One of my favorite meeting spots in bustling central Damascus is located just outside the walls of Damascus’ Old City where I like to chat and learn from a range of interlocutors about recent developments, is Marjeh Square.
On May 6, 1916, the Ottoman governor Ahmed Djemal Pasha, (aka “the Blood Shedder”) publicly executed seven Syrian national activists near the centre of this intersection which became known as “Martyrs’ Square”. As a warning to others contemplating rebellion, the Ottomans left their bodies hanging alongside the same bronze and basalt columns that dominate the square today.
A decade later the French did the same to anyone who revolted against their League of Nations mandate. When the March 2011 revolt ignited down south in Daraa near the Jordanian border, Marjeh, Square became a predictable gathering point for anti-regime demonstrations. Later, as the largely peaceful student protests became a full-fledged rebellion, Marjeh became the site of car bomb attacks on the adjacent Interior Ministry building which houses one of the offices of Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Assad regimes National Security Bureau.
According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2012, Mamlouk heads an empire of torture including but not limited to six detention centers housing thousands of detainees, all of whom, including children, have been electrocuted, sexually abused, beaten, maimed, or, on many occasions, killed. Among the most notorious agencies, Mamluk oversees are the Department of Military Intelligence (Shu`bat al-Mukhabarat al-`Askariyya); the Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi); the General Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-`Amma); and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya). Each of these agencies maintains central branches in Damascus as well as regional, city, and local branches across the country. In virtually all these branches there are detention facilities of varying size. Consequently, Marjeh Square is regularly visited by Syrian trying to locate disappeared loved ones and remains crowded with homeless families from across Syria who sleep very rough in the frigid temperatures as many of their children, appear at car windows begging the occupants for food or money to buy some. Sometimes, NGO volunteers appear with medicines for the youngsters such as polio shots.
Since 3/5/2018, a UN humanitarian aid convoy has not been able to unload supplies to residents trapped inside Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, as government and Russian warplanes resumed bombarding the enclave, killing at least 110 people, according to UN agencies among others. Described as the “bloodiest” day since a Russian-sponsored truce failed to stop the onslaught and since a UN Security Council resolution was unsuccessful at implementing a 30-day ceasefire, Syrian government forces resumed the shelling of the Damascus suburb for the 16th consecutive day on 3/6/2018. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported that the bombardment of the enclave has killed more than 70 civilians in 24 hours, bringing that day’s total to more than 100. More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and 4,000 wounded since the government stepped up its offensive on the Eastern Ghouta on 18 February.
Residents of Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, have previously voiced their skepticism of a Russian-proposed “five-hour daily humanitarian pause” that began last month. The pauses were meant to create “humanitarian corridors” to allow the evacuation of those seeking medical treatment and the entry of aid convoys, but air raids have continued to target civilians and residential areas while government forces stripped the convoy of urgently needed medicines.
Despite the danger, Syrian civilian Sentinels now regularly appear and risk being killed by insisting that the food and medicines convoys be allowed into Eastern Ghouta. This courage is spreading among the Syrian population to aid their neighbors and families as well as total strangers. The Al-Assad regime, supported by Russia, began an unprecedented aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta on 2/18/2018. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of civilians killed since the assault began at more than 780, including 170 children.
As most would agree, the global community has failed the people of Syria during their nearly seven years struggle for dignity, freedom, empowerment, dismantlement of massive corruption, forced disappearances and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including but not limited to the following:
- unlawful killing, including of children (mostly boys), medical personnel and hospital patients (“In some particularly grave instances, entire families were executed in their homes”);
- torture, including of children (mostly boys, sometimes to death) and hospital patients, and including sexual and psychological torture;
- arbitrary arrest “on a massive scale”;
- deployment of tanks and helicopter gunships in densely populated areas;
- heavy and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas;
- collective punishment;
- enforced disappearances;
- wide scale and systematic destruction and looting of property;
- the systematic denial, in some areas, of food and water; and
- the prevention of medical treatment, including to children – in the period since 15 March 2011
The United Nations Security Council, the EU, Arab League and the rest of us among others have been an abject failure in Syria as demonstrated by the 14 vetoes Russia has used to block humanitarian help and to end the carnage. What is left of UN Chapter 7 obligations? Can the UN recover? Will it be allowed to?
Visitors to Syria over the past seven years have observed first-hand, countless examples of Syrian Sentinels risking their lives to help their fellow citizens. One recalls that shortly after the uprising broke out in March of 2011, amateur video pictures taken on 4/28/2011 showed Syrian soldiers in Daraa refusing to shoot civilian demonstrators. Many soldiers defected, and others were wounded or killed by pro-regime assassins on rooftops from behind. Between 25 and 28 April 2011, more than 50 people were killed in Daraa by security forces. Daraa residents reported, according to the Los Angeles Times, an entire army division or brigade had broken off and was hiding among the people.
