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Hanano Amal

Amal Hanano on Kafranbel

October 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment

kafranbel1First published at Foreign Policy, the great Syrian journalist Amal Hanano describes her visit to Kafranbel last June (I was honoured to accompany her), and the revolutionary town’s changing strategy in the face of global indifference to (or orientalist misrepresentation of) the Syrian people’s struggle. “Many activists inside and outside Syria,” she writes, “realize that there is no longer a reason to convince the world to action. No one is coming to save Syria.”

KAFRANBEL, Syria — The Syrian revolution’s heart — not yet ravished by the regime or Islamist extremists — beats on in the northern town of Kafranbel, where a group of dedicated activists has captured the world’s attention through witty posters and banners that reflect the state of the revolt since spring 2011. And even as the Syrian narrative has increasingly focused on the extremists or an international plan to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical stockpiles, the artists of Kafranbel have been engaged in their own struggle — to win back the support of residents of their own town.

The 40-year-old Raed Faris and his partner, 33-year-old Ahmad Jalal, are the creative duo behind the banners. Faris — a tall man with a booming laugh — writes the banners, while Jalal, quiet and shy, draws the cartoons. Together, they spend their time brainstorming, researching, and connecting with others on how to display Syria’s tragedy to the world.

The banners express sophisticated geopolitical analysis in the simplest of forms. They are often inspired by iconic pop culture references: Faris and Jalal have used a Pink Floyd album cover, the Titanic movie poster, and even The Lord of the Rings to describe what is happening in Syria. No side in the crisis was spared — not the Syrian regime and its allies, not the Western powers and the United Nations, not the exiled Syrian opposition, and not even the radical jihadists who eventually came to live among the activists.

Kafranbel’s messages traveled the world. A large collection of the posters and banners was smuggled out of Syria to protect them from being destroyed, and they were displayed as exhibitions across the United States and Europe. One poignant banner — carried in front of the White House last spring on the second anniversary of the revolution — adapted and adopted Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless words: “I have a dream, let freedom ring from Kafranbel.”

Banners like this one — along with the famous response to the Boston Marathon bombing — drove home the universal and historic nature of the Syrian struggle. Kafranbel’s artists consistently made these connections to show that Syria’s war was not an event isolated by time or geography.

What made Kafranbel’s messages unique was their relentless insistence to reach out to the world. The banners expressed empathy and solidarity: “You are not alone; we suffer with you.” But another message was always embedded: “Do not leave us alone. Do not forget about us.”

But the world read the banners, and did nothing. Eventually, Kafranbel — and by extension, Syria — were disappointed by their global audience.

***

Recently, Kafranbel has gone beyond banners to something more sophisticated: “The Syrian Revolution in 3 Minutes” is the latest video produced by the town’s activists. It’s an elaborate production set on a rocky hill. The activists are dressed up as cavemen, complete with bushy wigs and brown sacks wrapped around their waists. Each group’s affiliation is marked by flags: the Syrian people, the regime, the international community, a fat Arab sheikh in a white robe, and an American in a bright red, curly wig.

A large group comes out of the cave to protest. They don’t use words, but gesture angrily and lift a single banner drawn on a dirt-brown, ripped parchment. The regime cavemen attack with rifles. They set off a bomb. The people fall to the ground in a heap of dead bodies.

The Arab, the American, and the United Nations stand to the side watching, doing nothing.

The people emerge from the cave to protest once more. The regime men spray them. They are gassed. They die. The American bystander “tsks” in disapproval and takes away the bright yellow canister of chemicals from the regime cavemen.

The people emerge from the cave to protest for a final time. They yell and gesture. They are bombed again. They die. The regime men look timidly toward the three figures, who give a thumbs-up in approval, overlooking the heap of bodies. The message is clear: It’s only the chemical attacks that the world cares about, not the dead Syrians.

And what exactly is on this threatening poster lifted by the protesters in Stone Age Kafranbel? It shows a drawing of a cave, its opening blocked with bars. But a single bird escapes, flying away to freedom.

