Nujeen, p.4
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       Nujeen, p.4

           Nujeen Mustafa
 
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  Finally, the pain stopped but I was in plaster for forty days, which felt like a very long time. Then Mustafa paid for a special brace to put my legs in to strengthen the muscles. They looked like robot legs, and oh they were agony! I had to wear them ten hours a day and I complained so much. But after a week I got used to them and they meant that for the first time I could stand with the help of a walker. I could see parts of the apartment I never normally went into like the kitchen and I could see the citadel from the balcony without any help. Ayee says it was like I was newborn.

  About that time I started watching an American soap opera. It was called Days of Our Lives, about two rival families called the Hortons and the Bradys living in a fictional town in Illinois and a mafia family called the DiMeras and their love-triangles and feuds. They all had beautiful big houses with lots of clothes and appliances and each child had their own bedroom. One of the men was a doctor in an immaculate shiny hospital, not at all like Al Salam where I had been. Their lives were so different to ours. To start with I didn’t understand what was going on and sometimes the story was odd, with characters coming back from the dead, but after a while I caught up. I watched it with Ayee and it drove Nasrine mad. ‘What on earth do you see in this?’ she asked.

  We had our own family soap opera. My parents were desperate about Mustafa not getting married. As second son, he should have got married after Shiar in 1999, but first he said he should wait for Jamila, then once she was married he said he needed to devote himself to work as he was our main provider. But now he was thirty-five which in our culture is very old to be unmarried. We have arranged marriages – not love-matches, which from what I could see from Days of Our Lives was not a very good system. My mother kept going to meet suitable brides from our tribe, but Mustafa always refused to take it further and just laughed. It didn’t matter whether he was there in the apartment or not – it seemed like all anyone talked about. I hated it. Whenever they raised the subject, I shouted, ‘Not again!’ and covered my ears.

  4

  Days of Rage

  Aleppo, 2011

  It was 25 January 2011, just after my twelfth birthday, and I was watching Days of Our Lives, worrying that I might be a psychopath because my favourite characters always seemed to be the bad guys, when Bland rushed in from work and grabbed the remote. I looked at him in astonishment. Everyone knew I was in charge of the TV.

  Bland is usually so calm and laid back that I always feel there is a part of him nobody knows, but this time he seemed to be spinning like one of those dust-devils we used to get in the desert. Now, not only had he taken the remote but he switched over to Al Jazeera. My family all know I don’t like the news: it was always bad – Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, war after war in fellow Muslim countries pretty much since I was born.

  ‘Something has happened!’ he said. On the screen we could see thousands of people gathering in the main square in Cairo, waving flags and demanding the removal of their long-time President Hosni Mubarak. I was scared. Dictators fire on people. We knew that. I did not want to see it. I started shaking my head.

  ‘I was watching my programme,’ I protested. One of what I call my ‘disability benefits’ is that my brothers and sisters all knew they weren’t supposed to upset me. Even when I threw Nasrine’s things out of the window, like her blue pen and the CD of Kurdish songs she used to play all the time.

  As I predicted, soon came the teargas and rubber bullets and water cannons to drive the demonstrators away. The thud of the bullets made me jump. After that Bland let me switch back. But the protests didn’t stop. Mustafa, Bland and Nasrine talked of nothing else, and whenever I was out of the room they switched to the news. I gave up trying to resist and soon I too was glued to Al Jazeera watching those crowds in Tahrir Square grow and grow. Many of the protesters were young people like Bland and Nasrine and had painted the Egyptian flag on their faces or sported bandannas on their heads in red, white and black.

  One day, we watched – hearts in mouth – as a column of tanks advanced into the square like monsters. Dozens of protesters bravely blocked their way and I could hardly watch. Then something astonishing happened. The tanks didn’t open fire but stopped. The crowd chanted and people climbed on top, scrawling ‘Mubarak Must Go!’ on their sides, and we could see they were even chatting to the soldiers.

