Over the last forty years, the Assad regime has mastered the method of burying our stories almost as well as burying our people. Our cities, like their residents, carry the scars of brutality, hiding decades of bloody secrets within their thick stone walls. One city in particular, Hama, lives with a twenty-nine-year-old secret, its 1982 massacre. It’s not really a secret, rather classified as a taboo subject never to be discussed in voices louder than whispers behind closed doors. Syrians didn’t even call it a massacre, they vaguely referred to it as al-ahdath, the events, as if there were an unspoken deal between the murderous regime and the people. We thought all these years if we never mentioned Hama again, the crimes would never be repeated, and the rest of us would be safe. We were wrong. The dark February month, when tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered (the real number will never be known) and thousands more were imprisoned, was destined to be swept under the regime’s dirty rug, and Hama, was destined to be forgotten forever. But after March 15th, the deal of silence was breached, as the crimes of the father were repeated by the son, and the blood of Hama’s past mixed with its present, its stories emerging from the repressed collective memory to join the new painful chapters written every day.
Twenty-nine years later, the tactics have changed but the intention is the same: bury the story with the people and cover the evidence in a fog of misinformation and confusion. The Syrian revolution’s media war has become almost as fierce as the battles on the streets. From satellite channels, social media platforms, and international newspapers, there is a PR war to be won by both sides. The regime’s strict ban on independent journalists entering the country has created two kinds of stories, undercover reports by journalists who dare to slip into the country for a few days through the Turkish or Lebanese borders, like Anthony Shadid, or reports by the privileged few who enter with the regime’s consent, like Hala Gorani, and are escorted by minders to “protect” them from mysterious “armed gangs,” and obviously, the truth.
These stories do not help strengthen the narrative that the regime wants to sell its supporters and the world. In the last few months, Bashar al-Assad seemed to realize that no news from his side is not necessarily good news. Perhaps in an effort to generate a more favorable narrative, a selective few have been granted access to Syria. These journalists, like Robert Fisk, Andrew Gilligan, and Nir Rosen, are vaguely not escorted, but not undercover. Their articles are branded as “exclusive,” “unique,” with unlimited access to “all sides,” commissioned to expose a radically different side of the revolution than what currently floods the regional and international media outlets which have been based on the steady stream of daily videos and eye-witness accounts.
Although these journalists vary in background and expertise, their accounts are similarly framed: focusing on the brewing, deadly sectarianism; proving the existence of an armed opposition; equalizing the regime’s force with the people’s dissent; while casting the protesters’ narrative in a cloud of doubt. Fisk’s recent reportage reads as if he were speaking directly from the presidential palace, or humble, unguarded, “largeish suburban bungalow,” if you are to believe Gilligan. And surprisingly, Nir Rosen’s recent series for Al Jazeera English seems to suffer from the same regime-tainted myopia.
Rosen spent seven weeks this summer in Syria, touring Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, speaking as he says, “to all sides.” But from the first article entitled, “The revolution will be weaponized,” it is clear how heavily one-sided this series was designed to be. His focus on the deep, historical grievances of the Alawite (but not Sunni) sect and his endless comparisons of Syria to Iraq casts a distinct air of doom and hopelessness over every piece.
Inspired by Rosen’s “A Tale of Two Villages,” in which he compares an Alawite village to a Sunni one, I would like to tell you two tales of al-Rastan. This small town, with a significant population of military families, located between Hama and Homs, has become the geographic and revolutionary heart of Syria. According to Rosen, al-Rastan is the headquarters of the “armed opposition.” But French journalist Sofia Amara, who visited the town around the same time as Rosen, witnessed another side to the same story.
Amara visited Syria undercover, for eleven days in early August, traveling to Zabadani, Damascus, Hama, Homs, and al-Rastan. When I met her, she spoke with guarded hesitation, even in the safety of her Paris apartment, although her fifty-two minute documentary film, Syria: Inside the Repression, exposes her name and face to the world. She is still afraid. For weeks after her safe return from Syria, Amara slept with hands formed into tight fists, thumbs protected, a habit she picked up from the locals. They sleep with their fingernails digging into their palms, because they fear of having their fingernails ripped out because of their dissent. Maybe the fear stems from the stories of the Daraa children, maybe from older prison stories, or maybe because it is the only form of torture that you imagine you can protect yourself from, even while you sleep.
