After seven years of war it can be easy to forget why Syrians rose up against Bashar al Assad in the first place. This is the story of one man's life under Baath Party rule in Syria.
I returned to the camp of Kafr Jana — which was recently captured by the Turkish army and the Free Syrian Army factions during Operation Olive Branch. The operation sought to expel the YPG, and regain control of the city of Afrin and its villages.
My visit brought back memories of my childhood, which exist as a drop in a sea of stolen memories of Syrian children since the start of the camp - the ‘Baathist Camp’, named after the only ruling party in Syria since 1968, the Arab Socialist Baath Party.
The camp — where our participation as children was forced — operated as an educational college designed to indoctrinate children and ingrain in them from childhood the slogans of "One Party, One Leader".
I began my participation in the camp as an unwilling volunteer in 1998. We were forced to wear a strict uniform and memorise songs of a singular ideological bent that praised the One Leader and the One Party.
The ‘children’s activities’ we were subjected to adopting tendencies that stripped our natural longing for free play. Our task during these competitions was to draw the One (and only) Leader. The criterion for winning these competitions was that a child should be able to draw the leader in the right way.
Although I have a talent for drawing, I remember that I painted a father with a high forehead resembling Lena’s grandfather, a cartoon character from an Arab children’s programme. This depiction was not in keeping with the expectations of my superiors, and, in response, the teacher tore up my painting and asked me to draw up a map of Syria instead.
As I now wind my way through the alleys of the camp, I recalled this memory, wincing from the pain of it. My time in the camp gave me answers to many of the questions that young Syrians have asked then, and now.
Syrian children are inculcated with the concepts of Arabism and a reverence for their leaders when they enter state education institutions. They are taught that there is only One Party in their life (or parties affiliated with this One Party), and that deviations from this premise makes one a collaborator of the Zionist entity occupying the Golan.
For decades, early indoctrination among Syrian youth delayed the emergence of political pluralism and the practice of citizenship, dialogue and democracy in Syria. Many regard this indoctrination as a core reason that Bashar al Assad’s fragile authority is still in place.
Within a year of the early Baath Party pioneers completing the camp, they had instituted a system of control.
When a commander passed away, television receivers were jammed and a voice reciting the Quran was broadcast, around the clock. Shops were closed and children’s programmes that we were watching would be suspended. A forced mourning process was imposed upon us, which demanded a system-wide quasi-delirium over the question of how someone so sanctified could die.
The One Party leadership made de facto decisions over the expression of our very emotions.
When a commander was lost, we were forbidden to laugh in the streets, or to have weddings. Forty days later, we were forced to laugh, show joy and rejoice at the inauguration of another leader, the son of the late father.
In order to show gratitude and respect for the new leader’s father, we were told to always remember him through tears, regret, and sorrow — which we were required to exaggerate.
We entered secondary school surrounded by high stone fences and fortifications equipped with cement and concrete. We were forced to wear clothing that was the colour of oil, ‘the colour of the Syrian army dress’.
We were forced to sign papers confirming our faith in the message of the late leader and his son, and the principle of the One Party. We were forced to sign a form to join the One Party and pay the annual fees that bulged the party coffers.
The party and its meetings solidified fear and uncertainty in Syrian society. The meetings focused on widespread monitoring of the Syrian people ensuring that people kept their faith in the party’s principles.
In these meetings, detailed reports were given and surveillance was reviewed. There, one might find a father writing a report about his son, or a report would be issued from a brother revealing details about his sister that can help explain the movements of others.
In a story circulated among party members, party officials tested a father through his son. They asked the son to speak about the party in a few words in front of his father. The father had to write a report against his own son to make sure the father’s faith in the party’s principles was up to par.
Enmity between family members is thus an inevitable consequence of one-party rule in Syria.
Syrians are fed up.
For decades, the establishment of youth groups or associations had only been possible with the explicit permission of the party. Anyone entering a mosque was registered in the records of the security branches; anyone who received a money transfer from abroad was also registered; every journalist was, and continues to be, subjected to monthly interrogation.
People who are from areas where dissent is popular, such as Hama governorate, or are from families where one member opposes the policy of One Party, are vulnerable to harassment and interrogation from time to time. They are not employed in the public sector, or given work permits for the private sector.
The availability of the internet and social media in homes and access to public cafes increased problems for Syrians. The party and its information security personnel could not control Syrian citizens' access to the internet. Many were arrested for their use of social media. Internet cafes were only granted licences if they were willing to confirm the identity of the owner of the shop, and sign a written pledge that they would inform state officials of any internet user that accessed sites opposing party policy.
This was life under the Assads.
