One was a fixture on France 2 who I’d seen on the news many times. The other I’d never heard of before his tragic but not unexpected death by sniper fire.
One was a prize-winning reporter who’d covered Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya…the major conflicts of the past 2 decades. The other was an aluminum factory worker, a carpenter by trade, who filmed events in his home city with his red Samsung camcorder.
Both Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed spoke the truth about the Bashar al-Assad regime’s unspeakable violence against the Syrian people, and both paid for it with their lives.
The activist who broke the news of Basil’s death wrote this tribute:
“Some news is so painful we wish we didn’t have to share it with you. Sometimes we write through our own tears… Basil Al-Sayed, Homsi videographer, has died of his wounds, shot while filming firing from a checkpoint. Rest in Peace. The only thing we won’t miss is the nerves we felt for you so often, as we watched your videos, that so often needed their own health warning… God Bless You, thank you from the revolution for which you gave your life as willingly as you gave your hours.”
Basil, age 24, was a prolific videographer whose work was not for the faint of heart. He captured images from Homs that nobody else could, or would, get. He had a recognizable speaking voice, so everyone knew which videos were his, so before clicking Play on YouTube you braced yourself for a heart attack.
Basil was at a shabiha checkpoint in Baba Amr that day when he saw security forces begin shelling and firing randomly on unarmed citizens out shopping. He moved in closer so he could get definitive proof on film. The sniper on the roof, the one he didn’t see, shot Basil in the head.
Only 3 weeks later, another journalist’s funeral…and activists noting how ironic it was that Gilles Jacquier (obituary in English), after facing 1000s of life-and-death situations over the years, should die on a regime-controlled field trip inside a pro-regime neighborhood, barricaded by troops.
Which no protester could possibly have entered, let alone with a weapon. The safest place you can be is with us, the regime assured, as they gave him no choice.
The French, outraged and demanding a full investigation, are asking themselves aloud: who benefits most from a Western journalist’s death, especially if it just happened to occur in the protest hotbed of Homs?
Basil Al-Sayed’s death, on the other hand, was long-dreaded and sadly predictable: he died of a sniper’s bullet he was always careful to watch for but this once never saw coming…and inadvertently filmed his last moments, as you can see his camera, just as if you were holding it yourself, fall out of his hands and onto the ground.
Showing the Assad regime for what it really is takes everyone: Arab League monitors who quit rather than become tools of the regime. Facebook and Twitter activists who literally never sleep. Escaped military and government officials who help to fill in the blanks for the UN Security Council.
Parents who refuse to lie and say their children were killed by terrorists and then give interviews to the media using their real names. Activists who refuse to give false confessions on Syrian national TV and consequently are never seen again, presumed dead, along with their entire families.
Journalists and videographers from all backgrounds, who report the unvarnished reality in print, in video, in interviews.
In their obituaries.
(Journalists Without Borders reports that 66 journalists worldwide died in the line of duty in 2011.)
Let’s also add 2 names to the Middle East journalism wall of SHAME and kudos to the heroic journalist who outed them.
Mohamad Balout, a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party in Lebanon that supports the Assad regime, was exposed by fellow journalist Khaled Semsom for betraying activists he interviewed for the BBC.
Balout’s day job was with BBC Arabic, but it turns out he moonlights as an agent of Brigadier Ghassan Khalil, head of Syrian Intelligence, to convey information and identities of democracy activists and members of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) throughout Syria.
Four days after he interviewed activists in Daraa-Bibasra in his BBC role, Balout passed along their names to the State Security branch of the Intelligence Services. When he was caught trying to do the same thing in Damascus, the BBC promptly kicked him out of Syria.
Good for them: betraying sources at all, let alone deliberately endangering their lives, goes against every journalistic ethic there is.
“This decision was taken by the prestigious BBC media organization in order to preserve its integrity and objectivity in the Arab world,” wrote an activist who might very well have been on one of Balout’s lists.
The BBC should’ve seen this coming, though, because Balout had written an article for As-Safir about the Syrian opposition meeting in France, about which the newspaper had been forced to publish an apology.
Dima Naseef, Balout’s wife, is his partner in more than marriage. She’s a reporter for the Russian TV station, herself outed as a shill for the Assad regime for reporting “misleading and provocative information” about the well-documented massacre in Kafar Ouide, Jabal Al Zawyiah, in which 110 villagers were trapped by military forces in a valley on the Turkish border and systematically killed.
Khaled Semsom must be looking over his shoulder right now, wondering when Syrian Intelligence is coming after him for exposing these dangerous people.
Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed were only 2 deaths out of over 6,000 in the past 10 months, death so sadly commonplace that most Syrian victims’ names, although recorded by the LCCs, are unknown outside the country.
But it’s fitting these 2 dead journalists, and a third still alive who shared their professional ethics, should be called out by name because they took the risk of speaking for the other 6,000 ‒ and 10s of thousands more injured, missing, and running for their lives.
Gilles Jacquier, Basil Al-Sayed, Khaled Semsom: thank you for your brave and generous service.
Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman was a young Syrian doctor who gave up his job to care for those injured in democracy demonstrations and justifiably afraid to seek medical treatment in regime-controlled hospitals.
He was known as the “Doctor of the Revolution” and co-founder of the Physicians Coordinating Committee in Damascus.
This video shows Dr. Ibrahim ‒ he was often called by his first name ‒ preparing a field operating room, explaining to a reporter how he was able to treat some patients with so little, and how others died because he could do nothing for them, their injuries were so great.
At the very beginning of the revolution, when an activist asked him to help with the injured, he answered, “Give me an hour to say goodbye to my parents because I might not come back.”
After months in hiding as one of Assad’s Most Wanted, Dr. Othman was shot and killed on Dec 11 (according to Syrian Local Coordinating Committees, other sources report Dec 12) by regime intelligence forces as he tried to escape to Turkey.
The French Ministère des Affaires étrangères released this statement:
“France strongly condemns the despicable murder of Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman by Syrian forces.
A man of peace, Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman had, through his courage and action in coordinating Damascus Doctors, achieved unanimous recognition and respect, particularly for his constant commitment to treating the injured without discrimination.
Through him, his murderers sought to prevent free access to the victims and to treatment.
At a time when this crime arouses a strong sense of indignation and deep shock in Syria, France reaffirms her determination to stand alongside the Syrian people in the face of the relentless crackdown to which they have been subjected for more than nine months.
France, more than ever, is mobilizing her efforts in all international forums in order to bring an end to the crackdown in Syria.”
Dr. Othman, of Barzeh, Damascus, was 26 years old. He was one of 19 Syrian doctors to be killed by the Assad regime during 2011.
Unedited translation of testimony given by a doctor from Mujtahed Hospital about the bombing on 6 January 2011, as reported to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. The LCCs have been collecting such eyewitness testimonies and publishing daily statistics – with full names and home towns, when known – of the dead, wounded, and disappeared since the protests began and their data is being provided to the Arab League monitors. (What the monitors do with and about this information is another post.)
“I participated in rescuing the victims of the bombing that happened in Midan today, most injuries of security agents were as a result of gunshots not fragments of explosives nor the bombing itself, nurses were able to identify injured security agents and their names.
