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.”