- ELIZABETH DICKINSON
- 18 SEP 2015 03:10 (SOUTH AFRICA)
This is the final of five exclusive extracts relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.
As violence spread across Syria in 2013, it seeped into humanitarian aid work. That fall, the Syrian government put the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, a thriving suburb just miles from central Damascus, under siege. Syrian rebels had started using the neighborhood as a base to slip into the capital. With more than 150,000 people packed into a single square mile, it was easy to disappear – especially since a growing number of the residents were becoming sympathetic to their cause.
The Syrian army sent in soldiers. Government fighter jets bombed a school. The army set up a ring around the camp, preventing tens of thousands of remaining residents from leaving and stopping others from going in. Soon, Yarmouk began to starve.
Thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi, Syrian businessman Mezyan Al Barazi — the unofficial head of a diaspora aid group — was scrambling to break the siege. At first, he thought the blockade would last just a few days. But it soon became clear that the troops were there to stay. Local clerics issued fatwas so that cats and dogs could be cooked to eat. Families chewed on grass or boiled it in water. By January 2014, at least 50 people had died from a lack of food and medicine.
Al Barazi reached out to a member of a charity run by Syrian doctors living abroad. Hospitals and medical personnel had been targeted by the Syrian government, and Al Siraj tried to fill the gap, smuggling in some 50 health workers to field hospitals, garages, and basements. Several of the doctors working with the charity had attended events hosted by Al Barazi’s diaspora organizing committee, or Tansiqiya, sharing harrowing stories from their mission.
Beyond their bravery and access, Al Siraj had resources. In December 2013, the group posted a photo of its monthly spending showing a total of $263,400. Indeed, the group had found donor support among some of Syria’s most prominent exiles, including two of the richest men in Doha: brothers Moataz and Ramez Khayyat, whose construction firm Urbacon International had won contracts to build facilities for the 2022 soccer World Cup. Their company’s Syrian offices, equipment, and land had been seized by the regime in 2011, and they claimed their loss to have been at least $200 million. Having relocated permanently to Doha, the brothers said they spent hundreds of thousands on relief work since the revolution had started. In 2014, when several businessmen provided a total of $5 million worth of flour and wheat to Syria, the Khayyats had paid $600,000 of it.
Al Barazi’s contact in Al Siraj said the group could smuggle supplies through the blockade, with payments to guards to look the other way. At first, the operation seemed to have been a success. Al Barazi confirmed that small amounts of supplies had reached their destination. But soon, friends and family members began to complain, claiming that Al Barazi’s intermediary in Yarmouk was mishandling the aid. He had made a list of beneficiaries and was delivering help only to them.
It was not easy to work out what was happening, and Al Siraj said it was unaware of the alleged favoritism. Yet Al Barazi knew that sorting through the tensions was vital. When aid made its way through the blockade, distribution points were at risk of being swarmed by desperate residents, scrambling for supplies.
In the meantime, word got around of Al Barazi’s success at running the blockade. Others in the diaspora began to harass him, asking him to put them in touch with his intermediary. The inquiries grew strangely aggressive. Once, he would have simply assumed that his fellow exiles wanted to send aid through the intermediary as well. Now, though, he was sure something else was going on. Did rivals wish to steal the aid? Or the money?
A few days later, Al Barazi’s phone buzzed with a message. It was a photo of the intermediary in Yarmouk, dead. There was nothing else – no explanation, no context. Since the beginning of the conflict, Al Barazi had seen plenty of pictures of the dead. But this was the first time that death had struck someone because of the work he was doing for Al Barazi.
For weeks, Al Barazi struggled with the implications. His contact’s death forced him to confront the growing ambiguities of the Syrian conflict. Had the murder been a warning from the regime to those trying to break the siege? Had it been carried out by corrupt aid groups or businessmen seeking a monopoly on supplies going into Yarmouk? Or, was it an accident? Al Barazi assumed it was all of these things and none of them. In the end, it didn’t matter because it was a reminder that every possible adversary could equally have pounced.
One day, several weeks later, Al Barazi pulled out his phone and flipped through his pictures until he found a picture of the dead man from happier times. When it was taken, the man was just 43 years old. He wore his brown hair artfully disheveled. Al Barazi kept the picture on his phone as a reminder that death could strike from any direction.
An effort that had started as humanitarian aid had become entangled in the war economy. Those struggling in Syria were no longer battling only for the future of their country; millions of dollars were at play, and the opportunities for greed, envy, and violence were endless. Reaching out to the wrong person at the wrong time with the wrong information could get someone killed.