We’ve been told that the bombing targeted 2 security buses parked near Midan police station, security forces were deployed heavily in the hospital while we were treating the injured, there was a dispute between security administrations about who is to take control.
After 2 hours injured people from demonstrations started coming to the hospital, nurses refused to take care of them or even rescue them, cleaning workers also refused to help on the grounds that they are “intruders” and “traitors”, we were also prohibited from helping them.”
Proven money-saving strategy in International Criminal Court these days: dictators who hang themselves on international TV before they even get to The Hague!
“Never interfere with your enemy when he’s in the process of destroying himself,” the saying goes, and it’s never been more true than for President Bashar al-Assad, the self-professed non-commander-in-chief of the Syrian armed forces.
Being in Turkey during yet another absurd Assad media opportunity (watch the interview in full here), then seeing the Istanbul reaction to it, deserves a pause in my Christmas travel programming.
Bashar and Barbara’s ABC network interview pre-empted a European football match in a sports bar in trendy Beyoğlu. Damning excerpts of the interview played on 2 giant screens on the Bosphorus ferry.
Two headlines dominated the news in Turkey this week: the Merkel/Sarkozy Eurozone deal and the escalating violence in Syria. And nobody’s sure which one they should be worried about more.
Just because Turks aren’t out on the street by the thousands (yet) demonstrating in support of the Syrian people doesn’t mean they’re not keenly aware of what’s going on there hour by hour. If I had a 900 kilometer border with a country on the verge of…we’re not sure yet, but it won’t be good…I’d keep very current on the news, too.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last spring that there was no question of Turkey closing its borders with Syria, yet that’s exactly what’s happened already in at least 2 cases, primarily because truck drivers going back and forth across the border are being shot at indiscriminately.
Guess not so many trucks lately, with the 30% tax on imported goods Turkey just slapped on Syria, which might hurt Assad’s pride more than his pocketbook, given the downward spiral of that friendship, gone in 9 months from warm-like-family to cold-as-ice.
Although the Turkish government long ago “ran out of patience” and came “to the end of the road” with the Assad regime, this week for the first time Erdogan stated that all options were on the table, should the Syrian conflict impact the region and, specifically, send a flood of refugees across its borders.
Then, in the middle of all this, Barbara Walters of ABC goes to Damascus…and Americans groan.
Baba Wawa, Barbara’s nickname and persona made famous by brilliant comedienne Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live. Barbara, whose latest gig is a gossipy women’s morning talk show, whose topics range from interviews with cute movie stars to cute hairstyles for summer.
And that’s exactly how she posed her soft-ball questions to Bashar: in that awe-struck, kiss-up way of hers that works for the cast of Twilight, but grossly minimizes the seriousness of Assad’s crimes against humanity continuing unhindered in Syria, thanks to ping-pong foreign policy in the United Nations and the Arab League.
Obviously Bashar wasn’t confident enough in his lies to talk to hard-hitting Anderson Cooper of CNN, who’s been “keeping ‘em honest” in the Arab Spring for months now and has made it his personal mission to out Bashar on his violent duplicity, especially his army’s crimes against children.
It’s hard to choose the most ridiculous part of that ridiculous interview, but Bashar saying he wasn’t in control of the Syrian army ranks right up there. That the armed forces weren’t his, they belonged to the country, and he wasn’t in charge of them.
Really? You’re President but not Commander-in-Chief? You’re not the one giving orders?
No orders were given, he said (conveniently in the 3rd person).
“Bashar defects from the army.” Demonstrators in Homs pounced on that revelation, and Homsis are the fastest protest sign-makers in this whole revolution.
To the real defectors, members of the Free Syrian Army ‒ 10,000 strong, according to their commander who’s giving orders from Turkey, which also hosts the fledgling Syrian National Committee ‒ it’s not news, it’s irony.
Of course, Bashar and his cronies are in charge of everything, everywhere, 24×7. That’s how dictatorships work (and why the Assad family has proven over the decades that they’ll do anything rather than give theirs up). Syria’s suffocating, humiliating government that knows nothing but brutality is exactly what prompted Syrians to leverage the Arab Spring in the first place and say, “It’s our turn! We can do it!”
That, and the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb, whose horrific and well-documented death enraged the Syrian people…and whose death Bashar claims never happened. (Somebody, please send him the YouTube link to the Arabic media interview with Hamza’s mother.)
To look at those gruesome photos of young Hamza, as he was given back to his family, and to have no visible reaction…when looking at those same photos from 6,000 miles away moves many of us to tears, even now.
I guess the new obituaries ‒ new names, photos, and bios that are posted every single day on Facebook ‒ aren’t real, either. Dozens and dozens, including 9 children in the past 24 hours.
Guess Assad hasn’t heard about Maher al-Hussein, 10 years old, who bled to death in his own home after being hit by a sniper bullet in Bab Sebaa, Homs. Or 12-year-old Mohammed Nassar, who was also killed by cross-fire.
There’s a massacre brewing in Homs that’s every bit as real as what the UN Security Council voted to prevent in Benghazi, Libya back in March…which China and Russia had no problem with. It promises to be just as devastating as Bashar’s father Hafez’s demolition of Hama in 1982, with one big difference.
The brave social media heroes of Syria, who risk their lives every time they shoot a video, make a phone call, and post or tweet, will try, through non-violent protest and spreading news around the world, to stop it. If they can’t, they’ll document it.
Either way, Bashar will pay. As Syrian democracy activists have said over and over: not one name, one family, one story will be forgotten and left out of the indictment to the International Criminal Court.
Once the Assads are gone and Syria is a democracy, the first city I’ll visit is the one I’ve written the most about on this blog: Homs. Of all the major cities in Syria, Homs is well-known among its fellow citizens for its generous spirit and sense of humor and people I know from Homs are exactly like that.
Both of these positive attitudes are contagious, and that scares hey-don’t-blame-me, it’s-not-my-army Bashar to death.
As well it should.
This hits very close to home for those of us who have either been Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers, or have worked alongside them as disaster relief volunteers for other organizations, in many countries for many different disasters.
Unpreventable natural disasters are terrible enough, but we all understand that they occur periodically and skilled people do what needs to be done. Preventable human disasters by amoral dictators and their mindless followers, driven by power and greed, are unconscionable.
There is no possible justification for wounding and killing humanitarian workers, especially your own citizens, volunteering at home.
Yesterday’s social media press statement combined reports from 2 different Syrian activists:
HOMS (17/9/2011): This is the funeral of the martyr Hakam Al-Siba’i, a Red Crescent volunteer whose ambulance was attacked by security forces on 7th September. He was on his way with the ambulance crew to Bab al-Aldreb during the invasion of the neighborhood and came under fire from security and Shabiha, including snipers, wounding three ambulance crew members and even the patient himself. Hakam died of his injuries on 15th September. You can see many other Red Crescent workers and volunteers are attending the funeral in their uniforms. They are doing a brave and priceless job even in peaceful times. They are our heroes.
