Syria: Interview with an Aleppo anarchist
mashriq / arabia / iraq |
imperialism / war |
Tuesday August 12, 2014 15:57 by Brandon Gray
The uprising in Syria against the totalitarian dictatorship of Bashar al Assad is now in its fourth year. What began in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa with schoolboys spraypainting the slogan from Egypt, “The People Demand the Fall of the Regime,” soon became mass protests of all sects that spread across the country as brutal repression met tenacious resolve. Soldiers who disobeyed orders to open fire on protesters mutinied and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect protesters from repression. Regular mass protests and popular councils sustained a vibrant rebellion. But at the time of writing, ISIS and the Assad regime are winning a war that has cost over 160,000 lives and destroyed huge swathes of the country, displacing millions. After communicating for almost two years via skype and facebook I finally had a chance to meet Anarch, a comrade from Syria with whom I had been exchanging messages for so long. He is from the neighbourhood of Bustan al Basha in Aleppo. This is our interview.
Interview with an Aleppo anarchist
The uprising in Syria against the totalitarian dictatorship of Bashar al Assad is now in its fourth year. What began in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa with schoolboys spraypainting the slogan from Egypt, “The People Demand the Fall of the Regime,” soon became mass protests of all sects that spread across the country as brutal repression met tenacious resolve. Soldiers who disobeyed orders to open fire on protesters mutinied and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect protesters from repression. Regular mass protests and popular councils sustained a vibrant rebellion.
Regional Sunni monarchies emboldened reactionary local elements who attempted to imbue the rebellion with a sectarian edge while the Assad regime's torture system claimed thousands of activists. Sunni fundamentalists were released from Assad's prisons and joined with their Iraqi brethren to form the ultra-reactionary brigades of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or 'Daash' in local parlance). Al Qaeda has rejected them as too extremist, preferring instead to back their official affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. ISIS has rarely attacked regime targets, preferring instead to tear apart the rebellion's militias from the rear and thus were almost entirely spared aerial bombardment by government forces. Such a privilege was never granted to civilians in liberated districts.
The decentralized and disorganized FSA took on a reputation for corruption with some of their ill-provisioned fighters standing accused of looting and other abuses. The relentless bombing of civilians and the might of a fully equipped modern military backed by the Russia-Iran-China imperialist bloc took its toll. Homs, a major rebellion city, was laid siege to and starved out. Likewise with the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Aleppo, the commercial heart of the country, has been the site of intense conflict and deprevations for two years now. This year the FSA and the Islamic Front coalition made a punishing drive to kick out ISIS after a brave activist campaign targeted the group as counter-revolutionaries.
At the time of this writing, ISIS and the Assad regime are winning a war that has cost over 160,000 lives and destroyed huge swathes of the country, displacing millions.
After communicating for almost two years via skype and facebook I finally had a chance to meet Anarch, a comrade from Syria with whom I had been exchanging messages for so long. He is from the neighbourhood of Bustan al Basha in Aleppo.
Destruction caused by the regime in the Bustan al-Basha neighbourhood of Aleppo
B: When the protests started in Daraa, what did you think when you heard something was happening?
A: Well before the protests started in Daraa, we were forming groups to protest in Syria but let me say that after the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution the Syrian security forces took the street all the time. So when the revolution started in Daraa, we had security forces everywhere. The only thing that came to my mind was that we should do like them, we should take the streets, occupy Aleppo but it didn't happen because my first time in the street in Aleppo I was kind of arrested just because we were a group of four going to the biggest square in Aleppo. So they took us, then interrogated us in the street; “What are you doing here? Why are you here? Are you going to protest against Assad?” and we said “No, we are here to eat falafel.” (laughs) After all, it started. When we saw the photos of the protesters in Daraa we all knew that it will continue, it won't stop because the ferocious acts of the Syrian regime forces against the protesters was like a notation to us that it won't stop there. It won't stop in Daraa.
Nobody would ever imagine this would happen. but you know after all, I can't say that the people are wrong right now. After all when you are against a dictator of four decades who is using heavy machinery (weapons) against unarmed civilians, I can't blame the people that took up arms, took the streets in the name of freedom. Right now it's not much freedom but I can't blame them.
You were pretty young when it started, how old were you?
I am 22 now so I was 19.
What was it like being a teenager before the revolution under the dictatorship? When did you first start to think politically, or disagree with the regime or be against it?
My family was against the regime so I grew up against the regime but let me say that the first combat against the regime was when I was 17. We had a theatrical play in the college but it passed through the ruling party. They deleted as many scenes as they wanted. That was the first battle and they won that time.
