A year ago, when the Arab Spring began — or, as the events were then called, the revolutionary movements in the Middle East (which had already toppled two western-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt) — I remember being surprised, and also worried, when Syrian activists held a “Day of Rage” in Damascus on March 15, and, the day after, other protestors in Damascus — mostly well-established human rights activists — called for the release from prisonof other human rights activists, many of whom had been held for many years.
I was surprised, because Syria had a reputation for almost unparalleled brutality, torture and disappearances, and worried because I feared the authorities’ response, and sure enough, many of the human rights activists were imprisoned after their protest, although most — though not all — were soon released. However, almost immediately it became apparent that there was another front to Syria’s revolutionary impulses, which was not focused on the capital, but on the town of Daraa, with a population of nearly 100,000, which is in the south east of Syria, near the border with Jordan.
There, a group of schoolchildren had scrawled graffiti on the walls of their school, which stated, “The people want the overthrow of the regime.” The boys, aged between 10 and 15, were taken away by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, and tortured and abused, but instead of quelling revolt, the torture of the children, and the subsequent killing of civilians at protests after visits to the mosque on Fridays, and then at funerals for those killed, spread to other towns and cities as the weeks rolled by.
As USA Today reported last week, “The outrage may have lost momentum eventually, if not for what Assad did in response.” Omar al-Muqdad, an activist and journalist from Daraa, said, “It was a shock. They surprised us when they opened fire on the unarmed people in the streets. And really for the first three days it seemed like a nightmare.”
One year on, as USA Today described it, “the protests have hardened into a revolution that borders on civil war … as army deserters have joined forces with civilians to topple the Assad regime.” According to the UN, more than 8,000 people — including many children — have been killed in the last year, and, as human rights groups have reported, torture and imprisonment are rife. In a report last August, as the Los Angeles Times explained in an article dealing with a harrowing account of torture by a Syrian activist, Amnesty International “examined the cases of 88 prisoners, including 10 children, believed to have died while in detention. In at least 52 of the cases, torture or other ill treatment probably caused or contributed to their deaths, Amnesty concluded. The bodies bore signs of burns, blunt force injuries, whipping and slashes.”
As the Los Angeles Times also noted, “Even estimating the number of Syrian detainees is difficult. The government gives no official accounting, and many prisoners are held incommunicado; families often have no idea whether they are alive or dead.” In addition, “New security sweeps have followed periodic amnesties, keeping the system in constant flux.” Neil Sammonds, a researcher with Amnesty International, explained that human rights groups “have obtained the names of about 17,000 detainees, but that probably accounts for only 50% of those held.”
However, the regime’s opponents “show little sign of backing down,” as activist Abdul Omar, who lives in the UK, explained to USA Today. “When Assad put down Daraa, Hama erupted,” he said. “When he put down Hama, Homs erupted; when Homs was put down, Damascus moved, and Idlib and so on. Legitimately, there was a heavy need for reform. But when people called for reform and were answered with tanks, they realized what we need is more than just reform: We need a complete change.”
Other analysts told USA Today that “the violence unleashed against opponents that has stiffened their resolve.” Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said, “Despite everything that has happened, the killing, the torture, the incarceration, Syrians are still on the street every day. A psychological rupture has taken place in Syria whereby people are willing to die and they will continue to die in order to achieve freedom and dignity.”
When I began writing about Syria a year ago, I became interested in the stories of the human rights protestors, and spent some time covering their stories, and those of the activists imprisoned for protesting about them, many of whom were family members and colleagues. And then, last week, when the Daily Star, Lebanon published a fascinating article entitled, “Syrian Women on the Frontlines, Determined Not to Be Sidelined” (which led to a follow-up article in the Washington Post), I was reminded of one of the female activists imprisoned a year ago, Suhair Atassi, who, as the Post described it, “last year organized sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners.”
