How Syria’s Forgotton Revolutionaries Rose Up “To Kill This Fear”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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Plight of tens of thousands of Syrians could undermine Jordan’s role as co-host of major summit on refugees, activists warn
By Emma Graham-Harrison
Sunday 4 September 2016
Tens of thousands of “ghost” refugees who have been trapped in the desert along Jordan’s border with Syria for more than two months face food and water shortages and are at risk of epidemics, aid workers say.
The refugees, who have no sanitation or medical facilities, are living in some of the worst conditions experienced by people fleeing Syria’s five-year civil war. Activists say the situation could undermine Jordan’s role as co-host of a major summit on refugees in New York this month.
About four in five of the refugees scraping an existence in the open desert are women and children, according to the UN.
No aid or food deliveries are allowed across the border and irregular water supplies barely cover drinking needs in temperatures reaching 50C (122F) over the summer, with nothing left for sanitation.
Some people have reportedly dug themselves holes in the ground because they have nothing at all to improvise shelter against regular desert sandstorms. One settlement was bombed by Russian planes in July.
“These are some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. Then you add to that not having any access to healthcare or enough water or food, and being under threat of aerial attack,” said Natalie Thurtle, the medical team leader for charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF). “This is a critical humanitarian emergency.”
Jordan is co-hosting the major international Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on 20 September, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, a role that sits uneasily with its treatment of the crowds on its own border, now estimated to be more than 80,000 strong.
“At a time when Jordan is positioning itself at the forefront of efforts to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, having tens of thousands of people struggling without food, water or medical care at their border undermines their credibility and that of any solutions they are offering,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International researcher on Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
Jordan says it is hosting nearly 1.4 million Syrian refugees, of whom 630,000 are registered with the UN. The huge numbers have placed a massive strain on the kingdom’s economy and resources as well as raising security concerns.
The crowds began building up when the border with Syria was tightened last November. This meant that people who might previously have passed into Jordan began collecting instead in a disputed no man’s land, sometimes known as “the berm” after the sandy mounds that border the area where refugees have settled.
“They are completely out of options, they are not able to move forward, and can’t go back into Syria,” Thurtle said.
On a visit to north Jordan last week, Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, described flying over the berm area. “In between two berms are tens of thousands of tents quite sparsely populated compared to a normal organised refugee camp,” he said. “You have to imagine [what it is like] completely out in the middle of desert … in very, very hot [conditions], baking in the tents.”
From May, some aid groups were allowed in to offer limited supplies of food, water and medical help. The MSF team spent at least six hours a day driving a mobile clinic to reach a “services area” on the fringe of the camp.
“It was an extremely challenging logistical operation, leaving at 6am from the nearest town where we could be based. We had to drive the entire operation for three to four hours, half of it off-road, then return the same way before evening,” a member of the MSF team said.
However, even that access was cut off in June, on security grounds, after Islamic State militants drove a suicide bomb into a Jordanian army checkpoint and killed at least six soldiers. But Sammonds said there was no connection between the refugees and the attack.
“That suicide vehicle came from some distance to the north and at speed, with no link that I have ever heard of with the would-be refugees,” he said. “I would suspect that Jordan is using the security incident politically to ‘justify’ its overall closure policy.”
Since June, authorities have given permission for one severely ill boy to be evacuated, and allowed aid groups worried about starvation to make a single drop of food supplies by crane. That was on 4 August. Distribution inside the camp could not be monitored so the most vulnerable may not have received supplies, and since then there has been nothing.
There are credible reports of malnutrition, and water supplies are just five or six litres per person in some areas. That is barely enough to meet drinking needs in the sweltering heat, leaving nothing for sanitation, and disease has already set in.
“There is almost certainly a hepatitis outbreak at the berm,” Thurtle said. “We haven’t witnessed it, but I am pretty confident that is happening.”
Credible sources are reporting 30 cases of severe jaundice each day, Thurtle said, and there have been at least 10 deaths in the last month. Hepatitis E is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, with a mortality rate of 20-25%, and there have already been reports of deaths during childbirth.