*

Every Thursday evening in Kafranbel, the activists meet in the media center to create the banners for the Friday protest. The “ideas” headquarters is a wide balcony overlooking olive tree orchards, lined with potted plants, cushions, and a large red carpet draped across the wall like a curtain. It is a tranquil space, divorced from the war zone surrounding it. The sound of stray missiles in the distance is collectively pushed to the back of everyone’s minds.

One Thursday in June, I visited the town to witness the creative process and participate in the Friday protest. Faris picked up our group from the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish border. The two-and-a-half-hour drive went by quickly: My eyes were glued to the window, watching my homeland’s landscape pass by. The towns were dotted with destroyed buildings and children playing on the streets. Passing by the ghost towns along our journey, I thought about the dozens of Syrians I had met the week before in the Atmeh camp along the Syrian-Turkish border who had told me they were from these very places. Now they sleep in tents while their homes remain empty.

The main square in Kafranbel is a site of destruction, a grim and sad reminder of the regime’s brutality. But unlike some of the ghost towns in the north, Kafranbel is crowded with people — a mix of residents and displaced Syrians. A man rolled out dough for bread in a tiny space between two buildings, one of which was a hollowed-out shell filled with rubble. These scenes are the new “normal” in liberated Syria.

In the media center, small groups of people huddle together over laptops. There is a tangle of wires across the floor, as a central electrical outlet powered by a generator charges smartphones and computers. The town is disconnected from electricity for days at a time and land lines have been disconnected for months — but here, notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp constantly chime and ring on mobile devices. Some are Googling news events for inspiration, others are researching the Sopranos logo as an idea for a poster, and still others are discussing how to criticize the Syrian National Coalition’s recent elections in Istanbul.

As dusk falls, the carpet that had shielded the balcony from the sun is pulled back, the floors are cleared and cleaned, and wide reams of white fabric are rolled out. The groups outside begin to finalize the text for the Arabic and English banners. Jalal does not work with any particular group, but concentrates on listening to the discussions. He doesn’t draw his cartoons here — instead, he goes home well past midnight to draw alone. He returns on Friday mornings with his completed posters, ready to be unveiled at the protest.

Discussions revolve around frustration: frustration with the out-of-touch political opposition, frustration with local corruption, frustration that the revolution has taken so long. Activists who started with one big idea — toppling an entrenched regime through the sheer force of the people’s will — have slowly narrowed their scope of work. The grand scheme seems to have shrunk to delivering a single food basket for a displaced family, writing an article, or drawing a banner. As both regime and extremists chipped away at the revolution’s legitimacy, the activists are left alone to recapture the Syrian people’s wavering faith and support.

As the calligraphy artists begin to transfer Faris’s messages onto the banners, the atmosphere outside relaxes. Activists and visitors lounge on pillows on the balcony. An FSA general stops by for tea. Bowls of fruit are served. Faris plays a Fairuz song on the oud and a young Syrian-American woman sings along. A muted boom sounds in the distance. Here, despite the despair, hope still seems possible. The revolution still seems alive.

***

Kafranbel’s first banner, raised in April 2011, declared: “Freedom arrived from the fingernails of the children of Daraa.” It’s a reference to the schoolboys who wrote revolutionary slogans on their school walls, igniting the regime’s rage. The security forces’ torture of the boys — which included ripping their fingernails out — sparked protests in this southern Syrian city and marked the beginning of the revolution.

Kafranbel was still occupied by the regime then, and the banners placed the activists in grave danger from security forces. At the beginning, they used to burn the banners after the protests out of fear. Sometimes, they threw them in the river.

As the popularity of Kafranbel’s posters grew, so did the protests. The witty banners became the pride of the town. People emerged by the thousands to protest during the summer of 2011 and 2012. But then something changed: As the town was continuously shelled and targeted for its open dissent — and as the revolution continued, with no end in sight — many of the residents fled to refugee and internally displaced persons camps. The number of demonstrators dwindled as well, down to a few hundred and then a few dozen this summer.

On the Friday that I visited Kafranbel, we assembled in a narrow side street, in a few tight rows. The protest had not been announced to the town and was being held before the Friday prayers instead of afterward, which was the traditional time. We chanted for about 20 minutes. We posed for photographs with each banner. Faris documented the protest for Arabic satellite channels and social media, but the entire experience felt like an act on a stage. We were defiant and well-intentioned, but we were hiding — not just from the regime’s bombs or the extremists’ watchful eyes, but from the town itself.