I was also delighted to be introduced to other women activists — in the Post’s words, “Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer who has defended victims of the conflict; and Razan Ghazzawi, a blogger who has written a steady stream of posts criticizing the government crackdown,” and, in addition, the actresses May Skaf and Fadwa Suleiman, who “have also publicly denounced the regime’s violence.” As the Post noted, “Suleiman released a video from hiding in November to plead for Syrians to unite against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.”
While investigating what happened to the Damascus protestors last year, I came across a fascinating interview in the Financial Times with Suhair Atassi, one of those arrested, who is 40 years old, a mother, and a divorcee, and who is — for now at least — living in exile in Paris.
Noting that her “revolution against Bashar al-Assad began weeks before the first ‘dignity’ march in Damascus on March 15 last year,” the FT noted her long history of activism, explaining that she was born into a prominent political family from Homs, and “has been a thorn in the side of the regime” since Bashar al-Assad came to power after the death of his father, the founder of Syria’s brutal police state, in 2000. Her activism, the FT noted, “was initially motivated by the legacy of her father, who died in 2000,” but “her political engagement evolved thanks to the debating societies launched during the Damascus spring, the brief period of political freedom that followed Mr Assad’s takeover.”
The FT also explained that, from the moment that unrest began in earnest in Tunisia, against the 24-year rule of the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Atassi “had resorted to every trick to mobilise the Syrian streets. She called for marches in support of Tunisians, then Egyptians, then Libyans; she appealed for demonstrations against corruption and for the release of political prisoners.”
As Atassi said, “The day Ben Ali fell, we were congratulating each other — we knew our moment would come. And when we were chanting ‘a traitor is the one who kills his people’ in pro-Libya demonstrations, we all knew we were speaking about Bashar.” By the time the people of Deraa first began protesting about the abuse of their children on March 18 last year, she had already “been slapped by a security agent after one Damascus protest, then dragged by her hair down the streets of the city and thrown in jail after another.” The FT added, “Syrian security had threatened her family and warned that her son, a student at university in Beirut, could be harmed.”
Speaking about how she was she was taken before a general in military intelligence after her arrest on March 16 last year, Atassi said, “He told me the repression we were seeing in Libya was nothing compared to what would happen to us in Syria. The regime knew back then that it would wage war on the population.”
Despite this, she was freed from prison after a month, and then “helped found one of the local networks that have been organising demonstrations, documenting abuses and relaying the story of the uprising,” although she “went into hiding for eight months … moving from one house to another in Damascus before being smuggled out of the country in November and making her way to Paris.” In a sign of how technology has also changed the ways in which revolutionaries operate, the FT noted that she relied on her laptop and used Skype to communicate wit her colleagues. As the FT also noted, however, although her work “symbolises the extraordinary determination and resourcefulness of Syria’s revolutionaries,” over the last year “many of the idealistic secular activists she represents have been hunted down by the regime — some killed, others arrested and still others, like her, in exile.”
In addition, the activists, in the FT‘s words, “are being overshadowed by armed rebels — civilians with weapons and army defectors — in an increasingly militarised uprising,” and although the wavering members of the UN Security Council — China and Russia — this week agreed, finally, to support a diplomatic plan by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to “stop violence in Syria, crack open the door to humanitarian relief and prod the Syrian government and opposition into talks on a political settlement.,” as the Washington Post described it, no easy solution to the bloodshed and chaos is on the horizon, and the challenge for Atassi and her colleagues is “to prevent an all-out descent into civil war, which would shatter the peaceful resistance.” As she explained, “We know that if the peaceful resistance ends, the revolution loses and the regime wins.”
Describing her role over the last year, Atassi said, “My job evolved into more political activism but at first we were the media arm of the revolution — the vehicle that could relate what was going on. At times, the media was the real protector of the civilians, when we reported security forces firing on protests and the news went out, the firing would sometimes stop.”
Echoing the comments made by Fawaz Gerges, she added that Syrian society “has been so radically transformed that it could never return to a state of submission,” as the FT put it.. “The regime was always trying to separate people,” she said. “What it didn’t expect is this amazing solidarity between them and between regions of the country.”
