Syrian Artist Diala Brisly, Painting for the Future of Syria’s Children

Syrian artist Diala Brisly have been working from Beirut, Lebanon, painting mainly for and with Syria’s children, inside and outside of Syria, to provide them some hope for the future.

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All images copyright Diala Brisly

Diala’s Facebook page: Diala Brisly

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Confessions From a Receiver on the Other End of War

Here’s a confession from Sweden: despite working in Syria and Iraq during the civil wars, the collective trauma of the wars has hit me the most when being in Sweden.

I am happy I have friends and colleagues from different countries also in Sweden. I’ve shared my views on my female friendships on this site before, several times. I’m happy I have a job where I get to offer some support to the refugees in Sweden. But the secondary traumas are creeping up on me from time to time, as well as the high cost of trying to be neutral in the midst of relationship chaos that comes from internalised conflicts.

There is one thing, according to me, that people who suffered a war have in common: distrust. And distrust can take many forms. People can become shattered. Or angry. Or hostile. Or traumatised. Or depressed. The good things lies underneath, still there; people can be still be wonderful friends, colleagues, human beings; but the reaction to war rarely leaves a person without a trace.

On the outskirts of these conflicts, here in Sweden, I’m trying to manage the Assad supporters disbelieving in the activists from the opposition. The opposition activists suspecting the Assad supporters for being in liaison with the intelligence. People blaming Iranians for messing up Syria. People blaming Iraqis for Daesh. People blaming each other for not caring about the others. Trying to remain neutral in this is a battlefield on its own.

Taking part of people’s experiences made things to me as well. All the stories I have heard are sometimes blurring in my mind, if I ever am to retell them. Was it the Iraqi boy I knew who was forced, as a teenager, to watch a gang rape of an Iraqi girl? Was it the Syrian woman I knew who couldn’t sleep through the night so she chose the day instead, terrified of the dark? Was it the Palestinian man who had covered his child’s ears from hearing the bombings at night in Gaza, who still was in anguish, because despite being outside of the country, his child still heard the bombs? Or was it someone else?

I just now recalled a morning that I spent some time back with a Syrian friend in the Swedish Migration Board, when she was about to apply for asylum. I had gone with her as she didn’t want to be on her own. She hadn’t slept all night but she was still composed. In the Migration Board, the queue system had broken down and people were fighting in order to get to the desk to have their application handed in before closing time. The scene somehow reminded of the situation at the Syrian border. There were no pens to fill in the applications. There was no one to explain anything. People were pulling at me, a Swede, to explain the system to them (I only could somehow), to ask for water (there was none), to ask if they would be allowed somewhere to sleep during the night (I didn’t know). There were too many people in the room that became unbearably hot. I started to yell at the woman behind the desk when she said she was out of pens. I started to yell when she refused to come out and organise the queue. I became increasingly irritated with the asylum seekers begging me for help.

My friend told me to come out and sit down at one of the benches in the waiting room, and surprisingly enough, a man left his place so that here was room for me. A Syrian family that my friend had befriended in the waiting room came up, and their 8-year-old daughter placed herself in my knee, so that she could watch music videos on my iPhone. But before so, she folded my jacket and placed it behind my head. Why did the girl do that? Her mom gave the girl’s brother a KitKat and a soft drink to give to me, him resolutely pressing the items in my hands, urging me to open the chocolate bar. Then a few minutes later, I heard the children’s father speak to his bench neighbour next to us. The neighbour had asked him something about Sweden, and the man answered:

“I don’t know… there is a Swedish girl over there who speaks a little bit of Arabic, that I could ask. But I don’t want to do it right now. As you can see, she is very tired.”

This is for Those Who Can’t Return

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The victory seems closer now than ever. Assad has been able to push the rebels out of some of their strongholds. The regime and it’s allies are bombing the humanity out of Aleppo. The opposition is weak and fighting each other.

On social media, photos from pages such as Syria Tourism and Tartous2day are uploading photos as if it’s the summer of 2010: dressed up young people attending a party; ice cream desserts enjoyed in the center of Damascus; Syrian restaurants serving food to it’s guests, the trade mark fountain bubbling in the middle. Hope seems to make its way back into the common perception of Syria; in this sense, hope meaning the hope of peace.