But not reaching out seemed worse. On January 17 2014, Al Barazi posted an account from inside the blockade on his Facebook wall. “I asked my [friend] in the besieged camp Al Yarmouk yesterday: ‘Did you get any assistance?’ He said, ‘We got a barrel [bomb] that resulted in eight martyrs and 20 wounded,’” he replied.” Al Barazi’s next message was directed at Bashar al-Assad: “Damn your soul,” he wrote.
Yarmouk would prove only the beginning of how the violence tore apart the diaspora’s humanitarian operations. Each time they put together a shipment of food or medicine or clothes the Tansiquiya had to check and double check who, if anyone, was left to receive it inside Syria.
One recent container had been ready to go when Syrian government planes bombed its destination, the small town of Morek. The residents fled down the road, joining other displaced Syrians in a squalid makeshift camp, but as Al Barazi was preparing to redirect the shipment, the planes struck again. Having spotted the tents and roadside fires, they attacked, killing fifty-two women and children who had survived the destruction of their village. The aid intended for the village sat in a warehouse in Dubai, in need of a new recipient.
Getting cash to family and friends, meanwhile, had become nearly impossible. In order to limit the risks of terror financing, the UAE had shut down most money wiring services to Syria. One exchange house still conducted transactions, but sending money was risky. The Syrian government monitored the banking system for transactions that might indicate the recipient was an opposition liaison. In order to avoid detection, donations had to be split into dozens of smaller transfers and sent indirectly via people in cities and towns surrounding the final destination.
Businessmen could serve as unofficial brokers, but that was costly and difficult to arrange. “There are people fleeing the country, and they want to get their money out [of Syria],” explained Rani, an expat involved in a Tansiqiya in Dubai. “We say, ‘we’ll give you money here [in the UAE]’, and they release the [equivalent amount of] money inside.” By late 2014, the war had cost the Syrian currency, the pound, three-quarters of its value, and people outside Syria could disguise money for the rebellion as an opportunistic currency play.
Yet even as sending aid became harder, Al Barazi’s family in Syria grew more dependent on him, not just for help, but survival. Since the beginning of the conflict, 24 members of his extended family have died fighting the regime – and their sons, daughters, wives, and mothers turn to Al Barazi as a lifeline, fleeing to housing he arranges in planes or buses he pays for. A sister-in-law lives in an apartment he owns in central Damascus, a vestige from better days. Armed men recently came knocking on the door demanding she leave. Through a lawyer in Damascus, Al Barazi was able to forestay her eviction – for how long he can never be sure. “At any moment, they are waiting to take her,” he says, as if adding, that’s just how it is.
Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, the tension was beginning to rip through the diaspora. After watching four years of endless atrocities, some expats’ views about the war had radicalized or grown deeply religious. Others fell to more venal temptations. A member of the Abu Dhabi Tansiqiya was caught skimming. In order to preserve unity, the group expelled him – but quietly. “The man was a thief in Syria,” says Al Barazi. “And he is a thief now.”
Amidst it all, Abu Dhabi’s Tansiqiya is expanding as the existing diaspora absorbs hundreds of thousands more Syrians, fleeing to the Gulf and Europe, as well as millions in neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. In the UAE alone, expats estimate that some 100,000 Syrians have recently arrived. In countries like Jordan, the pre-existing Syrian diaspora has been outnumbered ten times.
Unlike the middle class businessmen who fled decades ago, the new arrivals are often destitute – and increasingly dependent on their more established relatives and friends. “Each one of us here is sustaining 50 people,” Abu Akhram of the Abu Dhabi group said. “The diaspora has been able to help the people and the revolution to survive.”
Every Friday afternoon, Abu Dhabi’s seaside corniche bustles with families picnicking in the sun. A few times a year, the Tansiqiya posts a call on Facebook for its ranks to gather on a shady patch of grass, where they dine on mezze and grilled meat and sip cool yoghurt drinks. Al Barazi shows up early; he pitches his chair toward the front of the lawn to watch the crowds arrive.
After everyone has accepted a glass of juice and eaten at least a handful of dates, the wallets snap open. A doctor from Dubai counts bills, pausing to tell his son not to ride his kid-bike across the picnic blanket. A mother of three hands over several hundred dirhams. Tansiqiya members collect the donations in unlabeled envelopes without ever saying a word about the bills changing hands.
The Syrian diaspora is fast running out of money. Fundraisers that once would have pulled in more than $10,000 now barely top a couple thousand. By some estimates the fighting in Syria has destroyed nearly half of the country’s economy, and attending to the accompanying suffering has cost the diaspora most of its accumulated wealth. Four years of neglect has driven Al Barazi’s company into the ground. Consumed with Skype calls to Syria and requests for assistance, Al Barazi failed to seek out new contracts, and one by one the old ones expired. Once again, Syria has claimed his life savings and destroyed the business he built. Where he once contributed $1,000 a month to the cause, he now struggles to send even $300. “This conflict is getting long,” he says.
