Zuleikha Adam Dinath writes at length on the oft forgotten abuse, torture and displacement suffered by the Syrian people (women and children in particular) at the hands of the government primarily, before even the rise of groups such as ISIS. With the statistics of those displaced and killed rising daily, have we become desensitised to the suffering through the systematic dehumanisation of an entire nation? In this piece, Dinath writes from her own perspective of the police state in Aleppo, Syria and on its current state today.
When you’ve spent your entire youth in a police state you develop an inexplicable sense of trepidation, a tensing of the spine and knowing in every fibre of your being that you are being watched, that danger of arrest and brutal beating is imminent. Walking in the besieged streets of Aleppo, I traversed the market place with the abandon and insouciance of a tourist oblivious of the death that shadowed its inhabitants. Aleppo or Halep had a way of creeping up your skin into your soul. Sanctions had bitten deep and lasting scars into the economy, and young and old stood in the square in pinched silence waiting for the inevitable. The invisible menace of the Mukhabarat becomes a ghostly presence you feel but never actually see. There is a persistent sense of doom and mistrust and fear of each other. Aleppo 2008 was on the precipice of war, it was going to explode; and it has; at a devastating and deathly human cost.
“Bodies on both sides fell like ripened berries” in a city where death is “as commonplace as a crate of rotten peaches flung out on to the pavement”. Khaled Khalifa’s novel In Praise of Hatred (2008) was prescient in its foretelling of the eventual rise of the oppressed of Syria. Collective resistance to the regime was systematically stifled since the ascendance of Hafez al Assad in 1970, who zealously enforced a post-colonial secular state marginalising Shaam’s rich precious Islamic heritage and alienating the Muslim Brotherhood; giving rise to dissent among the Sunni majority and the leftists who envisioned a post-colonial socialist Syria.
Hafez Al Assad’s support for the Lebanese phalangists against the Palestinian Muslims increased the tensions at home and the tyranny of the state resulted in the savage massacre at Tadmor Prison in Hama in 1982. The Ruling Alawi’s did not spare dissenters belonging to their own sect, Hassen Al Khayyer, a poet from the Assad sect was incarcerated and murdered for writing about the atrocities of the regime even though he had written even-handedly about the resistance’s violence. The various sects, including the Kurds who boasted a lineage with the much loved and admired Salah Uddin Ayubi have been persecuted and deemed ajnabi (alien) and deprived of Syrian citizenship.
Khalid Khalifa’s novel censored and banned by Syria reflects the traumatised lives of the Syrians. The tremor I felt as an outsider eventually resulted in fissures that rendered the entire country into factions opposing a repressive regime. The word radicalisation has become part of the new vocabulary of war and is especially tagged to the Syrians at war within and with themselves. People living under a savage system either buckle under the physical and psychological weight of its relentless persecution or take up arms to fundamentally change their destiny. It is in this crucible that the current war was wrought; the increased militancy was in tandem with the atrocities of the regime and the intensifying international sanctions and the machinations of the so called war on terror. Basher al Assad’s use of extreme violence to maintain his grip on Syria and thwart any Islamist wrenching of power has resulted in thousands of internally displaced people and refugees on the Turkish and Jordanian border seeking out an existence on the periphery of their previous homeland. Mourning the countless dead as they desperately seek safety from the regime and competing forces.
Women and children have not been spared in the indiscriminate fighting in civilian areas where explosive chemical barrel bombs have been dumped. Heavy artillery and scud missiles have deliberately targeted women and children. In recent months the media has focussed on the violation of women by the Islamic State in the Levant but failed to highlight the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. The Syrian Human Rights Network’s documentation centres have recorded war related trauma suffered by the women caught in this conflict. Young women have systematically been targeted by regime snipers, executed during massacres, used as human shields, raped during raids, kidnapped, gang raped in prisons and at checkpoints. Pregnant women have not been spared sexual harassment and humiliation; abductees are held incommunicado and tortured as hostages.
