SYRIA: Death under torture in Syria: the horrors ignored by pacifists
By Budour Hassan
Perhaps one of the cruelest aspects of the Syrian regime’s war on the Syrian population is its success in normalising death and desensitising the world to its harrowing massacres. Missing from the six-digit death toll are the charred faces and untold stories of the martyrs, and of the suffering inflicted upon the loved ones they leave behind. As one Syrian activist put it: «One thing I will never forgive Bashar al-Assad for is denying us the chance to grieve over our martyred friends». Indeed, with mass-murder turning into a horrifyingly frequent occurrence two-and-a-half years on, mourning the fallen has become a luxury most Syrians are deprived of.
The dehumanisation of Syrians was painfully illustrated by the debate that ensued after the chemical weapons attack on 21 August in the Damascus countryside. The victims were treated as mere footnotes by the international community, the mainstream media, and the anti-war camp. For western governments who draw a «red line» with chemical weapons-use – and Israel’s interests – the red blood of Syrian children slaughtered with conventional weapons by the regime and its militias is not sufficiently outrageous. The whole discourse, as Syrian writer and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh puts it, is about chemical weapons, not about the criminal who used chemical weapons, the people murdered by them, or the greater number of people murdered with guns.
For mainstream media, the Syrian people are stripped of their voices and agency and the Syrian revolution is instead a «civil war» between two evils: a secular dictator versus flesh-eating, bearded Islamists. Nowhere to be seen or heard is the astounding defiance and communal solidarity that has kept the revolution alive despite all odds; the brave struggle against the oppressive «Islamic State in Iraq and Syria» that controls large parts of the «liberated» areas in Northern Syria; and the ongoing grassroots initiatives and protests against both the regime as well as the Islamist extremists.
Meanwhile, for most anti-war coalitions: «war is peace and ignorance is strength». They parade as facts hackneyed and false dichotomies to argue that all the rebels are terrorists and Assad is now not only ostensibly fighting imperialism, but terrorism as well. That Assad has been waging a sectarian, all-out war on Syrian civilians for the past thirty months matters little. That his regime has systematically arrested peaceful and secular activists while releasing Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists matters less. And that thousands of imprisoned Syrian, including workers, children, unarmed demonstrators, and community organisers, have been tortured to death by regime forces since the start of the uprising matters none at all.
Killed under torture
So it follows that these «anti-war» campaigners will ignore one of the regime’s latest torture victims: Khaled Bakrawi, a 27-year-old Palestinian-Syrian community organiser and founding member of the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development. Khaled was arrested by regime security forces in January 2013 for his leading role in organising and carrying out humanitarian and aid work in Yarmouk Refugee Camp. On 11 September, the Yarmouk coordination committee and Jafra Foundation reported that Khaled was killed under torture in one of the several infamous intelligence branches in Damascus.
Khaled was born and raised in Yarmouk refugee camp in the Southern outskirts of Damascus. His family was displaced from the ethnically-cleansed Palestinian village of Loubieh by Israeli occupation forces during the 1948 Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe).
On 5 June, 2011, Khaled took part in the «return march» to the occupied Golan Heights, witnessing Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC, a regime-backed Palestinian militia, exploit the patriotism and enthusiasm of Yarmouk’s youth by instigating them to march to occupied Palestine in an attempt to bolster Assad’s popularity and divert attention from the ongoing crackdown of the then overwhelmingly peaceful revolution. Anticipating a brutal reaction by the Israeli occupation army, Khaled tried to dissuade the unarmed youth from entering the Israeli-occupied ceasefire zone, but to no avail. He was left witnessing Syrian regime troops sip tea and look on nonchalantly as Israeli occupation soldiers showered Palestinian and Syrian protesters with bullets. In that protest, dozens were killed or injured. Khaled was shot with two bullets in the thigh.
One of Khaled’s friends, who visited him in hospital after his injury, recounts seeing him break into tears when he received flowers with a card that read: «You did us proud; you are a hero». For Khaled, the sentiment regarding a person’s injury as source of nationalist pride, was one more testament to the insulting objectification of Syrians. It is precisely this that illustrates the main reason for the uprising’s eruption: namely, regaining the individual and collective dignity that, for over four decades, was trampled on by a regime that can only consider Syrians as cheap items and tools.