Life is no longer what it was before the "Arab Spring"
Since the moment Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and sparked the revolution that upended the Tunisian regime, and the emergence of demonstrations in Egypt that demanded the overthrow of its regime, I found myself facing a changing world.
Life is no longer as it was. Now I find myself in a society that is capable of change and expressing opinion where people are able to choose the party that they want to join and practise political action away from the One Party system.
Suddenly there are options that are capable of succeeding with some hard work. And now there is the possibility that my society can become merit-based, where a person will not rise up the career ladder by reporting their friends maliciously.
During the days just before the revolt in Syria , I had been working on distributing and delivering newspapers in Aleppo.
One day a headline read, 'Assad to the French Ambassador in Syria: The Syrian people love their leadership and will not revolutionise like the rest of the Arab countries!’.
I laughed in secret for fear that one of the workers in the newspaper might write a report about my laughter. Days later, a crowd of demonstrators were shouting at Al Hamidiyah Souq in the capital, Damascus.
The One Leader and his party did not expect young Syrians — whom they had controlled since childhood by recruiting them into the camps of the young Baathists — and university student unions to protest and demand the departure of Assad and the beginning of a new life in Syria.
Young people spent most of their time on social media, not for entertainment, but to live in a virtual world marked by freedom of conscience, dialogue, and to speak freely in streams of thought that were not permitted within the daily, repetitive and indoctrinating messaging of One Leader and One Party.
The protesters are criminals
At the time of the demonstrations against his rule, Assad mentioned in his speech at the Damascus University theatre that 60 percent of the demonstrators had criminal records. He also called the demonstrators ‘germs’ and ‘viruses’. The demonstrators responded with protests inside universities, and confirmed their identities and cultural or social backgrounds.
Speaking in one way, and acting in another, Assad and the One Party leaders released criminals to create a body of reserves for the Syrian army and its security branches.
This was at the time that the army and security sectors were unable to completely suppress the protest taking place in all Syrian provinces and across all ethnic, religious and national lines.
Released inmates became part of a reserve body called the People’s Committees, also known as ‘Shabiha’. They helped the army suppress protests and kill demonstrators in exchange for amnesty for their crimes against Syrian society.
I walked along the alleys of the camp of Kafr Jana. I took pictures of the room where the teacher tore up my drawing of the father with a high forehead.
I moved between the camp halls, remembering pictures of the events that Syria has experienced since that incident.
Moments morphed into other moments in my mind, from the painting that was torn, to my photographing of the room, to Assad’s empowering of terrorist groups such as ISIS and the SDF/YPG to suppress the Syrian revolution. My mind raced to the besieging of cities, and the mass displacement caused by weapons of all kinds. The hiring of mercenaries from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon hired to kill for the sake of Baathist leaders who glorified Assad, his father and his party.
An enormity of events have unfolded because the people of Syria demanded the right to live like other people of the world.
‘Whom to complain to in case of theft’
After the displacement of the Free Syrian Army factions and 50,000 civilians from eastern Aleppo in late 2016, a number of people were deported to the city of al-Bab in the countryside of eastern Aleppo.
This part of the country has been controlled by the FSA, which itself has been backed by the Turkish army since February 2017. Some of the displaced people have nothing to do with the FSA and their names are not listed in the directories of wanted people in the security branches of the Syrian regime.
I once asked a man, "Why do you not return to Aleppo rather than suffer the trouble of alienation and displacement?"
He responded, "In the past, before the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011, we used to hide in the police stations from thieves and criminals, but today, since their release from prisons, and since Assad armed them to protect the regime from protestors, these reservists are the ones who govern the areas from which we have been displaced. In some areas, the 'state' cannot enter because they are under the rule of these gangs. So, we are afraid of the ones who govern there, and thus cannot return."
Assad mandated every possible option necessary to suppress the Syrian revolution. That revolution now enters its seventh year.
Every option has been tried and tested, except listening to the demands of the people - the option which would have helped end the conflict. Every option has been used, and yet Assad now governs a country without a people. Assad is throwing Syrian citizenship at foreigners to build a state that can be governed in his image.
All the while, actual Syrian citizens are putting their lives on the line, facing the perils of drowning at sea and the immense hardship of migration, or living in limbo in border camps.
The seventh anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution coincides with my visit to the ‘Baathist’ camp-turned-military barracks.
As I move around its alleys and sleeping quarters and reach the public arena where we were taught to glorify the father and One Party leader, I ask myself, "Will the camp one day be visited by the children of Syria out of their own free will, and not for the express purpose of forcing them to glorify One Leader? Will they draw their own pictures and sing whichever national songs they like?"
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