Tag: sanctions

The Return

Returning from a short break in the UK to Syria and I find that the ‘word of mouth’ rumours that visas are to be issued at the airport are true.

A special trip to a small back-room and I am questioned as to why I am visiting. “Tourism” I say. Just like I said a couple of weeks earlier. “Address in Damascus?” asks the stern, serious looking man wearing a smart uniform perched on his chair under a picture of his president, “The 4 Seasons Hotel” – my standard answer, how anyone could afford 12 nights there is beyond me but it always works and I am safely though.

The airport is bustling at midnight just like the packed flight was. It is summertime and Syrians from all over the world are heading home. On the plane I got talking to a second-hard car dealer living in Chicago, he comes back to see his parents for 2 months every summer, they tried living in the states with him but only lasted a month, “They hated it” he tells me.

But he loves it, I ask him about the prickly relations between Syria and America, he doesn’t answer, I tell him that with the election of Obama I was full of hope for the Middle East and how dismayed I was that he has continued the economic sanctions against Syria started by G.W Bush. “I don’t talk politics” he tells me. I wonder if he genuinely doesn’t speak politics or if he is just remembering that he is on his way back to Syria where such talk isn’t accepted by authorities.

Actually it is… As long as it is directed against the West you are free to speak anything – just make sure you don’t criticize the Syrian government. The man suddenly perks up deciding to engage in conversation. “I love Obama” he says. Well there you go I think, at least he’s returning like a good American. Maybe there is little difference between East and West after all. This man, like all Americans, is free to speak but doesn’t care to as do most Syrian I meet.

I turn my attention to group of religious men dressed in great colourful clothes with bright hats. I am told that they are part of an ‘exchange’ with Britain where radical extremist Imams are taken to Syria to be trained to follow a more moderate path. Ironic that the extremists are sent from Britain to this ‘axis of evil’ country to be shown the right path.

Outside the airport I am greeted by Lukman. He’s been waiting 1 and a half hours for me and looks tired. We force our way past the taxis which monopolize the airport (a company apparently run by the presidents brother), and who have fixed the fare into town at a steep 1500 Syrian pounds (£22), I push my suitcase 100 metres down the road to a petrol station where we can get a cab for 300 Syrian pounds (£5). but, as we make our way we are stopped by a guard with a gun who won’t let us pass. A 20 minute discussion takes place, we offer a bribe and miss one, two, three, cabs before the man with the gun finally relents. A 50 Syrian pound bribe sees us safely on our way, we hail a taxi and from the back seat I see the shimmering eastern lights of dusty old Damascus beckoning me once more.

The Piano Lesson

Samir is giving two children a piano lesson in their home. I sit talking with the parents. We get off to a slow start, they seem afraid to speak their mind. There is a sadness in the face of the children’s mother. She looks tired and I sense angry. I am curious to know how Iraqis feel about their life now, over a year after the fall of Saddam. They both look over to their children, “We are tired, tired of it all, you know each day we take our children to school, all day we wait outside in the heat for them to leave..” I know why. The kidnapping of children has been an underground industry in ‘new lawless Iraq’. Ruthless gangs even have offices on the main shopping street where you go to pay the ransom. The couple are dignified like all educated Iraqi’s, and although they have little money at the moment they want their kids to have their piano lessons. Culture has always been important to Iraqi’s. This house has two pianos and beautiful artwork all around. Samir teaches the kids as I talk and drink coffee with their parents.

“The sanctions have destroyed the Iraqi people, ‘they’ needed to do this to us so we could appreciate ‘their’ invasion, ‘their’ gift of freedom.” This couple were so happy a year ago, they were jumping with joy when Saddam fell. They never expected that 14 months later life would be worse than under the crippling days of the sanctions. Then, for 13 years they had no money and food to eat, now they do but without any security. “This is not freedom” the proud mother speaks. Like most parents they take their children to school each day and wait outside the gates all day. They both look at me, “Tell us what do you think? will thing gets better?”

I feel sad. I want to be optimistic but I can’t. I can’t lie to these people who’ve shown me such honesty. “We cannot speak like this to anyone.. we are afraid to express our opinions now. if we support the former regime we are a target and if we support the Americans we are also a target.” Some kind of freedom in new Iraq.

This couple worked together in UN headquarters narrowly missing death by 10 minutes when a suicide bomber blew the place apart nearly a year ago. They haven’t worked since. They have many job offers, as good English speakers they could earn big money with the Americans but they are too afraid. The daily targeted killings are the consequences of earning big bucks. “We have struggled for years now.. we are tired .. we need a break…” they want to visit family in Spain and are thinking of leaving Iraq. They know little of the struggles they will face in Europe. I look around their beautiful house, the great art, books, and pianos. How will these educated, cultured people fare in the west? I fear to think.

“Iraq is not like Afghanistan.. here we are educated, cultured.. we had everything in the 70’s and 80’s, the sanctions starved us and killed more Iraqi’s then all the wars put together. But it did something else – it starved us of books, periodicals.. We were isolated culturally and emotionally from the outside world for 13 years. a first world nation destroyed into the third world and kept there by these crippling sanctions. Saddam never felt the sanctions, he had everything.” Like all Iraqis they are pleased he has gone but cannot trust the future. It is held in foreign hands, hands that have betrayed them before and are capable of doing the same again.