You know in Syria when you are 18 you should go to the army--you have to go to the army. So walking on the streets when you are 18 and are not in the army, is dangerous for you. I was nearly arrested two times just for this and I said that I'm a college student, I can't go inside the army when I'm studying in college. They said “show us your card that proves you are in college” and I didn't have it so they took me to be detained and I stayed there for like 12 hours then took me out because they became convinced that I was in college. So you can see the dictatorship every day from your childhood until you are a grown-ass man.
When you are a child in the school, every child, every class, has a picture of Hafez al Assad [Bashar's father] telling you that Big Brother is watching you in every act you are doing. So after all, you are human, when you see this staring at you, you know there is somebody watching you. You are under pressure all the time. That's when I started to do acts against the regime for the revolution. It wasn't that much but you know, I was a teenager.
Did you expect the repression, the killing, that they would crush it however they could?
Yes. I hadn't witnessed 1982 but my family has witnessed it. In 1982 Hama was destroyed so as Aleppo [now] just because there was people who demanded their rights. They said just like now, Hafez al Assad said they are terrorists, they are Islamists, let's burn the city and he burnt it. So we had in that time 200,000 people die in Hama just because they demanded their rights.
And other things like music was banned in Syria. You can't be a metalhead, you can't be a rapper, you can't be anything because the Big Brother doesn't want you to be. So when they ban music you should expect that kind of repression. When you are banning music by taking the guys 3 or 4 months in detainment just for playing music then if those guys ask you [the regime] to leave, you can kill them of course. That's why I expected it.
So when the protests did start in Aleppo, you were arrested. Were they big protests?
It wasn't as big as Tahrir Square but it was big. We were in college. In college you have a second part of the college, you have the dormitory and there were like 40,000 people there. All of them were against the regime. So every day and every night the riot police have a party inside the college. Many have been shot inside the college. Many murders happen there, stabbings, tear gas. Of course any kind of repression that you saw in any part of Syria, in Daraa, in Eastern Ghouta—anywhere in Syria—you can see in the college of Aleppo because when the protesters first took the street in Aleppo it wasn't that huge. It was small groups there and there and there, but the college group was the biggest because, I don't know, they are 'educated' (laughs)—they know what kind of repression happens in Syria. So when we were protesting we were 2,000 people for like ten minutes maximum because after ten minutes there comes the 4,000 riot police and Shabiha [regime thugs] and the Shabiha don't know any law. We were like 100 people arrested from this protest alone. So Aleppo college has a huge number of prisoners up to this day but I didn't last long in the prison, I didn't write my name on the walls and that kind of thing.
You were released faster?
Yes, 3 days.
And others with you were not as lucky?
Yes, they were not as lucky as I was. I know that one of them even now he is in prison, like right now he's got more than a year and a half still detained, and detained is so much worse than prison. When they take us from the detainment center to the prison you can see the smiles on the faces of the detainees because in detainment, first of all, whenever you hear your name you will get beaten. Beaten by what? That's the main question. That's what people play games on—you will get beaten by a cable, you will get beaten by electricity. So in prison life is much easier; you have your own bed, you don't have a friend called cockroach [laughs].
So you were protesting against Assad, but what did people like you want instead? As we say, we can all be 'anti' but what are you for as in what do you want for Syria?
For me it's not like the others. I'm anti-Assad not [just] because I'm anti-Assad, I'm anti-all. So I'm not going to vote for anybody against him. I don't want anybody to be Assad. I don't want a democratic state, I don't want a dictatorship state. I don't want a state at all. You know, anarchism.
Anarchism can mean a lot to different people, in an anarchist Syria what would life be like?
You have yourself. You own yourself and nothing but yourself. You have a life. Your country doesn't need you and you need your country maybe [laughs] but your country doesn't need you. Of course, there's no rich and poor. Until now, if anybody goes to Aleppo or any place in Syria you still see the hierarchal state that is wherever you go in the world, you see a hierarchal state and that's bad. This is worse than anything in the world. You know when the FSA first went into Aleppo, the first few days I was living freedom, anarchist freedom, I'm not talking about American freedom. Because you have those guys who are holding guns for you, not for the brigade, not for Allah, not for anybody, not for America, not for anybody. They are protecting you. From what? From everybody. In an anarchist state you don't need them, you don't need protection. Protection from who? Right now wherever you go in the world the biggest protection you need is from the government. So the government has the army, has forces that are protecting you from them. [laughs] So if you're talking about me, I haven't dreamed of a better Syria because dreaming of a better Syria means dreaming of a new dictatorship. I mean I don't want a new bigger prison, with nicer people, where you leave your house smiling. This is fake.
