2011 uprising

Fighting for Aleppo

How Syria’s Forgotton Revolutionaries Rose Up “To Kill This Fear”

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Demonstrators chant slogans and hold Syrian flags during a protest against the Assad regime in the opposition-controlled Kafr Hamrah village of Aleppo, Syria, on March 25, 2016.

 

As Naji Jerf stepped out of an office building in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep last December, a man walked up to him and fired two shots from a silenced pistol, striking Jerf in the head and chest and killing him instantly.

Jerf, 38, was a Syrian filmmaker and journalist who had become a popular activist during the revolution. A fierce critic of both the Assad regime and the Islamic State, he had received numerous death threats in the months before he was killed. Shortly after his murder, the Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility and Turkish authorities arrested three men in connection with the shooting.

Jerf is only one of the innumerable Syrian revolutionary activists who have lost their lives over the past five years. An editor and documentarian, he helped train a generation of young Syrians to continue the fight for democracy in their country. But his story, and the stories of those like him who continue the spirit of the 2011 uprising, rarely register in broader narratives of the conflict. For all they have sacrificed, their struggles have gone largely ignored, in a framing of the conflict that has been convenient for the Assad government.

Leila Shami, co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,” told me, “The Syrian government has taken huge efforts to frame the conflict as one solely between themselves and extremist groups. People are not aware that there is a third option in Syria, that there are many Syrians from a wide range of backgrounds who are still fighting for the original goals of the revolution.”

Shami added, “Syria has had so many heroes, but people often don’t know who they are.”

Syrian students outside the damaged building of the University of Aleppo before sitting their exams on January 29, 2013, after the institution re-opened following an explosion earlier in the month, in northern Syria's city of Aleppo. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the blast on January 15, which caused a number of causalities, but said its origin was unclear. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian students stand outside a damaged building at the University of Aleppo on Jan. 29, 2013, after the institution re-opened following an explosion earlier in the month. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Khalifa al-Khadr was one of those whose lives Naji Jerf had touched. A student at Aleppo University when the war began, he now belongs to a new generation of writers and journalists committed to carrying on the goals of the revolution. Last week in Gaziantep, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Khadr sat drinking tea at a bustling outdoor restaurant, occasionally rising to greet other young Syrians who now also call this Turkish city home.

“When all this started, we were mostly too young to have any kind of ideology,” Khadr told me. “The reason we rose up was to just kill fear. To kill this fear that we had all been living under as a society.”

Khadr looked younger than his 23 years. He wore glasses, an orange jacket, and a beige scarf wrapped around his neck. The revolution had begun when he was only 17. It came to consume every aspect of his life and worldview. Despite his youthful appearance, he spoke with the serious intensity of someone who had come of age during war. On his cellphone, the background photo was a picture of a young Syrian girl killed in a government bombardment of the city of Idlib.

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Khalifa al-Khadr in a photo taken on May 30, 2015. Photo: Khalifa al-Khadr/Facebook

“When protests began at Aleppo University several years ago, we held them for only 15 or 20 minutes, just to show solidarity with other cities under attack and then disperse before the security forces came for us,” he recalled. “We were not calling for Assad to fall, just to remove the emergency laws and allow some space for democracy in the country.”When the government met those protests with brutal violence, Khadr saw sentiments harden among his fellow students. Now they realized that the government would choose force over incremental reform, and they began calling for bringing down the regime. Some spoke of taking up arms in self-defense.

 

 

 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to. In the summer of 2012, rebel fighters from surrounding villages swept into Aleppo and captured several key districts from government control. The people of Aleppo were divided in their response to the rebels’ arrival. Some wealthy residents were uneasy with the influx of poor, rural fighters. Even among those who had supported the uprising, there were divisions and concerns. Khadr didn’t share them. “I was excited,” he told me. “I felt like we were about to be part of something that was going to free the country.”

