For the last year and a half we’ve been bombarded with tales of extreme suffering in Syria, so much that we’ve almost become immune to it. Al Shindagah spoke to a Syrian who has experienced this suffering first hand. He explains why the country feels abandoned by the rest of the world.
As this article goes to press, heavy fighting continues unabated in Syria's second city Aleppo. The official death toll stands at around 19,000, while over 800,000 have been displaced and close to 300,000 have disappeared.
The question is however, do we really care? Since it started on March 15, 2011, we’ve had almost daily updates about the atrocities taking place and in recent months a series of stories one more shocking than the other, have emerged. Mass murder, rape, systematic execution of young children – there appears to be nothing the Syrian regime is not capable of. The problem is however that these stories no longer shock us. In fact we’ve almost become numb to them.
Yet this is no Third World country, but a modern day Middle Eastern city that not so long ago boasted sophistication, culture and refinement.
It’s a fact which Ahmed Atassi – a 35-yearold Syrian now living in France and a member of the Free Syrian Army is all too aware of.
“What’s been taking place in Syria has served first and foremost as a reality check,” he says matter-of-factly. “You see these things on TV, but it’s always somewhere else. Now I turn on the television and I see places that I know. I even recognised one of the pavements where a dead body had been strewn the other day. The tiles and the unevenness of the plateau were familiar because I used to jog there.”
Born in Homs, Atassi comes from a prominent Sunni family. He grew up in France, but spent summers in his home country as a child and lived in Homs for four years until recently. Actively involved in the Free Syrian Army, he’s close to the leaders of the revolution.
Needless to say, the way that the city has been all but destroyed pains him greatly. What upsets him most however is the way his Syrian brothers and sisters are suffering.
“It’s as heinous as you can imagine,” he says shaking his head. “Go to the lower depths of humanity and then go a little further. Cast your mind back to anything you’ve ever seen on the worst Hollywood movies and multiply it by 100.”
He pauses to think. “Prisons and torture chambers typically contain 72 people at a time, in a cell of very small dimensions. The prisoners have to take turns to sit down – it’s just body to body. If one of them dies, they’re left in there for 72 hours, so the body decomposes with people standing beside it.”
He searches for another example. “Rape occurs across the board. When they [the regime army] went into Jandar on the western fringes of Homs recently - the thugs raped 1,200 girls, all between the ages of 12 and 16, the majority of whom are now pregnant. How do you tell a 13-year-old child complaining of stomach pains, that she’s carrying a child?”
Meanwhile, the relentless shelling continues. In some areas people are literally dying of hunger in their homes because they’re afraid to go outside. “We’ve found whole families dead – not because of torture or brutality but because they’re simply afraid to leave their homes in case they’re bombed.”
Children are regularly left orphaned. “One family hid in the attic of their home but it was bombed. We found an eight-month-old baby alive in its mother’s arms – she and all the family had died but the child had survived. At one stage we had 55 children under the age of two and in need of families. We had to sneak them out under the cover of night and distribute them throughout Syria because if the regime found them they would kill them.”
He continues, “You see people in Homs holding signs that read: ‘Please kill me with a gun and not a knife’ or ‘Please don’t rape me in front of my family’. It’s like medieval times where villages were burnt, women raped and everything of value stolen. What’s happening is beyond the scope of everyday human comprehension”.
The government no longer sends their regular army into the towns says Atassi. “They send mercenaries, usually Alawite, Hezbollah, Shi’ite and Iranian people who are there to kill and maim and torture. Some do it for pleasure, while others are paid.”
Like most Syrians, Atassi has been personally affected. “I’ve had family members abducted and killed or tortured. Some were sent back alive, others came back in bags,” he says, adding that these horrendous crimes either shock you into submission or make you retaliate by picking up a gun. “That’s exactly what the Free Syrian Army has been doing, unlike the regime which has a policy of killing; essentially we’re just protecting ourselves. We’re fighting for our lives. And the terrible thing is that nobody has come to our rescue.”
It’s clear that he like most Syrians feels abandoned by the rest of the world. “It’s not just the rest of the world who has left us to fend for ourselves – but our brothers in the Arab world,” he says. “It shows the dichotomy that exists in the Muslim community – there’s a lot of rhetoric and speak, but very little action.
“Russia supplies arms and America supplies adjectives and statements and in the meantime we’re getting to a stage where over 100 people a week are being killed. Compare that to Iraq. At its most volatile, 100 people a day were dying, which was a full blown invasion by a foreign power.
He points out that although other countries (with the exception of Turkey) have failed to help, many individuals - some of whom but not all are Arab - have come forward offering and by physically engaging in the fighting or providing financial support. “But you have to remember that this is not an Arab issue per se,” he adds, “It’s a humanitarian and a Muslim issue. The Sunni majority in Syria is being ethnic cleansed by Al-Assad. What’s more, this has been happening to some extent for the last 40 years.
“Although extremes of wealth are the norm in Syria, this is not a revolution of the underclass. This is a clear case of ethnic cleansing with the help of Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Sh’ites in Iraq, and under the cover of the Russians.
“Technically speaking, it has become a Shi’a /Sunni war because the Alawites are an off-shoot of Shi’a, and Hezbollah is an offshoot of the Iranian global greed for power. It’s a sectarian issue and the bottom line is that Al-Assad is killing his own people. He has classed 70 per cent of his country as the enemy.”
Despite their prolonged suffering, the people he says are hopeful that an end is in sight. “What we’re gunning for is a split in the army, and everyday we’re getting defections. You have to remember it’s our army and we don’t want them to die. We want them to join us.”
The Freedom Fighters he says don’t execute army personnel when they capture them. “They’re used either for bargaining or arrested for future prosecution.”
And far from wishing to do away with the Alawites, he points out that the Syria of the future has to be all-inclusive. “It has to have Alawites, just as it has to have Kurds; and it has to have Sunnis – it has to include everyone.”
Despite what they’ve been though, the majority of Syrians he says are less interested in revenge and more interested in regaining some form of normality. “Most of these people simply want their lives back. They’ve suffered so much, they’re beyond revenge. They just want the killing to stop.”