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There have been very disturbing images and reports coming out of Syria the last few days. The UN is said to be turning a report over to the UN Security Council soon. This report details horrific abuses such as beatings with cables, cigarette burns, electric shocks including to the genitals, the tearing out of fingernails and toenails, rape, mock executions and sleep depravation. The world went on a rampage about the same unspeakable horrors in the Iraq war when the torture was revealed. In Syria’s case, the world remains nearly silent. Only recently have these reports hit the Main Stream Media, with any impact. And I fear many ignore the inhumane treatment, even of the most vulnerable—the children.
The NY Times reported that children as young as 11 years old were held in government detention centers along side the adults, and these children were tortured in order to coerce relatives into surrender or confession. They report that Syrian Intelligence services took part in this, with those suspected of involvement with the rebels. Reports claim more than 10,000 children have been subjected.
This appalling, heart stopping, gruesome behavior is beyond unacceptable and should raise the hackles of everyone in the world, not just those the West. Throughout this three-year long civil war, we have been witness to both sides of the fence and the hair raising murders, beheadings, torture and rape. The forces driving this conflict is nothing less than vile, immoral and wicked.
The stories are few and far between, with evidence surfacing for crimes against both sides. The rebel fighters are coming from all over the middle east, with terrorist groups like Al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) all with connections to Al-queda.
The government denies the claims. They accuse the rebels, it’s a vicious cycle. The report by the NY times says that investigators were able to cite instances of abuse and executions of children. They are quoted as saying : “It received two reports from Hasakah Province, in northeast Syria: a 16-year-old boy fatally shot last April by the Nusra Front, which is aligned with Al Qaeda, and a 14-year-old boy killed by a Kurdish group.” There are reports that rebels have been recruiting child soldiers since the beginning, complete with videos and images, yet they deny the accusations. The US say’s that they vet all recipients of aid and they say the supported rebels are committed to uphold international standards for human rights. Yet videos like this one, are surfacing daily.
According to reports, Assad has missed the deadline for destroying chemical weapons, and Iran has gained power in recent day’s. With an analytical view, a few questions must be answered. Why now? Why not when reports started surfacing, why have they waited so long to put an end to the suffering of the innocent? Is this being exploited to garner support for an attack? Why has the UN Security council, and other agencies remained virtually silent on this? What demands are the rebels making other than Assad’s removal? What is it that they want?
We are seeing a growing terrorism threat and a regional spillover from the conflict in Syria. Expectations are low since recent failed talks in Geneva. The Obama administration’s view of the conflict seems to be changing. Statements from CIA Director John Brennan and National Intelligence Director James Clapper this past week before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, address some of the issues recently under review.
“Syria presents a number of challenges to U.S. national security interests in terms of the potential spillover of the fighting inside of Syria to neighboring countries, but also, and increasingly so, concerns on the terrorism front,” Brennan told lawmakers.
“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaida organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” he said.
Clapper said the biggest threat stems from “the 7,500 or so foreign fighters from some 50 countries who have gravitated to Syria. Among them are a small group of Af-Pak al-Qaida veterans who have aspirations for external attack, in Europe if not the homeland.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Friday said Westerners heading to fight in Syria’s civil war could pose a threat to the United States and that undocumented immigrants deserve a path to citizenship, issuing his first policy address since taking office in December. He also said, “U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials know individuals from North America and Europe are heading to war-torn Syria, adding that “they will encounter radical, extremist influences” and possibly return to their home countries with the intent to do harm.
Even John Kerry said in a discussion in Munich that Washington’s attention was shifting. “Particularly now, we are focusing in on Syria where there are increasing numbers of extremists,” he said. “I think we need to be more assertive about what we are doing.”
Washington faces difficult choices on Syria.
Adding to the plight of civilians, including children affected by the war is the reports of people being held hostage in Homs. A priest sent out a dire plea for help in a video claiming he was fearful of cannibalism. It is said that forces loyal to Assad have blockaded rebel-held parts of Homs for over a year, causing widespread hunger and suffering, which he described has drove some mad with a mental sickness. An evacuation has been taking place, though aid workers at times had to retreat as they were being shot at. More than 600 people have been evacuated from Homs on Sunday.
Through gunfire and exploding mortar shells, hundreds of women, children and elderly men ran toward a group of Red Crescent workers waiting less than a mile (kilometer) away, said an activist. The Syrian activists say the gunfire came from a government-held neighborhood. The Syrian news agency SANA also reported that civilians came under fire, but blamed “terrorists,” the government term for rebels. A mother claimed there was no food or water for her starving children. “Our life is a disaster. There was nothing, my children are all sick. They were thirsty.”
Despite the violence, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in a statement that the truce showed “that even in the darkest of nights it is possible to offer a glimmer of hope to people in desperate need of assistance.”
The Homs cease-fire was arranged by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who urged the warring sides to aid the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs.
Children are precious in God’s eyes, pray for the innocent people of Syria, pray for the truth to be brought to light, pray for the protection and safety of these children, pray for the leaders to make the right decisions and put an end to this. What will it take?