So I'm here right now in Gaziantep, I know I don't have the right to say this, when you are not fighting you can't blame people why they are doing this. I know that fighting is hard. I know that the FSA, even Jabhat al Nusra, anybody who is fighting inside Syria have harsh times. Being at the frontline is very harsh so I'm not blaming them, but I'm saying that whenever there is a war both sides are doing nothing. Both sides are fighting but the people are dying. That's why—I'm not saying 'peace and love'—but peace and love! [laughs] Stop the War! Because right now in Syria we have dictatorship in the East and we have dictatorship in the West. That's why I can't choose. It's like the Republican against the Democrats in America but they are both armed, they are both lethal. They can kill you if you don't choose them. That's why it's democracy: [laughs] you can choose.
So why did you leave Aleppo?
There's nothing much to do there, that's why. I had a friend inside Aleppo who was fighting with the FSA. I told him he is a pawn right now, “you are a pawn for the one that grants you money, if he tells you leave the frontline you will leave it just because he's the one who has the money. So if he gets mad at you, you won't get money so you won't get armed. So you are losing, that's why you are a pawn.” I told him to leave, he didn't leave. I'm not saying leave the country, I'm saying disobey the rules. Disobey what the marshal tells you. He didn't disobey. So after three months from me leaving Aleppo he was killed by a sniper in al Ashrafia. But right there [Aleppo] I was feeling myself a pawn, that I'm not living my life, I'm living how others tell me to live. If ISIS comes, don't wear shorts. If they leave, wear shorts. Don't drink alcohol in front of the FSA. Drink alcohol in front of the Syrian Army because if you didn't drink you will get caught. I felt that there's nothing much for me to do. I don't know, it may be selfish but I don't want to killed by a barrel [bomb] without doing anything. Ok, kill me, but while I'm doing my job.
Even the activists there told me, don't shoot the frontlines, don't take your camera to the frontlines because in the frontlines there is robbery. You can't film it because you will get killed by the FSA themselves. They told me that those projects that you are doing here, help the people with that. They told me that after all we are dying with the people so let's finish the war then when the war ends we will look into those kind of things.
So it's not living. You are dying when you are alive.
Have you found a place outside of Syria, a home?
No. Neither in Syria. After all, I'm not a nationalist; home is where you make it. I'm not saying Turkey is so much a better place, of course not. Any government, they vote for it but they can kill you but with law, with a constitution. So I'm not going to say it's home but I'm living here. I have a job and I have my better half with me. So it's good.
Do you feel you can work for the revolution here?
Yes, because the first line of revolution is no borders. So inside Syria, outside Syria, people are oppressed everywhere in the world. So maybe living here in Gaziantep is a bit boring because they are not demanding their rights, but I may speak Turkish sometime and I will demand our rights [laughs] when I learn Turkish.
Why don't you go to Europe or Canada, the 'first world' as they call it?
Fuck the first world. [we laugh]
Cheers to that. But that doesn't interest you? Because I talked to some Syrians and for whatever reasons they want to go to Europe or Canada.
When you are going to Europe or Canada or any other place as an immigrant, as a refugee, you are living by the government laws. So if I'm ok with living by the government laws, in the first place why was I against Assad? I should live in Syria, be a pro-Assad and it will be a first world eventually. So if this is my dream, ok, the first world has its problems as well as the third world. Ok, in the first world you can dress however you like and go to the streets but in your home you can't paint the walls how you like where they put you. Ok, I can work here as a cashier in Turkey and get $500 and live in a place that is much better than the camp that they offer. If I was going to the first world I would prefer to go for tourism. Let me see Sweden for a month, not for a life time.
To go there (as a refugee) you have to give up what you care about, what you fought for?
Of course, for nothing. “Hey Sweden, help me. But don't just help me, teach me how to live my life.” This is stupidity. Ok, I may have repression in my country, after all, I'm not a nationalist so I have repression in every part of the world. Even Sweden does repression on people who live there. So, I don't know, if I was in Sweden and I saw a protest I would participate. So I would get kicked out from Sweden. Then why go? Why bother myself going there just to be kicked out? I can stay here in Turkey and get kicked out.
So you were in Egypt for a bit and then you went back to Aleppo for about six months. What was life like there?
When I left Aleppo the war was not like now. When I left Aleppo there were no barrel [bombs]. The only heavy machinery that worked on the ground was the Howitzer but right now we have everything. Berlin didn't hit Paris with that. When I lived in Aleppo I lived in the Western side and when I returned I lived in the Eastern side, in the liberated areas, because if I went to that side I would have to go to the [Syrian] Army. I have to participate in it if I went there. So I stayed in the liberated areas, lived there, ok, there is shelling but you are living your life. Everybody is living their lives.
