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Editor’s note: While Egypt is preoccupied with its own predicament following the first round of the presidential elections, the violence in Syria has been escalating. The latest major atrocity by the Syrian regime is the Houla massacre that took place a few days ago. It has been reported that around 108 were massacred — many of whom were women and children. The victims were killed by shelling, shot or stabbed by the army and the shabiha militia. The following piece is based on an interview conducted by two foreign journalists with a Syrian rebel, a doctor named Ali who escaped to Jordan after violence escalated in Syria.
“Torture, rape, bombardment, random killing is everyday life in Syria. But where is the international community?" Ali, the rebel, asks.
It is impossible to overlook the fact that Ali has changed. Though he tries to keep the mood light, he constantly loses track of his thoughts. When I met Ali in 2007 in Damascus, he was a popular and bubbly medical student, sweet-talking his way out of any predicament. Now he is 30, graduated and has fled Syria. He was part of the Syrian revolt even before it could be called a revolution. This is his story.
"It all began in my hometown Deraa in the southern part of Syria. Some children got arrested and became the center of the conflict, leading to protests on the streets. The military came to put an end to it. But the protests continued and soon the whole area turned in to a war zone. At one point they turned off all electricity in the area. Even the military bases had no electricity. After a while we did not have water, we did not have flour to make bread, and we had no communication. Even the landlines did not work."
"They wanted the people to starve, so they would stop and say: 'Is this the freedom we want?' But instead, people cooperated. The people who had wells came with water, the people who had generators gave each other electricity, and we gathered to watch the news and observe the opinion of international society on the situation in our country."
"I believe the first day we went on the streets and asked for our freedom, we got it. Bullets may kill people but they also kill fear. We were no longer afraid. In a way, the first days of the rebellion were the best days of my life."
"One day we were bringing water to a village, because our village had a well. On the way, we got stopped at a military checkpoint. Soldiers were hiding in the weeds, ready to shoot. A big tank was blocking the road and accompanied by a resentful officer.
“We have nothing except water, bread and some milk for the children,” we said. “You have to go back,” the officer responded and continued. “We have an order of termination if you take one more step.” Pleadingly we replied: “We are not going to demonstrate. We are just bringing some water. We are Syrian and you are Syrian.” “No way, I am allowed to kill everyone opposing me.” So we turned around and walked five to 10 steps. Suddenly the tank machine gun started shooting. Four guys died and another 15 got shot. It was unbelievable. The inhumanity! That day I lost my cousin."
Ali tells many other stories about the fighting in Deraa, with details only told by eyewitnesses. He talks about women who were raped in front of their men and fathers. He talks about children as young as 4 months old, tortured and killed in cold blood in front of their parents. He tells of the wounded who were arrested and dragged away. And he tells how desperately he tried to help them in primitive field hospitals.
"We really tried to help them. I am a doctor and I did my best. We tried to get them to the field hospital. But we had to change location at least once a day. And the equipment was terrible. We did not have any antibiotics, any anti-tetanus or any blood bags. We didn’t have anything. We just wanted to make them capable of escaping so they would not get arrested. Many people had severe infections in the prisons and they did not get any kind of treatment. And if you went to the hospital you got punished or tortured."
The descriptions go on and on. But none of them affect him as much as the one of his cousin’s death. More was lost than a family member that day, it is clear.
Ali tries hard to create a picture of a joint people against the regime. But when we inquire about the difference between Damascus and the rest of the country, another reality is revealed.
"The people in Damascus who are originally from the countryside demonstrate. But the regime has tanks everywhere, and people are afraid. Most of the people originally from Damascus are living off of trade. They got richer, and they got more powerful under the regime. They pretend they do not know what is going on in the rest of the country. They do not want to know. They feel safe. And thinking: Why would we want to ruin our good life? If you have lived 40 years without ever thinking of politics, why would you all of a sudden think about it now? Even the people who are having thoughts against the regime, they keep silent. If the regime falls, they will be happy. If not, they will not have lost anything.
"Damascus really is like another planet. They are brainwashed just like we were. And the regime continues to manipulate people. Just like the way they defended the killing of two 11-year-old boys on national TV, because they claimed the boys were on their way to rape an officers’ wife, or how they throw rusty weapons on the streets to be able to call the protesters 'armed terrorists'.”
We inquire about the Alawis and the description of the conflict as a sectarian war. He sighs, as though he had hoped that we would not mention it.
"The Alawis ... In the beginning, we never even thought of them. People were still just demanding freedom. We were not even expecting him [President Bashar al-Assad] to step down. But they came with the military, and they had guns, and used them. They said if Bashar does not stay in power, we would burn down the country. But Syria is like a puzzle, and we have all lived together until now in peace. They turned it in to a sectarian war. The rebels were not thinking of Alawis. Then, we were thinking of who was killing them. Religion is your business; our revolution is about freedom, also freedom of religion."
Ali lives in Jordan now. The work in the field hospitals was illegal. Several doctors were arrested for helping the wounded in their clinics, and representatives of the Red Crescent have been shot and killed.
"I ended up leaving Syria. My work in the field hospitals was illegal. Besides, I was called for the military. That left me with two options. Kill my own people for the military, or kill my own people for the free army. So I left. But it was a very hard decision. And not a day goes by where I do not think of going back and fight. But I would not make it past the first checkpoint.
"So now I live in Amman. The first thing I did was meet up with some Syrian doctors who are helping Syrian refugees. And I studied in Jordan so I know my way around and am able to help some of the Syrian refugees get a decent life. But we are not getting help from anybody. It is just the Syrians helping the Syrians."
Ali has given up on the international community. For a long time, he hoped — like many Syrians — that someone would step in. He was actually sure that the atrocities going on would not be allowed. But after a year, he has lost hope.
"The political situation is a joke. Turkey for example, said, “We will never accept a reoccurrence of what happened in Hama in 1982.” But it is happening again! Homs has been under fire for more than six months! You will not accept it, you tell the media. And the Americans keep saying, “Bashar al-Assad should step down.” For sure, he should step down. But stop saying it and help us instead. If they want, they should show us actions, not give us empty words. Words are not helping us! We have been demonstrating for 13 months!
"If they do not want to support the free army, that is fine. Then give us supplies, give us medicine, food, blankets and clothes. Show us you care!"
We turn off the microphone and say goodbye.
Sarah Borger is currently covering the presidential election for Raeson. Bogdan Vasii is a freelance journalist for Danish newspapers and magazines.