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Miriam of the Sahara

By Robert Asher

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As the scorching desert sun beats down on the dry, dusty landscape, the intermittent beeping sound of a metal detector is heard as it carefully sweeps just above the ground. The operator cautiously progresses in 30cm intervals, marking the ground ‘safe’ with stones. Behind the minimal protection of a full face plastic visor, and a vest of body armor, the operator shields her eyes from the intense rays of the sun with a pair of stylish Italian sunglasses.

“My name is Miriam Zaid, I am 28 years old, and I’ve worked as a land-mine clearance operator for the past 6 years. To do this job you need to be serious, persistent, strong, and self confident. This self confidence will enable you to be successful.”

In one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, where temperatures regularly top 120°F, she fearlessly surveys a terrain of sand, granite, and volcanic rock 7-days a week. Miriam works to help clear one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, a 2,700km barrier that divides her peoples land, where a single misstep could bring imminent death or severe injury.

“Every time I go into the mine field I’m 100% confident. I’m always trying to improve myself and my ability as a de-miner. I’m extremely confident, I have no fear,” declares Miriam.

Like most of the Saharan people traditionally from this land, also known as Sahrawis, Miriam has lived her entire life in exile in Algeria. In 1975 Spain relinquished control of Western Sahara, a large coastal region where the worlds largest desert meets the Atlantic ocean, after nearly a century of colonization

Envisioning their time for self determination had arrived, the Sahrawi’s land was instead divided in two and ceded to the Moroccans in the North, and the Mauritanians in the South. Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, the Sahrawi’s engaged both nations in a battle for independence under the banner of the Polisario Front,.

In 1979 the Mauritanians withdrew from the Southern area they had occupied. Over the ensuing 12 years the Polisario and Moroccan forces fought bitterly. The superior armor and manpower of the Moroccans eventually resulted with their control over two thirds of the land.

“Western Sahara has been colonized by Spain, fought a war with Mauritania, and is now occupied by Morocco. We are not satisfied with our history. When war broke out with Mauritania my uncle was killed in battle, and my father was arrested and imprisoned. Personally I can’t forget this history, every time my family and I speak about our history we are all deeply emotionally affected.”

As the world rejoiced with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Moroccans were constructing their own wall, an extensive sand berm. This served to divide the coastal area of Western Sahara under their control, from the empty, desert region controlled by the Polisario.

In addition to thousands of Moroccan military personnel stationed along the berm, the entire length of this border is defended with millions of scattered land-mines.

“The berm prevents us from moving freely across our land, and the minefield serves to double these limitations. The location of the mines are unknown, they kill animals, people, and even the snake. The war was fought in the area that is now marked by the berm. This side of the berm was originally littered with mines, and was an extremely dangerous area. The area continues to be dangerous, but we are doing our best to clear the area and make the land safe once again”

Many Sahrawi’s, Miriam’s family included, traditionally survived by pastoral activities such as shepherding goats and camels. Once the land became uninhabitable due to the land-mines, most fled, eventually finding refuge in and around the Southwestern Algerian town of Tindouf.

“I was born in the Dahkla refugee camp in Southwestern Algeria in 1985. My parents lived through very difficult, hard times, so I always wished I could do something to improve their conditions and offer them the things that they were deprived of. Because my family is from the desert I always wished to give them what they couldn’t get in their life. This thinking made me forget myself, and focused my ambition to purely helping my family.

Like most Sahrawi children born in the camps near Tindouf, Miriam was sent to boarding school far from her family. Over the years the harsh desert conditions of the camp were unforgiving on Miriams mother. Upon graduating from high school Miriam decided to put her dreams of attending University on hold so that she could care for her ailing mother.

“My mom loves to listen to the radio and always follows news about the Sahrawi situation. One day she heard about a program to de-mine the areas controlled by the Polisario, and how they wanted to train women for the job.”

Excited by an opportunity to serve her people, and a chance to experience life in a homeland she’d never known, Miriam applied to work as a de-miner. Spurred on with the chance to clear large areas of deadly land-mines, and enable her people to return from the camps in Algeria, Miriam eagerly accepted work that most would be too afraid to even contemplate.

“This job is important because it’s good for the Sahrawi people. It’s the best feeling to know you’re helping your people, and to make your homeland safe. Because of the danger posed by the mines this job makes my people safer, therefor I give my best to serve my people.”

De-mining work is often undertaken by men, but Sahrawi culture has a long tradition of strong women and gender equality. The Polisario was one of the few Arab forces to see women fight alongside men in battle. When the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) began to plan and organize de-mining operations in the Polisario controlled region it was a natural decision to employ women.

“Its very important for women to work in this field because it’s generally considered a man’s job. We are the first woman’s only group, and in-addition the men are very supportive and encouraging. The men don’t see us as women, as less capable, they see us as equals. Because of the support we’ve gotten from the men I’ve never thought about quitting or giving-up.

When Miriam began working with AOAV in 2007 she was one of only two women originally hired. Today she is the team leader of a group of five women who work in rotation with a second team.

Currently Miriam and her team are based in a camp of 20 tents in an area known as Mijek. Approximately 20km from the berm, Miriam and her team have been working for the past nine months to clear a 72million square kilometer mine-field.

Progress is painstakingly slow, and the dusty desert conditions make it a brutal environment in which to work. George Willmer, the on-site Senior Technical Advisor for AOAV explains the land-mine detection and removal methods currently being applied at Mijek:

“We’re lucky to have the ‘Mine-Wolf’ which is essentially an armored bulldozer with chisels mounted on the front that rotate and till the ground. If one of the chisels makes contact with a mine it will detonate, and the armor of the Mine-Wolf will allow it to go largely unscathed. We use the Mine-Wolf to clear 2,500sq meter boxes, and then we bring in our de-mining personnel to manually search within the boxes.”

Work commences each day at 7am. Miriam and her teammates begin their day with prayer, then breakfast. They are then shuttled from the camp into the minefield where they meet with their supervisor to coordinate the days plan, and perform a personal safety check.

