Remembering the chemical attack in Ghouta

….one year has passed since a chemical attack was launched on “Ghouta”, in the outskirts of Damascus, the area which was once known as “the green belt”, “the oasis” of Damascus..

A Facebook group called Ghouta-we will never forget you and a number of other initiatives – such as a Global Day of solidarity with Syria and the Twitter campaign under the hashtag #breathingdeath – have been launched.

One year has passed, and people are still dying in Syria, with or without gas, with or without chemical attacks.

In this crazy summer, when the entire Middle East is burning, and Libya, Palestine, Iraq, so Arab many countries seem to be in a status of permanent unrest; when the “fight against terrorism” aka ISIS seems to have taken center stage -with none asking from where this terror has originated and why-, we won’t forget Ghouta.

Ghouta is constantly there to remind all of us that humanity has failed, once again…

 

Ghouta_FB_19Aug2014 Ghouta2 Ghouta4 Ghouta6 moaddamiyeh2 moaddamiyeh4 moaddamiyeh21aug2014 Gouta5 moaddamiyeh5

 

Posters from the Facebook group in solidarity with Ghouta

Graffiti from Mouaddamiyeh, Damascus

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Syria, time passes…but not youth, beauty, hope

This video came out yesterday from Yarmouk, the Palestinian “camp” in Damascus, which has been bombed and put under siege by the Syrian regime forces.

You just have to watch it and, even if you don`t understand the words (its pretty meaningful title is ( الساعه عم تمشي )”Time goes by”), you will understand what it is about.

 

 

You see these guys playing piano and singing in the middle of the destruction and devastation, alone in the middle of nowhere…yet, there is life in there, plenty of life…

 

Not by chance, I had another powerful life lesson last week when I was in Jordan for the Arab Bloggers meeting #4. There were amazing people, from all across the Arab world; friends that I hadn`t been seeing for an year or more and I have to say that I really, truly enjoyed to spend quality time with them, exchange thoughts, have fun.

But the most striking, powerful thing was to meet Marcell. She came all the way from Aleppo. I guess it was a long, super stressing and difficult trip to get to Jordan. She came with a beautiful smile, tired, wearing masculine clothes. But when I saw her the day after she had her nails done and painted in red, her hair were dark, she was wearing a skirt and a necklace. She was singing and dancing, as if she were going to a party to celebrate her youth.

Marcell doesnt have an easy life in Aleppo. Her neighborhood is controlled by ISIS, she recently lost her mum who was shot “by mistake” at a checkpoint. She is Christian and she is a woman. With a group of friends, all of them activists from the peaceful resistance movement, they managed to rebuild and take care of some schools in the neighborhood.

When I look at Marcell`s eyes I see life. When I look at these guys from Yarmouk, singing with their piano outdoor in the middle of nothing, I see life and hope for Syria. And I wonder why others — international media, diplomats, the people who come at gatherings and conferences saying that “what is happening in Syria is just an international conspiracy” and “Bashar al-Asad is the only one who can guarantee a multicultural and multi-religious Syria”–  cannot or do not want to see people like Marcell or these guys from Yarmouk…

 

*But if you think that it still makes sense to talk about people like Marcell or Yarmouk`s youth, please have a look at Syria Untold, the web portal which tells about creative resistance and civil society in Syria, both in English and Arabic.

 

 

 

Best chants and slogans from the Syrian uprising

Thanks to some Twitter friends from Syria I`ve just rediscovered these beautiful chants and slogans which were repeated all across Syria expecially in the first two years after the uprising started.

 

This is a selection of chants and slogans:

 

 

 

This is from Homs, one of the most creative places in the Syrian uprising:

 

 

And this is a very interesting documentary – made by Al Jazeera in 2013-  called “The melody of hope” which recaps the most “creative” moments of the Syrian uprising, starting from the first haphazard demonstration in central Damascus Hariqa neighbourhood  back in February 2011 when people were chanting “The Syrian people  won`t be humiliated” .  It also reports about the popular response to Butheina Shaaban`s speech, few days after the protests broke out in Daraa in March 2011. At the time, when Bashar al-Asad`s media and political aide suggested that people were demonstrating for economic reasons, street demonstrations immediately reacted by chanting ” Ya Butheina ya Shaaban as-shaab as-sury mou juaan” (Oh Butheina oh Shaaban, the Syrian people are not hungry”.

