“The Syrian revolution is a baby – it needs nourishment”

Article from a friend of the blog who was in Syria learning about the revolution there and writing about what is going on. A shorter version was published in the New Statesman- 1. http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/07/syria-our-revolution-baby-it-needs-nourishment

We're in Ma'arrat al Numan, a front-line liberated town in Idlib
province, Syria. Once home to 120,000, the population is now between
4-10,000. Families who couldn't afford to flee live in ruins, makeshift
shelters and even caves. Destruction is everywhere; piles of rubble
daunt the streets between bomb-axed minarets and burnt out shops.
Part-collapsed apartment blocks reveal gaping living rooms. Shelling
echoes daily from the Wadi Deif regime military base close by. It's
mostly local Free Army fighters holding the line, along with Ahrar al
Sham, and Jabhat al Nusra playing a smaller role. The scant weaponry
ranges from regime-raided machine and hand guns to the "Cannon of Hell"
– a launcher made out of a tractor, with cooking gas canisters for
missiles. The city's sub-station, water plants and pipes have all been
destroyed. Repairing the pipes is impossible due to their proximity to
Wadi Deif.

The injured are ferried by fighters or medical volunteers to a
"hospital in hiding" – far back from the frontline, where operations
are carried out in a basement with a lamp made out of a satellite dish
with half a dozen light bulbs stuck in it. The service runs on a
drip-feed of aid sourced in Turkey and round-the-clock volunteer hours
spread between a few dozen exhausted doctors and nurses. Ma'arrat al
Numan is still a city at war.

We're in the gloomy garden of widow and mother of six Om Abid. Ahmad*,
an activist and volunteer with [3]Basmat Amal (Smile of Hope) [2], a
home-grown relief organisation, has brought us here. He's doling out
cash donations of 500 Syrian pounds sent from a wealthy Syrian woman
living in Saudi Arabia. It's a drop in the ocean. Cooking gas costs
£S3,000 per canister up from £S1,000 two years ago, bread is £S25.
water needs to be delivered by truck and costs £S500 a week and a box
of thirty candles, which once cost 70, is now hitting £S300. The dark
takes over at night.

Relief doesn't feel revolutionary but keeping it coming is a means to
stay put and keep up the front. Basmet Amal are one of four local aid
organisations feeding into a relief co-ordination committee that feeds
into a broader council including military-security, social affairs, and
media-comms committees.

Basmat Amal recognise the role aid can play in buying loyalties
according to a donor's agenda, and how depoliticising desperation can
be. Self-sufficiency is key. By opening the first primary schools in
Ma'arra since the revolution began, a low priced products supermarket,
cash for widows and a soap and shampoo factory in the pipeline, they
hope to create autonomy and strength for the community. They still see
themselves as part of a revolution that began with unarmed
demonstrations, but was met with bullets, then bombs, and then
warplanes, until street-protest-as suicide was no longer an option.
According to Basmet Amal, 850 people have been killed, and 2,000
houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011. 'We
are fighting for our dignity' we hear again and again.

But what is the scope for people – especially women - to participate in
their own relief? Can people come together and make collective
decisions? "Everyone is locked in their own homes," starts Ahmed.
"Everyone just cares about their own problems". "But there are always
shared problems, no?" we suggest. "I suppose so, but just to get people
together in one place, to feel safe, is a struggle." Shelling and
gunfire rattles in the distance as he speaks. Neither landlines or
mobiles work in Ma'arra, but there is internet if you have a satellite
and generator. Otherwise comms are face to face, and door to door.
Kinship and neighbourhood networks have been fractured by the town
haemorrhaging so many residents. Who will look after your children? Who
will drive you home, when fuel and cars are in such short supply? And
even if you put together a group, with 90 per cent of your town in
exile, who are you representing?

It's an ongoing conversation throughout our trip, "How to build
participation?" If Basmet Amal have 30 volunteers now, how can they
reach 100 and more? Particularly under the lengthening shadow of
militarisation and sectarianism, and external regional and global
interests "all wanting to eat from Syria". How do you keep up a
revolution which you keep being told is a civil war, that it's gone, it
belongs to 'warlords' eating the hearts of their opponents and shooting
children in the face, that is going to break Palestine, and will be
Iraq mark two, is something you should never have started. This is not
your revolution is the message. For many of us in the West it's the
same, that it's too complicated, leave it to the big boys, you can't
relate to this, there's nothing you can do, this is not your
revolution. Isolation and disposession creeps and the work of creating
spaces of resistance and reclamation is eclipsed by a what-bleeds-leads
agenda.

It's a burning hot afternoon and we're in the languid garden of the
Kafranbel media centre talking solidarity with local organisers. The
centre is famous for its' viral banners. For UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's
visit, locals raised: "BRAHIMI: 'NEVER MIND BURNING THE WORLD WILLINGLY
THAN HAVING ASSAD FOR ONE DAY MORE' GO FUCK YOURSELF." And "USA – YOU
LIVED SEPTEMBER 11TH ONCE, WE LIVE IT EVERY DAY." "We never get visits
from activists, only journalists," says local fixer Amer.* "We want to
show them our demonstrations but they just say, 'Take us to the
fighters'." It's a common obsession. This May Al Jazeera reported from
Raqqa, central Syria but focused squarely on Al Qaeda chopping three
peoples heads off and not demonstrations by public sector workers
demanding wages from money looted from the central bank or protests
against Sharia courts.

We discuss the idea of a joint news-behind-the-news project that can
profile struggles that mainstream media ignore. Mona* a local feminist
activist working on a children's support project called [4]Karama Bus
(Dignity Bus) [3] is lukewarm. 'Everyone in Syria knows what is going
on. It's a good idea but we do not have the capacity. We literally do
not have the people on the ground. Too many Syrian activists are
outside in Turkey or Lebanon. They need to be here'. We talk about
skills-sharing on facilitating meetings and organising but stress
unequivocally that this is dangerous territory for foreign activists
because it reproduces colonial dynamics of white Westerners telling
Arabs what to do and how to organise; the NGOised "facilitator" that
conducts, regulates and wields power over locals. But co-training with
Syrian and Arabic speaking activists, is agreed, could be useful...

The thread continues back in Ma'arra. We eat breakfast with a young
medic who treats fighters on the Front. "You were in Kafranbel? They
have three functioning hospitals there, we only have one and we are on
the Front! I don't understand why they don't help us," he says.
Emergencies take up energy. "Our revolution is a baby," he explains.
"It needs milk, it needs nourishment, it needs to grow. Of course we
want people to be organising their own representation, but that's
walking, that's further down the line. For now, we need to survive." As
if on cue a war plane tears through the sky above us. He starts to
utter prayers. His wife, an organiser, but still unable to go to the
internet café without a male relative, begins to breathe shallow and
fan herself. It passes over. We sip our tea in silence until we can
find our words to talk again.

*Names changed to protect identity

A shorter version of this piece appeared in last week's New Statesman
magazine

Please support Basmet Amal and Karama Bus - their facebook pages are
here:

[5]https://www.facebook.com/JmaetBsmtAml

Bank name : kuveyt turk katilim bankasi A.S.
Iban : TR37 0020 5000 0085 7799 4001 01

[6]https://www.facebook.com/alkarama.bus

References

1. http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/07/syria-our-revolution-baby-it-needs-nourishment
2. http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/113120
3. https://www.facebook.com/JmaetBsmtAml
4. https://www.facebook.com/alkarama.bus
5. https://www.facebook.com/JmaetBsmtAml
6. https://www.facebook.com/alkarama.bus
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