The women work by clearing lanes 25 meters long and 30cm wide using their handheld metal detectors. When a mine is located they mark its position, and immediately notify their supervisor. The detonator is then delicately removed from the mine. The following day they will return to destroy the mine.

“To demolish a mine we first determine how much TNT will be needed, usually 200-400grams, depending on the type of mine. We then place the TNT on a small device that cradles it above the mine. We lay wire from the location of the mine to a safe distance away where we connect one end of the wire to a detonator switch. Then the one who has been assigned the role of ‘demolitionist’ will return to the site of the mine and carefully connect the other end of the wire to the TNT. Once back at the safety location a countdown is commenced and the mine is detonated.”

Miriam and the ladies on her team have formed a unique bond, found only among groups undertaking such perilous work. In addition to living together for months on end in a 20×15 foot tent, each woman watches over the other while they work, ensuring they always follow the proper safety procedure.

“Once I begin something I will continue until the job is done. If I’ve never tried to do something before it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, I watch how others do it and I will try it and do my best. My dream is to see Western Sahara free and cleared of mines. I hope I will not be killed by a mine, and will survive to see my land safe for my people.”

Land-mines are the most indiscriminate weapons of war, and will strike regardless of ones national, political, or ethnic affiliation. Miriam, and all those who undertake this most supremely selfless work, have chosen to sacrifice their lives to eliminate these insidious weapons.

Freedom in the Desert

By Safa and Robert Asher

Deutsche Welle Global – August 31, 2013

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Modern-day slave finds freedom in the desert

In Mauritania, one man’s extraordinary journey from slavery to freedom – and the obstacles he overcame to free his family – offers rare insight into a little-known world.

At SOS Esclaves offices in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, Matallah Ould Mbarak Alsalem prepares tea. Matallah is a handyman and cleaner at SOS Esclaves, an NGO dedicated to the fight against slavery and coming to the aid of slaves and former slaves. He is one himself.

Born in a desert region of north-eastern Mauritania, his mother was a Hratine, a slave, and by convention so was he. The Hratine, the main slave caste, are descendents of black African ethnic groups subjugated for the most part by white Arab Berbers. Estimates indicate that 10-20 percent of Mauretania’s 3.5 million people are slaves, though exact numbers are hard to come by.

They are their masters’ property and live to do their masters’ biding – as do their children, who are often the result of a master’s rape. Escape from slavery is rare and often a solo endeavor, requiring a near perfect set of events to randomly unfold. Matallah was lucky. He was also extraordinary.

Family ties

“Matallah is the only former slave I’ve ever known who tried to free his family,” says Messaoud Boubacar,” who runs SOS Esclaves in Mauritania.

“Escaped former slaves rarely speak about the families they leave behind, because as slaves their families were broken. Matallah spoke about his family and tried repeatedly to free them, and he succeeded.”

As a slave, Matallah’s responsibilities, like those of his sister, Schweda, and the other slaves, included grazing their masters’ camels and goats, preparing meals, and fetching wood and water. Simple mistakes would be punished with the lash of a whip.

Shepherding camels often took Matallah out on his own, deep into the desert. One day in 2004, he ventured – unbeknownst to him – near the border to Mali with his herd and was approached by gendarmes, border police, on patrol. They said they needed someone to shepherd and milk their camels and asked if he was interested.

“I told them I was a slave and could not go with them because of my master, that I would be beaten if I did,” Matallah told DW.

But that was not the end of it. The gendarme commander wanted to know more. He grilled Matallah about his situation – and that of his sister and her children. The commander asked if he would like to be free.

“I told him yes, but I wanted a guarantee that I would never be returned to my master,” Matallah says. “He assured me I would never have to go back.”

Showdown with his master

Back at the gendarmes’ base, Matallah’s master and his brothers showed up, insisting their property be handed over to them. But the commander said the decision was Matallah’s.

“My master began telling me that I must return with him because he was my family, my parent, and his brothers and sons were my tribe,” Matallah says. “I told him he was not my family, that he raped my mother and sister in front of me, he beat my brother and me repeatedly, and that if I were to die at that moment it would be better than to return with him.”

With the gendarmes’ protection, Matallah went free, and with the support of SOS Esclaves, he settled in Nouakchott.

A year later, Boubacar and SOS Esclaves located his mother and brother, who had also escaped from slavery and were living in a refugee camp in the Western Sahara. But the family remained incomplete without his sister, Schweda, and her children.

Matallah would not rest until he found them. SOS Esclaves gave him money and twice he ventured into the desert to search for them. He appealed to the gendarmes for help, but was told he would need to pay $5,000 and provide GPS coordinates of their exact location.

But early this year, Boubacar and Matallah learned there was a new police commander in the region, and that he was a Hratine. That may have made all the difference.

Mauritania is deeply divided along ethnic lines. White Arab Berbers make up the majority of the ruling class and hold a tight grip on the reigns of power. Since slave-masters tend to come from the same ethnic group, officials rarely intervene against them.

In March of this year, the gendarmes contacted Matallah, and, accompanied by 15 of them, Matallah and Boubacar spent two days scouring the desert. They found Schweda and her children shepherding camels and sheep, spread across many kilometers. The gendarmes gathered all 10 members of the family and brought them to freedom.

Now Matallah, his sister and her children live in two huts they constructed out of wire fencing and scrap fabric on an empty lot between upscale homes in Nouakchott. Though poor, every penny they earn is theirs to keep and a new life of self-determination has begun.

MEET THE LADIES

OF THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY

BY ROBERT ASHER, PHOTOS BY ANDREAS STAHL

VICE Magazine – April 10, 2013

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Just a few hundred meters from the Turkish-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with a multitude of various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.

Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijab and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime; their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks; and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.

Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she strokes her rifle as she recounts how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but each other, sad stories, and some guns.

The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies; because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hardline Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the most well-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organization), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.

