By MOHAMMAD ALI ATASSI
Published: June 26, 2011
IN 2009, National Geographic published an article on Syria by a special correspondent, Don Belt, who had interviewed President Bashar al-Assad. In 2000, shortly after the funeral of his father, President Hafez al-Assad, the son entered his father’s office for only the second time in his life. His first visit had been at age 7, “running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson.” The president “remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father’s desk,” Mr. Belt wrote. “He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched.”
The bottle can be seen as an allegory for Syria itself — the Syria that has been out of sight for the 40 years of the Assads’ rule, a country and its aspirations placed on a shelf and forgotten for decades in the name of stability.
Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.
I remember my father, Nureddin al-Atassi, who himself had been president of Syria before he was imprisoned in 1970 as a result of Gen. Hafez al-Assad’s coup against his comrades in the Baath Party. I was 3 years old then, and it took me a while to understand that prison was not only for criminals, but also for prisoners of conscience. My father would spend 22 years in a small cell in Al Mazza prison, without any charge or trial. We counted the days by the rhythm of our visits to him: one hour every two weeks. At the end of a struggle with cancer, for which he had been denied medical treatment, he was finally released. He died in Paris in December 1992, a week after arriving there on a stretcher.
For the great majority of Syrians, the forgotten Syria meant a police state, a country governed with an iron fist. It meant a concerted international effort to keep a dictatorial regime in power in the name of regional stability — preserving the security of Israel and maintaining a cold peace on the Golan Heights, like the snow that covers Mount Hermon.
The forgotten Syria meant thousands of political prisoners packed for decades inside the darkness of prisons and detention centers. It meant disappearances that left families without even a death certificate. It meant the tears of mothers and wives waiting since the 1980s for their sons and husbands to return, even if wrapped in a shroud. It meant daily humiliation, absolute silence and the ubiquity of fear. It meant networks of corruption and nepotism, a decaying bureaucracy and a security apparatus operating without control or accountability. It meant the marginalization of politics, the taming of the judiciary, the suffocation of civil society and the crushing of any opposition.
A terrifying slogan, “Our Leader Forever Is President Hafez al-Assad,” emblazoned at the entrance to every city, and on public buildings, told Syrians that history ended at their country’s frontiers.
History did not end, of course, and occasionally it peeked in on Syrian life. But the regime buried its head in the sand, living the delusion that it could keep history out — if only it abused its people enough. This happened in the 1980s, with the bloody massacres in Hama. It happened in the early 1990s, after the Soviet bloc collapsed while the Syrian regime kept its one-party state. It happened in 2000, with the death of Hafez al-Assad and the transfer of power through inheritance — as if the regime could defeat even the certainty of death. And it happened in the year that followed, when the Damascus Spring was buried alive, its most prominent activists arrested after they called for Syria and its new president to turn the page and proceed toward democracy.
All through the past four decades, the regime refused to introduce any serious political reform. But meanwhile Syria witnessed great demographic, economic and social transformation. The population became larger and younger; today, more than half of all Syrians are not yet 20 years old. Enormous rural migration to the cities fueled a population explosion at the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo. With unemployment widespread, wealth became concentrated more tightly in the hands of a small class of regime members and their cronies.
Many Western diplomats and commentators expressed doubts that the Syrian people might one day rise up to demand their rights and freedoms. But those skeptics consistently understated the depth of resistance and dissent. It was no surprise that at the moment of truth, Syrians opened their hearts and minds to the winds of the Arab Spring — winds that blew down the wall that had stood between the Arabs and democracy, and had imposed false choices between stability and chaos or dictatorship and Islamic extremism.
History did not leave behind that other, real Syria. Syria returns today to demand its stolen rights, to collect on its overdue bills. Compared to the other Arab uprisings, Syria’s has been perhaps the most arduous, considering the regime’s cruelty and the threat of civil war. At the same time, the people’s unity and their determination to remain peaceful will ultimately enable them to win their freedom and build their own democratic experience. Our exceptionally courageous people, their bare chests exposed to snipers’ bullets, understand the meaning of this freedom; it has already cost them dearly, in the lives of their sons and daughters.