Update: As of 31 December, the Red Crescent has discontinued its services in Homs because of the risk of death and injury to its staff, volunteers, and patients, as well as ongoing destruction of Red Crescent property and harassment by regime forces. There now remains no humanitarian medical organization operating in the city that has borne 40% of all civilian deaths in 2011.
Chère Madame Asma al-Assad, First Lady of Syria: what do you have to say for yourself now?
You’re still hiding in London, while tens of dozens more Syrian mothers grieve for their children, who are missing, injured, or dead simply because they and their families asked your husband for freedom.
Remember on June 6, I published the Syria’s Mother-in-Chief: 70 Names We’ll Never Let You Forget? Even at that time, there were more children than that who had died and, for various reasons, were not included on activists’ lists, or were listed but unnamed.
Fast-forward 2 1/2 months… Your husband and his forces had killed over 100 children before Ramadan had even begun and took advantage of the month of August not for religious contemplation, but to send his militia to lie in wait and shoot children as they walk out of mosques after evening prayers.
The Syrian Coordination Committees told Al-Arabiya on August 15 that 260 people had been killed just since the beginning of Ramadan, including 14 women and 33 children. Activist Wissam Tarif told Anderson Cooper on CNN on August 19 that 148 Syrian children had been murdered since the uprising began on March 15. Other estimates swing wildly between 120 and 170 dead.
But starting from 148 and counting names of children from Daraa, Homs, and Hama it seems aren’t accounted for on 19 August, that means 155 are dead. 155 innocent Syrian children lost, Asma. Because of you.
That’s more than twice as many dead children as when we last spoke! Others are missing, imprisoned, or injured, or whose details haven’t yet been confirmed by the standard activists require: verification by 2 sources who don’t know each other.
Asma, you need to cancel that shopping trip and READ EVERY WORD of the descriptions that follow. View every photo. Watch every gruesome video, some of which left Syrian activists, who sadly have to sort through dozens of gruesome videos every day, speechless.
Remember that each of these children were loved, and are missed. Some weren’t even old enough to walk. Some were their parents’ only children. Some were refugees already, living in crushing poverty.
Your husband’s army has even deprived some of these parents of places to bury their precious children, or have dug up their children’s graves and stolen the bodies, taking photos of them first, so they could lay the blame on these non-existent “armed gangs.”
(One activist asked: have you ever heard of armed gangs who risk their lives to bury their victims, and bury them in the back gardens of their own homes if they can’t get to the cemetery? Who bury the dead in individual coffins? Mark the graves with names and dates of the deceased? Regularly put flowers on the graves?)
These are some of their stories, so that we don’t forget:
On Ramadan Eve, Gadeer Mousa Alhamdel was killed in Soran.
At the beginning of this video, baby Layal Askar is crawling around after her cat, petting him. By the end, she is wrapped in her burial shroud, dead.
A young man was killed in Hama while he was crossing the street bringing water to some men there. Bystanders didn’t dare go into the street to get his body, because of snipers, so they pulled him toward them with a long wire.
Idlib: look, these are the live bullets that were fired, and the bombs that were thrown at protesters by security forces. 2 died and women and children were also hit.
Child shot and killed by security forces in Talbesah, Homs after Al-Taraweeh prayers.
After the army occupied al-Horani hospital in Hama, the electricity was cut off. When the generators ran out, the army refused to give the hospital gasoline to run them, so all the premature babies in incubators died. The power generator at the adjacent al-Raiyes hospital, which specializes in obstetrics and premature infants, was shelled by the army and caused the death of all the babies in incubators there, too.
16-year-old Nada Ahmed Raslan (girl) and 10-year-old Ali Hassan Al Nimr died in the barbaric attack on the village of Al-Houleh, Homs, in the morning.
Deir ez-Zour: according to an eyewitness, a woman carrying her child was killed in cold blood right in front Al Furat Hospital and is now in the hospital morgue.
Deir ez-Zour: Yahya al-Shaher (girl) was killed by regime forces in the al-Huwaiqa neighborhood. She was buried in al-Mahtal park.
Soran, north of Hama: the military fired on a car filled with women and children, killing a daughter Yara Alfares, age 2, and her mother Yumna Abdilsattar Haj Mahmoud.
Luay Umar and 13-year-old Ahmed Abara disappeared from Hawla, Homs.
Funerals were held for 5 children from the same family in Taybat al-Imam, rural Hama; security forces shot them at random while they were playing.
(Of the 34 people killed in rural Idleb, Arbeen, Hawla, Homs, Deir ez-Zour, Halfaya, Soran, Taybat al-Imam, Hama, and Latakia so far this week, 11 were children.)
4-year-old child kidnapped and held for ransom so his father would surrender himself to police. The family home was also robbed.
16-year-old from Douma was killed.
17-year-old Amer Hammash was killed in the al-Ramel neighborhood of Latakia.
Muhammad al-Tarn, an orphan from a poor family in al-Mashaa, Hama, was shot 3 times, twice in the head and once in the neck. If he lives, he’ll be disabled for life.
Homs: 9-year-old Yahia Sulaiman was killed by armed militia. He was nipped and killed by a single bullet in the head.
Yihiya Kleb, age 6, was shot dead as he was leaving the mosque. The narrator of this video says, “These are your achievements, Bashar.”
Ola Yaser Jablawi, age 2 1/2, was shot in the eye and killed. Her parents, who live next to the Alkilab mosque, Bustan Alsamaka neighborhood, Latakia, had tried to conceive for 8 years before she was born. Her parents had been warned to escape an attack, but their car was fired upon at a security checkpoint. Ola’s father was shot in the shoulder. He was later kidnapped and his whereabouts are unknown. If you watch this video, you will break down; the father is crying out to God as his little daughter lies in the street, dead.
Two boys, ages 6 and 9, were also killed in Latakia, as army tanks attacked from the seaport.
A very small boy, Mohamed Yasser Khalaf was murdered.
Homs: an injured boy was shot by security forces. I think we are viewing his last breaths here.
A young boy was brutally murdered in Homs as he was leaving the mosque after night prayers.
Regime forces were targeting and killing women and children as they fled the Latakia massacre. Terrible, terrible injuries.
Mohammad Jobar Shohan, age 13, was shot at noon by a sniper in Al-Raml, Latakia, at the Palestinian refugee camp.
Nada Hassan Saad was also killed in the brutal attack on Al-Raml, Latakia. She was a Palestinian mother of 2 children.
A woman and her 2 children were killed in the shelling of Suran, Hama late in the evening.
Boy in Saraqeb, Idlib shot and injured by security forces.
Abdurahman Hajar, age 2, from Bab eSba’a, was shot in his right side. The bullet passed through his penis and cut it off.
This video is of the funeral of Jalal Muhamed Bassem and a tiny baby.
Sana Kanas (girl) was killed.
Homs, al-Baiada: a young boy was shot by Shabiha (regime-sponsored gangs).
Boy shot by Shabiha and security forces during the demonstration in Hama.
3-year-old girl shot during the protest in Hauran. She was among 18 people killed that day.
