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My Syria MAG
“Why are there so many of those?” I asked, pointing at a poster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which were more common in Damascus than jasmine blooms or stray cats.
“Because everyone in Syria loves the president,” my dad always replied, quite simply.
That was one of my earliest memories of Syria. Young and green, I remember believing that Syria was the lone island of democracy, peace, and morality in the sea of chaos that is the Middle East. Syria had a president, for crying out loud! That meant that he was chosen by the people, right? That had to mean that he was looking out for his citizens, didn't it? His power had checks on it, didn't it? Oh, how mistaken I was.
I used to visit Syria every other summer; I would skip down the poorly paved streets more freely than I would anywhere else in the world. I trusted every Syrian I saw. Somehow I overlooked the guards armed with machine guns, avoided the news, the propaganda-filled children's cartoons, everything that could reveal the brutal reality of my homeland.
Visiting my mother's hometown of Hama all those summers, I noticed a quarter of the town is in rubble. It's an ancient city, but the buildings are no older than my grandmother. The government had demolished the older homes during the 1982 rebellion, when the alleyways made it too easy for citizens to escape. To crush the uprising, the army went door-to-door killing males older than 14. In the western city of Baniyas, where my mom spent her childhood summers at the beach, the men were abducted as well. During the month that Hama rioted, the army killed as many as 40,000 people. I have two cousins in Hama who could easily be facing the same situation right now.
Recent months have felt like history repeating itself. A heartbreaking number of people have been imprisoned or abducted in Syria. College dorms have been ransacked, people have been tracked, and in the end, 8,000 are missing. On July 16th, dozens of members of the army defected, and special forces were brought in to kill them all. Hama barely avoided a massacre, stopped by the presence of U.S. ambassador Robert Ford. As the holy month of Ramadan began, the brief three-week period of peace in Hama ended, replaced by snipers on rooftops, shooting as Syrians left mosques. Last week, one of my mother's distant cousins was killed while talking to a friend on the stoop of his home.
Of all the bewildering, unspoken rules I found in Syria, as a child I made myself a dangerous nuisance about one in particular: talking about politics in public. Each time my cousin would shush me, I'd retort, “Hey, free speech!” I didn't understand that free speech doesn't really exist in Syria. My family would quickly steer the conversation to safer, non-political topics, with anxious glances around the restaurant, making sure that no one had heard us.
Last summer I finally learned why no one speaks out. In June, I asked my mother why Bashar Al-Assad had been president for as long as I could remember. She led me from the balcony of my grandma's apartment, overlooking crowded Mezzeh (a residential area of Damascus), inside to the sitting area. She explained that every election, Al-Assad somehow won about 98 percent of the vote. I was afraid to ask more. What scared me most was the nonchalant tone with which my mother relayed the information. Rigged elections had been the norm in Syria since the ruling Ba'ath Party took over the year my parents were born.
That summer I began to fit the pieces together: the passing remarks about Hama's revolt in the '80s, the fact that outdoor conversations were whispered, the cousins of my mother I had never met. I started to realize why my little cousins would cry if my older cousin threatened to call the police to get them out of her room, but not if I pretended to be the Boogey Man.
Since my last visit, Syria had transformed from my home – jasmine-scented and filled with thrillingly dangerous amusement parks – into the new Syria. The dying Syria. The Syria where the people feared their government. The Syria that blocked blogs and Facebook. This was the Syria that abducted my mom's cousin 29 years ago because he, unlike many, went to the mosque to pray. He hasn't been seen since.
Haquoomay. I've spent my entire life thinking that it was a curse, judging by the venom with which it was always said. Now I know that it means government. Since then, I've learned why the word is so hated, why it is so spitefully pronounced.
I left Syria last summer dreading ever having to return. I didn't want to go back to the place that once felt like home but now felt like I was being watched. Maybe I was exaggerating. Maybe I was being dramatic. Maybe I shouldn't have been so naive to believe that the Syrian government was free of corruption. Nevertheless, I couldn't see Syria the same way anymore.