In his interview with National Geographic, Bashar al-Assad did not say what he had done with the big bottle of cologne. It’s a moot point. The regime’s response, and President Assad’s last three speeches, indicate that no one in the presidential palace, not even the president, can move the glass bottle of despotism that has held Syria’s future captive.
My own father governed Syria for four years, but I inherited from him neither power nor fortune. What I inherited was a small suitcase, sent to us from the prison after he died. It held literally all of his belongings after 22 years in confinement. All I remember from this suitcase today is the smell of the prison’s humidity that his clothes exuded when I opened it.
The next time I visit my father’s grave, I will tell him that freedom is reviving again in Syria. I will reassure him that the Syrian people have finally succeeded in breaking this big bottle of cologne, that the scent of freedom has finally been dispersed, that it cannot be drowned by the smell of blood.
Mohammad Ali Atassi is a journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist.
this goes deeper then just a zionist story… you have to know how Israel came to exist… how Rothschild bribed Britian during WW1 that if Britian wanted to win the war they would have to promise the Jews a homeland in Palestine…and after WW2 the balfour declaration was created and the Jews invaded Palestine… slowly kicking them out
Thu Jun 23, 2011 12:37pm EDT
The following story headlined “In Damascus, calm at the eye of the storm” was filed by a writer who has spent several weeks reporting in the Syrian capital during a period in which foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.
The byline has been withheld to protect the writer and those interviewed for the story. Reuters correspondents were expelled from Syria shortly after unrest began in March.
(Reuters) – As Syria leads daily international headlines with thronging protests in the streets, besieged provincial towns and reports of human rights atrocities, Damascus feels like the eye of the storm, seemingly unaffected by the unrest surrounding it.
The largest demonstrations have taken place in impoverished towns and cities outside the capital, the power base of President Bashar al-Assad and his security forces. Anti-government protests in the city have been small compared to the provinces, rarely rising above a few hundred people.
Residents of Damascus, home to about one Syrian in 10, are wealthier on average than their 20 million fellow citizens. Many have profited since Assad succeeded his late father in 2000 and opened up the economy to substantial foreign investment.
Posters of the president remain in the windows of shop owners who sing accolades for Assad and a tense and eerie calm covers the city as life seems to play out as normal.
In the business district, men in suits and designer sunglasses drink espressos and chat boisterously at swanky coffee shops. In Old Damascus, young couples and veiled old women meander along the cobblestoned alleyways, browsing through ancient souks selling silks and sweets to the ringing chorus of the afternoon prayer, resonating from the gilded Umayyad Mosque.
But these tranquil scenes of stability hide the reality of panic that has built up in Damascus since protests ripped through the country, starting in March under the inspiration of the revolutions inTunisia and Egypt. Look a little closer and the signs of unrest are apparent.
The souks are full of men in leather jackets and beige trousers eyeing the shoppers — the not so secret police, or Mukhabarat, are a constant reminder to Syrians that government spies are ubiquitous, listening in for any dissent.
Activists estimate the number of secret police on the streets has more than doubled since protests started and a longstanding culture of fear of the authorities means Syrians are reluctant to express any revolutionary views openly.
The caffeinated businessmen spend their days drinking coffee instead of working because the country’s economy is grinding to a halt. Faced with uncertainty, foreign investors are pulling out of Syria and unemployment is rising sharply.
The expectation of encroaching turmoil is tangible.
“Most people in Damascus have been able to sit on the fence,” said a Syrian economist who, like everyone interviewed for this story, asked not to be named. “They have always known that the regime is corrupt and brutal, but they care most about their ability to pay rent and feed their children.
“Now the economy has been hit, they can’t do that and the government is losing its support base,” he added.