3 children were among those killed by security forces in Ghabagheb, Daraa: Muhammad Bader Najem, age 15, Muhammad Omar Sharaf, age 11, and a 3-year-old girl.
Another teenager, Haitham Rifae Wazir, age 18, was killed by regime forces in Jubar, Homs.
Avaaz citizen journalist reported from Deir ez-Zor that of 17 arrests today, 4 of them were children: two children age 15, one child age 13, and one child age 12. The Shabiha and the army forced them to remove their clothes and paraded them all down the street, naked.
Homs, Tadmur: 2 children, Mohammad Adnan Al-Faris, age 12, and Hya Zoghby, age 17, were killed by sniper fire from atop the Vila Tadmur Hotel.
Asma, I’m updating this list every day and know I’m not keeping up with the tragic stories of children pouring out of Syria.
One of my friends is from Homs, your ancestral city. She’s your age and a mother of young children, too. You know what she said about you? “Asma knows if she says anything (against the regime), she will be killed, so she’s content.” Content to do what? I ask. Her reply was the worst indictment one mother can ever give to another.
“Content not to be brave.”
Not 24 hours after I wrote this post, Assad security forces kicked the UN humanitarian delegation out of Homs for “safety reasons,” so they don’t know Homs had 5 child victims (3 killed, 2 injured) today, 22 August. 5-year-old Majid and his father were killed when security forces fired at the Fatima mosque after evening prayers. His sister, standing on a balcony nearby, was seriously injured, as was another young boy elsewhere in the city. Baby Alaa Abu Alaban was also lost. Another young boy was shot in the head and killed. You can clearly see and hear the sniper fire. Men are dragging the child’s body out of the street, leaving a smear of blood behind. Al Jazeera English reported 5 were killed and 80 wounded in Homs today, but those numbers have risen in recent hours. Shabiha also attacked and killed civilians in Assi Square, Hama. Clearly the UN visit has not stopped the regime’s brutality in the least. Even though Assad saved his worst violence for after the delegation left each city, the whole world, including the UN, sees the truth on YouTube.
The last time I went to a political demonstration, it wasn’t my choice.
To be fair, I was in a stroller.
The year was 1968 and the war was Vietnam. Tens of thousands of American youth turned out for a seminal peace march that wound down Lombard Street in San Francisco, California.
Saturday’s demonstration was in our nation’s capitol in support of freedom in another country, where free speech gets you a free ride to jail.
Or a free bullet to the head.
Right in front of the White House.
Unlike many flash-mob-like Vietnam protests, this one was well organized in advance, with invitations issued on Facebook and URLs published for discounted travel, including hotel room blocks and airport shuttle discounts.
Sign up for bus transportation from Chicago! Hey, anyone else live Minneapolis? If you’re flying into DCA, text me.
There was also a detailed code of conduct for the day.
What to write on your banners. What to do if pro-Assad demonstrators show up. How to make sure the elderly and children feel welcome and comfortable. (Never underestimate the stroller contingent!)
What to wear. (I made my own “We Are All Hamza Al-Khateeb” T-shirt. Uh, oh. Now a couple hundred people want one just like it.)
Complying with all police and park service requests, in case of emergency…and it wouldn’t be summer in DC without a few cases of heat exhaustion. Especially this week.
Please bring your Free Syria signs, but please leave your Free Gaza signs at home. It’s important that the demonstration focus solely on the issue at hand. Remember that we’re addressing our English-speaking fellow Americans, including the media.
A couple of observations, if I may, for the organizers… Although your English protest signs were right on message and you protested in English at first, you protested mostly in Arabic. Nothing wrong with that…I assure you it played well on YouTube and got you on the front page of aljazeera.com Syria live blog, energizing demonstrators in besieged cities all over Syria…but you are Americans protesting in front of the White House.
No-one in the American media is going to subtitle the evening news in English on your behalf and that’s where your elected officials, from whom you want stronger statements against the regime, are getting their information.
Despite the huge and prominent American flags at the protest, what did passing tourists ask me? “Who are those foreigners and what do they want?” Not the question I’d hoped to answer.
Finally, we were advised, don’t eat or drink anything except from someone you know and trust, the only time in my life I’ve ever heard anyone from the Middle East recommend refusing food.
So, that obviously meant no drinking or drugs, either, which wouldn’t have worked in 1968 for the hippie protesters, who habitually smoked weed (as a warm-up) and drank after each other.
After this demonstration had already been scheduled, two major foreign policy events occurred. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hits back, she hits back hard: “President Assad is not indispensible and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”
Maybe it took the American and French Embassies at risk of being overrun by hundreds of Assad thugs that prompted her delightfully quotable response. Whatever the reason, the timing of this protest coincides with the tide of worldwide opinion turning against Assad, despite the Arab League whining about “foreign interference,” which they apparently forgot they insisted on in Libya.
(One sign, with gruesome photos of 3 dead Syrian children, said simply: “Arab League is OK with this.”)
But funny how it was the alleged interfere-ees in Syria who were climbing over the embassy walls with cans of spray paint!
To pound yet another nail into Bashar’s coffin, European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on July 18 indicated their desire for regime change in Syria.
Even so, protest organizers know this is no time to back off. Outside of further sanctions, European foreign ministers’ pressure is largely symbolic as long as Russia, China, and the Arab League remain firmly in Assad’s court. Hillary merely said we can live without Bashar; that’s a long way from saying he’s got to go.
Most Americans would have difficulty picking out the Syrian flag at the UN. All we need to know is that it’s in Middle East, where we’re already bleeding billions and struggling to depart, after a decade of more failures than successes. So, don’t even mention any new projects in that region and imply we’re somehow falling down on the job by being silent about whatever it is…because the minute we break our silence, you’ll be all over our case for butting in!
There’s some truth to that. But besides the well-being of its next-door neighbors Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, our key concern should be this: Syria is best friends with Iran.
Iran, our worst enemy.
Saturday was a combination political event and block party, with Syrian music for the occasion. The song that began in Hama and has become the anthem of the revolution is one even I know by now: “Yalla irhal ya Bashar!” (I’d translate this as, “Let’s go, Bashar. Get out!” “Ya” means we already know him…all too well.)
Its lead singer, Ibrahim Qashoush, paid with his life. He was abducted and murdered, found dead in the Orontes River, his vocal chords cut out.
You don’t need to learn this song. Ray Charles sang one in English that means the same thing.
“Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more!
Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.”
Any song about cheatin’ hearts works equally well for corrupt politicians.
It was even hotter on Saturday than that hot place everyone wants Assad to go: best estimate 108F/42C, which in humid Washington, DC is brutal. Even so, brave protesters braved the worst heat wave in half a century, standing in the direct sun, shouting “Bashar, Leave”…for 5 hours straight.
Mid-way through the unbearable afternoon, an angel in a minivan pulled up…with a cooler full of ICE.
I think he meant the ice for the bottled water. I ate some of my ice and put some down the back of my shirt. Then I poured some over my head.
Although the issue of freedom and democracy in Syria couldn’t be more urgent and many people there knew personally someone who is missing, imprisoned and feared tortured, or dead (and pressed me with photos, asking me to write about these people), there was still this sense of camaraderie, of light-heartedness, that freedom is possible, even near.
