I’m going to tell you a story that most people living in Damascus know. In the late 90s a group of young people decided to take it upon themselves to clean up their neighbourhood. The city council didn’t provide the resources to keep the streets clean so the young people got themselves together to do the job that the council should have been doing. It took them a couple of days to get the streets clean, it took a couple more days before the secret service came to question them. They asked the young people who had told them to clean the neighbourhood. The secret police told the young people that their community clean up project was a national security issue and that they should have asked for permission from the government before they started to clean. By simply being concerned citizens, these young people were being told that they had committed a revolutionary act.
Some of you might think it’s funny or even difficult to believe that the secret police would take time out of their day to threaten young people who were just trying to clean their neighbourhood. That’s the way it is when you live under a dictatorship. Dictators, like Assad, don’t like the word freedom. They especially don’t like to give people the freedom to gather together and try to change the things around them, even the small things like cleaning the neighbourhood. This is a small story, but it’s one of many from the 40 years of Al-Bath party rule and it begs the question; how can we clean our government if we don’t even have the freedom to clean our streets?
I will explain to you how the Syrian government is dirty and why we tried to clean it up during the revolution. Statistics show that in the last parliamentary election 800,000 people voted in Damascus, yet according to state controlled media some of the political candidates from the Al-Bath party received votes from 900,000 people. Of the 15 members of parliament representing Damascus, 11 must be from the Al-Bath party and 4 are independent candidates who are selected based on their affiliation with the government or secret service. There are only ever 15 candidates, so there’s not really any point in voting anyway. Everyone knows who will win. Actually sometimes they don’t even pretend to have an election, for example the members of parliament representing cities under ISIS and Al-Nusra control were apparently elected by people living in those cities, are they seriously trying to tell us that ISIS and Al-Nusra give people the freedom to vote for members of the Syrian government? What’s the point of even pretending to have elections when the country is in chaos and people are being killed everyday? The people are already aware that they are not free.
So how do we elect the president in Syria? It’s quite simple – we have no choice. Before the revolution we did have presidential elections but during the elections if you wanted to leave your city, you had to cross a checkpoint, the guards would check if you had already voted and if you hadn’t, they would not let you cross the checkpoint. If you did go to vote, there was only one candidate on the ballot paper with a simple question: Yes or No. If you dared to say no then your vote would be recorded and you would end up on a list for the secret service. Bashar Al-Assad has never been democratically elected, after his father died, people went out on to the street to celebrate a potential new president in Bashar Al-Assad. This apparently was a big enough show of support because the constitution was changed in one day and Syria found itself under a new generation of Assad regime. Assad has executive power in Syria; he can dissolve parliament on a whim, he can appoint anyone he wants to be a member of the Supreme Court as well as selecting who will be prime minister. How can anyone be free if they don’t have the choice of who is running the country and if the people who are running the country are all from the same circle?
So far we’ve seen that in Syria we don’t have the freedom to clean our streets, we don’t have the freedom to choose our government and it might surprise some of you that in some cases we don’t have the freedom to practise our religion. There’s nothing scarier to a dictator than someone’s religion. If someone believes in God it means they will always listen to someone else more than they listen to you. Even though the majority of Syrian’s are Muslim, there are times when their faith can put them on the wrong side of the regime. For example, if you are in the army, practising Islam is forbidden and if you’re a student at university you will be put on a secret service list for praying. In Syria, I campaigned to get a prayer room in my university but was told that if I kept campaigning I would be thrown out of university. When I came to Germany, I ironically found myself praying on Fridays in the Technical University, and realised that in some ways I had more freedom here as a Muslim than in a country where the majority of people are Muslim.
It’s not just religious groups who are persecuted under the Assad regime. Kurdish people who were born in Syria and who are as Syrian as me, were not given Syrian passports by the Assad regime. They didn’t have the freedom to leave the country, which according to the Assad regime they weren’t part of in the first place. They’re not considered Syrian but they still must serve in the Syrian army. But when the revolution began the government saw an advantage in allowing the Kurdish people to have Syrian identity on the condition that they would fight alongside the regime against the free army. Unsurprisingly the Kurdish people rejected the offer and have decided to fight to establish their own country.
So far we’ve discussed who doesn’t have freedom in Syria. So who does have the freedom? The people in Syria who have freedom are the ones who have the power, and they are the ones in the government circle. They have the freedom to do whatever they want, going as far as raping women, killing men and arresting children. I have seen these things first hand. For example a woman from Assad’s family was studying at my university and she came late to an exam. The dean of the university came to tell her that it was against university rules to allow someone into an exam after it had started but that because she was a special student she would have the chance to take the exam another time. Her bodyguards responded by beating the dean in front of the entire university but no one helped him whilst she was still there. Rather than there being outrage over the dean being assaulted, the dean was replaced and nobody spoke about the incident again.
So what happens to those people who try to use their freedom to oppose the regime? Well, I don’t know if you’ve seen the news about Syria recently… There are people in Syria who were brave enough to use their art to express how they felt about the regime. For example Tal al mlohe, a writer who was only 18, wrote a political poem about the situation in Syria and ended up being arrested in 2009 and still today no one knows where she is or whether she’s still alive. And then there’s the cartoonist, Ali Ferzhat, who drew political satire and ended up having his arms and fingers broken by the secret service in the hope that he wouldn’t be able to draw any more. People who are brave enough to express how they feel about the government in Syria will suffer the consequences of exercising their freedom of speech and without the freedom to express ourselves there can be no freedom at all.
In 2011 the Syrian people had had enough, it was time for us to demand our freedom. During the revolution the most important word was freedom. You can imagine how much that annoyed Bashar Al-Assad. He decided to turn the word freedom into something sinister. He published videos in the media of the secret police torturing some of those people who had asked for freedom and said that’s the freedom you asked for. All of a sudden the word freedom meant pain, torture and sometimes death. Freedom meant our country was in chaos and eventually in ruins.
Imagine never having experienced freedom, how would you know what freedom means? Without knowing what freedom means, it’s difficult for people to use their freedom wisely. Mistakes will be made, some people will take advantage of their freedom and some won’t know how to use it at all. Using freedom the correct way takes time, it’s a process and you must learn that if you have freedom, you must respect other people’s freedom.
From what I can see, the majority of people in the Western world consider themselves free. When I came to Germany I saw political protests on the street, the protesters were surrounded by police and I realised that the police were there to protect the people, this is a kind of freedom I wish to see one day in Syria. Freedom comes with the responsibility to either protect or create a free society for everyone in the world. So why, in this so-called free world, are most governments making deals and alliances with countries who have appalling human rights records and who don’t respect the freedom of their citizens at all? If it’s not acceptable to treat people a certain way in your country in order to protect their freedom, why would you deal with other countries who don’t offer the same freedom to their citizens? The word freedom is laced with inequality in our world today and we must all come together to fight those who are taking freedom away from their people, rather than reaping the benefits of corrupt countries whilst turning a blind eye to the way their citizens are suffering.
Abowalid is a Refugee Voices tour guide as well as our website designer.