What we didn’t know on that carefree day in June was that this would be one of the last protests in Kafranbel for some time. For six weeks this summer, Kafranbel went silent.

The people of the town had been coming to Faris for months. They begged him to stop creating the antagonistic banners and organizing the protests that had attracted international attention. They blamed the protests for the regime’s air raids that were devastating the town.

This is the twisted logic that plagues people in Syria. Facing continuously escalating violence, many civilians have directed blame toward the revolution. Obviously, you can’t blame the Syrian regime for being vicious and relentless — that’s just what it is, and always was. It was the revolution that should have known its limits: In many Syrians’ eyes, the revolution had brought death and destruction, invited unwanted extremists, and steered the country to the point of no return. Returning to silence, they reasoned, was the way to end the nightmare that had been unleashed on their country.

Faris tried to compromise. He moved the protests to an inconspicuous side street, away from the main square. He banned children from attending the Friday protests and changed the set time of the gathering. Nothing stopped the residents’ complaints. And so after a protest on July 15 that featured a banner dedicated to Trayvon Martin’s family, he stopped.

“Without popular support, we can’t do this anymore,” Faris said. At first he was angry — especially when the air raids did not stop. On July 27, during the holy month of Ramadan, the bombs fell at sunset while the town broke its fast. Several people were killed in the now-silent town. And still the people blamed the protests.

“While I search for your mistakes and you search for mine, while we search for someone to blame, we realize that we have lost because we no longer trust each other,” Faris wrote on his Facebook page on July 31. “Our revolution needs us all. Let us search for each other, for victory is nothing but grasping each others’ hands in solidarity.”

*

After a few weeks, Faris’s anger waned. The time off had given him time to reflect. He stopped focusing on what the world wanted to hear and see. Instead, he began to listen to the town, and worked on a plan to regain his lost legitimacy.

One August evening, activists set up screens, projectors, and sound systems in five different public spaces across Kafranbel. For two hours, news was broadcast on the screens — a report from Al Jazeera, a compilation of YouTube videos, and a special local news broadcast produced by the media team. Men stopped on the street to watch. They pulled up chairs and lined the sidewalks. Some had not watched the news for months. Others had not seen the YouTube videos at all.

After two years of projecting Kafranbel to the world, Faris had brought back the world into Kafranbel.

The media team started to put together the broadcasts every day. They compiled videos of the early protests, of the banners shared around the word, and stories about Kafranbel’s martyrs. Faris and his team ignored calls from journalists who asked for new banners and cartoons. They didn’t even create artwork or organize a protest after the horrific Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the eastern Damascus suburbs.

After a few weeks of these outdoor events, people requested that the protests and banners return. They regained their pride in their town’s defiance. And so on Aug. 30, Kafranbel reclaimed its revolutionary role.

Isolationism — which many Syrians view as President Barack Obama’s foreign policy with regards to their home country — works both ways. Many activists inside and outside Syria realize that there is no longer a reason to convince the world to action. No one is coming to save Syria.

The collective message of Kafranbel’s body of work is the opposite of isolationism. It’s an awakening to the world after decades of neglect and forced isolation by the Assad regime. Sadly, Syrians have realized their costly awakening has come to an unwelcoming world.

Over the last two and a half years, Kafranbel’s banners projected the same message over and over: “Listen to us. Watch us. Respond.”

The message is slightly different now. Children and men alike proudly walk the streets of Kafranbel. They chant for their brave town. They are no longer hiding on side streets or standing on a stage for the world. Instead, their message is: “We are here. We are not going anywhere. Watch us if you wish.”

The simple yet powerful “Stone Age Kafranbel” video is a case in point. The scene is timeless — beyond history, geography, and language. Whether scrawled on parchment or scribbled on poster board, whether viewed on YouTube or etched onto cave walls, the call for freedom is the heart of revolution. And it now pulses through a small, once unknown Syrian town that both found and was found by its voice — Kafranbel.