With her sharp mannerisms, precise expressions in English, French, and Lebanese Arabic, and unruly, jet-black hair, Amara exudes an electric intensity. Although she is probably the toughest woman I have ever met, the hard, confident shell disappears when she speaks about al-Rastan, “Al-Rastan was amazing. I had the chance to be there when it was liberated. It was surrounded by tanks, but inside, it was free. The revolutionaries were in control of it, not with weapons, but with their strength.” Her affection and respect for the men who gave her complete access to tell their story is reflected in her voice and her eyes. One man was arrested and tortured for accompanying Amara. Her voice oscillates between excitement as she describes their courage, and sadness when she remembers, “But they have no one to support them.” Some of those same men are now dead.
Rosen similarly describes al-Rastan when he visited it on August 31st, “We drove north to Rastan, a city with a strong opposition presence. The last time I was there, several weeks earlier, I had counted 50 tanks along the perimeter of the town. As we drove toward the town, the scene was wholly different, not a single tank in sight. Rastan felt liberated.”
While in al-Rastan, both Amara and Rosen visited the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade, a group of defected soldiers who were hidden in a safe house outside the town. Before Rosen meets the soldiers, he builds up the fear scenario with an over-dramatized, detailed description of a complicated set up that included a ski mask, switching vehicles, and a forced, sweaty, wardrobe change. “I felt claustrophobic and trapped. I could hear my own breathing louder than usual as we bounced around on a rough road. In eight years of working in conflict zones with armed groups I had never been told to put a mask on.” What he does not mention is that this extreme fear stems from knowing that the defected soldiers are probably the most wanted group by the regime because these soldiers had decided to stand with the people instead of shooting them.
At the safe house, Rosen meets first lieutenant Muhamad Abdelaziz Tlass who explains, “We are free officers rejecting the oppression of people and we are protecting the innocent people.” Rosen continues, “Tlass claimed their first operation occurred on June 20 when they defended a demonstration. Military security ordered an armored personnel vehicle belonging to the army to shoot at a demonstration. Four children were killed and he claimed security forces killed an army general for refusing to shoot. But it was more likely that the deserting soldiers had killed the general.” Rosen also admits, “The overwhelming majority of the opposition is peaceful and unarmed.” But the statement is followed by a suspicious, “For some it is a question of principal or strategy; for many it is simply because they do not have access to weapons that would be useful against the powerful Syrian security forces. There are various different armed opposition actors in Syria. Together they have killed around 700 hundred members of the Syrian security forces in various clashes and ambushes.”
This judgmental language is a continuous thread throughout Rosen’s accounts, which jump between dates and locations, and splice current events into the summer journal. He, like other journalists, does not differentiate between the peaceful protesters on the street and the defected soldiers who now form the Free Syrian Army, lumping them together into the “armed opposition” category. His statements are tainted with sectarianism that frames every piece in the series. He says, “Certainly violence tends to divide people, they watch different media, they go to different funerals, Alawites go to funerals for Alawite martyrs who may be in the police or in the army, Sunnis will go to funerals for martyrs who are demonstrators.” According to Rosen, the situation in Syria, “reminded me of Iraq,” or the way people spoke were “euphemisms I heard in Iraq.” Even when he witnesses protesters’ anti-sectarian chants he says, “although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq.” One especially divisive statement caught my attention, “Increasing communal violence, this is the scariest part of what’s happening in Syria, in the villages of Homs and Hama, you have local militias being developed in Alawite and Sunni areas, you have the beginning of sectarian cleansing, Alawite families being kicked out of Sunni villages, if you are a Sunni who goes into an Alawite village you will be killed sometimes, if you are an Alawite who goes into a Sunni village you will be killed.” Is communal violence really the “scariest part of what’s happening in Syria”? And if you are an Alawite you will be killed, but if you are a Sunni you will be killed “sometimes”? I wish someone, Rosen or others, would tell us, out of the over 4000 confirmed dead in Syria plus the over 700 soldiers, how many were Sunnis and how many were Alawites? But then that would be very sectarian of me to ask, wouldn’t it?