More than 50 Syrian and pro-Syrian NGO’s, including The Alliance for Syrian NGO’s this week are rising in defense of their fellow citizens and in support of Human Rights demands for civilian access to aid for areas such as East Ghouta and condemning the current war crimes including the stripping of medical supplies from the only convoy allowed into this besieged area for nearly four years. According to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and UN Agencies working in Syria, the blocking of medical supplies and aid to civilians is a gross violation of humanitarian law and a war crime which is resulting in the preventable illness and death of countless men, women, and children.
Among the Syrian Sentinels who foreigners observe across this great country laboring daily to preserve their countries existence and confront attacks on their neighbors, include but are not limited to the following:
Syrian Army Conscripts. The draftees are those most visible to foreigners and the local population. Paid barely $ 60 per month with eight days off every two months often wearing tennis shoes and without much by way of uniforms or equipment, they appear to be the most prevalent sentinels across Syria looking out for their neighbors at checkpoints and when approached for urgent help. Days after the fall of East Aleppo in December of 2015, this observer took a large tourist bus half-filled with Syrian army guys and the other half with women and children fleeing to find relatives in Damascus and en route. The normal 7-hour trip Aleppo-Damascus trip took 13 hours given plenty of rebel blocked roads heading south.
Witnessing how the army conscripts treated their fellow Syrians and their children were heartwarming. For example, at the start of our long trip, the “rebel” women and children eyed the government army guys with a degree of fear. No more than four hours into the trip the kids were sitting on the laps of the soldiers and many slumped in the arms of the exhausted soldiers fast asleep.
More than 1,000 children have been killed or injured this year across Syria, a United Nations Children’s Fund official advised this observer this week. The grim statistic, from UNICEF regional communications office comes as violence rips through the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where about a third of the nearly 400,000 besieged civilians are children, according to the agency. In all, 342 children were killed and 803 were injured in Syria in the first two months of 2018, Touma said, citing multiple sources. About 100 people were killed Monday 3/3/2018, in Eastern Ghouta, making it the deadliest day there since the United Nations Security Council passed a nationwide ceasefire resolution a week earlier according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in a 3/4/2018 statement.
Syria’s Educators. Working hard under difficult conditions to salvage what they can of some education for what remains of Syrian children, their former schools, without much in the way of teaching materials, something to eat at lunchtime, and constant fear of attack by those who consider them “terrorists.” To add to the pressure, the Government of Syria last month announced that is cannot invest in the education sector for the foreseeable future due to economic pressures in another part of Syrian society.
Syrian refugee girls are only half as likely as their male peers to attend secondary school, according to a 3/7/2018 released report by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the consequences will plaque Syria and the region for generations.
In a report published last year, the agency warned that half of the world’s some 3.5 million refugee children do not attend school, with attendance particularly lackluster in secondary school and higher.
While some 84 percent of children worldwide are in secondary school, fewer than 15% of Syrian percent Syrian refugee girls are, the report found. The UN study, “Her Turn”, indicates that girls make up most of the clear majority of Syrian refugee children missing out on school.
Despite this bleak picture, every day, Syrian teachers who remain in what is left of their country are volunteer trying to cover the cost of books, lunches, and sometimes uniforms, menstrual supplies and to protect the students from fears of sexual assault.
This observer has been honored to visit more than a dozen Syrian primary and secondary schools since 2015 and is always deeply impressed by the teachers commitment to instructing their students and also the keen awareness of the students that they are luckly for the opportunity to attend one of the two-shifting now being widely employed by Syria’s Department of Education, given the raging maelstrom still engulfing their country. The students are attentive, orderly and eager to learn.
Key Syrian Sentinels also include Medical volunteers who usually work without Doctors, medicines or equipment to save lives in their neighborhoods.
Neighborhood volunteers who risk and often lose their lives, volunteering with Civil Defense First Responders including the ICRC, Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, the White Helmets, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Syrian American Medical Society, Physicians for Human Rights and a dozen others.
Private Syrian Citizens inside and outside of Syria continue gathering food to feed their besieged fellow citizens.
Syrian citizens Sentinels also are risking their lives to document countless thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed daily against their fellow citizens. One reason is that they want all foreign proxies out of their country and they want eventual independent international tribunal accountability of all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against their families and neighborhoods starting in March of 2011 and still raging today.
And so it is that today across this great civilization, largely neglected by the global community, the Syrian people, guardians of our more than ten millennia cradle of civilization in Syria and custodians of our shared cultural heritage, while enduring nearly seven years of barbarism not witnessed since World War II, are nobly fulfilling existential roles as sentinels and risking their lives to save their and our, sisters and brothers.
Hopefully each of us in the global community who have abjectly failed the Syria people will unite and bring to justice the criminals who have slaughtered half a million Syrians and destroyed their country.
To help achieve some belated justice for these noble people, we must investigate the times, places, locations and participants in these massive crimes and organize an International Independent Tribunal, presumably based in The Hague, to impartially apply the principles, standards and black letter law of culpability to the accused.
Each must be given the opportunity to defend against evidence of their involvement in the alleged massive heinous crimes the world has witnessed these past horrendous seven years with half a dozen or more wars across various parts of Syria continuing.