My Protestant sensibility tells me something’s terribly wrong about this. This is a serious event about a serious issue: no sitting in the shade together chatting away, definitely no laughing and spraying each other with water!
But that’s just not the Syrian way.
I took these photos ‒ and am publishing them with enthusiastic permission ‒ of a couple from Dara’a, who are going back this week and might well be arrested at the airport, Suhair Habibi from Homs, and 3 women from Hama, whose relatives are amazed and happy that we could protest on their behalf without security forces throwing tear gas at us or trying to run us over with tanks.
(“We aren’t afraid anymore and our relatives in Syria aren’t, either.” If the Syrian ambassador’s staff is here today taking photos of us, go for it ‒ we couldn’t care less.)
Enjoying the company of friends, family, colleagues, and passers-by at a political event is a powerful image of what freedom really looks like, and could look like in a free, stable, democratic Syria.
Dozens of strollers, babies blissfully asleep, under grandma’s watchful eye. American-born children and grandchildren of Syrian immigrants. Syrians who came here as teenagers to attend university and made careers and lives here. Protesters from other countries in the Middle East, welcomed by name from the stage, who know what the Assad regime is capable of and want to see it go as badly as the Syrians do.
Me, who has no obvious connection to Syria, but realized how historic this movement was and started writing about it almost 3 months ago.
“Thank you for being here, for supporting Syria,” said absolutely everyone, even my new 7-year-old friend Mustafa from Detroit,
who never met a camera he didn’t like, according to his dad, and who set up this photo shoot himself.
A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the White House.
I heard someone call my name as I was walking out of the Farragut West Metro station and turned around to see a fellow student from junior high who was also on his way to the demonstration with his family…including a toddler daughter in a stroller who might one day, long after Syria is free, protest for someone else’s freedom, too.
I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad that I hadn’t changed at all in 30 years.
By 7pm/19:00, the temperature had dropped all of 2 degrees, but there’s no such thing as a Syrian demonstration without Syrian weather! Syrians protest for freedom in heat like this every Friday, if not every day. Come Ramadan, it’ll be every day without food or water.
But a little hardship for the next 4 weeks is nothing compared to 4 decades of hardship courtesy of Assad et Fils.
Something worth remembering during this ridiculous debt ceiling food fight on Capitol Hill: it’s our nation’s democratic system, despite its flaws and frustrations, which people around the world risk death trying to emulate.
A group of people I don’t know, faces painted with the Syrian flag, are eating something delicious over there. Feeling fearless (and hungry), I think I’ll go introduced myself.
When I grow up, I want to be Angelina Jolie.
Like other humanitarian volunteers in the developing world, I think highly of Angelina. She didn’t just show up on the human rights scene yesterday, in a PR move to resuscitate her film career; she’s been a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador for over 10 years, in over 30 countries.
According to people I know who’ve met her in the field and aren’t easily impressed by celebrity volunteers, she’s knowledgeable and takes the role seriously.
Whatever you think of Angelina’s life choices, or acting prowess, how many other Hollywood celebrities − sports figures, socialites, politicians − can you name who give away a third of their income to charity annually?
Maybe precisely because she’s such a controversial personality, she seems at her best when she’s shining a light on uncomfortable issues we’d rather not believe exist, in unpopular places we’d rather not think about.
We’ve read her articles on human rights on the editorial page of the New York Times. We’ve seen her on stage with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, receiving UN awards. Now we’ve heard Angelina − mother of 6 herself − describe, during her visit to the Turkish Red Crescent refugee camps on the Syrian border, how painfully aware Syrian children, even the very youngest children, are of their precarious situation.
Listen to Aminah from Idlib, whose father was killed. Through her tears, she says, “The people want to topple the regime and we have to struggle until the end.”
What kind of government forces children to become revolutionaries?
One that kills their loved ones before their eyes, and laughs about it. Then justifies it. Then punishes the people for pointing out its hypocrisy.
To world leaders from freedom-loving Syrians: Hamza is the bar we expect you to exceed for integrity, loyalty, and sacrifice.
Although, as readers of this blog know, I’m talking about Hamza Al-Khateeb, the 13-year-old boy from Dara’a whose senseless torture and murder galvanized the protesters, there seems to be no end of Syrian boys named Hamza whose parents have to bury too soon.
On June 12, there was a demonstration in Douma for Hamza Ballah, age 10. He’d been run over by a security bus the week before, but the family was unable to hold a funeral procession because they were threatened by security forces and the Shabiha that they would be shot and/or arrested if they did so.
On July 23, I’ll be blogging from Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, as protesters for freedom and democracy in Syria gather from all over the country to demonstrate in front of the White House. As always: “Selmeyeh, selmeyeh.” (“Peaceful, peaceful.”)
The purpose of this gathering is to ask President Obama to call more forcefully for an end to violence against civilians in Syria and for an Assad-free transition to democracy, backed up by pervasive sanctions and a UN resolution.
Telling Bashar al-Assad very directly to get with it or get out of the way, as you did in the State of the Union address, Mr. President, was a surprising and fantastic first step. Thank you for making your opinion crystal clear to the world. But ever since then, your State Department spokesman Mark Toner has found 1,000 different ways to say we’re not saying anything further. It’s for the Syrian people, not us, to decide their destiny.
Back in March, someone tried to give Syrian human rights activists a $5 million donation to further their social media work. They refused it, with this online comment: “We love Americans and we thank you for your kind support, but please we don’t want your money. We work for Syria and we work for free.”
The Syrian people simply want you, President Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to acknowledge that the situation has progressed far far, way way beyond the “Assad is quickly losing legitimacy and needs to take meaningful steps toward democracy” phase.
“We’re sort of worried things might be going south in Syria lately” is too limp a response. You don’t have to get actively involved in the conflict to do better than that. You don’t have to have significant “leverage” in Syria to do better than that.
Bashar isn’t inconveniencing the Syrian population; he’s killing men, women, and rapidly approaching 100 children in cold blood.
Including young mothers of 3 (with a baby) standing on their balconies. Munawar Al-Faisal, 29, was shot by snipers; her funeral was on July 4, American Independence Day.
On the same day, Yusuf Al-Share lost his father, whose crime was to turn his family home into a field hospital and treat injured protesters. This Facebook video of Yusuf kissing his dead father and sobbing might be the most heartbreaking video of these long months of protests.
“Sorry Bashaar,” added the activist who posted it, “because of this precious tears we will not accept any dialogue with you.”
President Obama, we realize the whole region is dicey, and the number of moving parts in the political dynamic is probably unparalleled. We realize that the USA’s blanket − some claim blind − allegiance to Israel greatly hampers your ability, and credibility, in the Arab world. We realize that you’re concerned − and you’re not alone − that no known and electable successor to Assad has come forward to fill the inevitable void.
But Mr. Toner’s wordy non-responses have apparently led Bashar to believe that what he’s doing is not serious enough for us, the most powerful nation on earth, to care that much about either way.
Even if you’re in the position to do nothing, say Syrian activists, surely you can say more…and if you would please consider doing so, Mr. President.
