I Love Syria, That’s Why I’m Writing This Post

The old city in Damascus

I am a, for now, retired humanitarian aid worker, who have worked in many countries across the world, mostly in the Middle East. In my former profession I tried not to be too wrapped up in the countries that I lived in, since it’s important to remain calm and neutral as much as possible. Plenty of young Westerners have been travelling to countries in what we used to love to call the third world and start to identify with the countries, the politics and the people. As a humanitarian aid worker you’re not supposed to do that; overly identifying means you loose part of your focus.

But here’s a confession to make from my side: when I see the current news from Syria, and when I hear other aid workers talk about Syria in the most general ways, it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart, because people who didn’t know Syria before the war don’t know anything about the country. Aid workers and people outside who have never been, seem to see it as just another country where conflict has been going on and will be going on forever. They see it as a country where every person is a potential islamic fundamentalist. They see it as a country where there are few functioning schools, few functional hospitals, where water and electricity is a luxury. A country like any other country they have worked in.

What breaks my heart is, people who only have seen Syria in a state of conflict, have never seen it as it really is. I have been living in many countries in the Middle East and Syria is my absolute favourite. Not by choice, it was just one of the places where I grew really attached to the place, where the good by far outweighed the bad. Syria is my pearl in the ocean. Let me tell you why.

Syria is the country that has a beautiful capital, a capital where night clubs takes place just like late-night cafés and restaurants; beach resorts; mosques and ancient buildings.

Syria is a country that lacks the superficiality that sometimes takes over in Lebanon, a country that has the night life that you won’t find in Jordan (with or without alcohol), a place where men and women; people from different religions; locals and foreigners, easily mix.

Syria is the country where people will keep their promise, they pick you up when they say they will pick you up, call you when they say they will call you.

Syria is a country where liberal people are next door neighbours with conservative.

Syria is a country where you sit in a café playing dawla with your girlfriend until midnight and no one bothers you.

Syria is the country where you go to have ice cream with your colleagues after work at Abu Shaker’s restaurant in Damascus on a weekday, or hit the swimming pool in your bikini in Damarose Hotel on a hot summer’s day, working on your tan and ordering plenty of arabic coffees to have at the pool, or go to Lounge 808 on a Friday night for a drink.

Syria is not a country of extremists, it’s a not a country of terrorists, it’s a country where people used to live and prosper in some of the most dynamic ways in the Middle East, before the civil war started.

Syria was once a place where friendship, love and beautiful things took place – now it’s a country that’s reduced to the international headlines of terror and misery, and humanitarian aid workers whose beer drinking and generalised ideas of a country full of war and terrorists, have taken over a place where beautiful things once was. That is what breaks my heart.

Photo copyrights: Sweden and the Middle East Views

I Love My City Damascus

View from 4 Seasons Hotel in Damascus

News from Damascus are always depressing nowadays. But it used to be a vibrant city, full of life. When I lived there last year the fear of the war was present in the city, but here are the words of a young woman from Damascus and how her life used to be before the war.

“I grew up in Damascus and when we went to visit the village my parents came from, I just wanted to go back home. My parents’ village is beautiful, green and with fresh air, but it’s not like the city. In Damascus I had everything; freedom and friends.

Summers were the best. My cousin was older and worked in Saudi Arabia and used to come home for vacation in the summers. She got divorced and when she came home she wanted to have a good time, to live a free life, a life she couldn’t live over there. When she was in Damascus I packed a bag with all my stuff and moved in with her. She rented a flat downtown and I stayed with her there all summer. My family was angry with me for moving out from them, they thought my cousin had bad influence on me, but there was nothing they could do. I had become so independent from them since I started working and making my own money.

Me and my cousin never cooked, we just ordered take out to the house or went to restaurants. We went to the swimming pools somewhere in the city and ordered sheesha. In the evenings we went clubbing, there were many nightclubs to go to, and there were always a lot of guys after us. We had a good time with them, we let them pay for everything, then when we got bored with them we just hopped in a taxi and left” (she shows how they teasingly waved goodbye from the car window while laughing) “We never talked politics back then. She supported the president, she thought it was because of Bashar al Assad that she could live a free life in Syria comparing to the life she had as a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia. I was against Assad, just like my father was, but me and my cousin never spoke about it. We just had a great time together. I loved my city.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

mosque 1

Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damacus old city, an ancient building completed in year 715. Photos are taken during a Friday evening in June 2013.

mosque 2

Also an excellent place to spend a Friday night at, for prayers and socializing. Or a playground, with it’s shiny floor perfect for sliding on…

mosque 3

Let’s hope it will remain throughout the war.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Two Voices from Aleppo University

Aleppo University after the bombings January 2013

I was able to talk with two persons from Aleppo University in Syria, that shared what they had been going through.

Here are their stories:

I was offered a job at Aleppo university after my studies. When the revolution started we as employees in a governmental institution were made to cooperate with shabiha (a feared subgroup within the Syrian intelligence/military, some claim they are criminals that the government recruits to terrorize civilians, a strategy to stop the revolution). We had to assist them in their fights against the protests. I tried to act as if I assisted them, then I was able to escape the country.

