It started with a general awareness of what was happening in Syria – the knowledge garnered through reading the news and seeking out information about the current goings on in the Middle East. But through a friendship made in Egypt over the summer, I have gained a disturbing insight into the unseen realities of life for ordinary Syrians. As the fighting has raged on for close to three years, the international media has become bored of yet more desolate images of a country going through civil war.
I met Emad in Nuweiba, East of the Sinai Peninsula. He spent a brief spell at the farm I was working on and opportunities occurred for us to meet again, stay in contact and become good friends. A few weeks ago, Emad made a humanitarian appeal on behalf of the people of his hometown, Kafr Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus. This neighbourhood is under control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but is subject to government blockades and tactics intended to ‘starve out’ the opposition. As a result, basic necessities are being denied to the civilian population: there is a dire shortage of bread, other food supplies, and medicine: nothing is allowed in. A black market exists but who can afford the skyrocketing prices? Bread costs $20 USD for 1 kilogram. People are hungry and cold. The plummeting temperatures are adding to an already dismal situation. Images of refugee children whose families have fled to surrounding Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are seen playing in the snow and ice. In the background, frost-covered tents and figures with haunted eyes huddled around fires burning in metal bins belie the hard actuality of these people’s escape and current existence. In Syria itself, the once stunningly beautiful cities of Homs and Damascus are tragedy exemplified under a dusting of white. Buildings are ripped concrete and shattered glass. Streets are erupted tarmac sniper-runs. Entire neighbourhoods are the shooting ranges of the FSA and regime forces.
This is the general picture of Syria: the cruelly stroked canvas that is painted by the main media outlets. If given a glimpse beyond that narrow window, what you find there is seared into your conscious. My glimpse was obtained through the story of Saleh Zeno.
Emad went to school with Saleh and fate has brought them in these last years to two very disparate points. Taken into custody on the 1 January 2011, Saleh Zeno is but one among the many civilians arrested without charges being brought against them. Taken to Harasta Air Force Intelligence prison in Ghouta, and following an error by the officer registering prisoner names into the computer, Zeno was left to languish in jail for almost two years. Saleh only emerged after having starved to death on the 12 November 2013. His body was discovered in one of the basement systems of Harasta in a state of severe malnutrition. Tim Damascene, of East Ghouta, was also imprisoned for seven months in the Harasta branch of Air Force Intelligence – he met Saleh there and has given evidence regarding the conditions of the prison. Each single cell was one metre by one metre (maximum 1m x 2m). In Room 2, the ‘water room’, dripping water is used as a method of sleep deprivation.
For the first seven months of Saleh’s imprisonment, he was in Room 4; however, he was then transferred to solitary confinement for a week. In this time, Saleh developed a neurological condition and was put in the courtyard of the prison. Reputed as the ‘courtyard of breath’, it reportedly houses more than 300 prisoners. A typical daily diet was breakfast of bread and olives or uncooked potato with an evening meal consisting of semi-cooked rice or bulgur. ‘Once a week they fed us meat but we were always sick from it – we don’t know why. All our food was without salt. During my time as a prisoner, I never tasted sugar’ reported Damascene.
Emad first learned of his school friend’s death through the delivery of Saleh’s emaciated corpse: the body was found close to the line of fire separating the strong holds of the FSA and regime forces. Weighing 30kg, Saleh Zeno is thought to have been sent as a message to the Free Army: tactics of trapping and starvation have not been spoken about from anyone within the regime ranks. Normally the victims of these circumstances are put into unmarked mass graves. Saleh’s body, in being given back to the family, suggests some pointed motivation by the regime.
Saleh Zeno is a tragic – and tragic in the true sense of the word – example of the kinds of injustice that are being inflicted on the people of Syria every day. War is raging on and civilians are paying the price. Emad feels that nothing can or will be done, that people are numbed to such images of pain and suffering, and that the political powers have the unchallenged capacity to command the fates of millions. Maybe to an extent this is true. But I want to believe, have to believe, that when people learn of what is truly going on, when they hear the story of a man such as Saleh, they will want to act. To stop, and acknowledge that this is happening. Perhaps then we can move to some tangible change and work towards a global society where these things are not widespread yet unreported horrors.