When Amara visits the defected soldiers, she gets there riding on a motorcycle in the dark, on the main highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo. On the motorcycle, the driver explains, “The entire road is monitored with night vision goggles, so we turn the headlight off and go through dirt roads between the trees.” When I ask her if she was scared, she acts cool and says, “It’s my job.” She arrives to the safe house and proceeds to interview the soldiers, their faces exposed, their IDs in hand. She plainly films their weapons lined on the wall. No drama. One of the defected soldiers tells Amara, “It’s only a few hours or days before I will die, so let me do a good deed in my life before I die and make you coffee, so you can drink coffee made by the hands of a martyr!”
First lieutenant Tlass, one of the first defectors, an al-Rastan native and relative of former Minister of Defense to both Hafez and Bashar, Moustafa Tlass, is also interviewed by Amara. He has traveled with the army from the beginning of the uprising from Daraa to the central Homs/al-Rastan area. He clearly states, “I was a witness to the massacres that the regime has inflicted on the people. There are no armed gangs. There is no one but us, the Free Syrian Army, to protect the people. We have the right to protect the people, and the use of weapons, and the use of force, against any security forces or any force that wants to hurt our people.” These men have witnessed the regime’s crimes of murder, torture and rape; some of them were imprisoned on the accusation of “showing leniency towards the people.” The Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade recently entered Homs during the government crackdown on the city during the Eid celebrations. This video shows Tlass speaking about their mission.
The only historical analysis Rosen was willing or allowed (I’m not clear which) to enrich his pieces with was atwo-part detailed account on the history of the oppressed Alawite sect in Syria. It reads like a Syrian version of the American “Why do they hate us?” argument. He pays special attention to the history of the Alawite sect that apparently has also suffered greatly under the Assad rule. “The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognize any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings. This could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith. Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were ‘good Muslims’ so as to win Sunni acceptance. Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity.”
While this history is significant, where was the missing piece of the Syrian sectarian puzzle? Where was the historical account of the non-Alawite majority being trodden upon for forty years by an oppressive regime? And where were “the events” of Hama? In Rosen’s accounts to date, although Hama the city is mentioned several times, and the 1979-82 assassinations by the Muslim Brotherhood is repeated multiple times, the massacre of Hama is mentioned only once. Rosen describes it as a “violent crackdown” that left at least 10,000 men, women, and children dead. If 10,000 murdered people (which is the most conservative number used for Hama’s victims) is a crackdown, then what is a massacre?
While Rosen focuses on growing “sectarian hate,” we are inspired by the incredible courage of prominent Alawite figures such as writer Samar Yazbek and actress Fadwa Suleiman who stand clearly with the opposition and against the regime. He reluctantly admits, in the piece titled “Ghosts in the mosques,” “There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.” Rosen should be clear about his narrow perspective. Did he spend more time with Alawites because of preconceived notions, the urge to report the “other” story that wasn’t being covered, or simply because that is what he had easiest access to? It seems all of these reasons aligned; this is the story he knew, this is the story he wanted to tell. In fact, if you read only Rosen’s articles on Syria, you would assume it is already the site of a raging civil war that erupted out of nowhere, complete with “sectarian cleansing,” just like in Iraq. Propagating the common western narrative of a people, who are ruled for decades under an oppressive dictatorship, waking up after centuries of social and religious cohabitation, and deciding: today, we will kill each other.
Amara traveled to Syria to tell a different story. During her short trip, she remembers a couple of moments that affected her the most, “I was in a house in Hama, poor people, they sat on the floor, on cushions. They were laughing, making coffee, saying they accuse us of being Salifis and Islamists, but look at us wearing shorts and drinking coffee in Ramadan. A man who had been tortured told me, ‘We now dream to die in a civilized way, with a beautiful bullet that would end our lives quickly, a bullet made for humans, not birds like the ones they fire at us, that we would die in way our families would be able to recognize our corpses.’” This is what the desperation in Syria looks like, our men dreaming of “beautiful bullets.”
