Tag: dictatorship

The missed opportunity

A torn picture of Yasser Arafat stares out at me as I step out of the taxi into the dark of the night in the heart of the Palestinian camp – a stark contrast to the glitzy old city of bars, restaurants and expensive hotels I had left behind, an area which is more like a ‘Damascus theme park’ for American tourists than a real place where real people lived – well it used to be before the current unrest. Looking at Yasser I wonder briefly how many tourists ever ventured out here, or even knew it existed.

Ali (not his real name) is looking at his computer as I arrive, watching news from Facebook of a close friend who has been arrested, and then news of another, and another, as the Syrian security forces move in on the ring-leaders behind the protests. He knows the fate that will face his friends all too well; blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs for hours on end with days of interrogation, my friend was one of the very first demonstrators captured on the first day of protests here in Syria.

He recalls how he was beaten whilst blindfolded then, 15 hours later, pulled into a room at midnight, the blindfold was removed to find a famous Syrian general sitting directly opposite him. He’d seen pictures of this man sitting with the president, now he was sitting in front of him, smiling, “We are very sorry about this”, the general told him, “Please do not worry about anything, you are a free man, but before you go we would like to ask some questions”, looking puzzled he asked Ali “Why do you protest, what do you want, if you tell me I can help you, I have direct links to the president?” Clearly the outbreak of protests were concerning the Assad regime and they wanted to make every effort to nip them in the bud. Ali seized on this amazing chance to talk with the general until 3am stating the protesters 3 main demands…

1 – The lifting of emergency law, 2 – A free media, 3 – Opposition parties to be allowed.

He was then taken from the prison in a chauffeur-driven car and released close to home, a couple of days passed and the general rang to say he is will get back to him soon.

“At this time the protesters were not asking for the president to go, we wanted reform through him, it was his chance, then a protest took place the following Friday and for some reason the brother of president, Mahar, ordered the first shootings of protesters, the general never bothered to call back”.

Then Ali remembers, he knew… he recounts “When I saw the first dead bodies I knew it was the end for the president, our demands changed, he and his regime had to go”.

The more blood is spilled here the more the regime’s days seem numbered, I ask Ali if he thinks the protester’s would have stopped had the president given into their demands, isn’t the nature of these protests to completely overthrow and replace the regime? “Yes” he admits smiling in a childlike way. “Shall we meet tomorrow night and drink Arak?” I ask him as I put on my coat to leave, after all, drinking in the park is, for now, one small freedom that is still tolerated in this dictatorship.

The opposition groups here recently estimated that over 500 protesters had been killed and that up to 1000 were missing – despite the supposed lifting of emergency law, the authorities still raid peoples homes and effectively kidnap people in the middle of the night, their whereabouts remaining unknown.

I awake this morning to hear that a wave of opposition group members and protesters have been arrested overnight in an apparent crackdown, I wonder what the generals are thinking now, if they really think force, fear, and killing can curb the protesters willingness to take to the streets.

Protest at ‘Change Square’

Walking through the streets of Sanaa on our way to ‘Change Square’ we pass tanks and troops with their batons and guns at the ready.

“Welcome” people shout to me, one man stops me to say “We are free here”, “This is our democracy and we are not leaving until the president resigns”. People wander freely around the tents, tents erected by people from many different religious and political persuasions; Communists and Islamists, Sunni and Shia Muslims, united with one goal, they are called ‘the opposition’, and for the moment they are, but the future, is one thing that no-one can possibly predict in Yemen.

That this remains a peaceful protest against the reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh – who has ruled with an iron fist and survived for 33 years – is amazing, because, after America, this is the second most heavily armed country in the world where troops have killed over 20 protesters already. I am told it has taken careful negotiation keep the tribes from coming armed to Change Square to defend the protesters and to take on the military.

And last night in ‘Change Square’ saw the death of a wonderful 21 year student who was killed when troops tried to enter and remove the protesters tents – my guide said he couldn’t sleep after trying to save the man’s life. The hospital was overrun with casualties so the local mosque took them in, I met a man who’d been electrocuted with an electric baton, I heard other stories of men in hospital whose bodies were frozen from the gas thrown at them, it was called ‘tear gas’ in the press but these people’s nervous system seemed to have been affected; creating rumours that illegal nerve gas was used.

Yet still the area has a joyful feel, like a festival, on the stage people perform comedy, mimicking the president, but one can’t help wondering why a dictatorship would allow such a community to grow, and unless the presidents walks away, which he has shown no sign of doing, more bloodshed seems inevitable.

Democracy v Dictatorship

Ibrihim left Syria 37 years ago for Canada, but returns most summers. This time he has brought 2 of his kids with him and plans to stay for 2 months. He left at 20 to avoid conscription to the army, but remains fiercely patriotic.