OCTOBER 31, 2013 – Sadad (Agenzia Fides) – “What happened in Sadad is the most serious and biggest massacre of Christians in Syria in the past two years and a half”: this was stressed by Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, in illustrating to Fides the tragic death toll in the Christian town of Sadad, invaded by Islamist militias a week ago and then re-conquered by the Syrian army.
“45 innocent civilians were martyred for no reason, and among them several women and children, many thrown into mass graves. Other civilians were threatened and terrorized. 30 were wounded and 10 are still missing. For one week, 1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields. Among them children, the elderly, the young, men and women. Some of them fled on foot travelling 8 km from Sadad to Al-Hafer to find refuge. About 2,500 families fled from Sadad, taking only their clothes, due to the irruption of armed groups and today they are refugees scattered between Damascus, Homs, Fayrouza, Zaydal, Maskane, and Al-Fhayle”.
The archbishop continues showing all his bitterness: “There is no electricity, water and telephone in the city. All the houses of Sadad were robbed and property looted. The churches are damaged and desecrated, deprived of old books and precious furniture. Schools, government buildings, municipal buildings have been destroyed, along with the post office, the hospital and the clinic”.
“What happened in Sadad – he says – is the largest massacre of Christians in Syria and the second in the Middle East, after the one in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq, in 2010″.
Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh concludes:
“We have shouted aid to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort: We ask everyone to pray for us”.
Sadad is a small town of 15,000 people, mostly Syriac Orthodox Christians, located 160 km north of Damascus. It has 14 churches and a monastery with four priests. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 31/10/2013)
(AINA) — Nuri Kino, journalist and author, has met and interviewed nearly one hundred Christian Syrian refugees (AINA 2-8-2013). He gives voice to this otherwise silent minority. In an apartment in Istanbul he gets an exclusive interview with young Christian Syrian men who all are waiting to be smuggled to Europe. Twenty-one men between 19 and 29 years of age and all of them have left the army and the war.
The road runs along a wall from the Byzantine era. There are two of us in one car, Ester and I. In the other car just in front of us are Maha and Jacob. I’ve been accompanying them since I arrived in Istanbul three days ago. Right now we’re heading to one of the apartments they rent for refugees. Maha has cooked for them, which she and the others do once a week. On other days the refugees must cook for themselves. Ester has filled the fridge and the kitchen cabinets. She does that every second week. The three philanthropists collect money for the food among friends and relatives and a Swedish based Syriac-Orthodox organization provides the rent.
It’s six o’clock in the evening and it’s getting chilly. There are no parking places and Ester and the other two are delayed. I jump out of the car to take pictures of the apartment building. It’s really a hovel. Nearby, the kids are playing football and basketball in modern up-to-date facilities. It feels as if time has stood still exclusively for this apartment house.
“Nobody has lived here for many years. When we started to search for apartments a family in my parish told us they had inherited an empty house,” Ester says.
We go into the house, first there is a small hallway, about 50 centimeters wide. Two young men in their twenties show up to help Maha, Ester and Jacob with cooking. On the first floor there is a kitchen and a bathroom. A third man takes me up to the second floor.
Approximately ten men sit around a table in the narrow sitting room. Five of them play cards and the others cheer on their favorites. They stand up to greet me and are happy to get a visit from us. They interrupt each other all the time and all of them are anxious to tell their own story and what they have experienced, first in Syria and now in Turkey and the neighboring countries Greece and Bulgaria. One of them takes command, he is a bit older than the others. Twenty-seven years old, he says. He used to be an officer in the Syrian army but deserted three months ago. The crowd consists of another officer and the others, all from the army; they were simple soldiers. I count the men to fifteen.
Fifteen men between 19 and 29 years of age and all of them have left the army and the war. Some fled during their leave of absence. Others paid a lot of money to get leave of absence and then fled. All of them are Assyrians/Syriacs. They pepper me with information. Their frustration, fear and anxiety are so strong it’s as if I could touch the emotions with my bare hands.
“We Christians are stuck between the three big combatants – the Syrian army, The Free Syrian army and the Sefalists. The two latter want to evacuate Syria of Christians and permit us to cross the borders. That is why we are here today. And none of us want to be part of a war. We don’t want to fight or kill.”
Christians in Syria are being squeezed between major ethnic groups and religious affiliations. In recent decades there has not been any significant religious conflict in Syria. Syrian Christians are nrealy 12 percent of the country’s population of 22 million. President Bashar al-Assad’s family are Alawites, a Shiite branch of Islam which is also a minority and constitutes 12 percent of Syria’s population. The majority of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslims. Their desire for better representation in government and other factors sparked the revolution.
The Assad government stood as a guarantor to ensure religious minorities, such as Christians, would not be persecuted. When the war started most ethnic or religious groups organized their own militias or armies. Christians did not. They only have small pockets of armed guards and now they have become a target for criminals and fundamentalists. These are the same repercussions we saw in Iraq ten years ago. Christians are being kidnapped, raped, decapitated and fleeing simply because they are non-Muslims. In Iraq, half of its Christian population — more than half a million have fled the country. Now Christian leaders fear that the same thing will happen in Syria, and Christian minorities who have lived in the country for 2000 years are fleeing en masse.