But as the war ground into a stalemate, many people fled Aleppo, and then Syria itself. Khadr was among the activists who stayed. He was continuing the revolution by other means: building an archive of photos and videos to document developments in opposition-held areas, and writing about his own experiences and observations of the uprising. In one passage of a longer reminiscence, he wrote about a childhood friend who took part in the revolution only to later turn away from it by joining the militant group the Islamic State:

A choke comes between memory and the bitter reality. The choke kills me and forbids me from mourning him. If I were an armed fighter, I would have killed him the minute I saw him on the battlefield, to save his soul. To prevent him from infecting others, to prevent his soul from sinking into others’ blood.

I won’t mourn your deeds, even if the one you killed was my own father. As you have loyalties of your own, I have loyalty to our revolution, more sacred than yours.

Syrian protesters gather in demonstration against the regime in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on November 9, 2012. Syria President Bashar al-Assad said his future could only be decided at the ballot box and denied Syria was in a state of civil war, despite fresh attacks and heavy fighting near the Turkish border. AFP PHOTO/ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian protesters gather to demonstrate against the Assad regime in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo on Nov. 9, 2012. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty Images

The culture of the revolution had imprinted itself indelibly on Khadr’s personality, as it had on those of many other young Syrians. Creating a “Free Syria” — free from oppression and upholding basic rights like freedom of expression and equal treatment under the law — had become the guiding purpose of his life. Like many others, Khadr felt compelled both to write and to seek out like-minded young Syrians.It was through social media that he first met Naji Jerf three years ago. Khadr was engaged in a debate with other young Syrian activists on Facebook when Jerf, known to many of them as the editor of the Syrian revolutionary news outlet Hentah, “liked” his status, part of a Facebook conversation that had begun around the quote “Man does not live on bread alone.” The two began messaging and Jerf invited Khadr to take part in a media workshop he had arranged for young activists in southern Turkey, where Jerf was then based.

Jerf became a mentor and adviser to Khadr, encouraging him to develop his writing and publishing his articles periodically on Hentah. While Khadr lived between relatives’ and friends’ homes in different areas of opposition-held Syria, he would occasionally cross the border to Gaziantep to meet with Jerf and other activists. In the relative calm of Turkey, they would spend days talking and reflecting on the future of their country — discussions that helped shape the nascent worldviews of Khadr and the other young activists.

“Syrians have tried secularism, nationalism, Islamism, and they have all failed in various ways,” Khadr told me. “The reality is that it doesn’t matter what the orientation of the government is per se. What matters is that the ruling system respects the rights of citizens and protects them from injustice.”

Under the Assad regime, Syria had become a police state whose prisons were notorious for torture, murder, and indefinite detention. Many activists, including Ghiath Matar, known as “Syria’s Gandhi,” and the Syrian anarchist philosopher Omar Aziz, had lost their lives in Syria’s torturous detention facilities.

“Even before the revolution, we all grew up hearing stories of people who disappeared, we knew the fear this created,” Khadr reflected. He told me that now he dreams of a country with “no prisons” — a country where the all-encompassing fear that characterized Baathist rule is finally removed.

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The grave of Naji Jerf, a Syrian filmmaker and journalist killed in Gaziantep, Turkey, last December. Photo: Khalifa al-Khadr/Facebook

 

The outside narrative of the Syrian conflict, which focuses exclusively on the actions of armed groups and states, has minimized or excluded a significant dimension. The revolution fostered a Syrian civil society that continues to fight for the future of the country. Across cities and small towns in Syria, in areas that have slipped from the central government’s grip and are free of Islamic State control, local councils operate that provide a semblance of democratic rule in a country that, in its modern history, has known only totalitarianism. A huge array of new independent newspapers, radio stations, and video production companies has arisen, giving voice to a people who had long been either silenced or forced to consume Soviet-style Baathist propaganda. Khadr’s life, like the lives of many other Syrians of his generation, has been irreversibly transformed by the events of the revolution. Though he is still young, he exudes a brash confidence and poise. “All my old friends from before, when I was just a student, we lost touch and don’t talk anymore,” he said, fingering a string of beads wrapped around his fingers. “Everyone who is a friend to me today, they are people I shared experiences with during the revolution.”