If the regime will win the war, peace might happen in the near future. The regime will then need to rebuild parts of the country from scratch. Hospitals, schools, roads, buildings; in some areas, all of this needs to be rebuilt. But there will be peace, and many of the Syrians in exile will be able to go back to their beloved, beautiful country, without fear. They will be able to make use of their summer vacations to return to Syria and go swim in Latakia. Stroll in the old souk of Damascus. Dine out in one of the outdoor restaurants. I dare to say that I believe all Syrians have now been waiting for this for a long time.

But, there are those who won’t be able to enjoy an upcoming peace in Syria, the way peace seems likely now. Those who can’t go back despite any peace agreement if the regime stays in power. The people who once stood up against the regime, demanding human rights, a society where free speech was accepted. A society where you could live without fear.

These people once risked their lives for their own country, and they will receive nothing in return. They’ve been imprisoned, tortured, raped, before – if they were lucky – escaping the country.

Many of them that I know, are not happy with and would never have chosen the exile. A young woman who early on received permanent asylum in Sweden, and who has done quite well in maintaining her career and her profession, has done less well in appreciating the safety Sweden has provided her. Despite her freedom of speech, her ability to maintain her activism against the regime, her huge network all around Europe, she seems to dislike almost every aspect of her life in exile; her life in her new home country; the country itself. She’s aching so much for the Syria she once had. Despite all the terrible things she was put through, as an open activist against the regime.

One day, her Facebook status update simply stated: “I want to go home!”

The way the events in Syria are unfolding right now, that might never be possible.

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/tartous2day/

“Visit Tartous” or “I Have Won the War”

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The Release of the “Syria Always Beautiful” video is not brand new, it was released on August 30 by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, but it sent out signals that is still accurate. Messages about happy people in regime controlled areas, enjoying life as if the year was 2010 and there was no war anywhere; partying, celebrating, riding water scooters and swimming in crystal blue water, sends out the message that the regime are regaining confidence about winning the war.

For a long time, Assad and his allies were denying that a war was ongoing at all. In central Damascus, young people were still partying, singing karaoke despite the distant sounds of mortars and shelling from the suburbs. The public TV channels still aired soap operas and broadcasted news about the president visiting local areas where people happily threw flowers at hime and his wife.

Then in 2013, there was finally little room for denying that a war was going on, and the rhetoric then turned to describe the opposition as solely consisting of terrorists, mainly from foreign countries.

Now, in 2016, when Aleppo is being massacred in front of all the world; when Syrian army together with support from Russia and crushing the little resistance that is left, Assad seems more sure than ever that he regain dictatorship of all of the country.

It seems impossible from the outside, that a country where people have been starting to talk freely for the first time in decades; where people have started to demand an end to corruption and the suppressing of oppositional groups, would return to live under the same conditions they were risking their lives for.

But in the Assad controlled Syria, anything now seems possible.

The opposition is shattered, weak, and have been hijacked by terrorist groups.

The terrorist groups have been pushing the population that was previously against the regime, or unsure what to think, back in believing in the comfort of Assad being in power again.

The regime has effectively played the terrorist card and making people longing back to the days when you were safe if you didn’t utter a word of criticism towards the non-elected government. Or if you by some other reason ended up in the grips of the feared security intelligence. Or if you, as a girl, happened to be abducted by young men of the regime allies and sexually abused.

They have made people believe that a rule under Assad is to prefer to the current situation. That they might even provide elections with other reliable candidates than Assad himself.

Tourism in Tartous might be possible in a near future. For everyone except for the people from the Syrian opposition, who have already escaped the country and will see no chance of ever going back. Except for the people who are, or will be, if the regime regain control everywhere, secretly imprisoned in one of the intelligence underground prisons, with no chance of getting out. People who only wanted freedom, a chance to say whatever you were thinking, a chance for young girls to be safe from the hands of the young men of the regime.

An upcoming stream of tourism to Tartous will be the last page turned by the Assad regime. It will mean he has won the war.

