'Syrians want democratic freedoms'
Laura’s* mother was in Dara’a in southern Syria when the military attacked youths who had graffitied anti-government slogans in mid March. Only when she had arrived back in Sydney did she tell her family about what she’d seen of the attacks on unarmed protesters, which sparked the wave of anti-government protests across Syria.
“When my mum came back she was pale and had lost weight. She couldn’t talk straight away”, Laura told Green Left Weekly. “She told us of tanks being used to guard Dara’a from civilian protesters. She told us that live bullets were being used on unarmed youths.
“My cousin, who is about 14 years old, was protesting with his friend. They scrambled into a hole in a staircase of an apartment to shelter from live bullets. My cousin was the first in and his friend sat on top of him.
“When they thought it was safe to leave, his friend got out and was leaning down to help my cousin out when he was shot in the back. My aunt's brother-in-law, a doctor, was also shot in the head for trying to assist injured people.”
Syria: Repression, defiance rises
Laura took part in a 200-strong protest, organised by the Australia Syria Association, in Sydney on May 9. She’s angry at what she perceives as disinterest in the crackdown and told GLW she feels it is her duty to speak out about what is happening in Syria.
“There are no foreign correspondents allowed into the country. [Syrian president] Bashar [al-Assad] is giving the Syrian people a taste of his brutal power: there are massacres on a daily basis. He has even installed fear in those living outside Syria,” she said.
“Today [May 9] my parents received a phone call from a close relative who lives in Jassim, outside Dara'a. He told them the tanks were rolling into suburbs near Jassim and that the electricity had been cut off. He said boys and men, ranging from 15 to 40 years’ old, are being rounded up and taken away … God knows what they are going to do with them.”
Three of her cousin’s relatives have been shot dead (a father and two sons) and two nephews of her sister-in-law (who is living in Sydney) and their father were detained and beaten in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, during the first weeks of the crackdown.
According to the Syrian human rights organisation, Sawasiah, as many as 800 civilians have been killed since the uprising began. More than 10,000 people have been arrested.
Laura said she had heard the regime has turned some schools and soccer fields into detention centres and jails to cope with the mass arrests.
“We cannot make contact with our family or friends in Dara’a as electricity has been cut off for almost three weeks. The water tanks have been bombed, the pharmacies have been cleared out of supplies, and only two out of 50 bakeries have been allowed to open”, Laura said.
Several towns and villages near Dara’a (including Inkhel, Jassem, Harra and Namer) have been attacked. There have also been reports of heavy weapons being used in Moadamiyeh, near Damascus. Hundreds of people have been arrested.
Laura doesn’t believe that religious sectarianism is playing a role. She says the protestors — regardless of religion and background — have been living and working together peacefully and are now building up their confidence by organising rallies together.
Protests on or around May 11 took place in Damascus, Homs, Talbiseh, al-Qamishli, Marat Naman, Kafar Nabil and Sheikh Miskeen. Some of the Youtube videos, available online, show thousands protesting.
When asked whether the protest movement across Syria had been inspired by this year’s uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Laura said she thought it had more to do with Syrians’ economic and political grievances with the regime and 48 years of emergency rule.
“The trigger [for the protest wave] came from the attack on, and detention of, the young school children in Dara’a. This was the last straw.
“The children who wrote on their school walls may have been mimicking what happened in Egypt. They did not know what would happen. When they didn’t come home, their families went to the school to look for them and were told that they were being detained at the police station.”
Laura said that when the parents could not get their children released they asked respected community leaders to intervene. That didn’t work, and when the news seeped out that the children had been tortured — some had had their nails ripped off, the nose of one child was cut off, others were beaten and others sexually assaulted — the people of Dara’a took to the streets.
“The regime didn’t accept the people of Dara’a standing up for themselves and it wanted to make sure that Syrians were taught a lesson.
“But Syrians have built up their confidence by organising peaceful rallies to demand reforms.“
Yet, the terror campaign, which includes snipers shooting into people’s homes, has prompted many to try to flee. But hundreds trying to get through to Lebanon have been sent back. According to some reports, there have been splits in the army and mass defections of Syrian army units.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UN Relief and Works Agency) has had to suspend operations for 50,000 people in central and southern Syria. The agency provides help, protection and advocacy for about 475,000 Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps across Syria.
While Assad’s more secular regime, with good links to the West, was considered to be less repressive than many others in the Middle East, this view is now changing as the crackdown enters its second month.
And while the state of emergency law was officially lifted in April, and the state security court abolished — two of the protest movement’s demands — new anti-terrorism laws have been introduced, and many other pernicious laws remain.
Critics such as Haitham Maleh, a former judge and political prisoner, say that many of the draconian charges on which opponents of the regime are routinely imprisoned still exist either within the Penal Code or as special laws or articles in the Constitution. This means that Syria will continue to be run as a virtual police state, he told Democracy Now on May 9.
“The people of Syria want democratic reform,” Laura said, dismissing the charge that the protest movement is being funded by the US, Saudi Arabia or even Israel.
“It took the US government 45 days to say something about the killings of innocent people in Syria. I don’t know why there haven’t been heavier sanctions placed on the Assad family.
“It seems that the world is disengaged from the facts, and footage, for which people have risked their lives to place on the record for the world to see and Saudi Arabia has still not condemned the killings."
There are many videos of protesters being attacked (Syrian Days of Rage) being posted on Facebook and other websites. With no foreign media allowed in to the country (and some being arrested and deported), these have been the only way for the world to see what has been going on. But now the regime is trying to counter this with propaganda that everything is fine, Laura said.
“On May 12, Al Jazeera showed a Syrian TV interview with a woman swearing an oath on God’s name that everything is fine in Darra'a. The disturbing thing was the way she wore the scarf: it was not the way women in Darra'a would wear it. It was a dead giveaway, as were her dialect and accent — which was not from Darra'a.”
Laura said she was pleased that Syria on May 10 was forced to withdraw its bid for a place on the UN Human Rights Council, but added that more international pressure was needed.
“We don’t need superpowers taking control of Syria, but there does need to be heavier international sanctions against the president and the elites. Every minute of delay means the death of more innocent people. Syrians want their democratic freedoms, plain and simple.
[*Names have been changed for security purposes — Laura was born in Australia. Her parents settled here more than 30 years ago.]