  A couple of days later, me, Bland and Nasrine were again on the edge of the sofa as crowds of pro-Mubarak supporters pushed their way into the square like a demon cavalry on horses and camels. They were beaten back by the protesters, who hurled stones and ripped out paving slabs from the square to use as shields. The tanks formed a line between the two groups and it was hard to see what was going on, as there was so much dust and things were on fire. Finally, the Mubarakites were chased out and the democracy people erected barricades of street signs and bits of metal fencing and burnt-out cars to stop them coming back.

  Where would it end? we wondered. The protesters made a kind of tent city in the square with a field hospital to treat their wounded, with sections of the crowd handing out food and water and even doing haircuts and shaves. It almost looked like a festival, a bit like our annual Newroz. I could see children my age stamping on pictures of Mubarak. The journalists reporting it all were excited too. They even had a name for it. The Arab Spring, they called it. For us that sounded a bit like our Damascus Spring and that hadn’t ended well at all.

  The occupation went on for eighteen days. Then around 6 p.m. on 11 February, Nahda and Nasrine had just come back from my uncle’s wedding which woke me up from a nap. We switched on the TV and there was Egypt’s Vice President announcing, ‘President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down.’ Soon came the news that the Mubaraks had been flown out in an army helicopter to exile in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. That was it, gone after three decades. I was happy for Egypt. Afterwards there were fireworks, soldiers climbing out of their tanks to hug the demonstrators, people singing and whistling. Was it that easy? If I fell asleep again in the afternoon would I wake up and find Gaddafi gone from Libya? Or even Assad?

  And Egypt wasn’t all. At the time we hadn’t realized it was a ‘thing’, but the Arab Spring had actually begun the previous December in Tunisia, when a poor twenty-six-year-old fruit-seller named Mohamed Bouazizi poured kerosene over his body and set fire to himself outside a town hall. This was shocking for us Muslims as our holy Koran prohibits the use of fire on Allah’s creation, so he must have been completely desperate. We didn’t know if he would go to heaven or hell. His family said he had been fed up with local officials humiliating him and had become desperate when they confiscated his fruit cart which was their whole livelihood. When he died of his burns in January there were massive protests in the centre of Tunis and ten days later President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family ran away to Saudi Arabia after twenty-three years of power.

  Soon every day on the TV there were uprisings somewhere new. Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, even Oman, all had demonstrations against their rulers – it was like an epidemic across North Africa and the Middle East. Of course we knew about the forty years of Assads, but we hadn’t realized how long all these dictators had been in power. People would gather after Friday prayers then swarm into the streets and congregate in some central square. Days of Rage they called it.

  When would it be Syria? Like those other countries, our population was mostly young and unemployed, and we had had our rights trampled on by a dictator and the rich elite. Even in my room on the fifth floor I could sense that the whole country seemed to be holding its breath. Nasrine said that at the university nobody was talking about anything else. My brothers and sisters came home with reports of odd incidents – a Kurdish man in the north-eastern city al-Hasakah had set fire to himself; some small demonstrations here and there; even a protest in Damascus after police assaulted a merchant in one of the main souks. But nothing quite caught hold.

  When the spark finally did come it was in an unlikely plac
e – the small farming town of Deraa in the south-west, near the border with Jordan, which we knew as a bastion of support for the regime that had long sent its sons to top posts. In recent years, they had produced a prime minister, a foreign minister and a head of the ruling Ba’ath party.

  The catalyst was the arrest in late February of a group of teenage boys who had been scrawling anti-regime graffiti on school walls. ‘Al-Shaab yureed eskat el nizam!’ they wrote – ‘The people want to topple the regime’ – just as the crowds had shouted in Cairo. ‘Bashar out!’ wrote another. A third was writing, ‘Your turn next, doctor,’ when he was spotted by security forces.

  Over the next few days they rounded up ten more teenagers, making fifteen in total, and took them to the local Political Security Directorate – I told you we have many secret police – which was under the control of General Atef Najeeb, the President’s cousin, who everyone was scared of.