Sema Nasar of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network calls this Violence against women, a Bleeding Wound of the Syrian Conflict. These crimes have been committed by Assad’s security apparatus, the Shabiha, despite the evidence of the genocidal ruthlessness of this organ of the state. Abuses have not elicited an international outcry, and the gaze is focussed squarely on the resistance movements. It is Assad’s militia that is abducting girls from checkpoints to affluent areas of Damascus, where they are gang raped and thrown out into the streets. Not since Bosnia has there been such a massive annihilation of women, and this genocidal climate of impunity remains cloaked in silence and goes unabated. On February 2013 the special representative of the U.N on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura stated that “Civilians already caught in the vicious cycle of violence are also the target of sexual violence by all parties to the conflict.” Under reporting and delayed reporting of violence against women is endemic even though the Security Council resolution 1325 of 2013 recognised the link between conflict and gender based violence. Fear and stigma and the real threat of bringing dishonour to the family are reasons preventing women from disclosing the traumatic sexual encounters and identifying the perpetrators. The Rome Statute recognises these acts as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Catharine MacKinnon, representing women victims of the Balkan war says that “Bosnia exposed a new model of mass instrumentalisation of sexuality for genocidal purposes.” 99 percent of all sexual violence in conflict is perpetrated against women. The Syrian conflict has displaced 80 percent of the population while men engage in war; women suffer the most displacement and economic hardship. Refugee numbers are in the millions and the internally displaced civilians live in constant fear of bombardment and sniper fire. The Regime has systematically eroded the dignity and social fabric of the Syrian people. The Genocide Convention stipulates that “The intention must be to destroy a group, or an individual from an identifiable distinct group”, in this case the majority Sunni sect, and other non-regime civilians are targeted.
The Syrian Human Rights Network (SNHR) records and tracks the deaths and violations in the ongoing conflict, their non-partisan objectivity is vital to current and future accountability. The latest report indicates that most deaths are a result of regime actions; however the opposition groups are also responsible for human rights violations. The statistics are a clear indictment on all the warring factions while the women and children have become collateral damage. The statistics do not include the injured, displaced and refugee numbers, giving a blurred and incomplete insight into the devastation. Victims and survivors are paying a crippling price for the end to Bashar al Assad’s stranglehold on the country.
In its May 2015 report SNHR documented the killing of 1713 victims at the hands of the government, regime forces killed 1381 victims including 236 children (eight children per day) and 186 women. Also, 82 victims were tortured to death; averages of three victims were tortured to death per day. 31% of the total number of civilian victims was children and women which indicate that government forces are deliberately targeting civilians. Government forces killed 332 gunmen by bombing or during clashes 14 civilians including four children and four women were also killed. 305 victims were killed by resistance groups: 197 civilians, including nine children and eight women, were killed by Daesh. 104 gunmen were killed during clashes with armed opposition faction or by executing prisoners. An-Nussra Front killed four civilians including a child and one victim who was tortured to death. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the death toll after nearly four years of civil war in Syria has risen to 210,060, nearly half of them civilians, but the real figure is probably much higher.
While human rights are being violated by all factions the killing is not an act in itself, it is the intention of total destruction. Killing is not random and aimed at a particular individual, rather as representative of the sect or the targeted tribe, exacting maximum amount of territorial control and bloodshed. Samar Yazbek’s book A Woman in the Crossfire diarises a feverish, nightmarish, visceral account of four months in the middle of last year; she spent demonstrating against the Assad regime in Syria, the security forces detained her five times, until the threats and intimidation made it impossible. She interviewed protesters, doctors, neighbours and defectors about what was happening in the streets, prisons and hospitals of her country, what they saw and what was done to them, often finding that after they had talked to her, the interviewee disappeared.
Distinguishing the Syrian war as a civil conflict or popular uprising, is underestimating the scale of the genocidal crimes committed by the regime. The massacres committed in May 2013 in the villages of Al-Baida and Ras Al Nabe left entire families dead, of the 459 civilians murdered 114 were women. Over the past four years, thousands of massacres have been perpetrated; some massacres involved patterns and practices where the aggressor forces don’t only kill victims by shooting them but carry out other criminal acts such as slaughtering whole families, including ravaging and sexually assaulting women, burning bodies, deforming bodies, sexual crimes, looting and burning homes. All of these crimes are sectarian and have ethnic rather than religious undertones. In this carnage a new villain in the guise of saviour is the American coalition that obliterated the village of Birmahle with precision air strikes killing 52 civilians. Seven of the victims were young children, while thirteen were buried under the falling rubble.
In In Praise of Hatred the young narrator gives graphic descriptions of Massacres and mass graves, while these may be fictitious accounts they represent both current and past painful episodes in Syria. Intertwined with delightfully lyrical descriptions of life of Sunni Muslims it also depicts the turmoil and fear and the clandestine meetings and dissention belying the false propaganda that the war is insurgency by foreign forces allied to ISIS or Al Qaeda. It is evident that the old and younger Assad had a stifling grip on the country for decades, squashing both Marxist and Islamist ideology; with so much state inflicted terror something was bound to explode. Syria’s future and the invidious role of the imperialist allies’ points to an inevitable blood fest before an equitable peace is achieved.
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” – Pablo Neruda.
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