Thurtle is part of a team on standby near the border, currently campaigning to be allowed back in and keep the plight of the refugees on the international radar.
“It’s like they don’t exist, they are stuck in purgatory,” she said. “I haven’t seen them, nobody has for eight weeks. It’s really easy for them to disappear from the consciousness of the international community, the Jordanian government, everybody.”
US, China, Japan, Germany, France and UK accommodate just 2.1 million refugees, according to Oxfam report
By Kate Lyons
Sunday 17 July 2016
The six wealthiest countries in the world, which between them account for almost 60% of the global economy, host less than 9% of the world’s refugees, while poorer countries shoulder most of the burden, Oxfam has said.
According to a report released by the charity on Monday, the US, China, Japan, Germany, France and the UK, which together make up 56.6% of global GDP, between them host just 2.1 million refugees: 8.9% of the world’s total.
Of these 2.1 million people, roughly a third are hosted by Germany (736,740), while the remaining 1.4 million are split between the other five countries. The UK hosts 168,937 refugees, a figure Oxfam GB chief executive, Mark Goldring, has called shameful.
In contrast, more than half of the world’s refugees – almost 12 million people – live in Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Pakistan, Lebanon and South Africa, despite the fact these places make up less than 2% of the world’s economy.
Oxfam is calling on governments to host more refugees and to do more to help poorer countries which provide shelter to the majority of the world’s refugees. “This is one of the greatest challenges of our time yet poorer countries, and poorer people, are left to shoulder the responsibility,” said Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB. “It is a complex crisis that requires a coordinated, global response with the richest countries doing their fair share by welcoming more refugees and doing more to help and protect them wherever they are.
“Now more than ever, the UK needs to show that it is an open, tolerant society that is prepared to play its part in solving this crisis. It is shameful that as one of the richest economies the UK has provided shelter for less than 1% of refugees.”
According to the UNHCR Globals Trends 2015 report, more than 65 million people have left their homes due to violence, war and human rights violations, the highest number since records began. Most of these (40.8 million) are displaced within their own country, with 21.3 million as refugees and 3.2 million awaiting asylum decisions in industrialised countries. The conflict in Syria has played a large role in this displacement, as have conflicts in Burundi, Central African Republic, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.
Many people flee to neighbouring countries, such as from Syria to Jordan and Turkey, which host the most refugees in the world: 2.8 million in Jordan and 2.75 million in Turkey.
The Oxfam report says some wealthy countries are making it harder for refugees to arrive and not easier, citing the refugee deal struck between the EU and Turkey in March as evidence.
Article from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/18/refugees-us-china-japan-germany-france-uk-host-9-per-cent?CMP=share_btn_tw
I am an independent volunteer, I don’t get paid and I cook for the people. Since we arrived here, 3 months ago, we have cooked more than 500.000 hot meals, we have distributed thousands of tents, sleeping bags and blankets, masses of dry food and vital information. We have been the emotional support and the humanity of Idomeni. All of this is thanks to the people who believe in us, supporting us with donations, and the people who know that the governments and the NGOs are not doing what they should.
I’m an independent volunteer, since my arrival in Idomeni, I’ve been taken by police force twice just because I witnessed them trying to take violent action. I have testified against the media accusing us of responsibility for putting the lives of refugees in danger. I’ve appeared on different media channels, accused of being a trouble maker and provocateur of protest. Our cars with soup have been stopped by the police more than 30 times. I’ve been woken from my bed by 20 police raiding our home at gunpoint, inspecting me and my friends one by one. I’ve been treated like an offender since the first time I arrived here.
I am here because I believe that people should help each other in the bad situations and I don’t agree how our politicians are dealing with this situation. I am just one of the thousands of independent volunteers from all over the world who have visited Greece in the last months.
And now, we stand together to say:
“Europe, don’t look away”.
An independent volunteer
Footage captured on Idomeni refugee camp the 14th and 15th of March 2016
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Footage captured on Idomeni refugee camp the 17th of March 2016
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