Stoking sectarian divisions in Syria has been a key strategy of Assad’s forces, and it arguably seems to be working in his favor. When the revolution began, he arrested and executed countless people who believed in the power of nonviolence while releasing hundreds of Salafists from prison—Salafists who have no intentions of granting women equal rights. Assad has also long used women as a propaganda tool for his secular policies, promoting Alawite and Shiite women to positions of power in the military. Recently, when the US reformed its military policies to allow women to fight on the frontlines, Assad followed suit, parading his own brigade of women soldiers through the streets of Homs.

As our visit at Auntie Mahmoud’s home came to an end, I felt frustrated. I had come to see women who were preparing to ship out to battle. Before my trip, I envisioned them shooting their guns and operating checkpoints but quickly realized that I had been a bit delusional—even though they are ready to fight, their Islamist frenemies won’t let them. I wondered how extremist groups could prevent women from fighting when the Quran states that jihad is for women too. Our fixer, Safa, suggested that I speak with some members of the Jabhat al-Nusra to glean their stance on the matter.

Safa set up a meeting the following evening with Mohamed Abdul Salam, a captain in the Jabhat al-Nusra, at an FSA commander’s house. He told me that they don’t allow women to carry weapons and explained that when the men finish fighting, then the women can have their turn. He claimed that, for now, women were needed at home with their families. When pressed on the specifics in the Quran concerning the rights of women during jihad, he replied, “I cannot answer that at this time.”

Mohamed did admit, however, that he believed women should be allowed to arm themselves for defense. It has been widely reported that Assad’s army and paramilitary thugs known as shabiha have used rape as a demoralizing tactic against women who support the rebels. According to the International Rescue Committee’s recent report, “Syria: A Regional Crisis,” many women have been raped in their homes and in public. These violations, sometimes committed by multiple perpetrators, often take place in front of the victims’ family members. Roadblocks are ubiquitous throughout Syria and have become especially perilous for women. The IRC’s women’s protection team in Lebanon was told of a young girl who was gang-raped and forced to stagger home naked, magnifying her shame in a society where modesty and chastity are so valued.

Am and her comrades are attempting to overcome their predicament by engaging in a dialogue with those in the local community—including Islamic militant groups and their commanders—who are opposed to women joining the front lines. Creating a visible presence in the town is their first objective, and Safa, our fixer, is a perfect example of a modern, independent woman who actively supports the revolution. When the protests against the regime erupted in Aleppo in March 2011, Safa attended as many as she could. When carnage and bloodshed engulfed the city, she and her family relocated to Atmeh for safety. Safa then took it upon herself to help the children in the camp: using money from her own savings, she provided children with entertainment and art therapy to escape from and deal with their trauma. She now works as an administrator and a translator at a secret hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.

Perhaps better than most, Safa understands the difficulties facing Am and her brigade. “This revolution is not only against Assad,” she said. “It is also a youth movement against the previous generation. It was the older generation who refused to stand up to Assad. When we defeat Assad, I believe there will be a second revolution to completely change society from the old ways of the previous generation.”

Am and the women in her brigade represent the embodiment of the struggle for equality in war-torn Syria. They find themselves in the middle of two ominous forces: criminal totalitarianism and Islamic extremism. But if Am, her comrades, and Safa have anything to do with it, the revolution will not be over if and when Assad falls; it will be over when women are able to take their rightful place in Syrian society.

DISPLACED AND LOOKING FOR SOLACE

By: Robert Asher, Photos by: Andreas Stahl

Deutsche Welle – January 30, 2013 

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Forced to flee from her Aleppo home, a young woman takes refuge in a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria. In a camp for displaced people, she finds a way to do her part for her country without resorting to violence.

Twenty-three-year-old Safa Faki has been living in the village of Atmeh, five kilometers (three miles) from the Turkish border in northwestern Syria, for seven months now. Before Syria’s civil war began, it was a town of 4,000 people. Nowadays 20,000 live there. The town gets only two hours of electricity per day. That’s had a detrimental effect on the Faki family’s standard of living. It’s winter and the temperature outside is close to freezing. The only source of heat in the three-room house is a wood-burning stove.

“Like many families in Syria, we have olive trees, but now we cut them down to get wood to keep warm through the winter,” she says. “Before the revolution the Assad regime was bad, but now we have made the choice to live free or die.”

Born and raised in Aleppo, Safa watched as the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. In her mind the idea of a revolution in Syria was close to impossible. When it arrived, and protests against the regime erupted, she was always in attendance.

As Sunnis, it was always a struggle for her family to make ends meet. Her father, a 40-year veteran of the Army, earned only 200 euros ($270) per month. At the same time, he watched younger more inexperienced men with government or family connections rise above him.

“In the beginning we always chanted: ‘The people, we want the regime to go.’ I hoped our revolution would be like Tunisia and Egypt, a peaceful revolution,” Safa says. “But many times at the protests I saw Shabiha thugs beating people. I saw in front of my eyes how they beat young girls. There were snipers up high in buildings: they shot many people during the protests. Soon there were no more protests.”

Fighting in the neighborhood

In late July the battle for Aleppo began. The rebel Free Army moved in to residential neighborhoods, and the Syrian Army responded. Safa’s home was in an area called Mashad, adjacent to neighborhoods occupied by the Free Army, which were being shelled by the regime. At night Safa would climb to the roof of her family’s home and watch the gunfire from tanks and heavy machineguns light up the sky.

One morning Safa was awoken by a loud explosion only meters from her home. It was the breaking point for her family. They packed their essentials and fled the city for their village home.

Now Safa, her parents, sister, two brothers, their wives and four kids live in the small house in Atmeh. Her other four brothers also share space in the village. It’s extremely tight living, and especially hard for the women and children, who were accustomed to living in the city. There’s little to fill their days in the countryside.

In the beginning, Safa’s days in Atmeh were filled with watching the news about Aleppo. As fighting intensified, it quickly became clear that her family would not be returning to Aleppo anytime soon. Boredom and despair soon enveloped Safa’s life.

Traumatized children

In August a camp began to grow on the outskirts of Atmeh, along the border fence with Turkey. The inhabitants, people whose homes had been destroyed and lives upended, came from across the country.

At the camp, Safa was struck by the dire situation of the children. Many had nothing but stones for toys. She started thinking about how she could help.