After being what he calls a ‘wage-slave’ in the West for 37 years he says he wants his Canadian born kids to live here in Syria. “This is freedom here”, he says, “My brother works when he wants and has a life, in the West we have money but no life, here you have a life, if only George Bush knew that!”

Although he earns big money in Canada – up to and more than 1000 dollars a day as a building contractor (as well as being an Arabic singer earning up to 5k on a weekend), he says (looking around him) that this is the life he really wants.

Ibrihim even had a period running 2 Arabic restaurants in Montreal, but now looks forward to retiring, on his $1400 a month pension he plans to live 6 months here and 6 months in Canada. His mother is still here, she had her first child at 14 and had 6 kids by the age of 19.

Ibrihim took me to meet his brother who is working in the same carpentry workshop his father did. We sat and chatted for an hour and a half about the great western ideas like ‘democracy’ and what we in the West call ‘dictatorships’, I sensed Ibrihim had spent a lifetime in the West trying to tell his people about the life in the East, now here I am with my camera on what seems a similar mission.

When I told someone I was going to Syria they asked “Are you scared?” another said, “Is it safe?” I gave the same answer I used to give when I was asked the same question when visiting Saddam’s Iraq, “I feel safer there at night than I do on the streets of London”. Here, like in Iraq, for me, it seems totally safe – thanks probably to a combination of strong Syrian moral values as well as the type of security system that always comes with a dictatorship.

Ibrihim gets angry when he talks about Bush. “He came to show us democracy but in Syria there is more freedom than anywhere in the world!” He shows me a courtyard in an old house the size of a school where 30 families live. Each night the families share food on the courtyard floor all eating from each other’s offerings. “This is the life” he says, “What does Bush know about this kind this life, what does he know about us at all? Nothing!”

Is there hope for better relations with Obama? I ask, Ibrihim shakes his head, “His hands are tied”. The more I meet people over here the more I feel that they have given up on any chance for peace in the Middle East, as Ibrihim says, “The Americans just don’t want it”.

We walk through a beautiful part of the old city filled with the abandoned homes that look more like mansions. “This is the Jewish quarter, but the Jews all left – now their houses are left to ruin”. Ibrihim tells me that rumour has it that Ronald Reagan did a deal with the former Syrian president to re-house them all in America, “They didn’t have a choice” he tells me, “They had to go, now many would like to return but cannot.” As relations soured in the 80’s it was thought that the Jews would be safer in America, “But they were our good neighbours here, we all lived as one”.

As we look at the mighty dilapidated houses with vast courtyards falling-apart Ibrihim pulls out his Syrian ID card, it doesn’t mention any religion he says proudly – just that we are all Syrian! I notice the remains of the Star of David over the entrance to one house. We walk past two members of the secret police that Ibrihim points out, “They are here to protect the houses from being illegally occupied”. Maybe Syria is preserving its Jewish heritage in the old city; and in a way almost inviting its rightful owners to come back home one day.

As we walk the old city streets memories flood back to Ibrihim of his childhood, fuelling his dream that one day his grown up kids will settle here. This is more than a romantic attachment to a city, it is in his blood, and has never left his blood despite the 37 years away in the West, he still lives and breathes the East and revels in it here today. Ibrihim doesn’t have any hostility towards the West but I sense from many people I speak to that the Iraq War changed many things as the country united behind it’s President to support its injured neighbour, Iraq, which they believed was suffering too much in the chaos of it’s new found ‘western democracy’.

Ibrihim sighs, “Where did this idea come from? Bush doesn’t know how we live. Most people I speak to in Canada say ‘Where is Syria?’ The majority of people in the West were against the war in Iraq yet even after big protests it still happened. What kind of democracy is that? Here we don’t have parks full of homeless people or a society riddled with crime. The President allows us enough freedom for people to still be safe at night.”

The gun on my pillow

Lots of guns out last night, pistols, a rifle, and plenty of strong Arak, a dangerous mix, I took the bullets out when Lukman, the mad Kurd I’m drinking with, started putting the gun to my head. We had a deal; whoever has the gun cannot have the holster that holds the bullets. So I had the holster and he had the gun. I awoke this morning reaching for water to drink the dry Arak morning mouth off and found the silver Colt 45 on the edge of my pillow pointing at my head. Against the wall is the Magnum rifle. Boys and their toys, Syria, like all good dictatorships, feels like the safest place in the world, through fear they keep the lid on life in case it gets out of hand. I look around for the bullet holster and cannot see it anywhere, then I notice that it is firmly lodged back in the gun which is laid there staring at me.