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The shared struggle for Syrian freedom

September 11, 20131:30PM ET

Commentary: A Syrian-American argues that the U.S. should take sides against the Assad regime
 
 note: The author has decided to write under a pen name, to protect associates in Syria from possible reprisals.

To Americans following the news on Syria:

This is not how we Syrians wanted to introduce ourselves to you. We did not want you to meet us via a television screen split between Secretary of State John Kerry speaking about America’s newfound duty to stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people and the piles of dead children who were gassed on Aug. 21, 2013. We did not want you to feel the need possibly to embrace a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin — a dubious plan to recover Syria’s chemical weapons from an active war zone without a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance— to find a political settlement that would avoid an unpopular military strike.

We would have rather you met us 30 months ago, when this turmoil began, on March 15, 2011. That day Syrians decided that they would no longer accept oppression in silence and that they were willing to die to live with freedom and dignity. And die they have — more than 100,000 and counting. To their chants for reform and cries against tyranny, the Syrian regime responded with bullets and cluster bombs. And for more than two years the world watched and said nothing.

As an American, I want to remind you that we have been here before, at this very crossroads in the struggle for freedom and justice. Though we did not live that history ourselves, still we feel its ripple effects on our lives every single day. Although our democracy is flawed, would you dare ask if the freedom won from the American Revolution, the Civil War or the civil rights movement was worth it? Such a question would offend the memory of the countless Americans who gave their lives for those causes.

As a Syrian I want to tell you that we have been here before. Syria has thousands of years of history, with its share of violent wars as well as the flowering of religions, cultures and ethnicities. In recent years, we suffered the consequences of the Iraq War seeping through our borders. We are entangled in the unending regional conflict between Palestine and Israel. But in the last two years, we have also witnessed the citizens of neighboring Arab countries rise up against their tyrannical governments.

As a citizen of the world, I want to tell you that we have been here before. We have witnessed chemical weapons attacks, ethnic cleansing, torture and genocide. We also have watched peoples overcome unimaginable losses and survive mass violence and destruction.


You may be able to live with your inaction, but will you be able to forget what you have seen?

What is happening in Syria is not new. It is one of humanity’s oldest stories: a people fighting to free itself from a brutal regime that is willing to massacre foes and innocents alike to stay in power. For the past two and a half years, Syrians have asked the international community for support. No answers have come save excuses: The opposition is too fragmented; extremists have made the conflict too messy; there is no good to be gained from intervening in a protracted sectarian war; there are too many other more important problems at home to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. These excuses have prolonged Syria’s agony and bought Assad and his allies many months to kill tens of thousands of innocent people.

In the spring of 2011, Syria’s revolutionaries believed that it was time to join the millions of people across the region chanting, “Freedom!” for the first time, without fear. Aren’t all revolutionaries naive optimists? How could it not be silly to think that thousands of people could dismantle a brutal regime with hopeful chants? To take up small arms against tanks and warships? To try to remake society while Scud missiles and mortars rain down? To face the horror of toxic gas attacks like the one that killed more than 1,400 people last month? They are paying a heavy price for their ideals.

The Obama administration sold military intervention in Syria as a moral and humanitarian choice. We were told that the strikes would be “limited” and will “degrade” Assad’s ability to launch another chemical weapons attack. And now that plan appears to be stalled. But Syrians are not naive. Like you, we have grown jaded since 2011. The staggering numbers — including 2 million refugees, 6 million internally displaced and the loss of a third of all Syrian homes by last spring — will harden any idealist. Syrians know that intervention, if it ever comes, is not about a moral choice. It is about America’s credibility, a president’s legacy and maintaining authority in the global power struggle.

It would be very easy for America to avoid being involved in Syria. It is easy to ask, “Remember Iraq? Remember Afghanistan?” It is easy to say, “It’s too messy, too far away, too complicated.” But you will never be able to say that you did not know what was going on, that you did not see the devastation with your own eyes. This revolution has been thoroughly documented. The videos of the suffering will never be erased, the images of corpses will never disappear, and the bloodstains will never wash away from the clothes of those who looked the other way, toward the wrong side of history. You may be able to live with your inaction, but will you be able to forget what you have seen?