“One night I realized what I would do: The next day I would buy colors and papers and go to the camp.”

She had taught children before and felt she understood how they think. As a graduate of the Aleppo Fine Arts Academy, she was a certified artist.

Safa began going to the camp four or five days a week and offering drawing sessions. Her goal was to give the children an outlet for their trauma, that is, art therapy.

From the beginning the children were responsive. They drew images of the war: tanks, helicopters and jets attacking their homes, with people dead on the ground. The drawing sessions created a rare atmosphere of joy and entertainment for the children – and somber reflection as the images of the war begin to appear on paper.

Appealing abroad

“The war in Syria will not end soon, and I worry about my people, especially the children at the camp,” she says. “I don’t understand why the world does not help us, why the governments in America and Europe let Assad destroy Syria and do nothing.”

Conditions in the camp, which had grown – like the town – to around 20,000 people, worsened when winter arrived, turning the ground to mud. Still, Safa continues her drawing sessions every Friday, weather permitting. They sometimes go on all day.

She has collected numerous drawings from her wards, and with help from friends in the Netherlands, she is working to organize exhibitions there to raise awareness about the situation in Syria.

Safa wants people to think more about the crimes being committed in Syria, the people killed the cities destroyed. The children have born the brunt of war, she believes. They have seen things no child should ever have to witness.

SYRIA’S EASTERN UPRISING

By: Robert Asher   Photo by: Andreas Stahl

Radio Netherlands Worldwide – December 31, 2012

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In Syria’s far East a people oppressed for decades have finally had their first taste of freedom. The Kurds have been marginalized and discriminated against by two Assad regimes, but a window of opportunity for self rule has presented itself, and they are not wasting a second. With the Syrian Army choosing to focus its forces in the major cities in the West of the country, the regime’s presence is now only felt in one of five cities in the Kurdish region. Throughout the revolution in Syria the opposition has failed to provide even the most basic of civil services, but in the city of Dairk, the Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (PYD) has quickly organized itself into a model for local and regional government.

Under the Assad regime Kurdish political parties have been banned. An uprising erupted in 2004 but was quickly suppressed in the Kurdish city of Qamishli. Although brief, the event was a defining moment and gave birth to the PYD, initially an underground movement. It wasn’t until the revolution began some 22 months ago that a full political mobilization could begin.

On July 21st this past summer, after decades of corrupt and insufficient services by the Assad government, the PYD was finally properly organized to make their move. With overwhelming public support backed by the Popular Protection Unit (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish defense force, the regime was forced out of all local government offices and replaced by the PYD. “The Assad regime is fascist and has killed many of our people. It has denied us even our most basic rights to speak our own language and obtain Syrian citizenship unless we convert to Arab culture,” said Talat Unis, the local PYD leader in Dairk. “We believe we can administer ourselves, but the fight has only just begun, and we are not yet completely free. We have many obstacles to overcome,” he continued.

Many members of the PYD began their political careers fighting with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey, but returned to their homeland in Syria when the revolution began. After waging a decades long battle for autonomy against the Turkish government, these PYD members are eager to reclaim their rights in Syria. “We follow the teachings of Abdullah Öcalan for democracy, women’s rights, and ecology. We used to fight with our Kurdish brothers in the mountains of Turkey, but when the time came for us to reclaim our ancestral homeland in Syria we returned. Now we are the PYD, and we fight only for a future Syria with equal rights for our people”, explained Khalil who now mans a YPG border outpost previously occupied by the Syrian Army.

As the ideological leader of the PKK and now the PYD, Abdullah Öcalan led the Kurdish fight against Turkey until he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. In an attempt to quell their close affiliation, the Turkish government has closed all border crossings to the Kurdish region of Syria, preventing any import of refined fuel and other essential items such as flour for bread. With that trade route closed and access to electricity a dwindling commodity in most parts of Syria, the Kurdish area has been literally left in the dark. International trade sanctions as a result of Assad’s merciless attack on the revolution have left Eastern Syria without a market for their wealth of oil and gas.

Sarekaniya, Formerly Known as Ras al-Ain

The PYD controls the cities of Dairk, Amouda, Darbasiya, and a significant portion of the biggest cities in the region: Qamishli and Sarekaniya (also known as Ras al-Ain). The YPG mans checkpoints along the main highway connecting the cities, but shares this responsibility with an opposing Kurdish political coalition called the National Council (NK) under a fragile alliance known as The High Kurdish Council (HKC). Suspicions linger between the NK and the PYD over the Assad regime’s apparent willingness to hand over control of these cities to the PYD and YPG without putting up much of a fight. The NK suspects a secret deal must have been made, but the PYD flatly denies any such agreement occurred. “On November 21st our brave YPG forces stormed the regime’s intelligence offices in the region and forced them to leave. Most of the Syrian Army stationed in our region were Arabs from Damascus and Homs, and had no desire to fight and die here. Rather than risk mass desertion as seen in the Army in other parts of the country, the Army removed it forces,” Talat Unis explained.

In Sarekaniya the PYD has a new enemy: Islamic Extremist groups fighting under the auspices of the Free Army, and with, they suspect, the assistance of the Turkish government. Despite being a member of NATO and close ally of the United States and Europe, Turkey has openly declared its support for the Free Army (FSA). However, supporting extremist groups such as Jabhat al Nursa is not part of the strategic plan endorsed by the West to topple Assad.

Gemshid Othman is the commander of PYD forces in Sarekaniya and explains his theory of the Turkish government’s support for such groups, “On November 7th the Turkish military could be seen removing land mines along the border. At 3am on the 8th the extremists arrived. They began by firing their weapons in to the air to scare the local people, and then they targeted local Christians who sold alcohol ordering them to stop or risk losing their hands in punishment. After a few days of fighting with these groups, we captured their commander’s headquarters and found foreign passports with Turkish stamps and a document describing a meeting held between Turkish officials and the extremist groups outlining a plan to attack our people. We killed 60 of them, and lost only 5 of our men in battles over the past month.”

