“I cannot yet reveal the exact story of the escape route,” he says. “I left family behind, and any mistake I make could cost them their lives.”
Western diplomats who learned to appreciate Rahim’s activity on behalf of human rights in Syria and his efforts in the struggle to topple Bashar Assad’s oppressive regime helped him behind the scenes as much as they could. Since then, for some three months now, he has been hiding somewhere, receiving inside information from comrades left behind in the homeland, and using social networks to provide updates on the daily horrors taking places there, far away from the public eye.
Rahim is a human database who has recorded and filed everything that has happened in Syria since the start of the uprising. He is apparently the last of the activists in the campaign to replace the regime who managed to leave the country and secure an asylum. The information he possesses is fresh and up-to-date.
Rahim is not his real name. He must not be exposed, especially not in an Israeli media outlet. He is unwilling to be photographed, even from behind or as a silhouette. The moment he entered the home where our meeting was held, he violated Syrian law, which bans any contact with Israelis. By law, such meeting constitutes treason.
Yet this is the smallest risk he has assumed. The great risk is that someone will hurt his relatives in Damascus: His parents and siblings. “If authorities find out that I spoke to you, they will butcher my family. This is a brutal, radical regime. What people know in the West is merely the tip of the iceberg. They don’t know about the torture, the raping of women and the massacres of civilians by snipers during funerals.”
“In recent months, people started to bury their dead in their backyards, in improvised graves, until the dust settles. People are scared to gather in public. If more than five people come together, it constitutes an illegal gathering, and then the army arrives and fires indiscriminately.”
'We don't hate Israel'
Rahim received his permit to stay in the US courtesy of one of the organizations affiliated with the State Department. He joined his friend Amar here (another pseudonym.) Amar too was an anti-regime activist. Some three years ago, when he was sitting at an Internet café at the heart of Damascus, security agents raided the site, cuffed him, and threw him in jail. He was released after a few weeks and somehow made it to America. Today he heads the Syrian exile organization and provides authorities and the media with information about what goes on in his homeland: Abuse, murder, rape and other acts of grave violence perpetrated by Assad supporters against protestors.
Both of them are in their early 30s and seek to topple the regime. They reside in a suburb of a large city and cannot keep in touch with family members left behind, because the Syrian regime listens in. For lack of other choice, they convey their well-wishes via mediators, learned to avoid being followed, evade people who can endanger them, and like every exile dream of the day when they can board a plane to Damascus and land in the free Syria.
I brought Israeli-made Turkish coffee for my meeting with them. The Mideastern coffee made the atmosphere more relaxed. The cigarettes were lit one after another and a short while later the tension and suspicion evaporated.
Why are you telling your story to the Israeli media? Do you wish to convey a message to the government in Jerusalem?
“We do it so that you bomb Assad’s palace,” Amar quips. “But seriously now: I’m not a captive of the myth that Jews run the world and America, but Israel does have power and influence. We are engaged in a public relations campaign worldwide to put Bashar Assad on trial for crimes against humanity and for war crimes. If Israel supports the move, it would be greatly helpful.
“The Syrian opposition and Israel share a joint interest. We have no ideological hatred for Israel or for Jews. I know that’s what you think, but it’s not the case. It’s true that for years they taught us to hate Israel and fight is, but many Syrians already realized that they are being taught to hate Israel to divert attention away from the oppression in the country. We realized that Assad senior and junior educated people to hate Israel in order to stay in power; to blind us with hate for Israel so that we don’t channel our energies to the fact that we live with no freedom or future.
“This is over. People got it. Assad still has his supporters, the Alawites who depend on him, because if he falls they will fall too. Yet among other groups, and there are very diverse ethnic groups in Syria, he lost support. In the army too there are thousands of defectors by now, and they left with their weapons. They are hiding away, getting organized, and at the right moment they will act.”
'Most Syrians despise Iran'
We head to the computer. Amar opens his encrypted files, which contain photographs and videos smuggled by the rebels. On the screen we see protestors in the city of Homs burning Hezbollah flags with fury and also burning Hassan Nasrallah’s photos. This is a new phenomenon in Syria, which for years allowed the group to arm itself.
“In all protests thus far, an Israeli flag wasn’t burned even once,” Amar says. “This uprising demonstrates that the Syrian people’s hatred is reserved for Assad’s tyrannical regime and for those who support it and safeguard it. They realize that Hezbollah caused Syria grave damage.”
“They also burned Iranian flags in the protests. I can promise you that the alliance between Syria and Iran that threatens the Middle East will come to an end after Assad is gone. Most Syrians despise Iran, because it dragged Syria into becoming an ostracized state. The protestors are also burning Russian flags, because Russia supports Assad in the United Nations,” he says. “It’s not as though there are no disagreements with Israel. There are. A dispute over borders. The Golan is ours and we shall demand it back under any regime. Yet there is no hatred for Israel and for the Jews. We, the young people’ proved it.”
