The Boys From Banyas

banyas19/07/2012  Rehanli, Turkey By Mohammed Basith Awan.

Peering out the window of a fifth story 3 bedroom flat in the Turko-Syriac border town of Rehanli, I approached some of the young men who seemed to be exclusive inhabitants of this strange guest house, which has a clear view of the Syrian border (and indeed Syria itself) and asked them if they wanted to be interviewed. They eventually agreed but refused to be videoed. This may seem a little confusing (young men are very rarely camera shy), but when one considers that they have lived their whole lives under what can only be described as a truly totalitarian dictatorship of a minority which has oppressed the majority Sunni population mercilessly and factors in the horrors of opposing the regime in Syria, it is all too easy to understand why my video interview turned to an audio/written interview with all but three men present. Eventually they began to tell their story: “You see those mountains, the minarets of the Masjid in the Distance are all in Syria and we are in the blessed land of Shaam (Greater Syria/The Levant).”

For reasons unbeknown to me, almost all the people sharing this home with me seem to be young men from a town called Banyas. The young men lovingly describe a small, picturesque coastal town with a more moderate climate than the sweltering one we found ourselves suffering under in Reyanli (a Turkish border town, with a massive influx of Syrian refugees). When prompted to describe life before the revolution, a now familiar and ugly picture is painted; one of discrimination, “The Alawi’s always seemed to get the jobs, qualified or not” one man explained. Furthermore, the population lived in constant fear of being spirited away by the security services, a reality all too true for one man, Anas, a sailor from the town. “My uncle was arrested as dissident of the regime, after being ratted out by someone from the town and I and a group of young people were arrested with him. The conditions of his subsequent incarceration are no less hellish: “I was placed in a political prison for 9 months without trial. After they had decided I was innocent, I was released and my life was ruined. I am a sailor, and I lost my job, I was ostracized in society, which was a great injustice because I was treated like a criminal even though I was completely innocent.”

Osama Kudo, who grew up in Saudi but is a Syrian national, explains his story: “My father left the country, due to political persecution. Every time I visited the country, I would inevitably be interrogated by the security services; they would ask me questions like, “Where is your father? Do you agree with his views? What do you think about the President?”. “How would you answer?” I asked. “Of course I would tell them what they wanted to hear. You see these young men, most of them have left the room because they are still scared of the regime, because of the killing and torture they have witnessed in their home town, this is why they will not speak to you now”. The impact of a people being so afraid of a regime, that even now, during the revolution and while outside the country, it could stop them from speaking out, is something that really reverberated within me at that moment. It was initially difficult to understand, as I really didn’t have terms of reference for what it was like to live under the yolk of such a regime outside history lessons about totalitarian ones, such as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. It suddenly made more sense in this context. This was real life, not some dusty historical occurrence and until the revolution, it was the only life they knew. The tone of the room grew much brighter when I pressed them on the impact of the revolution on their lives. “Before, the revolution, I didn’t care much about politics, I didn’t think much about my country”, explained Osama. “But, now I am free! I am free to speak what I feel in my country, I am free. We don’t want Bashar, we want to live free! We want Syria how we want, like other people in other free countries, a good government, a good regime, that looks after the people. Now, after the revolution has begun, I am really interested in politics, I really care about my country, I would sacrifice my soul for my country”. The lone brave young man added, “We want freedom, we want weapons, freedom is like a dream for me, we just want Bashar to go!” A last comment was added, which truly touched me, was given by Tariq, my roommate in the house, “Tell the people that our faith gives us solace, we are patient until the end”.

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Abdul-Jabbar’s Story

Destroyed houses in Killi

by M. B. Awan

The village of Killi lies in the north-west of Syria, near the Turkish border and has been free from the control of the Assad regime for well over a year. The overwhelming first impression gained from Killi and its’ people is that of euphoria over being free, symbolised by the nightly demonstrations which occur after the night prayers (taraweeh) in Ramadan. It was on one jubilant night after those demonstrations that the dark, human side to the price of freedom the people of Syria have and are having to pay was demonstrated to me by a brave and remarkable young man, Abdul Jabbar Abdul Kareem.

 

I was invited by a local teacher, whom had become a close friend of mine to his Uncle’s house. The aforementioned uncle had been imprisoned and tortured by Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father in 1982 and his son had just been released by the Assad regime earlier that evening. A large crowd of locals had gathered in order to congratulate the family and hear the young man, Abdul Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s story. Abdul Jabbar looked like the average twenty-something that you would meet in any part of the world. He spoke about how they took him and tortured him. After most of the significant members of the gathering had left, I was granted an interview.

 

Abdul Jabbar, somewhat atypically for a victim of torture, was in good spirits and was remarkably composed when explaining what happened:

“I am a resident in Kelly and someone (probably in his place of work) informed the government about me, spreading lies, such that I was a terrorist, etc. I travel to Aleppo for work on a daily basis, so one day several months ago I was stopped at a checkpoint when my details came up on a wanted list. The army immediately seized and began to beat me, accusing me of being a terrorist; no questions were asked. I was then arrested and taken to a Military Security facility in Aleppo.”

 

There they kept him for 12 days. He was interrogated and tortured there for 1 hour, beaten, verbally abused (they cursed Allah, his God and his religion) and accused him of all sorts of crimes: that he was a terrorist, that he was a violent member of the revolution. He told the truth, despite being tortured, that he was innocent of everything he was accused of. After that he was transferred to an even worse stage of torture in Idlib (one of the main cities in the north of Syria), which all seemed to be planned to break him, in order to get him admit some crimes so they could torture him further. Once inside the military interrogation facility in Idlib, the torture and the conditions were far worse as was evident from the indignation in his face as he recounted this part of the story. Here he stayed for approximately 17 days (Abdul Jabbar is not exactly sure, because he didn’t see sunlight during this time). Two of those days were spent in a 1-metre square cell with four men. General population was little better; in dungeon like conditions; a room approximately 50 metres squared with 110 people inside. There was no natural light, one toilet and no running water. They were given water and bread twice a day. Fleas, lice and skin irritation were rampant due to the unhygienic conditions. He was blindfolded and led out for interrogation twice for 2-hour periods. The first time an officer in the army was present and the placed him in a reverse hanging position and accused him of various crimes (which he denied). The police then proceeded to beat him, verbally abuse his God, his family (mother, wife, daughters, sisters, etc.) and then let him hang in a painful stress position, while drinking alcohol and mocking him. This happened twice, although the second one seemed to consist mostly of a beating (he showed me where his hands had bled due to the pressure of the cuffs applied to him). Eventually, he was released when they determined that they had no evidence of any crime.

 

Even though he was an active participant of a truly popular revolution before his most recent dose of the Assad regime’s concept of justice, he is now even more determined to aid a revolution, which seeks to free the Syrian people from the shackles of a tyrant who has terrorised his population in the vein of his father since he took office in 2000.