Immediately, if not sooner.
We just heard that the American Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is in Hama, showing the USA’s solidarity with Syrians for democracy. He’s about to get a huge dose of reality at today’s protests, themed “The Day of No Dialogue” (with the regime).
“We suffered 40 years under this regime and we are ready for another 40 to get rid of it. They have to understand this fact!” as the general strike that started in Hama ripples across the country and the Syrian pound, which according to the international economic press has lost an average of 10% of its value (despite a billion-dollar cash infusion by Assad cousin Rami Makhlouf), continues to sink like a stone.
Meanwhile, Bashar talks like he’ll still be in charge 20 years from now, when these disrespectful haters of his regime are adults. Here’s what one tiny future president of Syria, jumping up and down on his sofa, has to say about that:
“We’re coming after you.”
The latest military defection, of intelligence officer Hassan Abd al-Kareem, confirms what refugees already suspected, and I wrote about last week: the Assad regime has been using Iranian Basij forces − the Iranian equivalent to the brutal Shabiha thugs − and Hezbollah militants, in its vain attempt to shut down the protests.
“A salute of respect from us honorable man!” say the protesters, undeterred.
Arabic is a poetic language and Arabic speakers write in English that way, too, even in ever-casual social media venues.
“History will write that a 13-year-old child whose name was Hamza rocked the throne of the Assad family, who humiliated the Syrian people for 40 years.
Children in the Ages of Flowers fell down the regime.”
Rami Makhlouf, never again do we want to hear your name and the word “humanitarian” in the same sentence. “Generosity,” either.
Rami, Syrian dictator Bashar’s al-Assad’s cousin, owns 40% of Syriatel, the largest mobile phone network in Syria, among numerous other business interests. On June 16, he surprised the world by declaring he was done with making money.
“I will not engage in any new projects that can generate personal gain and I will devote myself to charity and humanitarian work,” said his press release.
We feel your pain: once you get into the billions, all those zeros are really hard to keep track of. (FYI, the expatriate Syrian financiers and attorneys who read this blog cannot wait to audit you.)
I hear you’re putting up your 40% stake for an IPO. Let’s see: I have a choice between your IPO and Facebook’s?
Anyway, there’s a big difference between giving away and giving back. This money is not yours to give, Rami…because you STOLE it from the Syrian people.
The only charitable act we’re interested in from you, Banker of Assad, is surrendering yourself to the ICC for immediate trial for conspiracy to commit crimes against humanity.
Rami has lots of free time for his new charitable endeavors because, same as with a few dozen other regime associates, the EU slapped him with sanctions and a travel ban. The USA sanctioned him back in 2008, for judicial tampering and “improperly benefiting from and aiding the public corruption of Syrian regime officials.”
Since it was impossible to figure out where Syria’s governmental finances ended and Rami’s began.
Obviously I’m the target of unfair sanctions, says he, because it’s my bad luck to be related to the President.
With the octopus called Makhlouf, its tentacles have tentacles because Rami’s brother Hafiz heads up the General Intelligence Directorate.
To put this in perspective for Americans, let’s imagine a scenario in which General David Petraeus, incoming Director of the CIA, and Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary (who let’s say had kept his day job as CEO of Citibank and held majority stakes in Verizon, Exxon-Mobil, Amgen, and Delta Airlines), were brothers, appointed to these unmerited lifetime jobs by their unelected cousin President Barack Obama, all without Congressional approval.
“Reviled,” “hated,” “feared,” “despised,” “symbol of corruption,” “thief,” “opportunist”… There’s just no end of adjectives and adverbs used to describe Rami…and that’s just in the English and French press!
No surprise, then, that one of the first things protesters did in Dara’a was to burn down his offices. Rami has come to symbolize everything that’s wrong with the Assad regime, with letting one family run a country that benefits only them and their inner circle.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Association for Human Rights: “It (Rami’s vow of poverty) is a step designed for media consumption only.”
Causing serious foreign policy journalists worldwide to collapse in hysterical laughter.
What a turnaround from early May, when Rami told the New York Times, while promising to blame Syria’s pro-democracy protesters for destabilizing Israel: “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer (speaking of the Assad regime), don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”
Then he added, ominously, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
Reckless statements that forced your cousin to throw you under the bus, even though he not-so-secretly agreed with them.
“God forbid anything happens to this regime,” says Rami. God forbid they stay in power, says everybody else.
“Hizb” in Arabic means party, as in political party, but I’d interpret the title of this post as “The Devil’s Party Faithful,” Assad loyalists who ‒ out of die-hard fidelity and blatant self-interest ‒ carry out the regime’s directives while the President keeps his hands clean.
Sort of. Until Bashar started avoiding UN chief Bam Ki-moon’s phone calls.
“Stop killing people,” was Secretary General Ki-moon’s softball request. Or I promise I’ll write you a nasty letter.
Reem Haddad, media shill extraordinaire, was fired a few weeks ago. But here she’s back, like the proverbial bad penny, on the Syrian evening news. I guess Bashar couldn’t find anyone else willing to claim, with a straight face, that all those Syrian “guests” were merely visiting their mothers on the Turkish side of the border and will be returning any day now…to their looted homes, dead farm animals, and torn up olive groves.
I don’t know the perfect word for this in Arabic, but in English we don’t have one, so we borrow from Hebrew: “chutzpah.”
Among other implications, utterly shameless.
Speaking of shameless, even as Bashar’s brother Maher places military forces with 500 meters of the Turkish border, causing refugees to run across to the other side in the middle of the night, or risk being shot, the regime is pleading for people to return to their homes in the border towns. The armed gangs that have been terrorizing you are now gone, they say.
Wisely, people refused.
Because some who already tried that quickly returned to Turkey to warn their neighbors: if you go home, the Army will be there to “welcome” you. By arresting you.
And it appears the Hizb of the Devil might have some foreign players, too.
Latakia local news, June 12.
The Latakia port manager was reportedly fired from his job…all because he wanted to know exactly what was in those shipping containers being lowered from an Iranian ship with no flag.
Ship #323, color gray.
This, after rumors went around the Turkish refugee camps that Iranian soldiers were already in Syria. We kept seeing these strange guys traveling around with the military, but wearing civilian clothes. They didn’t speak Arabic and had beards, which aren’t allowed in the Syrian army.
Whoever they are, they must be contract hires of the joyfully brutal Maher al-Assad, who heads the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard. This psychopath poses for photographs with people he just killed.
Maher is what organized crime calls “the muscle.” He’s the guy who takes people for walks from which they never return. His nickname in the UK press is “Thug-in-Chief” and Turkey is pressing Bashar to fire him.
Problem is, you can’t fire your brother, although some people reading this post would really like that option.
Assad had a father, who had a brother, who had his own network of followers, the first hizb of the first devil, whose favorite pastimes included bombing schools, playgrounds, and hospitals in Lebanon, targeting almost exclusively Christian children.
I know some of these Lebanese children, who luckily survived uninjured to adulthood. But there’s just no fixing the injury of memory − of childhood friends and family members who weren’t so lucky − and there’s just no relaxing, even today, knowing that “they who do the devil’s handiwork” continue to act with impunity outside the borders of Syria, on orders from Assad headquarters in Damascus.