However other questions and inconsistencies remain. November 8th was also the same day the PYD forced the regime out of Sarekaniya, and later that day a Syrian Air Force MIG attacked a residential neighborhood. It would be easy to assume this was in retaliation for their forced removal from the city, but the regime claimed it was solely an attack on the Free Army, unrelated to their removal from Sarekaniya.

Fighting has continued between the PYD and a multitude of Free Army brigades and extremist groups. Ajub Sjecho, 82, a Kurdish Yizidi, a small non-muslim minority, lost his eldest son in recent fighting. “My son was the heart of our family. He was brave. Erdogan is supporting the extremists and their plan to kill our people. With God’s will we will push them back.” Now Ajub has taken his son’s gun and fights himself. Agreements between the PYD and the FSA/extremists to create a truce are fragile and broken on a consistent basis. Years of distrust between Kurds and Arabs run deep, and peace in Sarekaniya no longer rests on the fall of Assad.

The Kurdistan Factor

At the Domiz refugee camp, located roughly 100km across the Syrian border in Iraqi Kurdistan, over 42,000 Syrian Kurds have come seeking sanctuary. Due to a crippled economy in predominantly Kurdish cities and towns in eastern Syria over past decades, many Kurds relocated to the larger cities of Damascus and Aleppo in search of work. Now, with heavy fighting between the Free Army and the Syrian Army at Assad’s doorstep, the dangers, and resulting food and electricity shortages have forced many to return to the East. With the PYD controlling most of the Northeast, and a Turkish trade blockade imposed due to concerns the PYD is the PKK under a different name, many have found no other option but the Domiz camp. In one tent at the camp neatly arranged with carpets, mattresses along the sides, and an electric heater at the center, Ali Mohammed, 42, formerly a driver in Damascus, was eager to explain his situation. “As fighting intensified, movement on the streets after 4pm each day became increasingly restricted. There was no fuel for my car, no food for my family, and no schools for my children. We traveled for two days to return to the East, when we arrived there was no option for work. To feed my family I’ve come to the camp. The situation here is better than in Syria, here we have everything we need”.

UNHCR provides the bulk of the relief offered at the camp, equipping all with a tent and small concrete enclosure for use as a kitchen and to block against heavy winds, a tank for storing water, access to electricity, and a $31 per month ration card for use at a market operating on fixed prices. All children have access to a school staffed by over 50 teachers, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs two hospitals in the camp providing basic medical services. All serious medical cases are referred to one of the major hospitals in the nearby city of Duhok.

In Kurdistan, regional President Massoud Barzani orchestrates a booming economy with a reported 8% GDP annual growth. His influence and vast wealth can be seen in most sectors of the economy, and he has been a major benefactor at the Domiz camp. Barzani is also the driving force behind the Kurdish National Council (NK) in Syria which is locked in a power struggle with the PYD. With the PYD closely basing their system of government on the socialist teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, and Barzani known to be a staunch capitalist, the PYD has found themselves without their naturally-assumed Kurdish ally. There are rumors and speculation that Assad has been quietly working with his closest allies in Iran and their Shiite counterpart Nuri al-Maliki, the President of Iraq, to pressure Barzani against cooperating with the PYD. Kurdistan is heavily reliant on trade between its powerful neighbors Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and cannot afford to jeopardize these essential links. Assad is well aware of Turkish and PYD distaste for one another, and may very well see the PYD as a bulwark against any possible Turkish infiltration in the region. This all but boxes in the PYD—they may control most cities and towns in the Northeast, but there are few economic options available.

Forward Momentum

In Dairk, a small city filled with many elegant houses, life for the Kurdish people continues to move forward in a new and positive direction, despite the hardships. Officials at a government office known as The Peoples House work to correct the wrongs enforced over the past 40 years. As the cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo grew, many Arab people who’s land was needed to feed the urban expansion were offered Kurdish land in the East in exchange. Shamsa Haji, an 80 year-old widow, has come to reclaim her husband’s land, rightfully owned over 25 years ago but given to an Arab family by the regime. “This Arab family arrived 25 years ago with illegal documents claiming our land, but I have the original documents which prove my family are the rightful owners”, explains Shamsa. “I’ve come here today because I believe the Peoples House will finally help me. I just want the truth to come out, and I just want to work my land”. Ahmed Raja, the Peoples House local leader, agrees to hear here case, and work to reclaim her land from the Arab family who now occupy it. “We have a special committee for agriculture, and we will study the situation closely and decide on the most appropriate and fair solution,” he vowed.

At the Women’s Council, Chichek Kamishlo works to protect and advance the rights of all women, be they Kurdish, Arab, or Christian. “Almost all of the problems women encounter on a daily basis come from men violating our basic rights, through intimidation and violence,” Kamishlo said. She described the recent case of a married man who met a girl he wanted to have sex with. Since sex outside of marriage is forbidden, the man approached the family and asked for her hand in marriage. Once the marriage was consummated, he told her he would divorce her and she was not welcome in his home. “In our culture a divorced woman has limited chances to marry again, and often life becomes very difficult for her. In this case the woman came to the Women’s House seeking our assistance. We have since instructed the man to pay a monthly allowance for her, and we have also requested the local police arrest him because we believe what he did was as bad as rape”. The Women’s House has since secured a place for the woman to live as well as employment.

In the town center, shops are open for business selling all manner of products. Dalgash Gamal, 28, owns a smart little shop offering soaps, perfumes, and a wide variety of beauty products for women. “We used to get our products from Damascus and Aleppo, but getting them from there to here has become increasingly difficult. The roads are unsafe, and there are many illegal checkpoints that have been stealing my products. Now I get my products from Qamishli, but even there many items are becoming more scarce”, adds Dalgash as the lights go out in his shop, a now routine occurrence. Dairk has been reduced to living with only 3-4 hours of electricity per day.