The documentary features important personalities of Syria`s creative resistance such as composer and musician Samih Shqer, author of the popular anti-Bashar al-Asad song “Ya Haif”; and popular actor from “Bab al hara” series Jalal Taweel, who was arrested by the secret service while on his way to the Jordanian border, and then forced to record an interview with Syria TV. During this interview, the actor “denied allegations that he was arrested and detained by Syrian police officials, instead claiming that he was kidnapped by an armed gang and was rescued by Syrian police officials near the Jordanian border” (Taweel is now safe and sound outside the country, and very active in supporting the revolution and its original claim to freedom and dignity).

A very interesting part of the documentary  (at around 13.30 minutes) is when it deals with the Karamah Football Club from Homs (Nadi al Karamah) and explores how the slogans and songs chanted by its supporters influenced those which resonated in the streets during the anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

 

I wish this documentary were translated into English, it could give the international public a better insight on what happened in Syria and how defiant and creative the Syrian people have been.

Coffee in a Syrian tent

Yesterday, for the first time in my life I saw Syrians as refugees in a camp. During my years in Syria, I have met many Syrians from different cities, social and religious backgrounds, classes. But even the poorest ones that I used to visit in Damascus` “slums” lived in houses, even if small, even if surrounded by garbage, unfinished buildings, environmental degradation. They had their little private space, always made beautiful, always made warm by them.

It was a shock for me to see Syrians living in camps like this one in the picture, in Lebanon. The irony is that there are people in that camp who come from Yarmouk, which they also call “camp” but it`s not really a camp as we image it. It`s a lively area of Damascus, it`s a neighborhood plenty of shops, markets, mostly inhabited by Palestinian Syrians. Many of them had to leave Yarmouk when it was bombed by the regime. Apparently, they sent  a MIG airplane inside which destroyed buildings and killed many people. Many of those I met yesterday have lost friends or relatives during the bombing, so they have decided to leave immediately. Same stories from other families coming from different Syrian cities, such as Aleppo or Homs.

 

 

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Now they live in these tents, sometimes ten people in one tent. A shared kitchen and bathrooms are outside. They do everything in these small spaces. And, I dont know how, but at some point they made coffee. All of a sudden, I smelled the beautiful smell of Turkish coffee that I used to drink every day in Syria. There were little cups and spoons, and sweets, too. The family smiled at me, offered coffee, said: “Thank God, we are alive. Eventually we will go back to our country, Syria”.

This is only just another example of the dignity of the Syrian people. I am humbled by people whose first thought is to offer you coffee and welcome you warmly even if they are obliged to live in such a small space, all together. I am humbled by their smiles and by the way they thank God to have preserved their lives, even if they have to live as refugees now.

We have failed the Syrian civil society. We fail them each time we focus our attention only on geo-strategical issues, or when we are obsessed about fears of seeing Islamists ruling a post-Assad Syria. We fail them each time we build scenarios for the future of this country instead of thinking about the present, about what is needed now by this society which is suffering so much.

The fridge is still standing

A friend of mine took this picture in Harasta and gave it to me…

Harasta2013

 

Harasta is a suburb of Damascus` countryside. My dear friend Bassel Safadi, who has now been jailed for more than one year, used to live there. There is no such a thing named Harasta anymore. It has been completely destroyed.

Yet, that fridge is still standing. Like the Syrian people. Against all odds, left alone by Western and Arab governments, public opinion, media. They are still standing. It breaks my heart to see how people outside only care about what`s gonna happen in Syria after the fall of the Assads – whether this materializes the fear of having Islamists seizing power or other sorts of fears -, yet very few care about what`s happening in Syria NOW.

The fridge is still standing. But it`s not because of us.

(I thank so much my anonymous friend for having thought about me and sent this picture)

 

The Al Jazeera controversy over Syria, and why we should say no to nihilism

The controversy over Al Jazeera`s coverage of the Syrian uprising has been ongoing for quite a while. Actually, I remember Al Jazeera`s coverage to have been quite controversial since the very first days of the uprising, as it was pretty much non-existent.  At the time, pro-revolution activists accused the Qatari based-channel to underestimate the protests that started on March 15th 2011 in the country and to have given them almost zero airtime. The channel was accused to serve the diplomatic interests of Qatar, which at the time was pretty close to Bashar al-Asad and his family.

But soon the situation changed and Al Jazeera started to cover Syria extensively. I remember very well those Fridays during which I would sit with friends in Damascus to watch the  Al Jazeera-exclusive live coverage of the demonstrations from places such as Daraa, Homs, or from the suburbs of the capital. Sometimes they would split the TV screen into four, in order to give space and relevance to each city that was protesting.

