Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.
Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.
All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.
Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.
Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.
Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.
This is the second podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Abu Mohammed, a former policeman from the city of Homs, in Syria. Abu Mohammed fled to Lebanon with his family early on in the conflict, to avoid being involved with the regime’s repression after having witnessed its brutality. In this interview, taken in a refugee camp on the Lebanese-Syrian border, Abu Mohammed shares some general reflections on the impact of the war on the Syrian people, and of the responsibilities the regime holds at the roots of the conflict.
Being in his mid-40s Abu Mohammed is from the generation who lived the transition between the rule of president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar. Hafez had been in power 29 years when his death paved the way for his second eldest son Bashar to become president of Syria in 2000. Bashar inherited a police-state, one in which arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture were all justified measures against the threat of political opposition and destabilization.
Abu Mohammed recalls when, following a spate of high-profile assassinations against members of the ruling elite in 1982, Hafez al-Assad sieged and bombed the city of Hama, stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition, killing what international observers have estimated as over 25,000 civilians in the name of national security.
Eight years of war have shown that Hafez's son Bashar is capable of the same ruthlessness. When the wave of protests and uprisings across the Arab world reached Syria in 2011, the regime responded with violent clampdowns, paving the way for peaceful protests to escalate into an armed struggle leading to outright civil war.
Now, as the war burns to an end, the regime is encouraging Syrian refugees to return to Syria, promising amnesty for deserters and army dodgers, engaging in a bid to re-gain international legitimacy and funds for the reconstruction of the country. However, widespread reports of arbitrary arrest, disappearances and torture from Syrian refugees who have returned to Syria leave many refugees mistrustful of the regime's promises.
From his tent in the north of Lebanon, Abu Mohammed is adamant about the need for Bashar al-Assad to leave the presidency if any real solution to the war is to be found. In his eyes, a Syria without Bashar al-Assad is the starting condition to guarantee some safety to refugees wanting to return home.
His experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Syrian civilians hold on the uprisings and the war that is tearing apart Syria, and should therefore be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous and forthcoming podcasts.
Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below
*Please note that all names have been changed to protect the anonymity of participants who, despite living in Lebanon, still fear for their lives. The views and opinions published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush&Bow.
Read the transcript:
Podcast #2 Abu Mohammed: From Revolution to War
Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكايا the official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.
Today’s podcast is an interview with Abu Mohammed, a former policeman from the city of Homs. Having fled to Lebanon in 2014, Abu Mohammed gives testimony to the fear and distrust that many Syrians in Lebanon have of returning home. In this interview, Abu Mohammed reflects on the recent political history of Syria under the rule of the Asad family and on the escalation of Syria’s uprisings into civil war.
Interviewer: What did you think when the revolution broke out?
Abu Mohammed: We were calm and sure that it was just a matter of a couple months before the regime would fall. But the reality was that the regime has been mobilizing for 40 years; accumulating weapons from Russia and Iraq not to fight any outer enemy, but their own people. The regime held a grudge against the Syrian people.
We Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, and Christians all lived together in the same neighbourhoods. We studied, ate, and shopped together with no problems at all. Sectarian discrimination was the regime’s invention.
Among the Alawites there are opposers to the regime itself. The regime’s game was to create difference and hate amongst sects, so that these differences would keep us divided, one against the other, and leave the regime free to do what it wants. Because if we were together, we would be a danger for the regime.
The regime stirred up the Alawites against the Sunnis and the Sunnis against the Alawites, they did the same with the Christians, growing sectarianism so people kill each other while the regime sits and watches.
Interviewer: What’s your opinion on the future of Syria? Would you go back some day?
Abu Mohammed: Inshallah if there would be better conditions, a new president, a new constitution... However, we don’t trust anyone anymore. We heard the same promises of new constitution and a new government from the beginning, yet nothing ever changed. The whole world lined up with Assad’s regime.
The Syrian regime has recently announced an act of amnesty for military reserve dropouts. They want people to return back in order to accumulate troops to invade Idlib. Some people already went back; yesterday buses full of young men came straight from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but one bus was stopped and all passengers were arrested at Nasib border point, they were told they were the undesirables and the authorities arrested them all.
Everyday there are people heading back, the day before yesterday 10 buses drove back, but also on the buses some passengers were taken by the regime and led to unknown place, who knows where. They took the bus drivers, the boys, all of them.
Interviewer: What happens to those arrested by the regime?
