On my recent trip to Syria, a bus-full of bishops, reverends and members of the House of Lords was my cloak of disguise, the perfect garb in which to pass under the radar of the regime and hear, not the official line which was pumped at us full throttle at every opportunity, but the voices underneath. As one of our group, who had come with an open mind, described it at the end: “It’s like an orchestra in which the strings are playing too loud, drowning out the other instruments. Some sections of the orchestra are simply missing, their instruments broken, unable to play any more……”
How do you heal a broken society? Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has one answer – you set up branches of Syria Trust, her flagship charity founded in the year 2000 when her husband Bashar al-Assad inherited the throne. Before the war it had roaming 4WDs with teams of manicured rich kids dispensing computers in villages. Today it has 15 community centres round the country dispensing “Intellectual Capacity Development” and “Psychological Support Programmes”. We were given tours of two such centres in Aleppo, surreal pockets of ultra-modern, high-tech installations amid the devastated wasteland, by grinning youthful Assad loyalists fitted out in spanking new uniforms embroidered with the charity’s name. Films ran constantly in the foyer areas showing regime soldiers treating children and citizens with gentle care. Black and white photos gracing the walls did the same. Silent women sat in front of empty sewing machines, summoned to be on parade.
The cheerful staff left on buses as soon as we did, but while we were there, they handed out brochures called ‘Manarat’, (Beacons) describing how they would encourage ‘critical thinking abilities’ in children. To what end? To challenge the system? A fake freedom since the curriculum is tightly controlled. The “Life Skills” development programme for over 13s talks scarily of “effective citizenship” and “purposeful contribution”. A whole generation is about to be brainwashed into the service of Assad alone. Graffiti all over the country, on the long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, spells it out: Al-Assad lil-Abad (Assad for eternity), Al-Assad wa laa Ahad (Assad and no one else) and Allah, Hurriya, al-Assad wa bass (God, Freedom, Assad and that’s it). The merchandising is also in full swing – Bashar mugs, Bashar and Putin photos for sale in hotel lobbies, Kerbala soap for Iranian visitors.
A society is being broken, bit by bit. For now, Assad is rewriting history, with Putin’s help, to cover up the original cause of the damage. Everything is laid at the door of ‘the terrorists.’
On the drive back from Aleppo we stop at Adhra Al-Madaris, one of the many ‘reception centres’ housing refugees displaced from the Ghouta after the Russian-led Syrian Army offensive just over a month ago. This one holds about 5,000 and they are being held like animals. It is the first taste of reality on the trip, raw humanity without filters, deeply affecting for everyone. Surprisingly, the soldiers guarding the camp allow us in to talk directly to the refugees, and because of the size of our group, the Arabic-speakers among us are able to slip off into the crowds. I was invited by a woman and child to come to her ‘home’ and she led me through a maze of small curtained spaces, each one for a family, to her own tiny space with nothing but a thin mattress, a plastic sheet on the floor and a gaping hole in the concrete roof.
The room fills up quickly with more and more women till we are about 15 squeezed into the tiny space. They offer me water from a tin cup, since they have nothing else, no facilities to cook or make tea. Desperate to tell me their stories, it emerges hygiene facilities are horrific, with just one squalid toilet, food is a sandwich for breakfast and macaroni served up centrally as their cooked meal. They hate it and agree they were better nourished under the siege where they had meat and vegetables in their village of Hammoura. All they want is to go home but they are trapped with no information and nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. I ask how they had been treated by the rebel fighters during the siege and they say fine. There was no problem.
There is an Arab proverb that runs: If God wants to make a poor man happy, he makes him lose his donkey, and then find it again. Assad, like a vengeful god, has destroyed the country and driven out half its population, pronouncing it much ‘cleaner’ than before. Now he is preparing to give back the donkey, lame and mutilated, to those left behind, hoping they’ll be so grateful they won’t dare complain. But social justice in Syria, so smothered under the official narrative now, will break through soon enough – it is only a matter of time.
A version of this piece was first broadcast on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme on Radio 4 on 28 April 2018, see link below:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3vc (starts at 06.00 minutes in)