Once away from the snooping ears of the Mukhabarat and in the privacy of their own shops, traders in Damascus express their growing dissatisfaction with the regime.
“Since the unrest started, I haven’t been able to sell anything,” one souvenir shop owner said over a glass of sweet tea in the back room of his shop.
Tourism, once accounting for up to 15 percent of the entire economy, has shriveled in the past few months.
When demonstrations started, the shop owner blamed the protesters for the dip in business. But it is the vehement response of the Syrian government, he now says, that has ensured so many foreigners are too scared to visit the country.
Human rights groups in Syria report that President Assad’s violent reaction to the protests has left over 1,300 people dead and over 10,000 demonstrators imprisoned. The authorities, blaming radical Islamists with backing from abroad, say more than 200 of its security personnel have been killed.
Foreign journalists have been expelled or barred from entering the country, making it hard to verify reports. Personal accounts from released detainees, including a Reuters correspondent, paint a picture of systematic cruelty in jails.
One activist, who asked to be referred to only as Mohammed, said that protests he has attended in the capital are immediately dispersed by baton-wielding “paid thugs,” who were brought in by security forces on buses. The leather-jacketed secret police, he says, film the protests using mobile phones to use as evidence to later identify demonstrators in prison.
“It is almost impossible gather as the security forces are everywhere in the capital,” Mohammed said. “We will normally wait for a Friday when we can assemble safely in the mosque for prayers to form a large group that provides some protection before we go out.”
But security forces are usually waiting outside, Mohammed says, and demonstrations turn into a mad race to escape the clutches of police.
Former prisoners say they face relentless beatings and humiliating interrogations. “The police strip you naked and give you electric shocks to force you to confess that you are part of an armed gang and not a peaceful protester,” one demonstrator, known as Hamza, said after he was released from detention.
Syrian state media has blamed the unrest on “armed gangs and terrorist groups” but even Assad supporters in Damascus concede that most anti-government demonstrations are peaceful.
“When I was imprisoned, our jailers wouldn’t let us sleep,” Hamza said. “The only people who got any rest were the ones who were beaten so badly that they fell into comas.”
Assad has spent the past 11 years sculpting an image of himself as a reformer willing to listen, in contrast to his father, Hafez al-Assad, who crushed an armed Islamist uprising in the central city of Hama in 1982, killing many thousands.
But as stories of state-endorsed viciousness are whispered in hushed tones across the capital, Damascus residents are starting to question if their current leader is any less vindictive than his father.
“Beneath the cool calm, there is a feeling of change in Damascus,” a Syrian journalist working in the capital said. “People are starting to question if the president is who they thought he was.”
Talking politics has long been taboo in Syria and dissenters say they expect jail time. But as protests grow around the country, activists in Damascus say they have “broken the wall of fear” that prevented them from speaking out against the regime.
The cracks in Assad’s powerhouse are starting to show.
Even in cafes around Damascus, conversations broaching politics can be overheard, something unheard of only a few months ago. Jump into a taxi and the driver will often start the conversation by asking: “What do you think of the protests?”
Questioning Syrian taxi drivers on their political views before the Arab Spring, which began six months ago, was normally met with a frown and a swift change of subject.
“The problem has become so big, that for people to publicly ignore it seems ridiculous,” the Syrian journalist said. “Syrians can speak about the protests even as they walk along the street without seeming too rebellious.”
Many activists have gone further and are openly denouncing the regime on Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts.
“At the start, I was too scared to speak out or attend protests but I now feel I have to do something when I hear about the horrific things the government is doing around the country,” a student at Damascus University said in a busy café, confident that the ambient noise of chatter would drown out her words.
“I know that if I protest, I will get arrested, tortured or even killed as this has happened to some of my friends,” she added quietly. “But the alternative of doing nothing as this man stays in power is worse.”
Long-serving diplomats in Damascus agree that there has been a significant shift of mood in capital. This Friday, as every week, attention will focus on crowds coming out of the city’s mosques.