Abu Mohammed: Some people are jailed, some can pay and get free, whilst others are taken to the military, and others simply disappear. When their families call to ask where their boys are, officials reply telling them never to call that number again, because they themselves don’t even know where they are.
Interviewer: We read in Syrian newspapers that the refugees should come back now that the war is about to be over…
Abu Mohammed: no, this is only a lie to help Assad maintain his position; for unless the refugees come back, he lacks legitimacy to the eyes of the Western and Gulf countries. However, the bait was inviting people back to their homeland, to siege Idlib, bomb it and regain control of the whole of Syria. But so far he’s got no legitimacy from outside countries. Until refugees go back, he won’t have any legitimacy. Foreign countries see there are thousands of people outside Syria, in Lebanon, in Jordan. And they say that until those people return to Syria, he won’t be the rightful president.
What is he saying now? That there is no conscription, there is no danger. People have to come back. And as soon as people go back he has them on a list, and if they are on the list he takes them either to prison or to the army. Do you understand? The regime said it removed more than 80,000 names of people from the lists of wanted people. As an act of de-escalation from the regime. But this is a lie, made up by the regime to make people go back.
Living outside of Syria we can’t assess the situation there, only those who are inside can, and act accordingly. However, having reached this stage I hope they continue fighting until they take full control over Syria. If not we’ll have spent 7 years in exile for what? Away from our country, away from our houses…for what? We will have lost everything, our lives, our property, our families…
My brother 35 years old was martyred leaving 7 little kids orphaned, his death would be wasted. When he died his son was 13 years old, now is now 17 and lost his leg. He spends the whole day locked up at home, he can’t work or move around, his life is wasted. Who will compensate his father’s life or his leg? and how will he continue his life?
Interviewer: could you tell us about Homs city before the war?
Abu Mohammed: Homs was beautiful. We called it the “Mother of the poor”. Even those who earned 200 Syrian Lira, that is $4 - 5 a day, could have a life in Homs. This was not an achievement of the government, but of the people that used to provide for all, a generosity of the Homsy people.
Everything was so cheap in Homs, that the Lebanese used to come and buy vegetables, food, and gas, and also to consult doctors and receive medical treatment. And all that was the people’s achievement, not the government.
We deserved much better than this. We deserved free medication, free education, and even salaries for the people who lived deprived of what should have been accessible to all Syrians, of what belonged to all Syrians.
Syria was self-sufficient, do you know what that means? It means we don’t need to import anything from outside. We had sugar factories, oil, fat, the best livestock worldwide. Syria was self-sufficient.
Interviewer: But don’t you think this was achieved thanks to the regime? The Syrian State?
Abu Mohammed: No, it was the people that achieved it all, the regime only monopolized it for the favor of greedy families like the Makhlouf’s and others. For example, our sugar companies manufacture the best sugar quality which the regime exports, leaving the trash quality for local market consumption.
Interviewer: Do you remember how the situation changed with Bashar in power, compared to his father Hafez’?
Abu Mohammed: yes, there was a slight change. Bashar brought technology to Syria, like cellphones and internet, which we didn’t have in Hafez’ time. But in return he took other things from us. If Hafez was a thief, Bashar was even more.
Bashar doesn’t know how to think like his father. Hafez was a senior politician, he was skilled in dealing with people.
Interviewer: But also there are people that say that when Bashar arrived, the political situation changed…
Abu Mohammed: Yes, it did open a bit. Bashar slightly granted access to political life. But at the same time kept people under strict control.
Interviewer: And do you think this was the reason why the protests were possible?
Abu Mohammed: No, no. It wasn’t for this. It was because the generations have changed. With Bashar there was a new generation. It was the youth that revolted against Bashar al Asad. The old generation that lived under Hafez’ regime was afraid to try and stop him. It was the youth who ignited the revolution.
People thought that because it was a peaceful movement, the regime would refrain from killing, especially today that the media covers everything, not like in the 1980s during Hafez’ and Rafaat Assad’s time when they shelled Hama into ruins because there was no media or cameras to report it. Back then it took people in Syria 3 months to find out what had happened in Hama. But today we have internet, cameras, and social media.
People thought that because Bashar was monitored by foreign countries he wouldn’t dare to commit such crimes. But the fact is that he doesn’t care or fear neither the U.S nor any other country as far as he is backed up by Russia and Iran.
ISIS was the regime’s invention. It’s the Syrian intelligence in Islamic disguise. Its rise was favoured in order to intimidate Western countries and public opinion, to distract them so as to prioritize eliminating Islamic terrorism, leaving the opportunity to the regime to slaughter its people.