sound of gun crackle seeps in from the distance as Sargon arrives home late from work again. Adad finally settles Asu into his bed but he cannot sleep, disturbed by the rocket propelled grenades exploding in the distance. As if this family (like many other’s all over the region) hadn’t already seen enough danger and death in their desire for freedom and a normal life. “Some days we don’t even have enough money for bread” his message continues… “And now this is happening, where will it all end?”

Another day in limbo

Adad looks despairing when I ask him about the future. Stuck in Lebanon for 6 months half-way between his home in Syria and his dream of living ‘a free life’ in Europe he now lives by night and sleeps by day.

Each night he is locked next to his wife Lilith facing into their laptops entranced by ‘the Facebook revolution’ which holds them to the fringes of what seems like a faltering Syrian Spring, but despite their despair it offers the only meaning to their lives these days..

Asu aged 5, is used to playing alone, Adad and Lilith both know they should spend more time with him. If Asu is lucky he gets to play with his friends down the road but today like most days he play alone inside the cramped flat they now call home. Adad worries about being 2 months behind with the rent, he also needs a further $100 to get his increasingly serious heart condition checked-out but that, like the rent, must wait. Meanwhile, like many in this neck of the woods, he puffs away on his 40 a day habit, Lilith too is a heavy smoker. A year ago all seemed rosy with the revolution but now Adad has become gloomy about it all, believing that there is a real danger of the Islamist’s stealing the revolution from them the longer it takes.

Sargon was just a boy when I first filmed him some 3 or 4 years ago, he is now 16 and looking all the part an adult. Unable to find a school to continue his studies he’s taken a part-time job in a shop, at first they offered him 6 hours a day but now he’s working 12 hours a day 7 days a week for $300 (plus tips from his deliveries.)

“I feel positive and hopeful for the first time in my life” he tells me. I’ve seen this boy in some sticky situations in Syria, last year he was arrested with his father during street protests trying to get his mother out of prison – he succeeded, only to lose both his parents to the revolution and in the process lose the family life he cherished so much growing-up in Tatous. The new hope he has found in Lebanon comes not just from finding work but also from finding friends in the Jehovah Witnesses – a Christian group banned but still tolerated in The Lebanon. Sargon once dreamed of being political just like his mother but now he hates politics and says he has found new a meaning to his life, but his atheist parents don’t like it and have stopped him attending the Jehovah’s meetings.

I took Sargon for a pizza by the sea the other night, we both had a swim, it was a rare treat for us both “You know Sean I’ve moved house 10 times since I met you, I just want some stability” he confided in me “I haven’t had the chance to be a teenager… I went straight from child to adult”. Sargon looks and acts the adult these days but now and again, fleetingly, I am reminded that he isn’t when he cracks his wonderful childlike jokes, jokes that his father has no time for… he expects him to be an adult now.

After the swim I allow him a bottle of Smirnoff ice – well if he must carry some of the burdens of adult life he certainly deserves the odd drink like an adult. Sargon really is a good boy, smart, honest, and witty despite his difficult life. Even his dream pair of Nike trainer shoes must wait another month as the money he set aside for them has gone to buy food for the family again, just like the rest of his salary. But he doesn’t complain, “We are a family and I must help contribute to it” it is a wonderfully generous statement and quite typical of the boy – Sargon has spent his life putting his family first.

His parents have struggled as the Syrian regime has taken one and then the other to prison. But now, hopefully, they are one step closer to some sort of stability. They are in limbo in Lebanon but relatively safe so long as Adad keeps his head down, as a ‘stateless’ Palestinian he has no papers or passport, Syria has been his temporary home until the issue of Palestine is resolved!

But with this stability comes the pain of being outside of the revolution – it was too much for Lilith, recently she took-off back to Damascus, smuggled herself back into Syria and stayed in-hiding for a month setting up her new revolutionary Youth Organization, but it is all a terrible strain on the family and kids, Adad would like to turn his back on it all and leave for Europe but Lilith cannot leave the fight. And now their existence in Lebanon is made much more dangerous as fighting breaks out in the northern town of Tripoli between Alawite loyalists of the Assad regime and opposition rebels, some news report are suggesting that this “Threatens the stability in the whole country, and could come to Beirut” rekindling old factional enmities and reigniting the civil war.