Iran has played a key role in assisting Assad. Both Rahim and Amar tell of Iranian-speaking snipers who do not speak Arabic being deployed across Damascus and helping in repressing the protests. Rahim adds that other Arab world protests, in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya inspired Syrian’s citizens.
“Social networks played a key role for us too,” he says. “We were able to call or protests and convey messages. Yet then the terrible oppression started. In a protest held on March 15, authorities detained a group of 13 or 14 year-old boys who chanted against the regime and another boy who wrote on a wall ‘Assad go home.’ They were thrown into prison and when their fathers came to release them, members of the secret police told them: ‘If you want your children, bring your women in their place.
“Some of the children were eventually released and others were not. Among those who remained in prison was the boy who drew the graffiti. Two months later, they sent his mutilated body to his parents. He underwent severe abuse; his fingernails were pulled out before he was beaten to death. They told the parents: ‘That’s what happens to those who write a slogan against the leader.’ The parents photographed the body and sent us the images.”
Women rape, children killed
The testimonials include reports by husbands whose wives were raped in front of them by security agents and by brothers who say their sisters were raped as a form of revenge. There are many testimonials by parents about their children being sexually abused and dozens of horrific photos of mutilated and dismembered bodies.
An expert team of the UN’s Human Rights Commission in Geneva recently published a report asserting that since the protests started and through November, Syrian security forces detained some 100,000 people and killed more than 5,000, including at least 256 children. Some of them were tortured beforehand, both physically and sexually. The report contains difficult photos and videos. For example, a soldier shooting a two-year-old girl to death and telling the parents: “She should die now instead of growing up to be a protestor.”
However, Amar says the figures he possesses are much higher. “I estimate that nearly 15,000 protestors were killed so far. The report does not take into account people who were buried in backyards or those who disappeared.”
Zainab Hosseini was 18 when her parents last saw her in April. She disappeared from her home and only a few weeks later her brother was summoned to pick up her body. The sight he encountered was horrifying: Zainab’s head was severed and her face was completely mutilated. The grave violence used against her made it impossible to identify her. The brother assumed that the regime decided to punish him by hurting his sister because he acted against the government. He invited CNN to his home and published the photographs. Yet a few days later the regime presented Zainab alive and claimed that the protestors are making false accusations against security forces.
However, Rahim says the regime was unable to answer one question: “Whose mutilated body was it that was handed over to the family? Perhaps it wasn’t Zainab, but there was a body of a girl there who underwent terrible torture. Who tortured and murdered her? Who’s this girl?”
A few weeks ago, Amar met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He presented to her, among other things, information about soldiers who defected and plan to launch a guerilla fight against the army. “To my surprise, she asked that the defectors lay down their arms,” he says. “That’s an odd request. Why didn’t they ask the rebels in Libya to lay down their arms? How can they do it if at any moment they can be fired at and murdered? It’s impractical.”
“I can’t understand why the Americans are silent,” Amar says. “We expected them to intervene. Militarily. To bomb the Syrian army from the air. They intervened in Libya and managed to prompt Gaddafi’s removal, and that is what we expect them to do to Assad now. Thus far, more people were killed in Syria than in Libya at the point where Obama decided to launch a military offensive in order to avert a greater massacre. NATO also bombed in Kosovo when it was necessary. Why this hypocrisy?”
“Obama urged Assad to leave, but he won’t leave out of his own accord. He’s a coward, he’s naïve, and he is convinced that he has support. He boasts that his children support him. His wife benefited him greatly over the years by providing, with her very presence, a moderate image in the eyes of the world, yet people who met her said she is very shallow and we don’t count on her to influence him to leave.”
Meanwhile, Rahim stresses that Syria is a secular state and that the West should not fear a radical Islamic takeover. “We have many groups, but we live with respect for each other. What’s clear is that the oppressive regime must pass from this world. Our slogan is freedom and dignity. This is what Syria deserves, and we hope that the world will help us, including Israel.”
These voices reached Israel too. Knesset Member Isaac Herzog, who is a member of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Syrian exiles in Washington in recent weeks and he suggests that we listen to them.
“We in Israel often complain that they don’t know us and don’t understand us. We should know that we too do not possess sufficient understanding of our neighbors, and when it comes to Syria we see total ignorance. Following these and other meetings, I can say that what’s happening there does not resemble any other change taking place in our region. The Syrians are a secular nation comprising a fascinating coalition of ethnicities.”
“In my view, following the Assad era there is a chance for positive processes vis-à-vis Israel as well, and they will require us to meet the challenge,” Herzog says. “The US and its partners, along with human rights groups, must grant the protestors more massive support, so that these processes mature as quickly as possible. Otherwise Syria will be plunged into chaos.”
For the exiles, the clock is ticking. Every passing day means more fatalities, more wounded and more prisoners. This is on top of the personal fears for the safety of family members left behind. “The world must wake up,” both Rahim and Amar say. “This is a call for help and for intervention. Assad will not leave on his own accord. He isn’t Mubarak. In order to prevent more bloodshed the world must do something. Now.”
This Story was originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth
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