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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