“So far, the protesters have only be able to assemble in the suburbs of Damascus and are quickly dispersed by the police,” one Western diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.
“But it seems the protesters are now growing in numbers and gathering closer to the city center.”
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
On May 16, a 19-year-old American student from a Southwest university was stopped by Israeli security agents and held for several hours as she attempted to enter the occupied Palestinian West Bank with 17 other schoolmates and two professors.
At one point in a grueling interrogation that lasted until 2 am, she was harassed about her affiliation with No Más Muertes/No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that operates along the U.S.-Mexico border.
No More Deaths is a prominent U.S. humanitarian group, well known for its numerous volunteers who have been indicted over the years by the federal government (though all acquitted) for advocating fundamental change in U.S. Immigration and Border Enforcement policies and, in the process, helping save the lives of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
So why is Israel so concerned about a human rights group that operates in a humanitarian border crisis zone several thousand miles away?
A report in recent weeks by Israel’s leading newspaper, Ha’aretz, suggests a possible answer, or at least provides some interesting insight on Israel’s efforts to deal with what it perceives as “delegitimization”: people and groups around the world opposing Israeli state crimes, organizing a mass withdrawal of support for them, and attempting to press accountability for such crimes under international and domestic law.
Following “an upsurge in worldwide efforts” of these sorts, according to Ha’aretz which cited senior Israeli officials and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officers whose Military Intelligence (MI) research division “created a department several months ago that is dedicated to monitoring left-wing groups” overseas and that “will work closely with government ministries.”
The Israeli officials were not reluctant to admit that the monitoring unit was created in the wake of a supposed intelligence failure prior to Israel’s lethal raid on the humanitarian convoy “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” last May in which nine international civilians were shot to death “in the manner of summary execution” and dozens were seriously injured, according to a UN fact-finding mission that investigated the attack.
According to the Ha’aretz report, the intelligence unit has been participating in high-brass discussions preparing for Flotilla 2. The unit’s interest might well be piqued, then, by the fact that the main No More Deaths Tucson General group announced last month on its website its support for two volunteers traveling to break the siege of Gaza, one being this author and the other a Palestinian student wishing to remain anonymous.
Ha’aretz described an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office explaining that the unit’s “quality of information” about foreign targeted groups has “improved” and the “quantity” of such information “has increased in recent months.”
One Military Intelligence (MI) official explained to that “[t]he enemy changes, as does the nature of the struggle,” and so “we have to boost activity in this sphere.” Doubtless the intelligence unit is doing its job. But whether Israel regards No More Deaths and its volunteers and supporters as enemies of the state remains unconfirmed.
What other information in the public sphere has the unit been—or would be—able to “collect” on No More Deaths in order to “adequately prepare” for challenges posed to Israeli policy by civil society actions such as the flotilla?
Probably most relevant to the case of the student who was interrogated for her involvement with the group concerns the No More Deaths University of Arizona (UA) chapter (UANMD), which has been leading the No More Deaths community in fulfilling its commitment to “Global Movement Building.”
In November 2010, UA NMD allied with fellow campus groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace in organizing tours of the U.S.-Mexico border, starting with Nogales, AZ-Sonora, a border community bisected by the border wall. The effort aimed to highlight the “concrete connections” between the U.S. and Israel in their monetary and material exchanges in security technology, training and resources in maintaining state policy in both areas.
The groups followed their border tours with a national student conference, Concrete Connections, held in February, in which students and teachers from nearly a dozen states from across the U.S. attended to discuss comparisons and differences between US/Mexico border issues and the Israel/Palestine conflict and how solidarity movements can internationalize their commitment to each other’s struggle for justice in both areas.