Khadr was back in Syria last December when he received the message informing him that Naji Jerf had been murdered. In a Facebook post that day, Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah lamented that people like Jerf — Syrian civil revolutionaries who had given their lives for the freedom of the country — had been effectively airbrushed out of history.

“Syrians who have dedicated so much for principle and stood against tyranny and extremism [receive] no real recognition,” Jarrah wrote. “This mess of misinformation says that there are two sides fighting (Assad and ISIS) with little mention of those that oppose both wrongs. Those like Naji.”

In Muslim societies, funerals are typically held within a few days of death. Despite Khadr’s wishes, he could not cross the border back to Turkey in time to attend his friend’s farewell.

“Death has a different meaning in different cultures. At the beginning you mourn, but then, when so many begin to die, you have to find a way to stop mourning them and just keep going,” he told me, emotion slowly creeping into his voice.

“When I think of Naji now, I remember the things he taught me and I say: Your memory is my path.”

Top photo: Demonstrators chant slogans and hold Syrian flags during a protest against the Assad regime in the opposition-controlled Kafr Hamrah village of Aleppo, Syria, on March 25, 2016.

Contact the author:

Murtaza Hussainmurtaza.hussain@theintercept.com@mazmhussain

Article from: https://theintercept.com/2016/10/23/how-syrias-forgotten-revolutionaries-rose-up-to-kill-this-fear/

 

A Syrian bodybuilder in prison: Rife with contagious disease starvation

While in prison for nearly two-and-a-half years, Shahabi went from 273 pounds to just 97. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Shahabi

While in prison for nearly two-and-a-half years, Shahabi went from 273 pounds to just 97. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Shahabi

 

A Syrian bodybuilder in prison: Rife with contagious disease, starvation, ‘I buried prisoners with my own hands’

A recent SNHR report estimates the number of arrests by all parties over the course of the Syrian war at 215,000 people, the vast majority detained by Assad regime agents.

One of these detainees was Ibrahim Shahabi, a well-known bodybuilding champion from Aleppo. He was arrested at his gym on charges of selling pharmaceuticals without a license in late January 2011, charges Shahabi calls “preposterous and totally untrue.”

And so began 30 months of a prison sentence that left those who did not die so hungry that they ate pieces of the wall. Shahabi’s description of prison life resembles the Middle Ages in every way, down to the guards fearing contagious diseases from the increasingly ragged prisoners: “They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so we could bury the victim in the yard,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

Shahabi, who had family and friends active in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was one of seven detainees released during an FSA-regime prisoner exchange in July 2013.

After leaving prison 176 pounds lighter along with several unhealed broken bones and other injuries, Shahabi is now back to training. Today he lives in Turkey, and is competing again in international bodybuilding competitions—under the revolutionary banner.

Q: When was your arrest? What were the charges against you, and why was your release delayed if these charges were fabricated?

I was born in 1977 in the city of al-Baab a-Shamali in Aleppo province to a well-off family. I opened a gym after finishing my compulsory service in Syria and I too was doing well.

I was arrested on January 28, 2011 and sent to the central prison in Aleppo after being accused of illegally selling pharmaceuticals without a license. These accusations are preposterous and totally untrue. I was a member of the Syrian Sports Federation and a certified international referee. I had won more than 15 awards in Syrian and Arab bodybuilding competitions.

Before my arrest, I was traveling and studying in Europe. I was learning how to design women’s shoes and training young people in gyms. In 1996, I came back to Syria to see my parents after a long time away, but the authorities stopped me at the airport and immediately dragged me off to perform my compulsory military service, believing me to be a deserter.

I spent five years in the military and subsequently in prison as a punishment for fleeing my service. After I finished my prison term, I decided to open a gym in Aleppo and settled down in my hometown. That is, until 2011 and the arrest.

At the time of my arrest, I was at my gym, which I opened in the Hanaano district [a neighborhood in northeast Aleppo city]. I was arrested on drug smuggling charges. Obviously, I had absolutely no connection to this. I was an international athlete and won international medals across Europe and in Syria.