Ok, it's not going to make people happy what I'm going to say. But when ISIS first came to Aleppo in the first place, the people loved it because they cleared the roads of the FSA. The FSA repressed the people as much as the Syrian Army. So when ISIS came they took every single guy from the FSA and put them in jail. So you go to the roads and you see civilians just like you and me. You don't see someone holding a kalashnikov pointed at you just because of nothing, because he can. So the people there don't want that much—ok they are against Assad from inside—but from outside they are not against anybody. They are with themselves. They are voting for themselves. Because when you are living on the edge of life, every second of life is crucial because at any second you may get hit by shelling. There's an airplane flying over you that may bombard you. So people are living their life extremely. That's why, ok, the only thing that has changed in Aleppo after this war is that you have destroyed neighbourhoods and destroyed people from inside.
But ok, they are happy on the streets, they are smiling, when Ramadan finished the last year I was there, so people were happy for the Eid. But they are destroyed from inside. When you go to them and tell them “you can live without authority” they look right and left and say “what the fuck are you talking about, are you insane? Haven't you witnessed Assad. Haven't you seen the FSA, ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra?” They will tell you this. You should have someone fighting against Assad. Then you should have ISIS to fight him. Then with ISIS, you should have someone to fight them. That's why it's a matrix and they don't believe you can live without an authority. From my point of view, this is destruction of the soul. I don't believe in the soul, but this is destruction from inside.
So did you talk to Daash (ISIS)?
What was your impression of these guys as time went on, did they show their true colours?
Yes. I was staying in a neighbourhood called Masaken Hanano and then my two friends, who I knew them before the war, I contacted them because I was in Egypt so they can come to me and say “hello,” grow a beard maybe, but no, because they are from Daash right now. They stayed at my place for a week. First I told them, “what the fuck are you doing? For whom you are fighting for?” They told me this—of course they are Syrians, they are not British, not Canadian, [laughs] they are Syrians—they told me “the FSA robbed us, the Syrian Army killed us and Jabhat al-Nusra are not doing anything about it. So we joined Daash so we can do what everybody else didn't do.” I asked them about Islam, I knew them, they were Athiests, so what the fuck happened? They told me that, “we are not convinced that there's a god and when you are convinced that there is a god and god says 'if you are going to please me then fight for me' and we are fighting for god. That's why whenever anybody speaks about Daash, they tell you this, that “the leaders are corrupted but the pawns are not.” They are really convinced that everything they do is very right. And sometimes they may convince you so don't go there. I told him, “I'm still not religious so what would you do to me?” He said to me that “What I don't know doesn't hurt me. If you are going to drink beer then drink beer in your home, then go to the street without it. If it's Ramadan, don't eat while you are walking in the street because I will kill you. Ok?”
So if you hide it they don't care?
They don't care because that is what Allah says. Allah says in the Quran that if you are doing something wrong then you should hide. So they are convinced. I've met people from Daash. I've met people from Nusra. I talked to them like this, like I'm talking to you and I'm alive until now. The only people I know that if I meet them I will be killed are the Syrian Army.
Where do you see Aleppo going? Do you have any idea what's going to happen in the future?
Maybe after like ten years you will need a passport to go from the Eastern side to the Western side. You may see the wall of Berlin but it will be called the wall of Aleppo. Until now, let me say about Syria, [rebels in] Damascus the capital have signed truces with the regime. Al-Raqqa is under the Calipha, they have al Calipha, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Aleppo, you have the war. The Syrian Revolution until now looks like two things: the Spanish Revolution and the American Civil War. So it may go there or there. I'm just saying that you may see after ten years, ten people, one of them may be Benjamin Franklin who will say “here is your constitution, bring me the Statue of Liberty” and you may see something like Spain. But after all, al Assad after six years from now, he's not allowed to be our President anymore.
It's not despair, but you can't find hope when you are searching for an alternative to dictatorship. There is no hope. It's an alternative after all. So you are going from a cross to another cross but you are going to get murdered both ways. So if there's no community act to abolish hierarchy then you are going to stay like this. I don't care about the names, I do care about the state. So if it's called Benjamin Franklin or it's called Bashar al-Assad, both ways they are fucking me. And both of them make marijuana illegal. [laughs]
What did you think when I contacted you as an Anarchist in Canada wanting to talk to you? Did you think what the hell is this? Did it make sense that anarchists would want to make a connection?
Of course, as I said to you, there's no borders and the struggle is one wherever you go. You have a struggle and it's one. So an anarchist from Canada is just like me, we are friends who are talking. That's it--brothers.