The second instance was in Hama, Amara continues, “There was a man who was sitting near a grave in a public garden, the man was buried in the garden because there was no way to reach the cemetery. I followed him, asking questions. Then I asked, ‘Can you give us your name?’ He replied, ‘No, I can’t.’ He took out a cardboard sign with a name written on it and said, ‘This is the name of the martyr Milad Gimmosh.’ I asked him, ‘In this country, only the dead can give their names?’ He replied, ‘Of course, only the dead, the living cannot.’ You have to be dead to give your name.”
In Syria, martyrs’ funerals begin with one coffin and end with more dead bodies to bury, an unbreakable cycle. As a recent tweet explained, “Only in Syria, a man goes to a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was a protester.”
But not all the dead are buried in parks and marked by a piece of cardboard. At least not in the funeral Fisk chooses, or is escorted, to attend. He describes the official funeral of two soldiers as “the send-off their families would have wished for; coffins draped with the Syrian flag, trumpets and drums and wreaths held by their comrades, and the presence of their commanding officer.”
Maybe Rosen is right, our funerals are different from theirs.
Fisk continues, “They were shot dead in Deraa – by snipers, according to their commanding officer, Major Walid Hatim. ‘By terrorists,’ he said several times. Assad’s opponents might have no sympathy with these dead soldiers – nor Amnesty, nor Human Rights Watch, nor the United Nations, who say 3,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces, nor the Americans, nor the British et al – but those two coffins suggested that there is more than one story to the Syrian Revolution. Syrian officers told me yesterday that 1,150 soldiers have been killed in Syria in the past seven months, an extraordinary death toll for regular Syrian troops if correct.”
Fisk is urged by the dead soldier’s uncle to tell the world about the atrocities facing the regime, “I hope you will be honest and tell the truth,’ he said. ‘Tell the truth about the killing of Syrian people. The hand of terrorists took my nephew. We are all ready to be martyred for Syria and for our President Assad.’ It sounded too pat, this little speech from a grieving man, and a reporter must ask if this was a set-up. Yet the military had only four minutes before I arrived for the funeral, and I doubt if they could have coaxed this poor man to say these words.” Actually, any reporter who has spent a fraction of the time Fisk has in the region, would know that no Syrian needs coaxing to say those words, they were bred to say them.
Amara makes an important point about the opposition being nameless in Syria. Rosen’s and Fisk’s accounts are filled with real names, people who are not afraid of telling their version of the story. I wonder why they would not be afraid, if there were so many “armed gangs” or Rosen’s “weaponized opposition” out to get them? I wonder why the pro-regime demonstrations openly occupy our city squares, with no snipers or scary, fundamentalist Sunnis to fear? I wonder why the balance of fear is so skewed, if the two sides were equal as these journalists would like their readers to believe? Or worse, as in this hysterical announcement by Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, the Syrian “expert,” that “the death toll among the security forces is now starting to surpass that of the protesters.” The source of this gem? None other then The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, who was also granted the latest exclusive interview with the president, in which we learned that the Syrian dictator is relaxed in his jeans, not worried, and acting pleasantly “like a nerd.” (We also learned that the president leads a normal life, that’s why he is popular.) The interview was conducted on the same Friday when the protesters demanded a “No Fly Zone” and over twenty protesters were killed in Homs. Perhaps in Assad’s delusional world, it truly was a care-free Friday.
