protest

Tag: protest

Welcome to our garbage life

02 June 2011

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

24 May 2011

“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.

Another Damascan Friday

23 May 2011

Friday started with the same ominous silence, from my balcony I looked down upon the empty eerie street, what would this day hold I thought to myself… I couldn’t help wondering if Obama’s recent comments condemning Assad for the killing of unarmed demonstrators and demanding that he either ‘reform or get out of the way’ would spur them on.

From my balcony I could see the 50 or so guys given a days work by the government to ‘look out’ for protesters, some sat around smoking, others walked up and down twirling their ‘government issue’ wooden batons. The empty building where they are stationed is away from the public eye but close enough to be on hand if needed.

Across the street a man sits with his legs swinging out of his window, he is also looking down onto the empty market street below, “Good morning” he shouts, I look over stunned for a moment, he is perched between two huge pictures of the President, I smile at him thinking it may not be such a good morning for many of the thousands taking to the streets across Syria today. Though once again as usual, here in central Damascus, we hear and see nothing.

I am now the only guest staying in this 3 storey hotel – so I eat my breakfast alone accompanied only by a couple of goldfish and the cleaner who smokes as she serves breakfast. The news blasts out from the foyer, Friday payers finish and everyone braces themselves for another day of protest, in what has become known as the Arab spring.

Yesterday I met a taxi-driver who was convinced it was well-organised well-funded ‘outsiders’ who were taking to the streets to protest against the government, he told me that the television images of people dying in the Syrian streets were from Iraq not Syria; such is the power of Syria’s state run media.

Later I meet a European lady who is married to a local here in Damascus, she asks if I have seen any ‘action’ since arriving, “No” i reply, “Nothing”, “See” she proclaims “It is being blown all out of proportion by the Western media, they are pushing for change here more than the people themselves”.

But it seems my dentist has finally seen through the smoke and mirrors as she confides in me that she is frustrated and disappointed with the once treasured leader, “We didn’t expect him to behave like this… all this killing” she says sadly.

The awful images of protesters laid out on the floor and being jumped on by soldiers screaming “We’ll give you freedom” shocked the world. When the authorities tried to say it wasn’t filmed in Syria, that it was from Iraq, and that the soldiers seen abusing the protesters were American Special Forces, a 22 year old protester, Ahmad Bayassi, one of those who had been filmed being trampled on and kicked whilst laying on the floor, bravely went back to the spot where it happened and recorded himself there again stating that it was true and showing his identity card to prove that he was from Syria.

A couple of days ago after recording himself the young man was back in the hands of the security services, human rights organisations believed he had been electrocuted and that he had lost consciousness from the torture, there were also reports that he had died – rumour spreads fast in Syria these days. Then, a few days later the man appeared on Syrian state television and announced that “When they said I was tortured and killed I was surprised, no-one has imprisoned me, and I am leading a normal life.”

News starts to filter through via Al Jazeera of 10 or 20 deaths, but Damascus is as peaceful as it was last Friday. The empty streets, the 10 or more empty buses waiting, engines running, the army of baton carrying men sitting, smoking, in the security compound just round the corner, all waiting to see if the protesters dare to show their faces.

The streets feel nervous – people are afraid of being out in case they are wrongly (or rightly) picked-up by the secret police. But, again, no demonstration comes my way, it seems that the protests are happening away from the capital, in the smaller poorer rural towns which have been crippled by poverty, unemployment, and corruption, the parts of Syria that are generally hidden away from tourists.

And soon life returns to normal here in Damascus, the people finally feel safe enough to come out of their homes, and I’m heading out for a pint – My taxi driver is already drunk, sipping away on his 10% alcoholic beer as he speeds along, the car, the driver, and me, swing from side to side to the Arabic music blaring out of his radio as we enter the glitzy old city.

Another Friday is almost over, tomorrow is another day for this troubled country, a day when 60 more families will morn 60 loved ones killed simply for demanding freedom. My cab driver hands me his beer as I get out of the car, I take a swig, hand it back, and walk off into the Damascus night.

Protest at ‘Change Square’

09 March 2011

Passing the the tanks and the troops with their batons and guns at the ready we make our way to ‘Change Square’

“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.