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August 7, 2012

A Syrian Tragedy: One Family’s Horror

Nicole Tung
The brother of Abdul Latif Qureya, who was killed, mourns the loss of at least seven family members

Click here to find out more!War has come to Aleppo on full scale. In the southwestern neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr, Sikari and Salaheddine, explosions rock buildings on a daily basis, and on almost every street you look, glass, debris and rubble litter the place. It is a far cry from the Aleppo I visited almost three weeks ago, when nightly demonstrations filled the air with defiance and protesters slipped into the pink, blue and fluorescent lights of these working-class neighborhoods. Now, Salaheddine is emptied of its residents who have fled to schools, mosques and parks around the city. But Bustan al-Qasr is different. Most of its residents stayed, and in a densely populated area frequently hit hard by shells, airstrikes and helicopter attacks, it means a high casualty rate.

Civilians have tried to go about their daily business as Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters patrol the streets and head out for missions in nearby neighborhoods. Some afternoons are quiet in Bustan al-Qasr, but shells land consistently in the distance and then suddenly, the explosions visit this area. At about 2:30 p.m. today, a MiG-29 screamed overhead, flying extremely low, with the distinct sound of an impact a few seconds later. Out on the streets, civilians ran in all directions fleeing the scene. An apartment block had been hit, and the injured were being carried out. Two girls with paled, shocked faces came running out, unable to make sense of what had just happened. And then a man, covered in dust, dressed only in an undershirt and trousers, stumbled out after them, his face in disbelief. He was screaming over the telephone in the middle of the street, and on the shop shutter behind him graffiti was scrawled: “Zero hour has come, God, Syria, Freedom.”

The MiG returned, screamed overhead again, sending the man and the crowd nearby scrambling for cover. FSA fighters raised their AK-47s and tried to shoot at the plane in a futile attempt to do something. The second bomb dropped just half a block away, and the street instantly became filled with dust and debris, falling like confetti. FSA fighters joined the fray, and instantly more men, women and children were running. One man held a green telephone, clutching it in one hand and holding a girl in the other as they ran. Chaos. Men, armed and unarmed, ran toward the other damaged building to search for injured and then a third bomb dropped on a building across the street, sending more debris raining down. People came pouring out of the apartments screaming, their hands on their heads, all unable to understand. They looked at the cars on the street, flattened by falling concrete, turned their heads toward the sky and ran back inside as they heard the plane again. This time, there was no explosion.

On a bloodied mattress, the lifeless body of Abdul Latif Qureya was being hurried by five men toward a pickup truck that would take him to the secret field hospital. And then another mattress, this time with a man who miraculously survived, was carried out. More women and children came out, carrying few possessions and the clothes on their backs as they fled.

At the secret field hospital, the bodies began arriving. Qureya’s was already there, then his children and extended family began coming in. Lying near him was Bara’a, 8. Then came Hatem, 15, who was barely alive as he was plucked from the rubble of his apartment. But he didn’t make it, and he was dead on arrival. Qureya’s wife Wahiba was cut in half, and her body remained missing. Somewhere in the apartment was his other son Mahmoud. And then Qureya’s niece Takreet, 7, came in, her purple T-shirt and her face covered in dust. She too was lifeless, her mouth slightly ajar, probably as she took her last breath. A few minutes later, a man ran through the door holding a small blanketed body, Youssef, 1, Qureya’s nephew. He was limp in his underwear and undershirt.

In total, seven of the Qureya family were killed. Five of them were children under 15 years old. Two more bodies, of men, were brought in. One was Samer Bassar, 37, dressed in a beige djellaba and holding prayer beads, covered in blood. Another man was unidentified.

Horror visits Aleppo in many forms. Today, it was by way of a warplane.

Nicole Tung is a freelance photographer who previously documented the uprisings in Libya and Egypt. See more of her work here.

Facts on the ground the only narrative that matters in Syria

Aug 7, 2012


One day during my high school studies in Syria, over a decade ago, the school’s administration decided to replace a sport class with a science class to compensate for the absence of a teacher. About half of my classmates rejected the decision (they liked their sport), refused to enter the class and stood outside in protest.

I had never seen the school’s administration more nervous. That negligible act of rebellion compelled the headmaster to come and speak to us personally, armed with what I’d call the Baathist tools of coercion. “I know that most of you are good people,” he told us, “but I want you to point out to me the subversive student among you, who I know is an ikhwanji (a pejorative term that refers to a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation).

“If you do not, I will have to call the Political Security (a branch of the mukhabarat, with an office adjacent to the school)”. That sentence was powerful enough to make us return to class, without uttering a word.

I’m reminded of that defining day on the schoolyard as I watch the world try to make sense of the absurdity of the Assad regime today, and its answer to any form of dissent by calling Syrians “mundasseen” – infiltrators.