Then this year, I watched as tyrants fell in Tunisia and Egypt, and rulers elsewhere began to feel the heat. Despite what my parents told me about a Syrian revolution being bloody or possibly sparking a civil war, I kept my fingers crossed, my hopes rising. Weeks passed and Syria seemed the same as always. Perhaps the tide of change was going to recede before it reached Syria. I was just starting to accept that maybe a change was not coming to turn this country back into my Syria, when protesters took to the streets in Deraa. Since then, protests have spread throughout the country and 2,000 people have died.
Two thousand dead, 8,000 missing, and three million still protesting.
In the buzzing bazaar where I bought ice cream last summer, every store is shuttered, the alleys filled with thousands of protesters. The adjacent Omayyad Mosque, once a safe haven, has now born witness to the brutality of the riot police. The statues of presidents that stood over the entrance to every city are being toppled. In my grandma and cousin's neighborhood, which once felt safer and more comfortable than my home in the States, protesters have been taken from their homes by the secret police and army.
The police and army are nothing like what we have in the U.S. The Syrian secret police are agents of the state in civilian clothes whose job it is to hang around in public areas and listen to see if anyone is speaking out against the government. They try to sniff out treason before it starts. There is a special part of the army made up of handpicked criminals, and that is the army you see on the news, throwing tear gas canisters and shooting at protesters. That is the army that comes to decimate revolting cities.
The army has surrounded Hama, whose residents have created makeshift barriers to protect themselves. The government has invaded nine cities; they are using snipers to kill unarmed protesters, and they're murdering mourners at funerals. Fresh mass graves, filled with the bodies of Bashar Al-Assad's victims, have been found in Homs and Hama. Soldiers have begun throwing bodies into the Orotes River.
Somehow, my math homework doesn't exactly take my mind off the danger my family is in. I take out my phone every day to check the news and the latest death tolls. Of course, I'm also checking on the extent of the violence in Hama, Damascus, Hamrah, and Homs, where my friends and family live. I get home and go on Facebook, not to check my notifications like my friends, but to check in with my cousins. (The government has unblocked Facebook in order to track those who organize protests.) With every glance at the news, I can't help wondering, Is my cousin in that crowd? Could my friend be in this picture?
Finally, after weeks, I reach a friend in Hama. When I ask if her family is safe and if there are any protests, she tells me that they are safe, there are only protests in Latakia and Deraa. I have heard from multiple sources that the protests have spread farther than that – even a few within the city she lives in – but I don't say anything. Is she holding back because she's worried someone might see the conversation, or is the government that good at controlling information within Syria? After talking with her, I realize that people in Syria might be in the dark about just how powerful the protests have become. This, on top of everything else, makes me angry. The Ba'ath Party oppresses Syrians, Bashar Al-Assad doesn't take care of his people, and now he isolates them, making them feel weak and alone within their cities? This is personal. In total I've spent more than a year of my short life in Syria, and I'm a citizen. What the government does to one of us, it does to all of us.
My mother, before buying tickets to go to a protest in Washington, D.C., warned that if it wasn't a massive turnout, it would be easier for the Syrian government to get the names of everyone there and accuse them of being enemies of the state. That means that I may never be permitted to return to Syria, unless there is a complete regime change – not just a change of president, or family, or cabinet members.
What Syria needs is a new constitution and to dissolve the current government. Syrians are a determined people, but I'm not sure if even they can defeat this harsh regime. Still, with every poster torn down, a piece of the oppressive Syria comes with it. I will continue to support and help the three million Syrian protesters in lifting this repressive shroud over Syria in whatever small way I can, whether it's joining a Facebook group, or going to a protest, or writing this piece. If the revolution doesn't succeed, it looks like I'll get last summer's wish – I'll never return to my homeland.
Today, no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I hear the chant of “Askkat in-nizzahm!” Whether it's coming from the news on TV, or continuously emanating from the back of my mind, I never forget what my fellow citizens are fighting for.
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