Tears of blood
If a country could weep, Syria would cry tears of blood. Ever since Syrians took to the streets of their cities on March 15, 2011, to join the other Arab Spring nations in calling on their own government for a free and democratic state. Nearly eight months into the uprising, civilians continue to be killed as part of brutal governmental crackdowns.
The United Nations estimates more than 3,000 civilians have been killed since the uprising began, but Syrian activists say this number is closer to 10,000 deaths, most going unreported. Because of the Syrian government’s strict lockdown on foreign media and journalists, numbers are hard to confirm.
Seventeen-year-old Amir Aboguddah and 22-year-old CM (who, given the risk of reprisal against relatives still living in Syria, asked to remain anonymous) are both Syrians living in Regina. Both say that after decades of a corrupt regime, it is time to see president Bashar al-Assad step down
But getting the president to relinquish the power he inherited is a daunting task. The people of Syria have been living under al-Assad rule ever since the Baath party under Bashar’s father, Hafrez, took power in 1971. When Hafrez died in mid-2000, an unopposed Bashar ran for and won the presidency.
Syria’s current uprising brings back very familiar memories for both Aboguddah and CM. In the 1980s, both of their families had to flee Syria or risk being crushed by Hafez al-Assad’s regime.
“My grandfather was a prominent opposition figure” Aboguddah said. “My dad’s family … along with thousands of other families were forced to flee Syria due to their affiliation with the [opposition party] the Muslim Brotherhood … anyone who [was] suspected of being in anyway affiliated with the Brotherhood … [was] executed.”
CM shares a similar story.
“I personally lost four uncles in the uprising in 1980s, all of them under the age of 22. My dad and my uncle … fled Syria, never allowed to return,” CM said. “My dad fled with his pajamas on – he had to sleep in graveyards in some instances… [Finally he was able to] make his way to Jordan … Imagine having to leave your family and never to return again to your country.”
The aftermath of the 1980s uprising marked the diaspora of nearly 10 million Syrians all around the world. As well, Hafez al-Assad retaliated brutally against the civilians in one of the most prominent cities in the uprising, Hama.
“My mother’s family was living in the city of Hama at the time,” Aboguddah explained. “In less than a week, over 40,000 people were murdered. The city was … completely obliterated. Like my father’s family, my mother’s family was forced to flee Syria.”
While the number of dead is, once again, difficult to determine – some estimates place it as low as 10,000, while British journalist Robert Fisk suggests 20,000 is more accurate – it nevertheless earned the slaughter a dark place in the country’s history.
The Hama massacre is only one example of the al-Assad family’ bloody history.
“Bashar, like his father, does not think twice before violently responding to the opposing parties … he does not adhere to any laws and does not show any respect for life,” Aboguddah said. “He will do anything to stay in power, even if that means murdering every Syrian, one by one.”
At the start of the March uprising, Bashar was nicknamed “the Butcher” for the immense violence he ordered against those who rose up against his regime. CM says the nickname is apt.
“It rhymes, but that is not all,” CM said. “He is a rapist, cheater, killer, abuser, liar, thief, and above all a traitor.”
Asked whether their fathers and families have been able to return to Syrian since the 1980s, both Aboguddah and CM replied with a saddened, “No”. It has been more than 30 years since both Aboguddah’s father and CM’s family visited Syria.
But the March uprisings have brought much hope for Syrians, like Aboguddah, CM, and their exiled families: a hope to be able to return home to a free, democratic, and united Syria – a hope that many Syrians are tightly holding on to.
For CM, the uprising signifies more than just hope; it signifies a new future.
“Those who are fighting for the freedom of Syria are freedom seekers. We call them the ‘Free’: the free woman, the free man, and the free child. They are people who want change … they have broken the fear and the silence. I owe these people. They are our future.”
Behind the unrest in Syria
To help put into perspective what is happening in a country Canadians know little about, here are some information to get you started.
– The official language of Syria is Arabic.
– The country gained its independence from France on Apr. 14, 1946.
– Between 1946 and 1956, the country was in political turmoil. During that time there were 20 different cabinets and the government had drafted four separate constitutions.
– In November 1956, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government.
– On Feb. 1, 1958, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser announced the merging of the two states, creating the United Arab Republic. All Syrian political parties, as well as the communists therein, ceased overt activities.
– Since the merging of the two countries, more political unrest and military violence has ensued.
– By Nov. 13, 1970, Minister of Defence Hafez al-Assad became the strongman of the government when he effected a bloodless military overthrow.
– al-Assad would remain in power from 1970 until his death on June 10, 2000.
– Immediately following al-Assad’s death, the parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34, thus allowing his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba’ath Party.
-On July 10, 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected president by a referendum in which he ran unopposed.
– Protests in Syria started on Jan. 26. Protesters have been calling for political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights, as well as an end to the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963.
– On March 15, demonstrations took place in many cities across Syria. After the first day of the protests there were reports of approximately 3,000 arrests, but there are no official figures on the number of deaths.
– Syria has been in a state of political unrest since then.