Even if the fighting were to end today, the depleted savings of thousands of Syrian expatriates will slow down the country’s recovery. Four years ago, Al Barazi would have been well placed to expand his business back into a stable Syria; he could have invested in a showroom, re-cultivated abandoned farms, and helped resuscitate the country’s agricultural industry. Instead, he and fellow exiles spend their money shipping seeds to besieged areas of Syria, where subsistence farming is the latest survival strategy.
Al Barazi may have been bankrupted once again, but this time he got something for his money. The conflict in Syria has destroyed the country he came from, but in doing so, it created a community where there was none, built a nation – of exiles, yes, but a nation – that did not exist before.
These days for the Syrians gathered at the seaside, the funds being raised are of only secondary importance, says Al Barazi. In exile, the Tansiqiya can build an ideal of Syria that no longer exists back home. In the memories of the diaspora, the country takes on an a luminescence tinged with nostalgia: the recollection of a land foreign to war and violent death. That idea of Syria long existed in their imaginations, but only now, abroad, does it have ground to sit on.
For a few Friday mornings a year, Al Barazi lives in the country he always dreamed of. Sunnis, Druze, Christians – there’s even a family of Allawites – sit and eat together. They leave their bags unwatched and entrust their children to friends they have just met. Here on the corniche crowded with picnickers, there’s no trace of the conflict tearing apart their homeland. They are simply friends, enjoying lunch on a lazy afternoon. DM
Read Part One here. [link does not work, sorry]
Read Part Two here.
Read Part Three here.
Read Part Four here.
Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle SingleWho Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.
Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more atwww.decastories.com.
Photo: Syrian troops on patrol in the town of al-Mleiha, ten kilometres south east of Damascus 15 2014 during a government-organized trip for journalists. Syrian troops captured the town a day earlier from armed groups following five months of heavy fighting. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI.
The following review of my newly released book is written by Robert J. Burrowes and appears in The Lahore Times:
In his just-released book, ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘, Antony Loewenstein offers us a superb description of the diminishing power of national governments and international organisations to exercise power in the modern world as multinational corporations consolidate their control over the political and economic life of the planet.
While ostensibly a book about how national governments increasingly abrogate their duty to provide ‘public’ services to their domestic constituencies by paying corporations to provide a privatized version of the same service – which is invariably inferior and exploitative, and often explicitly violent as well – the book’s subtext is easy to read: in order to maximize corporate profits, major corporations are engaged in a struggle to wrest all power from ordinary people and those institutions that supposedly represent them. And the cost to ordinary people (including their own corporate employees) and the environment is irrelevant, from the corporate perspective.
Loewenstein spent five years researching this book so that he could report ‘the ways in which our world is being sold to the highest bidder without public consent’. In my view, he does this job admirably.
Taking as his starting point the observation of famed future studies and limits to growth expert Professor Jørgen Randers that ‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’, Loewenstein set out to describe precisely how this is happening. He went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to explore the world of ‘private military companies’, Greece to listen to refugees imprisoned in ‘brutal’ privatized detention centres, Haiti to investigate its ‘occupation’ by the United Nations and ‘aid’ organizations following the earthquake in 2010, and Bougainville to understand the dilemma faced by those who want progress without the price of further corporate environmental vandalism (for which they have paid heavily already).
Loewenstein also checked out the ‘outsourced incarceration’ that now ensures that the US rate of imprisonment far exceeds that in all other countries, the privatized asylum seeker detention centres in the UK which are the end product of ‘a system that demonizes the vulnerable’, and the equivalent centres in Australia which ‘warehouse’ many asylum seekers in appalling privatized detention centres, including those located on offshore islands.
It is easy and appropriate to be outraged by some of the details Loewenstein provides, like the ‘three strike’ laws in the United States ‘that put people behind bars for life for stealing a chocolate bar’, but it is obviously important to comprehend the nature of the systemic crisis in which we are being enveloped by ‘disaster capitalism’ if we are to have any chance of resisting it effectively. So what are it’s key features?
In essence, predatory corporations (which usually keep a low profile) are financed by government money (that is, your taxes), supported by tax concessions and insulated from genuine accountability, political criticism and media scrutiny while being given enormous power to provide the infrastructure and labor to conduct a function, domestically or internationally, which has previously been performed by a government or international organization. If this happens at the expense of a nation truly exercising its independence, then too bad.