Down the road at a small park in the center of town, a statue of Hafez Assad lies in rubble, a stark reminder to all of the brutal dictator, and the recent uprising that forced the regime out. Taufiq Khalif, 42, owns a shop overlooking the park, “In 2004 during the Qamishli uprising we smashed the statues face, and government agents came to my shop, they said they knew I knew who had desecrated the statue. But I refused to give them any names, and so I spent 3 months in jail”. On November 12th, the people returned to the park with a bulldozer and ripped the statue from its pedestal.

At the Culture House, Kurdish music is filling the halls after decades of being illegal. Zedan Judi works diligently to prepare his talented young musicians for an upcoming performance to celebrate the end of exams for students. His troupe, known as The Judi Group, has a long and important legacy for the Kurdish people. First formed over 30 years ago, many early members fought and died with the PKK in the mountains of Turkey. The auditorium they now prepare in is lined with photos of The Judi Group martyrs. “My feeling being here, preparing our songs, is like coming out of the darkness and into the light. We used to hide and sing in secret. Our songs have always been about revolution. Before it was a dream, but now it is real!” Zedan proudly explains.

The road ahead for the Kurdish people of Syria is filled with many challenges, but almost all want to be part of a democratic Syria with equal rights for all. Turkish fears of a Kurdish people determined to unite their lands in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are unfounded in Syria. However, with the war against Assad in many parts of Syria now being led by Islamic Extremist brigades comprised of Jihadists from all over the world, the democratic revolution is quickly morphing into an Islamic revolution. The Kurds are Muslims, but are moderate and progressive. The downfall of Assad could easily be replaced, many Kurds fear, with an even more intolerant government. The Kurds have been fighting for freedom and dignity for centuries, and there is no doubt they will continue the fight until their rights are secured.

THE BATTLE FOR HAREM

By: Robert Asher, Photos by: Andreas Stahl

October 24, 2012

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The small Syrian town of Harem sits on a hillside just 5 km from the Turkish border. The Idlib Martyrs Brigade has chosen this town as the site of their latest offensive against the Syrian Army and its brutal Shabiha militia.

Strategically, Harem is of vital importance to the FSA for resupply from, and medical evacuation to Turkey. Wounded rebels are whisked from the front line, through the olive groves and peach orchards that stretch from Harem to the border, to Ambulances that wait on the Turkish side. For the Syrian Army, Harem provides the advantage of high ground, its location enables shelling and monitoring of FSA positions over a great distance. The Army has made an extensive effort to secure the town, Mohanned al Issa – Deputy Commander of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade “Harem is not like other places, the majority of the enemy forces are Shabiha. It appears to be the heart of the Shabiha forces in Idlib”.

The Turkish border city of Reyhanli, less than 10 km away, has become a key staging point for the FSA. Wounded fighters are given access to Turkish medical services, while weapons are discretely smuggled across. Turkish border stations have equipped themselves with tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, prepared to shoot down any Syrian army helicopters that advance too close. This provides a welcome advantage to the rebels, who’s base camp for this operation is nestled in the hills that rise above Reyhanli, within eyesight of both a Turkish border station and the town of Harem.

The Brigade claims to have enlisted a force of 1200 fighters for this battle, up against a Syrian Army / Shabiha force of an estimated 1600. However, only a few dozen rebels were ever seen, and even less opposing forces. Fighting in Harem has taken on a cat and mouse nature, with fighters moving from building to building through holes in walls created by explosives and tank fire from the previous day. The town has become a labyrinth, with fighting so close that the knife has become essential.

In the town, now largely empty, 3 Syrian army tanks sit abandoned, piecemeal victories proudly claimed by the FSA. The deafening sound of at least one more tanks’ rounds being fired can be heard at regular intervals throughout the day. Proceeding each round, a massive barrage of return machine gun fire and rpg rockets are discharged by the rebels. Issa “No one is here to support us, and no one is going to help us. We take our weapons from the regime, and now we have tanks”.

At a school previously occupied by the Syrian Army as a headquarters and weapons depot, evidence of the Assad regimes methods for indoctrinating the youth can be found in lesson books scattered amid the absolute chaos of war. Exercises animated with images of Bashar Assad educating children mix with blood splattered walls, discarded ammunition crates, upturned furniture, and destroyed computers. Documents of the Army’s plans to defend the city lay discarded, evidence of the Brigades most recent success. A lone rebel tasked with securing this strategic gain, sits and calmly drinks tea in the hall.

Shabiha snipers, perched on the rooftop of another school on the east of town, and high atop the minarets of a mosque, actively target journalists attempting to cover the story, as one unfortunately learned after being wounded by shrapnel from a dum-dum exploding round. The rebels may have been fighting the much better equipped Assad forces for over a year now, but confidence remains extremely high, despite regularly suffering heavy loses. The propaganda war may be the last battle Assad can afford to loose.

With the sighting of the Eid moon, both sides continued to engage each other with a relentless ferocity. The Idlib Martyrs Brigade is a force primarily consisting of Sunni Muslims, but free from any form of strict religious ideology. They proudly spoke of creating a Syria where all are free to worship as they wish, with a secular, inclusive government in Damascus.

As of 11pm on October 28th, the last remaining hold out for Assad’s forces in Harem is the ancient fortress on the southern edge of town. Basel Issa, The Brigade Commander, announced “All civilian areas of Harem are now free. The Army has fled, and sweep operations are underway to capture all remaining Shabiha”. Units have been assigned to provide security to returning civilians, and assist with the restoration of school and local government offices. The Brigade now moves onward to Fou’a, another Shabiha stronghold in the Idlib countryside.

THE REFUGEES OF ATME

By: Robert Asher, Photo By: Andreas Stahl

Norwegian Refugee Council ‘Perspective’ Magazine – 4th Quarter 2012

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Just east of Reyhanli at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, cars and trucks filled with supplies stretch back for kilometers on both sides. The border has reopened, but progress getting through is painstakingly slow. A war may be raging, and the economy crippled in many parts of Syria, but those who see an opportunity to make even minimal profits are willing to endure the chaotic ordeal required to get across. Trucks packed with humanitarian supplies emblazoned with FSA logos can be seen, and cars filled with nutritional biscuits clog the road. At noon prayer time the border closes and the tensions of many who have been waiting since before daybreak quickly rise. Heated arguments born out of despair are cooled by family, friends, and strangers in equal measure. Men with severe injuries, including amputated legs and hands are carried up to and across the border, while ambulances slowly navigate through the jumble of trucks which are all vying for a single inch of forward space as soon as it materializes.

