COLUMN: Children of Syria

Athena Tacet | Contributor

It was a day full of contrasts. Last June 15 was sunny and warm. And while most Montrealers could enjoy the sweet harmony and colourful beauties offered by nature at the beginning of the summer, others were fighting for a darker and a more bitter cause.

 “I hate politics, but I’m here for the children,” said Ola Attar, who is originally from Damascus and is now studying Electrical Engineering at Concordia University. She was the only woman present at the sit-in, which gathered a dozen of anti-Assad Syrians in front of the Russian Consulate, to denounce Assad’s regime’s responsibility in crimes against humanity, and Russia’s support in the massacres –with firms such as Rosoboronexport providing arms to Syria, thus fueling the crisis.

 Montreal’s Russian Consulate is on Avenue de Musée, a street which is on a slope, which in many ways symbolizes the current situation in Syria. But although the country is on the edge of breaking into millions of sociopolitical pieces, one common feeling dominated the scene I was witnessing, and that feeling was hope.

“Anything and anybody is better than Assad,” said Attar while her piercing dark brown eyes were staring at me as though they had already seen too much. It was not her first time in front of the Russian Consulate. “It has to be the tenth time we come here,” she said. “We tried to talk to them but they refuse to communicate with us.”

 It always amazes me how strong, determinate and persevering political and human rights activists may be. As a French citizen, I must say I have generally been spoiled with a relatively easy access to fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, I have had the bad habit to take them for granted. For this reason, meeting activists such as Mohamed Mahmoud is essential in order for one to understand that our basic human rights are not given and could very well be taken away from us anytime, anywhere. Born in Aleppo, Mahmoud organized the sit-in, as many other peaceful events. His long-lasting commitment to try to put an end to the Assad’s regime over the years, during and after the emergency rule, has made him a strong opponent to the government in place. Our conversation on Syria soon took a very interesting tangent on the history of the region, the relationship between Syria and France during and after the French mandate of Syria, the strategic ties which have historically united Syria and Russia, as well as the current devastating status of children in Syria.

 Earlier, Attar had told me that her last trip to Syria in 2010, i.e. one year before the uprising started, she was struck by the number of homeless children wandering in the streets and searching for food in garbage bins. But aside from hunger, Syria’s children have also been the victims of torture and sexual abuse committed by pro-government militias. The Syria Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), (a network of Syrian activists), have stated that at least 1,176 children have been killed since February last year. Witnesses also described in a June 11, 2012 Human Rights Watch article, atrocities towards children such as summary executions , being maimed while trying to take shelter and killings by-snipers fire.

 So in such an intolerable and unacceptable context of humanitarian crisis, we as human beings should wonder why although media coverage exists, information’s scarcity remains a dark reality. Media have preferred focusing on the religious dimension of the crisis to explain the situation because it is always easier to rely on stereotypes, such as the one according to which everything that goes wrong in the Middle East must necessarily be rooted in a conflict between various religious sects or between various religious and political factions. Although history has shown that it might sometimes be true, the Syrian instance is much more complex, as the country represents one of the most remarkable examples of religious tolerance and coexistence in the region. Mahmoud said that it was part of the media propaganda.

“Religion does not play a part in this,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind any religion or sect to be in power, as long as it is democratic and benefiting the people. And why not a Sunni government? After all, don’t they represent the majority in the country?”

 The key word here is “democracy,” and by that I do not mean “liberal democracy” in the Western sense; but rather a political system which would allow Syrians to move forward and aspire for a better future. Unfortunately, it is only the beginning of the fight for, as Syrian poet Adonis said in 2011, Arab rulers have left “behind nothing except breakdown, backwardness, retreat, bitterness and torture. They gathered power. They did not build a society. They turned their countries into a space of slogans without any cultural or human content.”

It is revolting and heartbreaking seeing a country with such a rich cultural, political and religious history falling into pieces. Also, a country has no future and no hope without its children. So it is time for us to express and emancipate this human content that Adonis referred to. We may have forgotten about it either because we do not have affiliations with a particular country in crisis, or simply because we do not care. Yet, we all share the common feature of being humans, and that should suffice to care, shouldn’t it?

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