In the meantime Adad and the family struggles to get-by on Sargon’s wages plus money sent by his relatives in Syria, and some help from charities in the west. His heart-scare is on his mind, as is the unpaid rent, putting the food on the table each week, whether or not the Islamist s are winning the revolution in Syria, and if the street fighting in Tripoli will bring war to Beirut. Outside, the walls of his house are spattered with bullet holes, a reminder of the bitter civil war he was caught up in in his youth and which is now once again so desperately trying to escape from.

Tonight Lilith hears of yet more rapes in Hom’s, and more new videos emerge of tortured corpses, Asu plays on alone in the background, and Sargon returns home from work.

Another ordinary day in the life of a family in limbo, wondering where their place is in the world, wondering how and when it will all end.

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.

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.”

On the run

“I never knew I could have such friends here”, he said as we chatted about life in Syria.

“Becoming part of the revolution has opened my eyes to so many people and friends from all walks of life I could have never expected to meet. For 40 years we have been trained to be suspicious of each other, to not trust anyone and keep yourself to yourself. Now all that is changing and it is so exciting, really Sean, to see the crowds getting bigger each Friday is just amazing.”

“I remember the first time I saw a demonstration, I was on a bus travelling through Damascus and saw a small group of women in the city centre demonstrating for Libya, but I knew then that these people were also demonstrating for Syria.”

Having never protested ever in his life, he said something made him get off the bus and that before he knew it he found himself right in the middle of the crowd of women, the crowd kept growing, first from 25 to 50 then from 50 to 100, it was at this point that the security police moved in and tried moving them along politely at first.

“We didn’t leave, this was for Libya we said, but they knew that it was in fact for Syria and they could almost predict what could follow in the country if something like this wasn’t nipped in the bud.”

“They tried to intimidate the crowd by standing in front of each one of us and filming us with their cameras, saying we will find you and you will pay for this. Then one of the women decided we should walk to the Libyan embassy, then the secret police got angry and tried to top us.” In one exchange a woman was hit in the face by an officer, then the order was passed to arrest everyone.

“I could have escaped but the woman next to me caught my attention, she was screaming in the hands of two baton wielding army officers, I reached over to help the woman and the officers grabbed me instead beating me to the ground and pushing me on the waiting bus, fortunately the lady wasn’t taken, but 12 of us were.”

With their heads pushed to the ground in a line in the central aisle of an empty bus they were beaten all the way to the security centre, ‘Traitors’ the officers screamed as they kept on beating them.

When they arrived at the security centre they were greeted by a general who in an obvious change of tactic was very apologetic about the treatment they had received and explained that the ‘patriotic’ officers mistook them as traitors. Then they were asked to never do such a protest again otherwise next time they would receive serious punishment, they had to wait an hour for their phones to be returned, it is thought all their contacts and messages had been copied, “And then we were free. This was my first experience of protest in my life”.

A few days after his arrest he received a telephone call to meet with a secret-police officer, the officer wanted him to ‘help’ track and find the people behind the protests, the ringleaders.

He didn’t know what to do and anyway he didn’t really know any of the organisers… But facing such a dangerous dilemma – what could happen if he refused to help the security services? he went to seek advice, and, for the first time, arranged to meet some of the protest organisers. They advised him to no longer answer calls and, like most of them had been forced to do, start to move from place to place, never staying in one house for too long. Since then he, like most of the protesters here, has been living a life ‘on the run’.

“It will change won’t it?” he asks me in a lost moment of insecurity, I say I hope so, and that I cannot see Syria ever being the same as it was before the protests started. But there is a niggling doubt I have, as I do with Yemen, that these guys in charge have more to lose than their pride, and because of that more blood will be shed before an end is in sight.

As night falls the front door opens and Ali (whom we have been waiting for) finally arrives… and although they have been Facebook friends for some time he has never actually met the friend I have been passing the time with in person – they immediately give each other a brotherly hug and kiss.

I hadn’t seen Ali for 4 days, and neither had his kids… As the protests against the government continue, and his ‘life on the run’ intensifies, Ali faces having to move out of his house and away from his kids completely, leaving, with the help of his extended family, his eldest son to look after his 4 year old brother until it is safe for Ali to return.

The kids come running excitedly to embrace their dad, and a fleeting moment of fondness is taken before Ali quietly leaves the house again. As the children play I watch from the window as Ali and his friend turn the corner and disappear into the Syrian night.