Photo credit: Tumblr

Syria and the New Level of Madness

Some Syrians I know complain that the world doesn’t pay attention to Syria. I don’t agree on this. Having worked with humanitarian aid, I can recount plenty of conflicts that goes on in the world that has less international attention in media and social media, even almost non-existent.

In DRC, large areas have never been under government control, and the way the different rebel groups are performing massacres has escalated into a race to the bottom, where they try to surpass each other.

In Pakistan, the deserted tribal area FATA has seen an increase in human rights violations not only from the Taliban but also from the counterattacks of the military.

In Egypt, criminal groups are kidnapping and torturing Eritrean refugees fleeing the brutal Eritrean regime for ransoms of money.

How many people would know the details of these conflicts? Hands up, please.

Syria is quite well covered in the international and social media. Westerners who had no clue what Syria was before the war, have seen pictures from the war zones on the evening news for the last five years.

What stands out with Syria to me, is the level of madness that plays out on prime time TV before our eyes, with no real solution or intervention ahead. Bashar Al Assad keeps repeating that  his army are targeting terrorists – while civilians, mothers with their babies, aid workers, medical doctors, are being killed in front of our eyes. Whatever the dictator says, social media counters it, to no avail.

Syria to me is not a forgotten conflict. It’s a new level of madness.

The Dying Girl

I’m a seasoned humanitarian aid worker and it takes quite a lot to upset me. Even though I moved back to Sweden I work with refugees, most of them are from Syria, so I comfort people a lot in my daily work and I hear the most horrifying stories. I keep tissues in my bag for these reasons, because women have a tendency to collapse in my arms, crying over everything lost and the horrifying things they’ve been through.

Then recently a new friend showed me a clip on his cellphone, from the underground hospital in Homs where he had worked – without formal medical training – as a nurse. Underground hospitals in Syria are run by ICRC and other organisations that treat patients impartially; in Syria it means without reporting opposition members to the Syrian regime. They operate without proper equipment, and often with staff who have little medical training. My friend had recorded quite a lot of the work in the unit and brought the movies with him to Sweden.

The footage was of good quality. Could it be useful for Swedish media? Everyone knows that there’s a civil war in Syria but few knows what it actually looks like when you’re in the middle of it. And these kinds of footages rarely make it to the international media.

I watched the clip in a coffee shop where we met during Christmas in Sweden. It was rainy and damp outside and people around us rested from their shopping sprees. I used the headphones not to disturb the other guests. I’m used to misery but I do respect people who are not.

The sounds of airplanes and bombs outside were suddenly drenched in the voice of a medical doctor. He came running with a small girl, 3 or 4 years old, in his hands, that he placed on a small bunk. But the girl wasn’t bleeding, she had no bruises, her skin was smooth and perfect. She looked like my niece that I had spent the previous day with; chubby and with her curly hair framing rosy cheeks. She seemed to be half-asleep. The girl wasn’t crying, only wailing softly. Why was the doctor in such a hurry?

“Internal injuries”, my friend said.

Then I realized: she was dying from the inside and out. The girl was in such pain that she was beyond hurting. As the doctors inserted a hose through her mouth she half-heartedly raised her hand to try and prevent it, she looked like a child who don’t want to take their medicine, nothing else. The doctor put her hand back to her side. The small natural efforts of a child to escape discomfort slowly faded. I knew what was coming before the movie was finished. I unplugged the headphones so I didn’t have to listen to it all. Life was slipping out of her by the second, under the panicky ways of the staff with sometimes little medical training in a make-shift hospital in the basement of a shabby, abandoned building in the previously so beautiful city of Homs.

Only then it struck me that there was no other people in the hospital that were worrying about the little girl than the staff. No crying mother or a father.

“She was the only survivor of that attack,” my friend confirmed. “Her mother and father, her sister, they were all gone.”

Someone was crying at the table that day, despite me not being at work. It wasn’t my friend, despite all the traumatizing things he has been through. It wasn’t anyone of the women that usually collapse in my arms when I visit one of the refugee camps. To my surprise I realized it was myself.