  Since Assad father’s time, and the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel seized our Golan Heights from the Sea of Galilee in the south to Mount Hermon in the north, our police and security services have had absolute power to arrest and detain anyone indefinitely without trial. They use the excuse that we are in a permanent state of war with ‘the Zionist entity’, which is what we call Israel, though when we fought them again in the 1973 war we didn’t get back the land. Assad’s jails are notorious for torture. People say death is easier than a Syrian prison, though I don’t know how anyone would know that.

  Soon there were reports that those boys were being beaten and tortured, the usual Assad specialities like pulling out fingernails and electric shocks to their private parts. Their desperate parents went to the authorities and were told by General Najeeb, ‘Forget your children, go and make more.’ Can you imagine? Round the country young people tried to organize a Day of Rage in support of the boys. I saw Nasrine and Bland looking at a Facebook page called ‘The Syrian Revolution against Bashar al-Assad 2011’, but they quickly closed it. We were scared even to look at the page.

  Deraa is a very tribal area, and the arrested boys were from all the largest clans. And like many farmers we knew, its people were struggling because of a severe drought which had been going on for the last four years and they couldn’t compete with cheap imports from Turkey and China. Instead of helping them, the government had cut subsidies. They were angry too at the way General Najeeb had been running the area as his personal fiefdom.

  So, on 18 March, after Friday prayers, when the families of the missing marched on the house of the Deraa governor and started a sit-in to demand their release, they were accompanied by local religious and community leaders. Riot police used water cannon and teargas to try and disperse them, then armed police came and opened fire. Four people were killed. When people saw the blood they went crazy. Ambulances couldn’t get through because of the security forces, so protesters had to carry their wounded to the ancient mosque in the Old City which they turned into a makeshift hospital.

  Two days after that protesters set fire to the local Ba’ath party headquarters and other government buildings. President Assad sent an official delegation to offer condolences to the relatives of those killed, and sacked the governor and transferred General Najeeb.

  It was too late. Now it was our turn. Our revolution had begun.

  Predictably (dictators are so uninventive), Assad’s first response was to send tanks into Deraa to crush the protests. Maybe because our army is mainly Alawite like the Assads, they didn’t hold back as the Egyptian tanks had done. Instead they attacked the mosque, which had become a kind of headquarters for protesters, and they did so with such force they left its ancient walls splattered with blood. The funerals of the people killed then turned into mass rallies. These in turn were fired on and more people killed, so there would be more funerals and even more people would turn out.

  The government then issued a decree to cut taxes and raise state salaries, which only made everyone even angrier. At the next funeral the following day, tens of thousands of people gathered, shouting, ‘We don’t want your bread, we want dignity!’ Then, at the end of March, Assad gave a speech in parliament denouncing the protesters as ‘sectarian extremists’ and ‘foreign terrorists’. ‘Such conspiracies don’t work with our country or people,’ he raged. ‘We tell them you have only one choice which is to learn from your failure.’

  We Syrians were shocked by that speech. ‘He’s treating us like traitors!’ said Bland. Deraa was under siege, but weekly anti-government rallies began in other cities, the details shared on Facebook and YouTube. Throughout April and May there were protests in Homs, Hama, Damascus, Raqqa – spreading from Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the rural northern regions bordering Turkey and the eastern province of Deir al-Zour where our oil comes from.

  Each time they were met with a show of force as the government thought it could just crush the protests. Hundreds of people were being killed. But it didn’t stop. Across the country people were shouting, ‘With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice to you, Deraa!’

  Soon no one spoke of anything else. Even Mustafa’s refusal to get married was forgotten. The air was electric, almost crackling. Revolution! It was like the history programmes I watched. We were full of excitement at the thought that we were going to get rid of the Assads. Suddenly people were talking about everything that had been unthinkable. It was beautiful. People made up songs against Assad. I made curses against Assad which I sometimes said out loud.