Ask expatriate Syrians in London who’ve been demonstrating against the regime. The Syrian Ambassador to Great Britain, nefarious subject of a prior post, is in deep trouble with the Foreign Office for having his staff take photos of demonstrators: to intimidate them, and their families in Syria.
Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, 8 Belgrave Square, London: people who’ve already withstood being humiliated, beaten, shot at, tear gassed, and maybe arrested are not that easy to intimidate.
Meanwhile, it’s another Friday morning in Syria and Bashar the Eternal Liar is lying about the weather! He warns the Syrian public that the forecast is high 30s Celsius today (38 degrees Celsius = 101 degrees Fahrenheit), to discourage them from protesting after Friday prayers.
It’s far too hot, and probably unsafe (hint), to be out there marching in the direct sun. Go home and drink some tea. You’ll feel better (and so will I).
Long-term, probably not. “Finally,” tweeted someone, “they kindle the fire in hell for Assad.”
And here I thought throwing things at the TV happened only during the Super Bowl.
But this is exactly what happened to Bashar al-Assad yesterday during his Syrian State of the Union address, derided worldwide as a 70-minute waste of everybody’s time and prompting this slipper-throwing response from a family who lives in one of the very cities in which Bashar claims “armed gangs” reside and that he and his thugs tried to “liberate.”
When he knows perfectly well that the only person with armed gangs at his disposal is him and these brutal killers, called the Shabiha, are even more feared than the police, security, or military forces, organizations that under the Assad regime kind of run together, given that they operate with the same goal:
Crush the opposition using any means necessary or unnecessary. There’s no such thing as going too far.
This speech of Bashar’s is known in the Syrian social media community as the laugh-out-loud “Slippers” Speech − the name perhaps an unintentional nod to Nixon’s “Checkers” Speech − and since in the Middle East putting the soles of your feet in front of someone is extremely rude and dismissive, all kinds of people posted all kinds of videos of themselves on YouTube, abusing Bashar’s televised face with all kinds of footwear.
Even one little boy slapping his sandal on the screen of his living room TV, shouting, “Out! Out! Out!”
We couldn’t agree more.
Besides accusing the usual suspects − Islamists, Jews, Americans, other foreign saboteurs, miscellaneous terrorists, and the ubiquitous armed gangs − for making Syria look bad all over the world, Bashar leveled an unexpected and hilarious accusation: the pro-democracy protesters have next-generation mobile phones with 5-pixel cameras!
Uh, Bashar, you do remember that your cousin Rami Makhlouf owns Syriatel?
Thus, since Rami has recently devoted himself to charity work, a shocking development that requires its very own forthcoming post, your regime is currently being funded by these very mobile phone customers.
I suppose you could always call Apple Customer Service and tell them enough already with those iPhone feature upgrades.
But Bashar’s real concern is with the high quality − and copious volume − of videos of arrests, abuse, and torture committed by the Assad regime’s agents of crime. Right, the ones getting millions of downloads every day worldwide. The YouTube workaround to the regime’s media blackout is working better and better and even though mainstream news sources still always caveat these videos with “unable to verify because Bashar won’t approve our journalist visas,” it’s become more and more accepted that these amateur videos represent what’s really going on in Syria.
Certainly more so than official Syrian TV, whose audience, ordinary Syrians say, is limited to Assad apologists, since they provide the stories anyway and like to hear themselves talk.
But one word in Bashar’s speech really scared me: he called the Syrian people “germs.” Does that make anyone else but me hearken back to exactly this time of year (April-July) in 1994 and the “cockroaches” in Rwanda?
And we all know how that story ended: in genocide. And we also know why Western governments never used that term at the time: because calling something a genocide made them legally and morally obligated to do something about it.
Best to call it a “conflict.”
In just over 3 months, upwards of 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered and countless more injured, displaced, or “disappeared.” It took until 2008 for Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, the monstrous leader of the paramilitary group Interahamwe with its 600,000 machetes, who orchestrated that ethnic cleansing, to be convicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
(The Interahamwe simply moved its operations to the Congo and nowadays is just a “terrorist organization.”)
Early on, if you’re a dictator running scared and have little else to work with because starting to distribute machetes would be way too obvious, the path of least resistance is to become a conspiracy theorist. Or, as one activist described it, attribute “plots and plots” to “a few” (hundred thousand, in cities, towns, and villages all over the country, in case you haven’t noticed) troublemakers who are sick and tired of your brutality and lies.
The plot to embarrass me in front of my friends in Moscow and Tehran. The plot to reduce my nest egg to, oh, £20 billion. The plot to make me miss the Cannes Film Festival.
The plot to force my oldest son Hafez, named after his notorious grandfather, to get a real job when he grows up.
Speaking of YouTube, Bashar, you should take a look at the videos posted during ‒ immediately after, at the very latest ‒ your speech. Big demonstrations. Everywhere. On a weekday!
We’d be happy to run down the list for you, but we don’t have time. We’ve got even more protests to go to tonight…to protest your absurd new amnesty offer.
While the mass arrests continue − at Aleppo University, the head of the department of Mechanical Engineering was reportedly turning his students in to authorities, which might be good motivation to change majors − as do imprisonments, torture, and threats to the families of the so-called “criminals,” the pro-democracy demonstrators have more than proven their point to Bashar, whose rambling 3rd speech to the nation since mid-March sounded to more than just Syrians an awful lot like Mubarak’s swan song before he resigned as Egypt’s President.
The Syrian public has no intention of letting Bashar off the hook. He’s done, and he knows it.
It’s only a matter of time, and how much more death and destruction he causes on his way out the door to join Asma − Bashar’s glamorous wife, about whom I wrote an unflattering 4-part series this month − in exile.
Bashar’s own father once said: history shows us that no power, no occupation can last forever, that − as summarized in a translation from Arabic − “resistance and revolution expel it out of service.”
Somehow he thought that notion applied to every regime except the House of Assad.
Here’s a message from the brave Syrian activists of every age, ethnicity, religion, and social status, who are out on the streets protesting every night and every weekend, putting their lives on the line to expose to the world the real Bashar, not the fake reformer Bashar the West tried to make themselves believe in for far too long.
You heard it online first: “Our next reply to this criminal is falling him down and suing him.”
Chère Madame Asma al-Assad, First Lady of Syria:
Meet Hajar Al-Khateeb, age 10, from Homs, where, had life turned out differently, you might’ve grown up. Actually, you’ll never meet her now…
On May 29, Hajar and 12 other children ‒ including her brothers, sisters, and cousins ‒ were riding the school bus on their way to Al-Wafd school when their bus was attacked out of nowhere by Syrian security forces. Hajar died and 5 other children were injured.
The authorities then tried to force Hajar’s father Tayseer and brother Nayef to say she was killed by “terrorists.”
What possible justification could there be for this, except to terrorize these children’s families into submission? …or to foretell the current military escalation in Homs, which locals suspect will “justify” a bloodbath after Friday prayers?