Once across and inside Syria, a 45min drive on back roads through small villages leads to a refugee camp perched on a hillside near the town of Atmah. 9000 people, including close to 5000 children occupy land inside an olive grove. Tents, some donated by the FSA, and others purchased with the meager savings of the refugees themselves, are organized on a harsh and dusty landscape. No sign of any international humanitarian assistance can be seen, and this is confirmed by the refugees we spoke with. Many blame corrupt merchants who have taken on consignments sent by humanitarian organizations, siphoning off much if not all the supplies originally destined for the camp, while others blame the FSA. The Free Syrian Army claims to be in control at the camp, but law and order continues to be a major issue.

One father willing to speak appeared destitute, describing the extremely unsanitary and desperate situation they were facing. His family and many others at the camp walked for over 2 days from their homes, now completely destroyed by fighting, on the outskirts of Hama 160 km to the South. He expressed deep concern, with winter quickly approaching, that a lack of outside assistance would make for extremely difficult conditions in the months ahead. Blankets are in short supply, and heating supplies such as firewood and oil are near impossible to acquire. The olive trees these people nestle between are owned by a farmer in the nearby town, and harvesting the oil or cutting the wood would only serve to further strain their precarious relationship, buffeted only by the landowners generosity. Over sweet tea, on a plastic carpet infested with flies, the man further describes a lack of access to clean water, food, medical supplies, sanitary toilets, and educational material for the children. The additional menace of snakes and scorpions further serves to deteriorate the already extremely low morale. Stale, dirty water is kept in buckets and old cooking oil tins, while scraps of bread infested with flies lay on carpets outside each tent. Each family must subsist on one loaf a bread per day. Some families spoke of collecting rain water to drink, which in turn has been the cause of a number of ailments. Fear of an outbreak of Cholera is a major concern.

A doctor who works in the camp listed the major medical issues he is fighting an uphill battle to treat. These include cases of hepatitis, inflammation of the lung such as bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia, inflammation of the pharynx or pharyngitis, and a number of different forms of intestinal disease. Simple medicines easily obtainable in the West have become near impossible for him to acquire in the amounts that are needed at the camp.

According to the latest report on Syrian refugees by Human Rights Watch, ‘Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing recent fighting – including in Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir el Zor provinces’ are stranded on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. “Over 10,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the terror of aerial bombardment and shelling are stuck on the Turkish border, many living in miserable conditions,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugees researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.

When posed with the question why they would not rather seek refuge in the official camps set up by the Turkish government on the opposite side of the border, the response was one more based out of fear of the unknown, and simple pride. “This is our homeland, we don’t want to end up like Palestinians” one woman exclaimed, “The camps in Turkey are a prison which we would never be able to escape”. When questioned on their religious affiliation, whether those in the camps are Sunni or Shiite, or any of the other multitude of ethnic/religious groups that make up this ancient land, they are quick to respond; they have no desire in choosing sides, survival being their only concern.

Further in to the camp children gather together on a small carpet drawing images of their homes before the war, and how they imagine life after, while others depict tanks and homes ablaze. The flag of the Free Syrian Army is a popular image. A lone 23 year old volunteer from Aleppo serves as the only form of outside educational assistance these children have received since arriving here last winter.  Safa Faki, a recent fine arts graduate from Aleppo, uses her own limited savings, and what little she can gather from family and friends, to purchase art supplies, “All of the pens, colors, and paper I pay for out of my own pocket” She strongly believes that providing a creative outlet to the children is the least that can be done to alleviate the trauma many have experienced, “The children always draw what they have experienced”. Speaking in near fluent English Safa adds: “If I had the supplies I could teach the children Arabic and English, but I have nothing” as countless children crowd around begging for her attention.

The dominant factor in the camp are the children. Most smile and pose for the camera, while others play amongst themselves in the dusty, dirty ground. It would be easy to assume from their playful demeanor that they are unaffected by their situation. But upon closer examination, many appear unbathed, in clothes that appear old and worn. Exhaustion, hunger, and confusion sit deep in many children’s eyes. Returning to the homes of their birth an impossibility for now and for the foreseeable future.

One boy, 19 years old, spoke of good times with friends, playing football and listening to traditional music at night before the war. Now, 9 months after arriving in the camp he still says he would rather be here then facing the indiscriminate shelling back in his hometown. In one year, if the war continues, and he manages to survive the conditions in the camp, he plans to join the FSA; 20 being the minimum age requirement set to join the rebels. Until then, his last year of childhood will be spent as a refugee in his own country.

SYRIAN CHRISTIAN REFUGEES NEAR MARDIN TURKEY

By: Robert Asher, Photo By: Andreas Stahl

October 16, 2012

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The Christians of Syria, long one of the more prosperous ethnic communities in this area, have found themselves the worlds newest stateless people. Having fled the violence that has engulfed their neighborhoods, and unwilling to relocate to refugee camps where they fear their minority status offers them little protection, the ancient monasteries just across the border in Southern Turkey has become their sole refuge.

A cool October breeze blows through the courtyard of the Deyrulzafaran Syrian Orthodox Monastery. Traditional music plays softly on a laptop, reminding the families who currently reside inside these ancient walls of a home they have no way of knowing when they will see again.

The Turkish Office of Disaster and Emergency Management reports, as of October 15th, that over 100,000 Syrian registered refugees are now located inside its borders. With the Christians in Syria traditionally comprising 10-15% of the population, one can estimate a combined registered and unregistered 10,000 Syrian Christians have sought refuge in Turkey. Many Syrian Christians we encountered spoke of relatives in Sweden, as well as in Germany, Holland, and Australia.The. U.N. estimates that up to 710,000 people could be displaced from Syria to neighboring countries by the end of 2012.