Moreover, because the corporate function is being performed ‘solely to benefit international shareholders’ which means that maximum profit is the primary aim, both the people who are supposedly being served by the corporation (citizens, refugees, prisoners…) and the corporation’s own employees are invariably subjected to far greater levels of abuse, exploitation, violence and/or corruption than they would have experienced under a public service equivalent.
Loewenstein provides the evidence to demonstrate this fact in one case after another. The ones that I found most interesting are the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan which provided further evidence that US policy, and even its military strategy and tactics ‘on the ground’, is being progressively taken over by corporations, and the ‘occupation’ of Haiti, post-earthquake in 2010, by the UN and NGO ‘aid’ agencies which forced locals into the perpetual victimhood of corporate-skewed ‘development’.
The use of private military companies (jargon for government-contracted companies that hire and deploy mercenary soldiers, ‘intelligence’ personnel, private security staff, construction teams, training personnel and provide base services such as food, laundry and maintenance) in Afghanistan has meant that there are far more US contractors than US soldiers in Afghanistan and ‘troop withdrawal’ means just that: troops not contractors. The occupation is far from over, Loewenstein notes.
Moreover, he asserts, the US mission in Afghanistan is ‘intimately tied to these unaccountable forces’. As many of us have been observing for considerable time, with control of US government policy now largely in the hands of the US elite (a select group compared with the military-industrial complex of which departing president Eisenhower warned us in 1961), its controlling tentacles reach ever more deeply into US actions at all levels. This is reflected in the way that military tactics are often designed in response to the development of weapons (such as drones) rather than, as should be the case, policy and strategy determining the nature of the tactics and weapons (if any) designed and used. It’s not so much that the corporate ‘tail’ is now wagging the government ‘dog’: the ‘tail’ is now bigger and more powerful than the ‘dog’ itself. In essence, the ‘US government interest’ means the ‘US corporate interest’.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only ‘horror story’ in Loewenstein’s book. I was particularly pained by his account of the multi-faceted violence that has been inflicted on Haiti since the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010 that affected three million Haitians, killing more than 300,000. On 1 February 2010, US Ambassador Kenneth Merton headlined his cable ‘The Gold Rush Is On’ and went on to explain his excitement: ‘As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.’ Merton’s lack of compassion for those killed, injured or left homeless by the earthquake is breathtaking.
Tragically, it isn’t just corporate exploitation of Haitians that exacerbated the adverse impact of the earthquake. The United Nations was horrific too. The evidence clearly pointed to its responsibility for a cholera epidemic shortly after the earthquake, which affected more than 700,000 people, killing 9,000. And given the responsibility of UN troops, allegedly present to enhance safety, for previous violence against Haitians, most Haitians simply regarded the presence of UN troops as ‘another occupation’ following the French colonization, which they overthrew in 1794, and the US occupation which led to the Duvalier dictatorships, that were resisted until their defeat in 1986.
But whatever damage the UN has done, it is the governments of the US, France and Canada, whose aid dollars via many corporations never reach those in need, NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, and the predatory corporations that truly know how to exploit a country. This is why the civil infrastructure in Port-au-Prince remains unrepaired nearly six years after the earthquake and the average city resident still lives in ‘rubbish, filth, and squalor’. Somehow, the corporations that were given the aid money to rebuild Haiti or provide other services were able to absorb billions of dollars without doing much at all. Although, it should be noted, company profits have been healthy. Are they held accountable? Of course not. Disaster capitalism at its best.
So can we predict the outcome for Nepal following its earthquakes earlier this year? We certainly can. The corrupt diversion of aid funds to corporate bank accounts. And ordinary Nepalese will continue to suffer.
I could go on but you will be better off checking out the book yourself. Loewenstein writes well and he has fascinating material with which to hold your interest. By the way, his personal website if you want to keep track of his journalism is here. He has recently been doing research in South Sudan.
So is there anything I didn’t like? Well, given my own passion for analysis and strategy, I would have liked to read more about Loewenstein’s thoughts on why, precisely, this all happens and how we can get out of this mess. He is an astute observer of reality and hopefully, in future, he will be more forthcoming in making suggestions.
In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding why many individuals have a dysfunctional compulsion to make profits at the expense of human and environmental needs, my own analysis is briefly outlined in this article: ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War‘. But there is much more detail explaining the psychological origins of violent and exploitative behaviours in ‘Why Violence?‘
And if you are someone who does not outsource your own responsibility to play a role in ending the elite-driven violence and exploitation in our world, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘. The Nonviolence Charter references other documents for action if you are so inclined.
Anyway, apart from this observation, the main reason why I think this is such a good book is because it gave me much new and carefully researched information that got me thinking, more deeply, about issues that I often ponder. There is a good chance that it will enlighten you too.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com