With regard to my delayed release, the prison officials cheated everyone out of their money. Every single dollar that was spent to secure our release was in vain; the regime did not release a single person. On the contrary, we were exposed to the worst types of abuse and torture in prison, and I was one of those victims. Just compare the pictures and videos of me from before and after my arrest and you will see the violence and starvation that I faced in prison.

While in prison for nearly two-and-a-half years, Shahabi went from 273 pounds to just 97. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Shahabi.

Q: Tell us about what you experienced in prison.

One time I tried to escape along with 13 other prisoners, but once we reached the prison wall, the sniper locked in on me. The guards arrested me along with 10 prisoners, though three were able to escape. They later appeared on Al Jazeera together where they talked about their suffering in the prison. Meanwhile, we returned to our cells where the guards tortured us and broke our bones. Despite these incomprehensible struggles, I did not surrender; rather, what I saw and what I experienced in the prison strengthened my resolve and my determination not to become a victim of these heinous crimes.

Since the beginning of the revolution and our arrest, we were isolated from the rest of the prisoners in an attempt to portray us as terrorists. There were approximately 630 prisoners, with five people to a cell, rooms no bigger than 1 x 1.5 meters. After our failed escape attempt, each person was individually isolated.

During this time, people died, whom I buried with my own hands. In the end, only one other person besides me survived. It was only because of my athletic physique that I was able to bear the physical pressures, psychological torture, and the slow death in comparison to those prisoners who were less fortunate.

The guards forced us to bury our dead in the prison yard out of their fear of getting infected by our diseases.

I don’t know where to begin in describing the regime’s brutality towards its political prisoners; it’s unspeakable. The methods of torture were unimaginable, something that no human mind can comprehend. Even as we filed out after being tortured, one by one we would be struck without reason with metal rods—blows raining down on our heads and bodies with reckless abandon.

I came out of prison with three fractures to my head, one to my shoulder, and a deformed back all due to these beatings. Since leaving prison, I have undergone 11 plastic surgery operations for my back, and still I suffer from the fractures that I sustained while in prison. The operations, which are still ongoing, have cost $30,000.

As prisoners, we received monthly rations of one loaf of bread and two liters of water. That’s it. In spent 30 months in this environment with many prisoners. I came in weighing 124 kilograms (273 pounds). By the time I left, I weighed only 44 kilograms (97 pounds).

Worms were eating at my friends. Those who managed to cling to life were filthy beyond imagination. We had such little water and were not allowed to bathe, which led to the spread of tuberculosis and diarrhea, which I suffered from. Having bread and water, this was a dream for us. We were eating the wall out of sheer hunger. Throughout all of this, it was forbidden for any guard to speak with us.

Q: Can you describe the process of being tortured?

For the first six months, the torture was every hour. It came in so many ways, without mercy or compassion. However, after tuberculosis, diarrhea, and other infectious diseases came into the barracks, the guards refrained from entering out of fear that they too would be infected. They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so that we could leave to bury the person in the yard.

Q: How did you learn of the deaths of your friends? How did you inform the prison guards of the news?

I would shout loudly and continuously until they responded. We were all isolated, trapped behind bars, and so everyone was accountable for the person in the next cell over. We would call to the next cell, and if the person responded, he was alive. If he didn’t respond, that meant he was dead, in which case we’d call the guards so that we could bury him.

One of my relatives was an assistant officer in the prison, and he was shocked when he saw me still clinging to life. I didn’t take advantage of his being there because the guards were prohibited from entering except for one Alawite officer [names officer.]

It’s also worth mentioning that my relative left with the Red Crescent and defected during the course of our release.

Q: When and how were you released?

I was released on July 10, 2013 following negotiations that the Red Crescent mediated between the opposition and the regime. Seven people were released from prison, myself included, in exchange for three officers, including a shabiha commander.

My name was the first one to be submitted for release given my close ties with the Free Syrian Army. Several of their leaders, particularly my brother in the a-Tawhid Brigade, were demanding my release.

Q: How did you rebuild your life following your release?

After my release from prison, I left Aleppo and went to Turkey on April 2, 2014. I got back into sports and physical training, and, thanks to God, began working as a trainer at a sports club in Istanbul.