We can smell the food that the philanthropists brought. Maha tells two of them to get plates and cutlery. I suggest that we continue the interview after the meal. They laugh. I don’t see why. “Do you really believe that the memories will leave us for one minute? We have no problem talking while we eat. Look here”, Sargon says. He is nineteen and pulls up a pant leg. He has a gun shot in his shank and shows a mark under the knee. That’s a mark from dog bites. “It’s ok, I received a rabies shot from the Turkish border police.”
That occurred the third time he tried to get out of Turkey and into the EU. At first he was supposed to be smuggled to Greece but the rubber boat he and the other refugees travelled in sank just a hundred meters away from the Turkish coast. They were too many — twenty refugees. Half of them could swim and helped the rest ashore. The smugglers had already taken off by the time they came ashore in Turkey. It was three o’clock in the morning, below zero and dark. They were wet and soggy. They had to walk into the wood and it was a few hours before they found a road and were picked up by Turkish border police.
The second time he tried to leave was to Bulgaria. At the border they set the dogs on him. “It was as if they hadn’t eaten for months. I was sure they would kill me.” Once again he was picked up by the Turkish border police and again put in refugee custody.
The third time was the charm, he thought, when he was stopped at the Istanbul airport with a fake passport. They put him in police custody at the airport before being sent to refugee custody. Smuggling has so far cost Sargon more than 10,000 Euros but he will keep trying. What else can he do? He certainly can not return to Syria.
The meal is on the table. Maha and Ester are entertaining the young Syrian men. “It’s important to make them laugh — it makes them feel better,” Jacob whispers. While half of the men eat, the others rest in two bedrooms of 9 square meter each. In one room there are 7 bunk beds and 4 mattresses. Eleven men sleep in this room. I imagine the four other men sleep in the second room. “No, we’re not fifteen anymore. All together we are twenty one — more men have arrived.” Sargon tells me.
One bed contains piles of clothes and bedding sheets. Under the bed I see a lot of shoes. In the upper bunk lies a man who excuses himself for not being social. He is tired and not feeling well. He managed to get into Greece, he believes any way. But there he and the others were robbed of everything. Only a few minutes later they were arrested by the border police and sent back to Turkey. He doesn’t have a penny left. Even worse, his parents and younger siblings are having a very tough time in Syria. They are constantly in danger and barely have money for food since the father lost his job because of the war. The factory he worked in was blown up.
Maha, Ester and Jacob have provided them with cell phones to be able to call the families at home when the phone system in Syria works. The man lying in bed has just talked to his mother at home. The bed squeaks when he jumps out of it. His upper arm is blue. “I was abused and beaten by the Jendarma, the Turkish police, when we were sent back, but I gave back,” he proudly answers when I ask him why he had bruises.
We are suppossed to have tea in the narrow sitting room but there is no place for us there because almost all of them have gathered here now. I want to sit on the floor but they won’t allow me. Instead we end up nearly sitting on top of each other. Maha and I smile at the quantity of sugar the Syrians put in their tea. “It’s sugar with tea and not the other way around,” she says laughing.
Every single man is in contact with a refugee smuggler. Either because they still want to get to Europe – most of them want to go to Sweden — or because they’re trying to get their money back after the failure to escape. They also search for new smugglers, who will be better than the first, professionals who can falsify documents and have better smuggling routes.
When they ask me about the refugees arriving in my home town Södertälje, Sweden, it appears I have met some of them. The questions flow. How are they and what are they doing, those who have arrived? The men in Istanbul want to know about both Sweden and Södertälje. One changes subject — he is more interested in legal ways out of Turkey and asks if I have any information about UNHCR, the UN refugee organ. I promise to e-mail the press department of the organization and ask whether the Syrians have permission to register in Ankara or not. And if so — can they hope for resettlement to a third country and can they count as ratio refugees. Every year many countries receive a certain amount of refugees via UNCHR’s ratio refugee system.
Suddenly Maha, Ester and Jacob need to hurry for the next apartment that has families with small children. The stories are the same but this time sadder. Here the children have been involved with smuggling attempts, abused, and many other terrible things. Two young women in their twenties, sisters, cry while they tell me how their trip started in Damascus. How they were threatened by Islamists who blew up their hair salon. To run beauty salons is against Islam, the abusers claimed. One sister shows me a text message with Islamic slogans. That message was sent to all the Christians in the area she lived in. She continues to cry as she tells her story about Greece, Italy and Turkey again.
When we’re in the car Ester says they do just fine, at least it is reasonable, now that the Christian refugees number around one hundred. But what happens if the war spreads and the Christians flee in hundreds and thousands? That is what happened in Iraq.
Jacob explains why Christian refugees prefer urban areas. “Christians refuse to live with Muslims in refugee camps. They are considered as Bashar al-Assad followers and are being harassed and in some cases abused. The Bashar-regime didn’t oppress Christians they were treated quite well. Islamists have kidnapped the revolution. They will never allow Christians to stay in Syria. The Christian exodus from Iraq repeats once again.”
Nuri Kino’s comprehensive 40-page report about Syrian Christians in Lebanon, Between the Barbed Wire, is available here.