Killed by the wrong bullet
Many who regarded Khaled Bakrawi as a hero following his injury by the Israeli occupation uttered not one word of condolence after his death under torture in the regime’s dungeons. Neither the Palestinian Liberation Organisation nor any other Palestinian political faction has condemned the killing of one of Yarmouk’s most prominent, likeable, and hard-working activists. Neither have they protested the killing of three other Palestinian prisoners under torture within five days. It seems that for them, a Palestinian is only worthy of the title «martyr» if s/he is killed by the Zionist occupation. Having the misfortune of being slain by the «anti-imperialist and «pro-resistance» Assad regime renders the killing acceptable, and the killed undeserving of sympathy.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well, failed to issue any tribute to martyred Palestinian refugee Anas Amara, a 23-year-old law student, Yarmouk resident, and PFLP activist since the age of nine. Anas, a revolutionary communist who distanced himself from the reformist bourgeois left and participated in the Syrian revolution from its very inception, was killed in a regime ambush near the besieged Yarmouk camp in April this year. He was killed, we can put it, by the «wrong bullet,» for his killing warranted no outrage from those who claim to champion the Palestinian cause.
The deafening silence coming from the Palestinian leadership as well as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria is not at all surprising. Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, has been under suffocating siege by the Syrian Arab Army since July 2013. The 70,000 civilians trapped in Yarmouk have been denied access to electricity and food; to stay alive, some have resorted to eating dogs. Despite the numerous appeals by Yarmouk residents and Syrian activists to break the siege on the Camp, now on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, the Palestinian leadership and UNRWA have yet to answer to any of these pleas.
Also disregarded are the appeals by Palestinian groups in Syria to release Palestinian detainees in Syrian regime jails. They, like their Syrian sisters and brothers, also face imminent danger to their lives. But as if collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, strict siege and constant shelling by the regime were not enough, Palestinians and Syrians have to fight on another front: Islamist extremists kidnapped Wassim Meqdad, activist, musician, and one of only two doctors treating the wounded in Yarmouk Camp, on 12 September.
Any coalition or organisation that claims to strive for peace and human rights but does not clearly condemn war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian regime is not a genuinely pro-peace movement. The word «peace», after all, has been deemed void of its true meaning thanks to all the warmongers who claim to promote precisely peace. And while this might be a term we can work to reclaim for opposing war is an ethical and noble position, doing so without explicitly opposing the Syrian regime and Iranian-Russian intervention, and without siding with the Syrian people’s revolution for freedom and dignity, is a position that is at once morally and politically bankrupt.
It is cynically ironic for anti-war groups to remain silent about the deadly torture of over 2,000 Syrian political prisoners as they protest together with Syrian regime supporters and right-wing Islamophobes against a potential US strike on Syria. As these pacifist groups (rightly) blast Western governments for their hypocrisy, they should take a second to think about their own hypocrisy in abandoning the Syrian revolution since day one, long before it was militarised. Also, it is highly recommended they read George Orwell’s «Notes on Nationalism», for many of these vocal anti-war activists fit into the nationalist, pacifist category Orwell so critiqued:
«There is a minority of intellectual pacifist whose real thought unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not, as a rule, condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries».
In the Syrian case, such pacifists endeavour to veil their position with truisms about peace and neutrality, yet focus their energies on opposing a potential US war on Syria on the one hand, while condoning the actual war launched by the Syrian regime on the other. Even though the self-proclaimed «anti-imperialist» pacifists maintain that they are anti-intervention on principle, they only object to Western intervention in Syria while saying nothing about Iran and Russia’s far more flagrant and aggressive intervention. While it is understandable that opposing their own government’s abuses should be priority, this does not justify supporting a genocidal regime, downplaying its crimes, and turning their backs to the heroic struggle of the Syrian people. For it is such struggles against totalitarianism, as any «leftist» worthy of the name would not need be reminded, that exist as nascent fronts in the larger fight for a global humanity living and dying under the boot and the indignity of them all.