  We Kurds thought we might finally get our Kurdistan, or Rojavo as we call it. Some banners on the streets read, ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan’. But Yaba said we didn’t understand. Older people like him knew the regime was dangerous because they had witnessed the 1980s in Hama when Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifat quelled protests from the Muslim Brotherhood by massacring 10,000 people and pulverized the city. So they knew what the Assads would do.

  The regime seemed deaf and blind to what people were demanding. Instead of real change Assad announced new things to try and appease different sectors of the population. He legalized the wearing of niqab by female schoolteachers which had been banned just the year before. To try and stop us Kurds joining the protests, Assad even passed a Presidential decree which gave citizenship to around 300,000 Kurds who had been stateless since the 1960s. For the first time ever, his spokesman came on state TV to wish Kurds a happy Newroz and played a Kurdish song.

  It wasn’t enough – what people wanted was less corruption and more freedom. Calls for reform became calls for the removal of Assad. Protesters ripped down the latest posters of Bashar – in jeans kneeling to plant a tree – and set fire to them and even tore down statues of his late father whose name we had barely dared whisper.

  Most of this we watched on Al Jazeera or YouTube – Syrian TV didn’t show it of course. Our best source of information was Mustafa, because he had started a business bringing trucks from Lebanon so was always driving across the country and seeing things. Like Yaba, he said our regime was tougher than the others. However, when he saw how that first protest in Deraa spread to Homs and Hama, he changed his mind.

  He told us that in Hama there were so many people it was like a human wave had taken over the central square. Hama was the town where all those people had been massacred in 1982, and many of the protesters were orphans of that massacre. They poured into the streets after Friday prayers and as usual the regime retaliated. Three army trucks with large guns appeared and opened fire on them, killing seventy people. The men in the front row shouted the word ‘Peacefully!’ as they were felled. The killings incensed the town and soon the entire square was full.

  ‘This is it,’ Mustafa told us. ‘By the third week it will be finished.’

  Then he happened to be in the Kurdish town of Derik in south-east Turkey near the border when there was a birthday celebration for Abdulhamid Haji Darwish, head of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party, at which everyone was discussing how we Kurds should respond
to the revolution. All Kurds thought the regime finished and the discussion was how to make sure we got our own state or at least some autonomy like the Kurds in northern Iraq. They had sent someone to Baghdad to meet Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, and also a Kurd, to ask his opinion. He said the Assad regime wouldn’t fall. That wasn’t what people wanted to hear, so they said, ‘Oh, Talabani has got old.’

  It turned out he was right – he knew what was going on.

  Syria wasn’t the same as Egypt and Tunisia. Assad had learnt from his father the brutal way he had put down the Hama revolt, and even before that from our French masters. Back in 1925 when we were under French rule, Muslims, Druze and Christians together rose up in what we call the Great Revolt. The French responded with an artillery bombardment so massive that it flattened an entire quarter of the Old City of Damascus. That area is now known as al-Hariqa which means the Conflagration. They killed thousands of people and held public executions in the central Marja Square as a warning. After that the rebellion was crushed and we continued under French rule for another two decades until 1946.

  Maybe because we didn’t remember this history, we young people were sure there had to be change. When we heard that Assad was going to make another speech in June 2011 we expected he would finally announce some major reform. Instead he again took a hard line, denouncing what he called a conspiracy against Syria and blaming ‘saboteurs’ backed by foreign powers and ‘religious extremists’ who he claimed had taken advantage of the unrest. He said no reform was possible while the chaos continued. It was clear that he, or maybe his family, had no intention of giving up power. Like I said, they thought they owned us.

  After that there started to be organized resistance. Hundreds of different rebel groups got together in what they called the Free Syrian Army or FSA and began to prepare for war. Most were young and inexperienced and untrained, but some were disgruntled members of Assad’s own army. There were even reports that senior army officers had defected and joined the FSA. Kurds didn’t join the FSA as we had our own militias, the YPG or People’s Protection Units.

 
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