THE MAN WHO CAME TO STAY

On the 31st of January 2011, while protests were raging through Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan, and  whilst you were probably getting ready for a great night out to Arena, a softly spoken Arab man sat down in central Damascus for an interview with the Wall Street Journal.  At this time of crisis, his demeanour was calm and collected. He stated that the status of his country remained ‘stable’ and credited this to the fact that his foreign policy reflected the ‘beliefs of the people’. President Bashar Al-Assad had found himself in a rather impressive and unique position. The Arab Spring was aggressively tearing through the Middle East. Any country with an oppressive regime, high unemployment, and a young zealous male population was on the hit list, yet quite remarkably his country (up until then) had emerged unscathed.

We, being the over-excited year abroad students that we were, sat huddled around a squeaky table in a university lecture room, reading the article; it had reiterated what we thought we already knew. There was to be no great Arab spring in Syria, and to say we were disappointed would be an understatement. In all honesty, the whole situation seemed unfair. All the year abroad students in Egypt were being evacuated by charter planes and giving exaggerated accounts of their experience to BBC reporters, whilst we sat in Arabic classes conjugating verbs and watching the clock hand tick so slowly that it mocked our existence. However, our reasons for wanting a revolution weren’t purely superficial. At the time, the Arab Spring had a seemingly attractive face. It had only taken a few weeks of protests to send the Tunisian president Ben Ali running, and with millions gathering peacefully in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, it was only a matter of time before Mubarak was gone. Finally the region was beginning to receive the democracy it had yearned for and so it was only logical that we would want the same for Syria too.

The first signs of trouble didn’t materialise until several months later when I awoke, to the sound of Friday morning calls to prayers bellowing out from the mosques in the surrounding area. Scrambling from my room into the kitchen, I had hoped to find the usual breakfast feast laid out before me, but instead I was greeted by a bouncing 2 year old toddler waving a Syrian flag twice his height in my face. His grandmother emerged from the living room with two portraits in her hand, neither of which I had seen before.

“This is my president! He is for the people, and he loves the people.” She wagged her finger in the air as she spoke.

She hung one of the portraits on the front door and the other above the dining table, adamant that all the neighbours would see her support for the regime. Her grand display of loyalty to the regime was a serious indication that something was wrong.

Two weeks prior, in the small, agricultural town of Deraa close to the Syrian Jordanian border, a group of 15 teenagers spray painted anti-regime slogans on the walls of the town. ‘The people want the fall of the regime’ it read. Within days they were publicly rounded up and thrown into prison, sparking outrage across the country.  Their families, backed by thousands of protesters, gathered in the town and surrounding areas demanding their release. It was a demand that was answered a week later when the teenagers were returned home, but not without evidence of horrific torture on their adolescent bodies: they had been burnt, beaten and had their fingernails pulled out.

Yet for weeks, my host family and every other Syrian on the street denied that anything was wrong. The demonstrations and protests, which had until then remained focused in Deraa, were nothing to worry about. It would all die down soon, they reassured us.

But evidently, they were wrong. The torture of the children had traumatized the town and it remained defiant in its opposition. Soon other cities joined in, and it wasn’t long till the protests fell into vicious cycles; the funeral for those killed a day earlier would grow into an anti regime rally to which security forces would open fire, killing more people. This inevitably created an even larger turnout at the next funeral, at which, again, the armed forces would open fire.

Now, this was not the kind of revolution that we had anticipated or hoped for. We were gripped by guilt in what seemed a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment. On the one hand we genuinely wanted a free and fair democracy for the country that had become our home and for the people who had accommodated, fed and housed us. But on the other hand, as lives were being lost at a nauseating rate, we wondered – was it actually worth it?

This was played out against a backdrop of intense confusion. State media would report one thing, whilst friends and family at home would hear another from the BBC. Too often it would feel as if we were playing games of hide and seek with the Western media as it that claimed a protest was being staged in a certain suburb in Damascus when it wasn’t. We, being the now foolishly excited year abroad students, would rush out of our homes, fumble into the nearest taxi in an attempt to find them, only to arrive and find nothing or instead a pro-government rally. Some were clearly staged, but others were not.

In the weeks that followed, Damascus grew quieter and quieter.  In the streets, you could feel the awkward dichotomy of an affluent city that was aware its fellow citizens were suffering, and that it could play a crucial role in helping, yet deeply hesitant to jeopardise its own safety and stability. The old city, usually bustling with tourists from all parts of the world, didn’t have a foreign face in sight and my host family, whose entire household income came from renting rooms to British students, watched as each of their customers packed their bags and left. There were even fewer guests at Friday morning breakfast. Yet despite all this, my host grandmother’s support for the regime did not falter. Every night as we watched events unfold on the television screen in horror, she would casually light a cigarette and tell us how great she thought the president was. And why wouldn’t she?  She was an elderly woman residing in the safety and comfort of central Damascus.  There were no dead bodies on her doorstep, and it seemed to her an absurd idea to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Thirteen-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb has become the face of the Syrian uprising.  Separated from his father during an anti-regime demonstration, he was arrested and taken to prison. A month later he was returned. His corpse bore three bullet wounds to the chest; he had been burnt, beaten and whipped with electrical wires, his neck broken and his penis missing. But, if the regime intended for this to deter Syrians, then they were wrong; the effects were subversive.  Spurred on by the slaughter of Hamza, each Friday women still send their loved ones out to protest, but the same scenes are still played out. A mother in tears runs out onto the streets, screaming. She finds her only son lying dead in a pool of blood, surrounded by men screaming at the top of their lungs, “Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar – God is great for he has been martyred.”

And the saddest part in all of this is that there seems to be no end in sight. With failed talks between the Arab League and the Syrian regime, the future of Syria can only be said to look bleak.  Crackdowns continue across the country as fear of civil war mounts. Anti-government protests are gaining momentum but, at the time of writing, are yet to inspire Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. There have been calls for a Libyan style NATO intervention, but this is looking unlikely, with any meaningful condemnation of Syria’s actions by the UN Security Council being met by fierce opposition from Russia and China.

However, if in the off chance foreign intervention did occur, would President Bashar Al-Assad, the eye doctor who studied and lived in London, and who reportedly had no political aspirations until a series of unfortunate events forced him to return to Syria and succeed his father – meet the same sorry fate as Gaddafi? If so, I wonder what his dying thoughts would be. Would he think of the parents of Hamza Al-Khateeb? Or would he think back to the interview with the Wall Street Journal, and how comfortably he sat in his seat, certain that the Arab Spring had glossed over Syria, and wonder how it had got this far?