But last time Bashar attempted to intimidate Homs, his plan backfired. Completely.
Witness the turnout at last Friday’s peaceful protests, both mourning and honoring Hajar, Hamza Al-Khateeb (no relation) from Dara’a, and the over 70 children who have died so far in Syria’s quest for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
“Why does freedom bother them so much?” is the $1 million rhetorical question. Freedom for us means accountability for them, so they’ll do whatever it takes to stop it.
That ship sailed back in March and isn’t coming home, ever.
By now you’ve read the first 3 posts in my series about you, Syria’s Mother-in-Chief, and you’re probably frustrated at how bad I’m making you look.
You, who were a blatant no-show at Wednesday’s 1 minute of silence for Hamza and the other Syrian children who loved freedom.
But anyone who’s gone on and on in public as much as you have about how we’re really all the same and we all want the same things for our children blah blah blah deserves to be called to account for your hypocrisy.
Unlike Vogue, I’m not in the pandering business.
Since your parents emigrated from Homs to the United Kingdom in the 1950s, they missed out on 60 years of ugly political and military history in Syria. You have little context at all, growing up in London and moving to Syria for the first time as the President’s wife.
For readers who’d never heard of Homs until they started looking up Google maps of Syrian pro-democracy demonstrations (and subsequent massacres), let’s get a quick sense of Asma’s ancestral city, حمص in Arabic, and imagine what it could be like, peaceful and free.
Homs the 3rd largest city in Syria, with a population of 1.5 million. Originally, Homs was called “Emesa,” its Greek name derived from an ancient sun god. Besides being conveniently located halfway between Damascus to the south and Aleppo to the north, Homs is strategic for another reason: it’s situated right on the Orontes River, which leads to the Mediterranean Sea.
Poor Homs. It’s difficult being a city that’s so desirable, everybody’s always fighting over you. For centuries on end. After being raked over by the Bedouins more than once, Homs might’ve initially felt relieved be folded into the Ottoman Empire in 1516.
For 2,000 years now, Homs has been a major agricultural center. Which means food. Which gets my attention fast.
Taking a welcome summer break from la cuisine française, lately I’ve been making those stuffed vegetables so popular in the Middle East: filfel (peppers), betinjan (eggplant), kabocha (a type of squash), and malfouf (cabbage).
Even batata mahshi (new potatoes stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts, and a dash of pomegranate molasses), which apparently Homs claims as its native dish…but, remember what I wrote in The National Cookie of Iraq: it’s a risky move, saying you invented one of everybody’s favorite foods. I expect indignant emails from all over the region about why I’m enabling Homs in this pointless endeavor.
Regardless, it always helps to know the Arabic verb “to stuff,” ya7shu (7 stands for ح “ha”). So, fellow Le Cordon Bleu alums, “ma7shi” in Arabic means “farci” in French.
The right kitchen utensil to hollow out vegetables before you stuff them is called a مقورة (maqwara). No, an ice cream scoop will not yield the desired effect!
Switching gears from culinary to historical, Homs is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage site Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval military castle I’ve always wanted to visit.
Like that’s ever going to happen, the way I’ve been blogging about Syria lately.
Anyway, Asma, you must’ve heard about Homs from your parents. Maybe even visited with your family a time or two on holidays.
But that’s not the same thing as being too afraid to go out of your house to Homs’ famous produce markets because there’s a sniper posted on top of the government building across the street, aiming right at your front door.
For those of us who do volunteer work in international human rights and children’s health and education, our problem with you is not with your wealth, your beauty, your academic achievements, or your success in the business world. On all those things we heartily congratulate you.
Just understand that we have colleagues like you worldwide, people of achievement and privilege…who act nothing like you do.
Because they realize that with great privilege comes great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.
You seem to think, Asma, that with great privilege comes great power to run away as far and as fast as possible from situations in which you have a moral obligation as First Lady of Syria to speak out for what’s right, and for people who are doing what’s right.
Calling out, “We Are All Hamza.” Because they are, and we are.
If you don’t believe the urgency of this, go to We Are All Hamza Al-Khateeb and find out what horrific things your husband’s and brother-in-law Maher’s killers are up to in Homs today.
Need I keep repeating myself, Asma? STEP UP. Because of your silence, you have too much blood of Syrian innocents on your hands already.
Although I know there’s no love lost between you and your mother-in-law, who stood by her man Hafez throughout his reign of terror, you and Bashar were ‒ as we were so often reminded back in the day, meaning up until 3 months ago ‒ part of the new generation of young, modern leaders in the Middle East.
(Just like your fellow Vogue “Rose in the Desert” Queen Rania of Jordan, for whom your experience should be a cautionary tale.)
Should you suddenly develop a conscience, you could get time on BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera with 5 minutes’ notice. I’m begging you: take advantage of this.
Lives hang in the balance.
Yesterday, we learned about another tortured and murdered child, Thamer Mohamad Al-Sahri, a 15-year-old friend of Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was arrested in Dara’a on the same day…and suffered much the same cruel-beyond-belief fate. (WARNING: this video is VERY GRAPHIC.)
Before his death, Syrian security forces pulled out his teeth, burned his body with cigarettes, and shot him several times in the hands and knee. Then they broke his neck and pulled his eyes out of their sockets.
Thamer and Hamza were with a group of friends, some still missing. In our hearts, we know what happened to all of them. It’s just a matter of time before their bodies ‒ what’s left of them ‒ are unceremoniously returned to their families, too.
Thamer’s mother recognized him only because of a scar from a previous injury.
The biggest irony, Asma: you’re a Sunni Muslim, part of the very majority sect in Syria ‒ in addition to Alawites, other Shi’as, Christians, and Druze ‒ making up the civilian population, which your Alawite husband is trying to crush! Had you been born into an average Syrian Sunni family, rather than an elite expatriate family friendly with the Assads, you might well have been part of those very Friday demonstrations and been the target of those very bullets.
You could’ve been Hajar, or Thamer, or Hamza…
…and they could’ve been you.
Hillary Clinton, the ministers of France and Britain, and some UN members (but unfortunately not make-or-break Russia) agree: your husband’s legitimacy as President of Syria has “nearly run out.” As a diplomat, the best Hillary can do on Al Arabiya TV is to say that Syria “has been a source of problems” while Bashar has been in power.
If she wasn’t a diplomat, she might say, “Not being President anymore is the least of Bashar’s worries because his next stop is The Hague, if we have anything to say about it, which we don’t.”
It’s early Friday morning Syria time and the seiges of Duma and Harasta continue unabated. Military tanks and troops are quietly moving into position around Homs, as well as around Jisr al-Shughour, Dara’a, and Deir Ez Zur, in preparation for post-prayer demonstrations. (Check this map for latest status by city.)
For you, there remains the tiniest window of opportunity, perhaps mere hours, to break with the Assad family terror campaign and demand an immediate halt to the violence against Syrian civilians, defenseless Syrian children in particular.
Lest you go down with your husband and his murderous regime, on the wrong side of history.
What a tragic waste that would be: a President’s wife, a gifted communicator, a Syrian mother.
Who could’ve made a difference.