You have been here before, faced with difficult choices. But you should not forget that at one time, other nations made these same choices for you — back when you were a colony of naive, idealistic revolutionaries who believed you could build a new world with sheer determination and calls for freedom.

Now Syrians stand at a similar crossroads. What does Syria mean to you? Whether you have watched Syrians die for the past two and a half years or have just been introduced to the horrors of parents wrapping their children in white shrouds, you must ask yourself where you stand. Would you deny to Syrians the same freedoms you have claimed for yourselves? Or do you see Syrians participating in the same struggle — one that we all share together?

source

In the Absence of Neutrality

Sunday, July 15,2012


by Amal Hanano

Medical Neutrality: a principle of noninterference with medical services in times of armed conflict and civil unrest: doctors must be allowed to care for the sick and wounded, and soldiers must receive care regardless of their political affiliations. . . . The principles of medical neutrality derive from international human rights law, medical ethics and humanitarian law. Violations of medical neutrality constitute crimes outlined in the Geneva Conventions.

Mohammed, an internal medicine physician, and his brother Omar, an orthopedic surgeon, are from Idleb. Since the Syrian uprising began sixteen months ago, they have worked in hospitals and make-shift field clinics in Hama, Idleb, Deir al-Zor, Raqqa, and al-Hasakeh. They joined the Free Syrian Doctors Union in May 2011. The union is a network of Syrian doctors who deliver medical care and emergency relief in field hospitals to scores of wounded protesters and opposition fighters. This is dangerous work, because as Dr. Mohammed says, “Any doctor who becomes known by name for working in a field hospital or taking care of the wounded who cannot be treated at a government hospital is wanted by the regime.”

Last month, two medical students and a first-aid medic had become known by their names. The three young men, Basel Aslan, Mus’ab Barad, and Hazem Batikh were wanted by the regime for treating protesters who had been shot by security forces. They were arrested at a checkpoint in Aleppo on June 17, 2012 and detained at an Air Force Intelligence branch. According to an Amnesty International report, the bodies were found in a burned car in the outskirts of Aleppo on June 24. Their charred corpses were marked with signs of torture. As the report indicates, Basel Aslan “had a gunshot wound to the head and his hands were tied behind his back. One leg and one arm were broken, several teeth missing and the flesh was missing from his lower legs, leaving the bone exposed. Some of his fingernails had been removed.” The report continues, “As casualties from the current unrest have mounted, so President Bashar al-Assad’s government has intensified its hunt for the wounded and for those who provide life-saving emergency treatment to them.”

Government hospitals in Syria have become centers of death and torture for Syrians who have been wounded by government bullets and shells. While some of the injured are armed defectors belonging to the Free Syrian Army, the majority of the people in need of emergency care are civilians, including thousands of women and children. There is no separation between attending to the severe humanitarian crisis and the regime’s brutality in quelling the uprising — in fact, the latter is the cause of the former.

In the absence of functional (and safe) medical institutions, under-equipped and underserved makeshift field hospitals — in homes, places of worship, or abandoned buildings — have become the main source of medical care in areas of conflict (the destroyed city of Homs being an extreme example). In other areas, doctors have been able to use private facilities, as Dr. Mohammed explains, “If an area is occupied by the revolutionaries, then the private hospitals can be used freely. For example, in Idleb, the Syrian Army only controlled the government hospital, so we were able to care for the wounded and conduct medical operations within the private hospitals.”

Even within these private hospitals, the medical teams found themselves struggling to meet the needs of the critically wounded. He says, “In Idleb we had an average of ten injured daily. Once, we received thirty wounded within half an hour. There was not enough space for us to walk between them. Most of the wounded had severe limb injuries. There was not enough medical staff to take care of them. We had five doctors; two of them were surgeons and the rest had non-surgical specialties. My brother Omar and I were able to work in the Red Crescent Hospital which was protected by the FSA for three months and until three days after the city of Idleb was under siege by Assad forces. We worked until the army was half an hour away from the hospital, then we left. We were wanted men.”