My home in Syria is all destroyed, my street is in ruins. No food is available and when going to search for food to buy people are being killed by snipers. Why are the government and the Free Syrian Army taking it out on us? We are only citizens.I  didn’t think the revolution would go this bad, and I blame both sides now. They have both helped in destroying my city.”

I was a student in Aleppo university. In January 2012 students were gathering in front of the cafeteria, holding a protest. They were protesting peacefully, shouting for freedom, protesting against the war and demanding the release of political prisoners. Security guards inside the university called shabiha without the students knowing. They came directly and started arresting students on spot and hit them with electrical batons. Another time they gassed the university with teargas.

Then on January 15 2013, it was first day of the examinations, the government bombed the university, many people saw the attack and that it was carried out by a warplane. Still when I see a plane or helicopter in the sky I get an awful feeling. One missile hit the entrance of the faculty of architecture; the other one hit the student dorm that had been evacuated to host refugees from other areas of Aleppo, people that had have to flee their homes. Dead people were littering the streets all around.

I can’t forget the barbarity of Shabiha and the security forces, the way I saw them attack the students or the sounds of clashes and missiles around us. I still have nightmares and then I wake up sometimes and I have to say to myself: ‘It’s ok, I’m out of Syria,I’m safe now’. But now a year after my departure, the situation is more much worse. There are inner borders and snipers in everywhere and there isn’t any safe place left in Aleppo.

Photo credit: New York Times

Aleppo Screams S.O.S.

Aleppo Screams SoS pic

So now the world is discussing whether the international community should intervene in Syria after the latest chemical attacks that the regime brought on its people. I can’t launch a clear opinion in this issue, because I’m not sure an international military intervention would bring less suffering to the Syrian people – but assistance of some kind seems to be needed since the revolt has escalated into civil war, with human rights abuses reported from both sides. But what the world show know is, many of the Syrian people have been asking for help for a long time, before the conflict steered towards total chaos.

The ancient city of Aleppo, once a beautiful green city in the northern part of the country, is now one of the most destroyed cities in the world. Eager to crack down on the uprising, the Syrian government has bombed the city to pieces, wiping out the infrastructure. Electricity and water is cut off, hospitals are functioning without the most basic needs, earlier this year 90% of all children of Aleppo were reported to be out of school – and the number can hardly have decreased. Below is  picture of Saif Aldowleh Avenue in Aleppo before the war started in 2011, shared with me by someone that wants to show the world what happened to his city.

And here is the same avenue, from a slightly different angle, today:

Do you think this might be expected when it’s a war somewhere? Then remember that the inner city of Damascus is still untouched, with schools and supermarkets open and a vivid nightlife still available for young people to party and attend karaoke nights, like nothing is happening in other parts of the country.

Desperate to make the world realize what is going on, a Facebookpage was started by some of the inhabitants of Aleppo in June 2012; Aleppo Screams SoS. Click on the link and have a look to see how the citizens of Aleppo were asking for help long before the most recent events, publishing photos on the ongoing destruction, photos of killed children, asking people to share. I hope the world will listen soon.

Photos: anonymous source, copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog; Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/AleppoScreamsSos

Mr President, What’s Going on in Your Country?

In the suburbs of Damascus, children are gassed to death by chemical weapons, and the old city Aleppo is one of the most destroyed cities in the world, bombed by it’s own government. But in the heart of the capital the president is still holding up, selling propaganda material for you to put on your refrigerator door, as if nothing is happening.

President Bashar Al Assad on the top, and the flag of Syria.

The flag and the map of Syria edited in a heart, sentences stating things like: “I love Damascus”, “I love Hama” and, of course, “I love Bashar”.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

“If someone asks you about what is happening in Syria tell him the humanity is died”

Today media has been flooded with the news that Syria has used chemical weapons in another one of their massacres of the citizens in Damascus suburbs, Eastern Ghouta. Some say victims counts in hundreds, others claim it’s over one thousand. Children suffocated to death after the and hospitals did not have enough resources to treat the overwhelming amount of victims rushed to the emergency rooms, where many more lives were lost, because what hospital can be prepared for a massacre?

I’m not posting the photos here but you can imagine what victims that has suffocated to death look like: frozen faces where panic and fear is still visible, mouth and eyes wide open.

It’s not the first time Syria has used chemical weapons on it’s citizens though. In March and April this year the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons in order to strike out the population. And in the 1980s the regime used the same kind of weapons to – effectively – crack down on the erstwhole uprising.

Today many of my friends Facebookpages were filled with sad and angry updates, and not of the regular kind. On one friends status, someone commented: “If someone asks you about what is happening in Syria tell him the humanity is died”

I Survived the Banyas Massacre (warning: gruesome story)

Who told me this story? It doesn’t matter. When did I here this? In June this year, one month after the Banyas massacre had taken place on May 3 2013, conducted by governmental troops on civilians. In Damascus noone mentioned the massacre by name, instead we called it “unrest” or “outbreak of violence”. The result of the systematic killing of everyone in the village is easily found online, but in the heart of the government controlled capital that is nothing you can talk about.