At the Deyrulzafaran Monastery in Mardin room and board are free for all those willing to pay their respect to his eminence the Bishop Saliba Ozmen. The men, who’ve come seeking sanctuary with their wives and children, smoke and play chess late into the night, killing time while they wait for visa’s to an uncertain future in Sweden.

Despite the horrific crimes of the Assad regime being reported in the Western media, it has been until recently the only safe reality many Syrian Christians have ever known. Now they find themselves with nowhere to turn but the monasteries across the border in Southern Turkey, and asylum thousands of miles away in Europe.

Gerry Simpson, lead researcher for Human Rights Watch, confirms many of the fears these refugees have expressed about wanting to avoid the camps and conditions along the border further to the West, “Syrians are fleeing appalling violence in increasing numbers only to find themselves stranded in insecure areas.” Sixteen hundred Syrians are living under the gaze of Turkish border guards in a Syrian olive grove next to the border fence close to the Syrian town of Atmeh, near the Turkish town of Reyhanlı. Appalling conditions caused by heavy rains around October 5 caused thousands of others to leave. Some returned to their home areas, while others took shelter in Atmeh.

“The Kurds have taken control of our home town”, a wife and mother of three young children confirms. “Today they have begun compulsory teaching the Kurdish language in local schools”. This may not seem like a major issue, but considering that Aramaic and Arabic are the only languages this family has traditionally spoken, being forced to learn and adopt a new language comes as a sign their Christian community is being pushed even farther to the margins. Her family took the exceptional risk of paying a smuggler, “a muslim, not a Christian” she exclaims, to get them past Kurdish and government checkpoints and safely across the border. After receiving demands of millions of dollars from government soldiers, and one of their daughters as a bride to Kurdish fighters, they decided their only option was to reach the safety of the Deyrulzafaran Monastery in Mardin, Turkey. From there they have begun the long and often confusing process of applying for resident permits in Sweden, hoping eventually to join her sister who has resided in Stockholm for the past 25 years. Until just recently, the family were proud owners of a successful restaurant, living a comfortable life in Al-Hasaka in North East Syria. Her husband, once a head chef, is hoping for any job he can get once in Sweden, even suggesting he is willing to wash dishes. Having spent their entire life savings on dubious sources to acquire resident permits in Sweden, the desperation of the situation in Syria is clearly evident.

Not all have the required funds to cross over to Turkey, much less obtain the permits to emigrate to Sweden. Her parents and siblings remain in Hasaka, and she manages to keep daily contact on her Syrian telekom mobile from a window on the upper floors of the monastery which sits high upon a hill overlooking the vast Syrian plain below. “It is extremely dangerous to be Christian in Syria. The people don’t understand why some Christians have money and they do not. But clearly not all of us are rich”. According to Bishop Ozmen, families who lack the necessary funds to pay smugglers to get them across the border to Turkey on illegal backroads, now that the border has been closed by Turkish government forces, and the exorbitant fees required by middlemen to arrange resident permits in Sweden and elsewhere, have moved from the main cities to small villages in the countryside, attempting to attract as little attention as possible.

In the next room, a former Syrian soldier with four bullet wounds in his lower left leg explained how he escaped from the military while on a weekend break after being forced to assume excessive risks because of his Christian background. With the borders now closed by the Turkish military, this young man’s only viable route to the monastery was on dangerous illegal backroads. Now, he says he would like to join his sister in Frankfurt, knowing that if he returns to Syria he would be imprisoned or worse. As a former soldier in the Syrian army, this leaves him in a state of high anxiety as he is unsure if and how he will be accepted in Europe.

Speaking with Bishop Ozmen, he explains his desire for many of the refugees who’ve fled the fighting in Syria to remain in Turkey rather than moving on to Europe, “We should help the Christians to come here because this is their traditional homeland”. With over 20,000 already residing far away in Sweden, his feeling is understandable. Many who reside in Sweden most likely will not return home in the near future, resulting in a continual drop in their native population.

At the Deyrulumur-St.Gabriel monastery 100 km further to the east outside of Midyat, a sub Deacon detailed a rather grim picture for lives of Christians in Turkey, somewhat contradicting Bishop Ozmens desire for them to remain in their homeland. “A secular Turkey, one in which Christians are accepted and well treated should be seen with some skepticism, only intended to be used to gain the favor with the EU in hopes for future membership”. The Deacon details what he describes as a long history of Turkish government sponsored persecution against the Christians population in this region. Most recently in the 1990’s, with the Turkish government engaged in a long running conflict with Kurds fighting for a nation of their own, the government actively sponsored paramilitary elements known as village guards. These groups took it upon themselves to target with intimidation Christians who wished to remain neutral, resulting in tens of thousands fleeing to Europe, the deacon explains. Those who remained, even after the Kurdish insurgency dissipated in the early 2000’s, found large portions of their land and many of their rights taken from them, with excessive taxes levied on every detail of their lives. The success and prosperity many christians gained through legitimate labor and business practices being used against them. Now, with Kurdish PKK fighters taking advantage of the turmoil to the south, fears are rising that a return to violence is once again at hand.

Another Syrian mother of three told of Salafists elements in Syria kidnapping Christian children and demanding huge ransoms for their safe return. This fear alone is enough for any family to seek safety abroad, “If the situation in Syria gets better then we will have to decide what to do, but for now we would like to get to Sweden”. The reality for most Syrian Christians under the Assad regime was closely controlled by the Syrian Intelligence, often forcing brothers to inform on each other in exchange for most of their daily freedoms.

The fog of war is only growing thicker Syria. Assad has played extremely shrewd game by manipulating the Christian community. With the death toll from the start of the conflict in 2011 at well over 30,000, and with Christians comprising of 10-15% of the population, an easy estimate of 3000 victims looms large in the minds of most families desperately trying to get to safety. Honest families who were not actively part of the regimes corruption machine are now being targeted by a multitude of different factions for their perceived successes. Many Christians here strongly believe this land is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s, but find themselves willing to relocate to countries far away with few cultural similarities other than within their immigrant communities. Is this the end of the last native Christians?

 

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