Responding to questioning about the regime’s military power, and the fact that the uprising is mainly led by Sunnis, and that President al-Assad has a “strategy of stoking sectarian tensions, pitting the Alawite minority that dominates the regime against the Sunni majority,” Atassi explained that, although the regime was “relentlessly working to divide people along sectarian lines,” the revolution is not “a Sunni or an Islamist revolution – it is about freedom.” She added, “That the majority of those involved in the revolution are Sunni is normal given the demographic make-up of the country.”
Replying to further questions about divisions within the opposition, she argued that “expecting the mosaic of Syrian society to join in a single voice” was “unrealistic,” and explained that everyone in the West was saying, “What’s the alternative to Assad and why is the opposition not united?” As she also explained, however, “it’s not the revolution’s fault that it’s not united and we can’t wait for unity while the river of blood flows. The alternative to Assad is the ballot box.”
She added that the revolutionary committees she is involved in “have not joined the Syrian National Council, the main umbrella opposition abroad, largely because their intention is to act as a pressure group,” and not to get diverted by the pragmatism that plagues politicians. “The revolution is not like that,” she said, “and it cannot compromise on its goals.”
An advocate of foreign intervention, she nevertheless “has no doubt that the regime is doomed,” whether or not western countries become involved. The Syrian people, she said, will not abandon their revolution: “It’s impossible for Bashar to win. He would have to walk over every single body of every single revolutionary.”
In further investigations, I discovered that Razan Ghazzawi, another activist discussed by the Daily Star, Lebanon and in the Washington Post, was a close colleague of Mazen Darwish, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who had been arrested a year ago, but then released, and had then been arrested again, with 12 colleagues and two visitors, including Ghazzawi herself, on February 16 this year.
In an article on her website, Ghazzawi explained how, along with Mazen Darwish and herself, the authorities also seized Darwish’s wife, Yara Badr, who is a journalist; Hani Zitani, a graduate of the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sociology and a university teacher; his wife Sana Zitani (Sanaa Mohsen), a graduate of the Faculty of Sociology; Abdel Rahman Hamada, a student at the Institute of Accounting; Hussein Gharir, a graduate at the Faculty of Information Engineering; Mansour al-Omari, an English literature graduate from Damascus University; Joan Fersso, a graduate of the Faculty of Arabic Literature; Mayada Khalil, a graduate at the University of Archaeology in Aleppo; Ayham Ghazoul, a dentist; Bassam al-Ahmed, a graduate of the Faculty of Arabic Literature; and a woman named Rita Dayoub. The two visitors were Shady Yazbek, a medical student, and Hanadi Zahlout.
Five of the women — Yara Badr, Sanaa Mohsen, Mayada Khalil, Razan Ghazzawi and Hanadi Zahlout — were released two days later, but with an onerous condition: that “they are to show up at Air Force Security every day from 9am to 2pm for further investigation until an unspecified date.” One other woman, Rita Dayoub, was released outright.
The men, however, are still held, despite calls for their release, most recently by a coalition of regional human rights groups on March 14, in which it was stated, “According to a trustworthy source within Syria, Mr. Darwish has been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during his interrogation and imprisonment at an Air Force Intelligence detention center in Damascus. We have reasons to believe that his life is in danger, especially as Mazen Darwish faces serious previous health issues that require medical treatment and worsen his condition.” The UN previously condemned the detention of the men in a news release on February 21.
As Western countries debate whether to intervene, which, despite Suhair Atassi’s support, I have profound doubts about, given the largely unreported scale of civilian deaths that accompanied the “liberation” of Libya, I primarily feel sympathy for the people of Syria, still losing their lives to a monstrous regime a year after their revolution began in the streets of Damascus and Daraa. I have only touched on a few stories of those who have been held, and those who resist Bashar al-Assad’s brutality, but my thoughts are with all the victims of this particularly savage regime, the 40,000 or more men, women and children who have been killed or are arbitrarily detained in prisons where the use of torture has, for decades, been routine.