Why did the person tell me this story, despite the danger of talking about the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria? I guess some things are just too unbearable to keep to yourself. I couldn’t share this story while I was still in Syria, but I can now. And why am I sharing it? I want the world to know. I hope all of you readers do, too.

“Do you know what happened in Banyas? They did something horrible there. They did something that no God allows, no religion allows. What they did is forbidden in all religions!What does the persons want, who are controlling our country? What do they want from God?

There was a couple here some weeks ago. They left me their number, look, here’s the note… When I heard about what happened in Banyas I tried to call them, I was worried. But the line was shut down, I didn’t even get a signal. I heard that they had shut down the lines to all the telephones in Banyas. I called and called.

First after a couple of days the man answered. He said:

They came in the night, they killed my wife and my two children‘.

His wife was pregnant when she was here, I saw it myself, she was seven or eight months pregnant. Do you know what they did to her? They cut her in the chest, like this. Then they cut open her stomach, her whole stomach, and took out the baby. Her husband cried when he said:

They killed her, they killed my unborn baby, they killed our two little children. I’m the only one left. They are all gone.

Crossing the Syrian Border

In a time of peace and normality, the border between Syria and Lebanon is like any other border: queues are busy, rules are neglected, bored military officials are stamping passports in between smoking and drinking endless cups of tea. Now everything is different. And as the road to the airport is not safe, crossing the Lebanese border by land is the only safe alternative for leaving the country, making an otherwise sheltered humanitarian aid worker like me left to mingle with the Syrians that are trying to get out.

The border on the road between Damascus and Beirut is still controlled, heavily controlled, with new checkpoints every few minutes before reaching the border office. Outside the office cars are parked everywhere and masses of people are moving with their plastic bags and children, the chaos mirroring the domestic collapse. Many internal refugees are now dirt-poor, without money for bus or shared taxi, leaving the country by foot.

I was holding on to my passport and documents, trying to make my way in through the crowd and into the office. It was steaming hot and people were pushing and shoving each other, small children were crying. The lines leading up to the cashiers where the necessary stamps were given to the lucky ones that were able to reach there, was swamped. The driver that had taken me was not allowed to do the documents for me, and without stamp you couldn’t cross the border. I was able to make my way a few meters in to the crowd before I got stuck. People were so tightly packed it was impossible for a short woman like me to advance forward, and the crowd was turning aggressive. Even if I wouldn’t be squeezed, would I be saved from being assaulted? A man that was trying to make his way back through the crowd was being squeezed and received help from his wife and another man that pulled him out. The officers behind the counters shouted out, telling people to stop, and some shouted back: “How can we do it?” “We’re stuck!” “Help us instead!”

A military man passed by and people flipped their papers to him, begging for help: “My husband is sick, please help us!”, “Ammo, we need to get out, please stamp our passports!” The man ignored them, but I took my chance and pulled out my humanitarian worker’s ID:

“I’m a foreigner, I work for the Red Cross! Or something like the Red Cross!”

He glanced at me.

“Ok, come here.”

He let me go before him through the door he was entering and shoved away the others that tried to follow. A big metal tool was placed against the door to prevent it from opening again and the desperate bangs from the outside followed immediately. In the small room aside of the counters a few other people, a man on crutches and some lone women like me, were waiting hopefully, squeezed together in the small window facing the officers. Maybe we would be able to leave the country today? But we were being ignored.

“Go stand in line!” an officer yelled.

“We can’t stand in line, they’ll squeeze us! We’ll die there!” a woman replied.

Through an open window some young men climbed in. From all ways everyone was desperately trying to reach the officers, the stamps. The room was filling up with people and was becoming unpleasantly crowded as well. A girl who was pressed next to me laid her head on my shoulder, seizing the opportunity of the closeness to rest. She was maybe 10 years old.

“Are you tired?” I asked her.

Eh.” Her voice was just a whisper.

The girl drifted off to sleep as we waited, her head staying on my shoulder, her body leaning on me. The pressure from other people kept her upright.

After maybe an hour an officer appeared and suddenly lost his temper when seeing the amount of people that had materialized in the back room:

”Get out, all of you!”

The protests made him furious, he violently pushed us out:

“Go! I said go!”

No one wants to unfold an argument with an armed military. We stumbled upon each other as we hurriedly left the room. I was being pushed to the right and lost my balance, quickly catching it before falling face down. The driver that had been waiting for me in the back of the main room saw me from a distance and shouted: “Someone help her at least, she’s small, she can’t make it there! She’s afraid of all you men!”

A man suddenly gave in, reached out for me through the forest of people, took my passport and papers and sent them through the crowd.  “A small girl” I heard him mumbling to the others protesting. A few minutes later the papers came back, sent from hand to hand, with the proper stamps, nothing missing. I advanced backwards through the masses and was able to press through the door. Before reaching the relief of the fresh air I saw the little girl that had slept on my shoulder, now slumping alone on the floor. Her mother probably had left her there while trying to make it on her own. She was also a small girl, but no one took notice of her.