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Listening to Syrians

Between the Hammer and the Anvil

by ANNA HAQ

Damascus.

On Thursday, Nov. 29, the Syrian government imposed a blackout on the Internet and all incoming and outgoing international calls in addition to cutting off Damascus and its suburbs from all sorts of communication from the rest of the country. People thought this must be the big operation Assad regime has been preparing against the rebels. All braced themselves for the worst while the “airport battle” was taking place. On Sunday, communications were back to normal but people’s spirits remained low. The regime won control over the airport and the roads leading to it but nothing has changed for the majority of those trapped in Syria or stranded in tents at a refugee camp.

When you ask, what do the people of Syria want, the answer repeatedly is this, “We want an end to this barbaric fight.” And then, “of course we want democracy and freedom but not like this. We are double betrayed. Once by a revolution that failed to define its terms and isolate itself from any intrusion and the second time by a government that failed to protect its people,” says Muhammad from Jaramana in Damascus. “We are trapped between the hammer and the anvil,“ says Maryam when asked what does she think of Muhammad’s statement. “We are hopeless, there is no end in sight.”

As the chilly winter winds creeps on displaced Syrians, signs of exhaustion and hopelessness seem too overwhelming. Comforting, encouraging words are meaningless in the face of their misery. Activists on the outside seem hopeful of re-building a new Syria once Assad leaves. On the inside the daily reality is grim. From Homs to Aleppo to Idlib and Damascus, people share one hope: a safe return to their homes at the end of the day. For the lower middle-class and working classes, if you manage to secure some basic food items you are considered among the lucky ones.

The government’s motto of “Syria is still Well” (Souria bi-khair) which echoed with the upper classes over the past two years has been diminished by the constant bombings, kidnappings, and execution-like killings by both fighting parties. “All it takes for a person to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our political views do not matter any longer. Neither does our humanity,” Muhammad whispers over the phone. This is the first time he abandons his cynical “Souria bi-khair” since the revolution started almost twenty-two months ago. Like many trapped in Syria, the fear of tapped phone-lines is real. Despair overcomes such fear nowadays. “Why would I care?! I could be killed by a sniper bullet or a car-bombing on my way to work tomorrow morning.”

On the surface normalcy is deceptive but only for some. Students attend their university lectures and prepare for January exams, street vendors occupy their usual corners, shops are open, basic items are available in certain areas at atrociously high prices. Luxury items are available too for those who can afford it. “People have ways to secure their daily needs,” says Sahar from Homs. The majority of workers and business owners haven’t had steady work for the last two years. Government employees still receive their monthly salaries even though those employed in destroyed areas or districts under the control of rebels report only a couple of days a week to some other district for few hours. “Our elders are wise. They say: save your white penny for your dark days. If it wasn’t for our white pennies we would’ve starved!”

During the week, streets become deserted after 3:00PM—the end of working hours at government run institutions—as if in anticipation for a disaster. Life seems to be put on halt until another morning.

The parts of the cities that are controlled by the rebels or terrorists (depending on your stance) are isolated from the outside. Old town Homs, for instance (Hammidieh, Bustan al-Diwan and Wadi al-Sayeh), remains closed to the outside world. Most of the residents of these neighborhoods were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night at gunpoint by the rebels who moved to old town when government forces overtook Baba Omer in January 2012. Few families couldn’t leave. They simply didn’t have the resources to rent the excruciatingly pricy units available for rent in the close-by safer mountains. They sought refuge in the convent of the Jesuits in Butan al-Diwan. This convent, a traditional house of about ten rooms spread around three courtyards, hosts around hundred people from different religions and sects. It provides food and shelter to those who otherwise could’ve been killed or displaced in tents at some borders.

Elias Mansour, 84 years old Greek-Orthodox Christian, could not make it to the Jesuits convent. He had to take care of his handicapped son, Adnan, and so he stayed in his one-room flat in Wadi al-Sayeh. On October 30th he was killed by sniper’s bullet and has since been known as “the last Christian in the center of Homs.” “This is what I mean by barbaric,” Rami from Aleppo concludes. “What did they—whoever they are—gain from killing this poor man? May he rest in peace!”

Aleppo had a taste of what Homs has been through last winter, only more severely. Although this past week has been relatively quiet, normalcy is far from sight. “Those who could afford to leave have left, very early in the fight. Those who stayed put are literally trapped. We are in dire need for cooking gas and fuel for heating. Aleppo’s dry winters are merciless and this one will be fatal to many if we don’t provide them with these supplies.” Known as the industrial capital of Syria, Aleppo is infamous for hosting the richest in the country as well as the poorest who mostly occupy the suburbs and who could barely manage in peaceful times.

In rural areas, peasants and farm owners have a new dilemma: the lack of workers to harvest the crops is distressing. Most of the farms in the mountains and valleys that run parallel to the Mediterranean rely heavily on workers from neighboring Sunni and Alawite villages. The rising tension between the two sects made the majority of these workers fearful of taking jobs in those farms. “They demand twice the regular pay and armed body-guards to escort them to and from the farm and protect them while working the field. No farmer can afford their service. Olives, oranges, apples, you name it… The crops are falling to ground with no one to pick them up. What a waste.” Adel says with trembling voice. “We live off this farm. This is the second year in a row our crops go to waste. What’s going to happen to this land?”

A fair question without an answer as the fate of Syria and its people remain locked in stalemate. Little hope was kindled with the recent creation of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. However, the lack of action sent people back to a bleak reality. Over the past two days another hope has risen with rumors circulating about Assad’s seeking political asylum in Latin America in case he is forced to leave Syria. Yet again this hope was taken away when radio Sham FM denied it on December 5. Hope has become a rare commodity among the Syrian people.

Anna Haq is the nom de plume of a Syrian writer and intellectual. She would love to use her real name, but thinks it would only unnecessarily inconvenience people she loves. She can be reached at Anna.Haqq@gmail.com.