I’ve coached five Syrian champions in Turkey, including Hassan a-Nasan, Mahmood Hassan, and Hassan al-Khalid, who have performed very well on the national level. I am now training to participate in the European Bodybuilding Championships under the Free Syria banner.

I have been very vocal in my dissent against the regime, and when I participate, I will raise a photo of Erdogan because he is the only one who has supported me in my recent competitions.

Q: Describe the challenges you faced as an athlete before the revolution. Contrast that with your participation in the Public Authority for Youth and Sports, an organization funded and supported by both the opposition in exile and the Turkish government.

Regarding the pressures that we faced before the revolution, the regime always played dirty and trampled on our rights. For example, every year in the city of Basil in Latakia province, there was a tournament called “Mr. Beach.” These Alawite guys would participate, and, of course, every year they would come in first place in the tournament even if the competitors had better bodies.

We also never received any of the prize money that the Sports Federation provided for the athletes. It was either stolen or distributed to the Alawite athletes.

Today, the situation is completely different. It’s possible for us to voice our opinions, work together, and do everything in our power to comfortably train our young men and women with the support and cooperation of the Public Authority. We are working to foster a new generation of professional athletes, far removed from the disgusting politics of the Baath Party, which robbed us of our rights.

I have promised that I will establish myself once again and come back to my fitness club stronger than ever. This last year I have been training a team called “Free Syria” for the bodybuilding championships, and for the second time in a row, we got first place in Turkey, and our people are getting ready for the European championships. This year, I will participate in the tournament in Spain.

Q: Can you describe what it is like dealing with countries in order to participate in the athletic championships? Who is funding you and the Syrian teams?

Funding and support comes from the Turkish Sports Federation. I will participate in the world championships through Turkey, joining the league and training participants, given that I do not own a club. In addition to being an athletic trainer, I work on the side as a designer of women’s shoes for Schuster’s Shoes. After I finish my day with the company, I go down to the gym and start training. When I was in Italy, I was working as a women’s shoes designer before I ever entered the field of professional sports.

Q: How do you see the Assad regime today?

Since the moment I was arrested at the airport in 1996 before I even got the chance to see my parents, I have viewed the regime as broken and a failure. In my opinion, since the start of the revolution, there is nothing that remains that can be called a regime.

The regime fell when it began destroying the country and killing its people. I am unable to describe the brutality, criminality, and sheer barbarism of its actions. Even though I have seen it first-hand with my own eyes in the prison, my mind is still unable to fully comprehend what I experienced.
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Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

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Article from: http://syriadirect.org/news/a-syrian-bodybuilder-in-prison-rife-with-contagious-disease-starvation-%E2%80%98i-buried-prisoners-with-my-own-hands%E2%80%99/

Syria Detainees Endure Nightmare Underworld

Syrian Detainees: Torture is barbaric and systematic – The torture cells of Syria are places where “nobody hears your voice, nobody visits you”

“There are four security agencies in Syria, and each does all it can to prove it is more brutal than the other one.”
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An interrogator at one of Damascus: “We torture people because we are sadists. We enjoy torturing people.”
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Former detainee from a church-based human rights group say: “The 3 “rapist officers” they are like animals. I tried to protect myself but I’m just a short guy… when they were raping me, I start to say: ‘Please don’t do that, please don’t do that.'” As he was being raped, he says his attackers mocked him. “You want Assad to quit? This is for saying that you don’t like Bashar al-Assad.”
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A teenage boy was brought into the cell. He, too, was raped. As the assault went on, the boy cried out for his mother.
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A woman was arrested at a checkpoint in Homs late last year.

“He inserted a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: ‘Is this good enough for you?’ They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.”

Syria Assad Regime killed 250,000 Syrian since 2011

Read more articles:
Syria ex-detainees allege ordeals of rape and sex abuse
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-19718075

Syria detainees endure nightmare underworld
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Dec-13/280922-syria-detainees-endure-nightmare-underworld.ashx

Syria Bashar al-Assad

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