These media games are designed to portray Syria as a land of confusion, where the truth is elusive, undefined, impossible to verify, and impossible to know. But even a subject as ugly and divisive as sectarianism can be treated in a sensitive and honest way, like in two of Anthony Shadid’s recent articles, released back-to-back. The first examines the current sectarian rifts in Homs, and the second is a historical account of the Arab Christian experience, bleakly offering a warning and a lesson. Shadid serves grim reality alongside hope grounded in history. He, is not afraid to “speak truth to the people” as Rosen says. But this truth (and proof) of rising sectarianism comes after months well-rounded reporting, thus legitimizes the source and the the story. So here is the truth: it should not be disputed that the Alawites have suffered a brutal history of abuse and atrocities in pre-Assad Syria; that there are sectarian rifts in the society (although heavily propagated by the regime); that there is an armed element to the uprisings; that supporters of the regime do exist and not every pro-regime demonstrator was threatened, bussed in, or paid to wave the flag. It is wrong (and not smart) for the opposition to deny any of these facts. It is also true that both sides are afraid, but there is a significant difference: one side is afraid of an uncertain future, and the other is afraid it will not survive another day in the present.
While the media speculates the “inevitable” civil war, and Assad’s thugs move from attacks on the streets to attacks on university campuses, and the Free Syrian Army adds more names to its roster of defected soldiers and boldly escalates the scale of their attacks on regime buildings, the opposition marches on, nameless and faceless. Amara’s film zooms in close to show the heart of this revolution: the people. She understands the importance Rosen’s concept of “hanging out” with the people. She visits their kitchens; eats iftar with them on the floor; she walks in protests; and even descends into a grave in al-Rastan where defected soldier, Fadi al-Kassem was being buried after security forces killed him. She invents creative ways of filming her subjects while concealing their identities, exposing only torsos, hands, knees, backs of legs. She artfully frames her shots through mesh, closed windows, and holes in doors. Heads are filmed from the back or covered, and faces are blurred.
Except the mothers. The mothers face the camera. Because they have nothing more to lose. Amara followed one mother whose son had been buried in the same park-turned-graveyard in Hama. Shrouded in black with her face exposed, she sat on the ground caressing the dirt, and she told Amara, “I’ve been sleeping for ten days over his grave. What shall I say? Where is my voice going to reach?” Amara asked her, “Would you like me to cover your face?” She replied in anger, “Don’t cover it. Because I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of him, even if he wants to come and cut me to pieces, him and his party. They’ve slaughtered us for forty-two years and silenced our tongues. My children’s father was taken in the ‘80s, hung in Tadmor by the dog Hafez al-Assad.” She moved her hand over the ground again, “I wish they were here and we were eating this beautiful dirt; instead of being under it. Instead of being dead.” This mother refuses to live with the secret any longer. Is this what is takes to completely break the barrier of fear?
This year, our new “events” began in Daraa, circulated around the edges of our map from Deir al-Zor and Latakia, and moved to the heart of our country, pulsing from Hama, al-Rastan, Idleb, Jisr al-Shughour, and Jabal al-Zawiyeh. And today, Homs is our future city of secrets. We have yet to know how many are buried in the rubble of Baba Amr. We have yet to know how many people will die this winter from the government-enforced fuel, gas, and electricity shortages. Until Syria’s borders are open for all journalists to report freely without minders and handlers, to verify videos or record them themselves, those of us who know Syria will read every story with care. No amount of over-dramatized fear, like the comical account of Richard Engel, will convince us. And Rosen’s description of the too-tight polyester tracksuit and side of extra sweaty details adds color but not courage to his reporting, though it may qualify him for a TMI award.
In the end, despite the quest for objectivity, we write what we know and we search for what we wish to see. Every story, imagined or real, is nothing but a reflection of its writer’s frame of reference, and thus, their bias. Sometimes biases merely mirror another side, other times biases become lethal. It is up to the reader to sift through the information, and to believe, or not.
When it comes to Syria, I’ll take my stories faceless and nameless. Except of course, when the stories are of the dead. Then, the faces are uncovered, the tortured bodies are exposed. We learn their histories after they are buried in graves marked by pieces of cardboard. Those are the faces we see, the names we memorize, the ones we will never forget, because Syrians are no longer in the business of keeping bloody secrets.
Al-Rastan has lost dozens of people in this uprising, and hundreds more have vanished into the prisons. One day, people will be able to visit al-Rastan to decide for themselves what really happened in this small, but infinitely brave town. Those who have escaped bullets, beautiful and ugly, will live to tell their stories and their truth.