Dr. Mohammed left Idleb weeks ago and moved across the Turkish border where he works managing the trickle of medical aid delivered to the field hospitals in the northern region of Syria. He  risks his life to enter Syria once every two weeks or so and visit the field hospitals. He records the needs of the doctors and clinics, and delivers emergency kits.

He is well aware of the risks these Syrian doctors and medical personnel face every day for treating patients. Today, there are hundreds of physicians detained in intelligence centers. He explains, “We receive news of the detained doctors, and their condition is dire. There are four detained doctors in Damascus. One of them suffered congestive heart failure (CHF) while he was tortured. Security forces transferred him to the military hospital and when he was returned, they tortured him again. Some of these doctors were detained just for transporting medical equipment and aid in their personal cars to Idleb.”

He continues, “Dr. Mohammed Bashir Arab from Aleppo has been in prison for seven months. Some of the doctors who enter prison are not released at all. These doctors have done nothing but do their work: treating the wounded.” This is their unforgivable crime.

Arab is a 32-year-old pathologist. He was arrested on November 2, 2011 during an activists’ meeting. All the activists were detained, but later released. Except Arab, who has a long history of political dissent. In 2004, he was imprisoned for eleven months. Today, he is currently detained in the Air Force Intelligence branch where he was tortured under interrogation. He was not subjected to a trial or even an accusation. His detention has lasted for more than sixty days — which is the legal period for a citizen to be held without trial in Syria. Arab has become the face of the international campaign to release Syrian doctors from regime torture centers.

One Syrian American doctor has made a personal mission to fight for these imprisoned doctors. Dr. Hazem Hallak attends international human rights conferences to shed light on these cases. Even within the circle of countries known for their gross human rights violations, attendees and diplomats are always shocked to hear the extent of the abuse of physicians in Syria. In a recent conference in Taipei, Hallak was impressed with coordinated efforts of Bahraini doctors who arrived to the meetings prepared with detailed, documented cases of abuse. Then he found out that these doctors were sent by the Bahraini officials to represent their country. They asked him, “Can’t you go back to your country?” He replied, “No, I would be killed.”

As a practicing physician in the U.S., Hallak understands every physician’s ethical obligation to his patients. Unfortunately, he also has firsthand knowledge of the Assad regime’s torture tactics; his brother, Dr. Sakher Hallak, was tortured to death in Aleppo last May. He was a successful, practicing physician in Syria. Sakher did not treat wounded revolutionaries nor was he a protester; he was killed for the mere accusation of dissent.

Various human rights organizations have compiled a list of over five hundred doctors who have been detained since March 15, 2011. Hallak explains that when Syrian doctors are in jail, the community is deprived of desperately needed health services, while the doctors themselves suffer untreated injuries of their own from the torture. Some of them have suffered irreparable brain damage. He asks international ambassadors and diplomatic officials to demand the right to visit these physicians. He says, “Most of these doctors are not charged with a crime and all of them are non-violent. The only thing they have done is provide medical care for the injured. I know the government told the doctors not to treat protesters, but their actions cannot be considered criminal because as a physician you have an obligation to treat patients without discrimination.”

He requests that international human rights organizations appeal for the doctors’ immediate release and help them leave Syria. “We would like a United Nations or Red Cross delegation to put pressure on the Assad regime to visit these doctors in prison. It is imperative to expose what these doctors are enduring. Recently a doctor in Aleppo was detained. He was one of the most active doctors we had. These doctors are tortured regularly. Our goal is not political. Our goal is to release the doctors, or demand they are at least treated humanely in prison.”

In Syria, every mother dreams of her sons becoming doctors when they grow up. It is the most esteemed profession in the country and only the best students are able to attend medical school. These young, idealist doctors — some of the brightest minds of Syrian society — are now in dark cells being punished for doing their job: saving lives.

They are being tortured for practicing medical neutrality.

The Hippocratic Oath that states “Do no harm,” has ancient roots almost as old as Syria itself. But for the past sixteen months, the Assad regime has shown no respect, much less neutrality, for the basic rules of humanity. Hallak considers his pleas as a last resort, to possibly save a doctor like himself from torture, to perhaps save an innocent doctor from his brother’s devastating fate. “Bashar al-Assad himself is a physician, that is what’s ironic about this. He is killing his own profession.”

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