Syrians raised under this regime know that taking to the streets to call for the government’s downfall is the very definition of audacity. Syrians do not need to be told by media what the regime is capable of or how it behaves when it is confronted. They also do not need to be told to fight until the end because they know full well the regime kills and tortures in times of calm, as it does when it is embattled.

Yet outside Syria, a narrative taking root suggests that the Syrian uprising is somehow less worthy than the other Arab pro-democracy revolts that swept the region last year. The Syrian uprising, according to this narrative, is a foreign conspiracy promoted by biased media and instigated by extremists. The position is maintained largely by the Arab left, pan-Arabists and anti-imperialists, as if the only way to resist imperialism or an Israeli threat is for the Syrian people to endure living under Baathism.

Mohamed Hassanein Haykal, a veteran Egyptian journalist and a former adviser to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, dismissed the Syrian uprising late last year as one spurred by foreign intelligence. He said the cities that revolted against the regime were border cities – proof, he said, it was not a real revolution. Only if Damascus and Aleppo rose up, he argued, could the uprising be considered a legitimate revolution. Since the two main cities rose up, however, he has remained deafeningly silent. (It’s worth reminding Haykal that all Syrian cities, except Hama and Suweida, are border cities).

Others have jumped from denying the existence of a popular uprising to labelling it a civil war. When Abdul Razzaq Tlass defected in June last year, for example, Asad Abu Khalil, an influential Lebanese-American pundit known for his criticism of Israel, posted this comment on his blog: “Western and Arab (Saudi and Qatari) media are so desperate for any news that is damaging to the Syrian regime that they play up the ‘news’ of YouTube-based defection of individual soldiers or officers. That is really not news worthy.”

Not long after that comment was made, the lieutenant became a nightmare for the regime, battling with a group of military defectors for 28 days in Baba Amr.

The Syrian opposition has undeniably committed several human rights violations. But it is one thing to highlight these violations, quite another to undermine the sacrifices of people who seek nothing but freedom from a brutal regime. Syrian activists, via social media, highlight and criticise abuses more often than any human rights organisation. In March, when Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the Syrian opposition about human rights violations, Syrian activists issued a letter that unequivocally acknowledged the importance of constructive criticism and called on the organisation to continue to highlight violations.

Abu Khalil and others have tried to taint the Syrian uprising as a foreign plot, and save particular ire for Qatar. Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite behemoth based in Doha, has borne the brunt of this criticism.

Last week the astute Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi wrote that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabia have “lowered their journalistic standards, abandoned rudimentary fact-checks, and relied on anonymous callers and unverified videos in place of solid reporting”.

I share some of Al Qassemi’s sentiments but disagree with the attempt to undermine the narrative of the activists, especially the suggestion that anonymous callers are paid “handsome amounts of money” to appear on these channels.

Qatar’s role in the Arab world was once hailed. In 2006, Abu Khalil called the arrival of Emir Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani in Lebanon a “PR coup for the Qatari government”. After the Hizbollah-Israel war in 2006, during a visit to Beirut, Qatar’s emir was symbolically handed keys to Lebanon by Lebanese officials, who called the emir the owner of the land rather than its guest.

But regardless of how the uprising is being portrayed by regional governments, or their affiliated media, the only narrative that matters for Syria is the fact on the ground. The regime is suffering everywhere in the country, from Idlib to Damascus to Deir Ezzor. Generals continue to defect, others are killed in battle and officials at the regime’s helm continue to defect.

These are all stories that must be told.


White light/black rain: the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


Featuring interviews with fourteen atomic bomb survivors, many of whom have never spoken publicly before, and four Americans intimately involved in the bombings, WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN provides a detailed exploration of the bombings and their aftermath. In a succession of riveting personal accounts, the film reveals both unimaginable suffering and extraordinary human resilience. Survivors (85% of victims were civilians) not vaporized during the attacks (140,000 died in Hiroshima, 70,000 in Nagasaki) continued to suffer from burns, infection, radiation sickness and cancer (another 160,000 deaths). As Sakue Shimohira, ten years old at the time, says of the moment she considered killing herself after losing the last member of her family: I realized there are two kinds of courage the courage to die and the courage to live.

Other survivors include: Kiyoko Imori, just blocks from the hypocenter, she is the only survivor of an elementary school of 620 students. Keiji Nakazawa, who lost his father, brother and two sisters, then devoted his life to re-telling his story in comic books and animation. Shuntaro Hida, a young military doctor at the time, began treating survivors immediately after the explosion and, 60 years later, continues to provide care for them. Etsuko Nagano still cant forgive herself for convincing her family to come to Nagasaki, just weeks before the bombing. With a calm frankness that makes their stories unforgettable, the survivors bear witness to the unfathomable destructive power of nuclear weapons. Their accounts are illustrated with survivor paintings and drawings, historical footage and photographs, including rare or never before seen material.


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