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The Vulnerabilities of the Syrian People
Vulnerability and despair seem to be the governing tone of Syrians whether those trapped inside or stranded at the border. As they woke up on Sunday, May 5 to the Israeli attacks on Damascus, their anguish becomes palpable.
“We seem under attack from the inside and the outside. As they say: when a prey falls to ground, slaughterers come in groups,” says Marwa, a lecturer at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Aleppo University and a mother of four. She had to leave her flat at the heart of Aleppo in November when the fight escalated. One morning she woke up to a new checkpoint set by the rebels 100 meters from her residence. She feared for her four boys, the oldest of them is 16. “If we stayed, and if we remained alive in the midst of the fight, our boys would’ve had to pick sides. I raised them to accept people’s differences. I want my children to be safe but I also want to protect them from the politics of this revolution [after a brief hesitating pause] it is discriminatory at large.”
Marwa is a Muslim Sunni, as is her husband Amer. Like many other Muslim Sunnis in Syria, she is liberal. “When the rebels set the checkpoint close to our home I kept a scarf in my handbag. I would wear it when I leave the house in the morning then take it off once outside the neighborhood. It was a strange experience for I never wore a veil before.” When she and her family left Aleppo they sought refuge at their neighbor’s summerhouse in the suburbs of Tartus, the second largest coastal city in Syria. “We used to join our friends at this house during the summer vacation. They are our best friends. We met in college and we’ve been inseparable since then.” Tartus and its suburbs are largely inhabited by Alawite and Christian communities. “We have not had any trouble living here for the past six months. People are very sympathetic and supportive.” Marwa had to commute to Aleppo every now and then to resume her teaching responsibilities at the university until mid March. “At first, especially in December people will donate bread for me to carry back to Aleppo for my neighbors and colleagues who couldn’t leave. I would carry at least two suitcases filled with bread. Once at rebels’ checkpoint near Jisr al-Shughur my bread was confiscated. I pleaded with the armed men to no avail.” Marwa’s commute came to a halt when in her last trip armed rebels decapitated a fellow passenger for his attempt to smuggle two packs for bread.
Like Marwa, despite the turmoil many Syrians have to commute back and forth to their offices. Government employees still have to report to their positions, though for a much less number of hours, as the government continues to pay their salaries. Those who cannot report to their designated offices are asked to attend the nearest office for a few hours a month. “We created a system where each of us has to show up one day a week for two or three hours. It is safer this way,” says Huda, a Primary School teacher. Huda is an activist from Homs who rallied for the revolution since its breakout. “When the revolution started I was ecstatic. I wished I could join the demonstrations in downtown Homs but since the demonstrators were mostly men I was hesitant. It was enough for me to live it through the experiences of my brother and colleagues.” The rising violence in Homs and the displacement of many of her community members did not shake her commitment. “I come from a revolutionary family. My father was a Marxist. He was repeatedly arrested and tortured by the secret police in the 1980s before he fled the county and sought asylum in Germany. We never saw him after that. He passed away before we could join him.” Huda dedicated her time and energy to those displaced within Syria. She teaches at all levels as she assumes her job as a teacher in the nearest school to her refuge. “We need to sustain a sense of community and humanity to survive this fawra (outburst),” a pun which has been used by revolution’s detractors [the word for revolution in Arabic is thawra]. “Our revolution has been stolen from us right under our watch. All is left is an outburst of hatred from all involved in the bloodshed. If we are truly serious about the revolution we will have to acknowledge the atrocities committed by groups fighting under the revolution flag. Pointing fingers only at the state’s brutality against civilians will take us nowhere. If we don’t exercise self-criticism effectively we will replace one dictatorship with another. Let me rephrase, we will be moved from under one dictator to another.”
In another displaced community that sought refuge in the mountains west of Homs, Samir is grateful that winter is over. “Heat was a major problem this past winter, not just for us but for nature as well.” Most of the bushes and forests in the surrounding mountains have been a target of illegal cuts only to be sold at outrageous prices for those who can afford to purchase wood for heat. “Our mountains became bare…like our souls!” Says his friend Khaled with a broken voice. Shortage in cooking gas has been predominant as well. “Not only are there much fewer supplies, but these are being controlled by corrupt distributors who would sell it for triple prices to rich people. In the absence of authorities to administer the distribution, contractors refuse to give each household their allowance as per pre-revolution rules. Instead, they give these poor people half if not quarter of their allowance and sell the rest illegally at outrageous prices.” Salim, a clerk at al-Wadi University (a private institute) confirms. “I see it everyday. The distributor brings cooking gas bottles to students’ dormitories and charge 1500 SP for each bottle (regular price is 500 SP). It is not only outrageous but unethical….but war does not know ethics, does it?!”
In Aleppo reality has a much dimmer face. The city and its people has suffered incredible amount of violence. The tragic loss of historic places comes second to the more devastating loss of civilians’ lives. For the most part, rebel groups seem to be in control of the city. “Their tactic is to isolate Aleppo from its surroundings. Bombing electric power stations keeps the regular Syrian army soldiers at bay,” Munir says enthusiastically. “The Assad army lost credibility on the ground. It is only a matter of time. Aleppo will be ours in few weeks and soon after Damascus. Victory is in sight. I can feel it.” Hayder is much less enthusiastic than Munir. For him the Israeli attacks on Damascus are disturbingly alarming. “I read recently a statement by Henry Kissinger, it goes around the following lines: Syria is a strong country with well-equipped army. The only way to bring it down is to burn it internally. I fear our revolution was manipulated for such purpose. The thought of it makes me sick. All our efforts and planning were in vain.” Hayder’s pessimism is contagious. Like Huda, the revolutionary defector gave up on his political role and is dedicated now to help displaced communities.
As the revolution marches into its third year, the optimism of Syrians fades away. Hope seems a luxury in the face of bloodshed, displacement, hunger, fear, and all other vulnerabilities experienced by millions of Syrians on a daily basis. For Syrians, the future is as gloomy as the recent past has been.
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.