This was when the majority of the Syrian activists were still in love with Al Jazeera, and when pro-regimes were actively engaged in a campaign aimed at defaming the channel for its allegedly unbalanced and unprofessional coverage of the crisis in Syria. This campaign even took some “creative” aspects as in these posters designed by pro-regime activists and distributed on Facebook.

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(source: anonymous pro-regime activists on Facebook)

After these episodes, which were mostly concentrated in the first six months of the uprising, many things have happened. Criticism is now coming not only from pro-regime activists, but also from some of Al Jazeera`s employees, such as the head of Beirut office Ghassan Ben Jeddo, who resigned in protest of an alleged lack of professionalism of the channel in reporting the Syria crisis; or Ali Hashem, a journalist from Beirut.

Internal criticism coming from the employees of the channel has matched with an increasing criticism coming from Arab analysts, such as Sultan al Qassemi, who in this article accused Al Jazeera to have failed to portray the Syrian uprising in a professional, balanced way. Many Syrian activists, too,  have lamented the alleged sectarian angle of Al Jazeera`s coverage of Syria, which would give prominence and relevance to the Sunni-led component of the uprising, ignoring the contributions given by Syrian minorities (such as Christians, Ismailis and Alawis) to organizing protests and anti-regime civil disobedience actions.

Despite all the criticism and many mistakes made by Al Jazeera (as much as by other channels, I have to say) in terms, for example, of not always verifying information and videos coming from social media before the actual broadcast, I have t to admit that I was pretty interested by the way they covered the “dhikra” of the second year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, few days ago. It was quite comprehensive, touching various angles, from the military one to the humanitarian, and covering different part of Syria in a simultaneous way.

I was particularly touched by the coverage of Aleppo done by Ghada Oweis, who reported from inside the city, focusing on how life goes on, despite all the difficulties, in areas that are under the control of the Free Syrian Army. Al Jazeera has put a different correspondent in each different areas of Aleppo, and sometimes they do a live broadcast going from one neighbourhood to the other, giving a pretty incredible feeling of simultaneity, hence a feeling of life.

Ghada Oweis, according to this post distributed virally on Facebook, is “wanted” by an Aleppian businessman who is ready to pay 50.000 USD dollars to have the journalist (and “terrorist” as it is written in the post) remitted to the Syrian authorities, “dead or alive”.

I dont know this gentleman and have not enough connections to verify if this post is true or is fabricated by other parties in order to suggest that pro-regime activists are ready to kill journalists. I don`t know.

Ghadaoweis

(source: Facebook)

 

There are so many things we don`t know. I watched another news story done by Ghada in Aleppo few days ago, concerning an historical building being reconverted in a school for children after being bombed by the regime. There was a teacher being interviewed who told the story of the building, of the kids, of the attempts to have life back in that building despite all odds. It was a touching story but I felt something strange when the guy mentioned the fact that the building was bombed “an year  and half ago”. At the time, in fact, bombing of Aleppo had not started yet. But, I thought, the guy might have been just a bit emotional and made a mistake (although the journalist should have corrected him). When I switched Twitter on, however, I found something in Edward Dark`s timeline which was pretty incredible. Edward is a nickname for a well-know activist from Aleppo who stood against the regime since the beginning of the revolution, but eventually turned against the revolution itself when it reached an armed phase, and notably when the FSA gained ground in his own city, Aleppo.

So what was in Edward`s timeline? A message from a Facebook account, allegedly that of lawyer Alaa al Sayed who, according to Edward, is a famous pro-civil society activist (and, I gather, not a regime goon). He said:

الاعلامية غادة عويس على الجزيرة غطت منذ قليل بتقرير صحفي بناء تاريخي حلبي تعرض للقصف :
للتوثيق و التاريخ :
—————————
البناء هو للكنيسة اليسوعية التي بنيت عام 1887 م ثم
تم تأجيرها لمديرية التربية في بداية الخمسينات و صارت مدرسة،
بعدما انتقلت الكنيسة الى ساحة الكرنك ثم الى العزيزية .
تم استخدامها كروضة باسم روضة ازهار تشرين حتى اغلاقها منذ ما يزيد على السنتين
و تم تحويلها بعد ترميمها الى متحف وضعت فيه الوسائل التعليمية الاثرية التي كانت مستخدمة في مدرسة المأمون منذ مائة عام والتي وجدت في أقبية المأمون عند ترميمها .
ملاحظات على التقرير :
—————————-
لم تكن الروضة مفتوحة منذ عام و نصف و اغلقت بسبب القصف، فلم يكن هناك قصف بحلب منذ عام و نصف.
و الروضة مغلقة قبل ذلك بكثير .
و الشاب الذي زعم انه معلم في هذه الروضة و توقف طلابه عن تلقي العلم غبر صادق .
لم تكن هذه الكنيسة يوما مدرسة الشمبانيا و هي معهد الاخوة الفرير في منطقة المحافظة، و صورة التلاميذ و الاساتذة المكتوب عليها مدرسة الشمبانيا التي استندت اليها الاعلامية عبارة عن صورة تاريخية وضعت في المتحف .
و الرجل من اهل الحي الذي قابلته و قال ذلك لا يمكن ان يكون من اهل الحي يوما .
الرجل الذي قال انه من اهل الحي و اولاده كانوا طلابا في روضة المدرسة و انقطعوا عن الدوام بسبب الاحوال الحالية ، غير صادق فلا هو من اهل الحي و لا اولاده كانوا في الروضة المغلقة من سنوات .
غادة العويس : في حلب تحديدا يطلب منك مزيدا من المهنية و التدقيق …ديري بالك معنا ما في لعب …

