Sunday, 24 March 2013

Syria - something to begin with

I have decided to try and write a bit on this topic.   I probably won't finish and can only scratch the surface.   But I feel so passionately about the country, the people, my friends and the ongoing horror, that I have to make a start, and try to write as objectively as I can.

In Kuwait (more or less the middle of 2011) I met a Syrian taxi driver from Deraa.   He told me, first-hand, what had happened in his home-town, where his family still was.   When the Egyptians toppled Mubarak, a group of teenagers, 14-16 years old, decided that some graffiti was in order and wrote on the walls outside their school, that Syria also needed a new president.   The police swiftly picked them up and took them to jail, where their anxious parents tried in vain to get news of their children.   A week later they were still not free.   The police told the parents that they should go home and make more children, as these were gone, and if they were not capable, the police would visit their wives and do the job for them.

Eventually most of the children were released, some missing an eye, mostly with broken limbs, some apparently raped too, both girls and boys.   In the same week, one female gynaecologist telephoned another.   "Did you hear what happened in Egypt?"she asked, "They toppled Mubarak."   Her colleague replied, "We could do with something like that here."   Within minutes they were arrested by the police, who listen-in to all calls.   On the way to the station, one doctor got out, through having wasta (influence).   The other was released a week later, all her limbs broken and having been raped.  

A little later, the President's brother Maher, who commands the army, brought one unit to Deraa to sort things out.   Another was commanded by a relative of my driver.   Maher said that they were coming to protect civilians, but when they reached the town, they were ordered to shoot protesters.   The relative deserted and joined the Free Syrian Army.

Wind the memories back, Eid 2009, my first, and so far only, visit to Suriya.   Glorious times.   Damascus is a glittering open museum, Krak des Chevaliers (near Homs) a dream of a Crusader Castle, Aleppo steeped in tradition: the Citadel, the largest covered souk in the world and even the quaint and literary 1930s Hotel Baron.   My exquisite boutique hotel in Shams (Damascus), a converted Damascene villa, the restaurants, the tomb of the great Salah El-Din (Saladin), the glorious Souk Hamadiya, the wonderful Ommayid Mosque.   This is where I inadvertantly wondered into a section reserved for women and children.   A really pleasant young man asked me whether I was British, and what football team I supported.   Then politely explained that I was in the wrong place, and amicably guided me out of the area.

Outside, in the rather chilly evening, I saw two young women, arm in arm and chatting as they walked.   One was obviously Muslim - hijab, polo-neck sweater, long trousers underneath, full-length coat.   The other had long, loose hair flying in the wind, a short raincoat over a miniskirt, tights and boots ... a Christian most likely.   And obviously great friends, across the religious divide, which at that point was truly not an issue in Syria.

Such a beautiful country, such educated and unspoilt people.   I fell in love, and still love Syria almost as much as I love Italy.   I dream of going back.   But the Syria I visited is a shambles.   The souk in Aleppo is a shattered wreck, even the Citadel has holes in it, after hundreds of years of loving preservation.   70 000 Syrians are dead, a million are displaced refugees.   Bashar Al-Assad clings to power, his Alawite minority cheering him on as he makes rock-star appearances in his parliament.   Fighters on both sides die, civilians die, cities die.   As always, War ruins the lives of families on both sides.   There are no winners.

There is no oil, there are no (non-existent) Weapons of Mass Destruction, so no reason for the West to intervene.   Russia and China play their economically-motivated, self-interested games, Britain and the USA posture, Israel hucks on about Iran ... but nothing happens.   Kofi Anan fails, the Arab League Peace Envoy fails - the carnage continues.   I cannot support Bashar, he is an arrogant idiot, and deserves what he finally gets.   One knows, first-hand, about the deeds of his father, his massacre of Muslims in Hama, one knows first-hand of his political prisoners, one knows of the graft and corruption which encircles the Al-Assad family.   It is no wonder that the Syrian people have joined the (in their case) interminable Arab Spring.   But where will it end?   And how will the glorious and ancient country rebuild its shattered lives, its shattered infrastructure?

I could say so much more, but for now, can only hope for a speedy resolution, and ask my readers to hold Syria and its Syrians - in the country and over the world - in their hearts and minds.

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