One of the topics discussed by some activists was a “mock wall movement” to employ atcampuses across the U.S., modeled off the “mock shanty towns” that proliferated on U.S. campuses during the mid-1980s to symbolize student support for divestment from companies supporting South African Apartheid. On March 21—incidentally the same day Ha’aretz ran the above report—the largest mock apartheid wall in the U.S. was erected, dividing the 40,000-student UA campus for ten days, sponsored by numerous groups but chiefly organized by none other than the UANMD, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Numerous other schools across the country followed suit with their announcements of erecting similar walls later in the spring and this coming fall.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent a letter of support to the students, echoing their call for mock walls to spring up across the country. In April esteemed public intellectual Dr. Cornel West echoed Tutu’s call for divestment, in particular supporting the students’ Ethnic Studies solidarity program bringing together youth from Arizona and Palestine to exchange experiences and strategies of resisting U.S./AZ and Israeli state attacks on education.
Whatever Israel’s intention, it is clear that groups such as No More Deaths pose a serious threat to Israel’s ability to carry out state crimes and policies of illegal settlement and occupation unimpeded.
Source : The only democracy
June 22nd, 2011
Here’s a video of two of the activists aboard, courtesy of Democracy Now![youtube http://youtu.be/dbZ_OX_bM9A?]
The Only Democracy? will bring you posts from Gabe Schivone, a Jewish Voice for Peace member aboard the “Audacity of Hope.” Here he is being interviewed by the Arizona Republic about his globe-spanning border activism.
Watch this too
Sophia from Les Politiques says :
– A will to make the amnesty more inclusive without threatening the security of the people and the state, and there will be no concessions for the extremists who willingly kill and vandalise.
– The reforms will be articulated by the national dialogue process that is going on. The national dialogue basis is the muhafazat because of the mosaic of the Syrian society.
– There is need for electoral reform and constitutional reform, the first must come first.
– Electoral reform will likely be decided soon, before the august elections. And by the end of the year the consitutional reform will be initiated.
– Bashar nearly shocked when he mentioned the state of the Syrian economy and thanked all the people who are keeping their money in Syrian pounds even as little as 1000 pounds.
– Not once did he mention the sects or religions, he spoke in terms of the rich mosaic of the Syrian society. He spoke only once of the painful events of the 1980s to illustrate that there is no going back for Syria. This can be interpreted in two different ways and El Assad speaks in this way when he is under duress. It can mean that reforms are coming but it can also mean that some people are trying to drag Syrians again in this hole but they won’t succeed, the second interpretation conveys more firmness, albeit a veiled one.
The applause was spontaneous at least on two occasions. When he spoke about himself and his family and when he spoke about the connection between the people of Syria, a connection he felt during his many meetings with people from across the country.
Some would say that there was nothing new. I would say that this speech was intended internally. What we saw today is Bashar delivering in a very somber mood (he cracked only one joke) a reaslistic assessment of the situation and the steps that has been taken and will be undertaken in the future to remedy the situation. This speech was in no way intended for the people who are calling him to step down.
This is significant because it means that the regime stands united. Either they survive together or they are going down together. I would say that there is a real connection there between the prsesident and his men. The people who are betting on cracks in the regime stand no chance to seeing any cracks soon.
I think the speech was measured and grave but the only thing that worries me is that Bashar seemed uneasy and unassuming again as during his first years in office. he appeared more than ever as the face of the regime. But the people who are directing their anger against him are hitting the bad target. It doesn’t mean that he is powerless, it doesn’t diminshe him, it means that he took this responsibility against his will, that he will assume it until the end but that if he is to step down, nothing will change. But if it is the entire regime the Syrian revolution 2011 want to bring down, then my understanding is that they will bring down the whole country and we will have an Iraq like scenario. So either the people behind the Syrian revolution 2011 are naive or they are deceiving us. Increasingly Bashar El Assad and his family are becoming the scapegoats for the discontent with the regime. And the plan is ‘sacrifice the scapegoat‘ and everything will turn out to be fine. This is bad plan for Syria. This regime has been part of Syria for the last 40 years, so either the regime and the real revolutionaries work out something together or things will turn bad. the second option seems to be the goal of the Syrian revolution 2011.