I won`t translate the message, but just the most important part of it, which is that, according to this gentleman, Ghada has been inaccurate in her story about the old building. First, because as I had also noticed, there was no bombing in Aleppo “half an year ago”. “The building was closed much longer before”. Second, because the guy who pretended in the news items to be a teacher in that school would be lying. Third, because the place itself was not what the report pretends it to be, but an historical Jesuit church which then became an institute run by the “Freres” , etc etc etc. Fourth, because the picture featuring the school pupils which the report shows is, according to Mr Al Sayed, an historical picture coming from the museum.

I could continue but I will stop. What does this lesson teach us? Not to trust Al Jazeera? Not to trust Twitter and Facebook? not to trust images?

I don`t know Aleppo enough to establish the truth on that building, or church, or whatever it is. I don`t know either Ghada Oweis or Alaa al Sayed to have enough elements to decide about who is right and who is wrong. This is yet another example of the complexity we are running through, every day, when it comes to Syria coverage.  But we should not embrace nihilism, as many are doing: “since everything can be fabricated by those folks, by both sides, then everything will be fabricated so I wont believe to anything that comes out from Syria”.

At the end of the day, this is the game the regime wants to play. And this is why at the beginning of the revolution, and for a very long time, it was so careful not to allow professional journalists in the country, which has left the entire Syria coverage in the hands of activists.

What we should do is to continue asking questions, to ourselves and to the others, every time we watch a news item -as much as when we read Facebook posts or  a tweet-, in order to understand where the truth lies. It is a time-consuming operation, I know. I have myself not enough time to do it -as journalism is not my daily job, and this blog posts took at least three days before being written, as I had promised  Ryan Smith on Twitter –.

But we should aim at doing it, always. Asking questions is an healthy exercise.

Nihilism is not.

 

That 17 February of two years ago..

That 17 February of two years ago a spontaneous protest erupted in Hariqa, a crowded market in central Damascus, few minutes away from my house.

A hundred people gathered in front of the police station and shouted “The Syrian people won`t be humiliated”. The protest did not have a directly political nature; rather, it was a spontaneous expression of popular rage, for a man had been beaten by local police. The protesters asked for the excuses of the local authorities and, in fact, the police apparently apologized and the protest ended.

But this was just one of the many signals you could hear in town during those first months of 2011, following a general unrest that started in the Arab world since Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire in December 2010.

The fact that nobody attended the “Syrian days of rage” on 4 and 5 February 2011, which had been organized by a Facebook group from outside Syria, only proved that protests cannot be staged from abroad if there is no genuine feeling amongst the local population.

So the Syrian days of rage protests went unattended.

Yet, genuine sparks of protests and unrest happened in Damascus in that very same month of February 2011, and nobody can claim they were managed or engineered from abroad. Whoever was there in Hariqa, that 17 February of two years ago, knows that this was a genuine feeling of anger; as much as whoever attended the sit-in in front of the Libyan Embassy in Damascus, few days after the Hariqa protest, knows that this was a sort of general rehearsal to express feelings that were directed at the Syrian regime, not at the Libyan one. And, in fact, on February 24th (the second day of the protest in front of the Libyan embassy) Syrian police crushed the sit-in and arrested many of the protesters.

All these “little” episodes happened in February 2011, which  seems so far away. Yet, maybe it is worth recalling them to our memory, especially now that the escalating violence and the increasing number of armed foreign fighters in Syria give a perfect excuse to those who claim  that Syrian revolution was never started by Syrians asking for their legitimate rights.