“The Syrian revolution is a baby – it needs nourishment”

Ewa Jasiewicz reports on the plight of the relief efforts in Syria.

We're in Ma'arrat al Numan, a front-line liberated town in Idlib province, Syria. Once home to 120,000, the population is now between 4-10,000. Families who couldn't afford to flee live in ruins, makeshift shelters and even caves. Destruction is everywhere; piles of rubble daunt the streets between bomb-axed minarets and burnt out shops. Part-collapsed apartment blocks reveal gaping living rooms. Shelling echoes daily from the Wadi Deif regime military base close by. It's mostly local Free Army fighters holding the line, along with Ahrar al Sham, and Jabhat al Nusra playing a smaller role. The scant weaponry ranges from regime-raided machine and hand guns to the "Cannon of Hell" – a launcher made out of a tractor, with cooking gas canisters for missiles. The city's sub-station, water plants and pipes have all been destroyed. Repairing the pipes is impossible due to their proximity to Wadi Deif.

The injured are ferried by fighters or medical volunteers to a "hospital in hiding" – far back from the frontline, where operations are carried out in a basement with a lamp made out of a satellite dish with half a dozen light bulbs stuck in it. The service runs on a drip-feed of aid sourced in Turkey and round-the-clock volunteer hours spread between a few dozen exhausted doctors and nurses. Ma'arrat al Numan is still a city at war.

We're in the gloomy garden of widow and mother of six Om Abid. Ahmad*, an activist and volunteer with Basmat Amal (Smile of Hope), a home-grown relief organisation, has brought us here. He's doling out cash donations of 500 Syrian pounds sent from a wealthy Syrian woman living in Saudi Arabia. It's a drop in the ocean. Cooking gas costs £S3,000 per canister up from £S1,000 two years ago, bread is £S25. water needs to be delivered by truck and costs £S500 a week and a box of thirty candles, which once cost 70, is now hitting £S300. The dark takes over at night.

Relief doesn't feel revolutionary but keeping it coming is a means to stay put and keep up the front. Basmet Amal are one of four local aid organisations feeding into a relief co-ordination committee that feeds into a broader council including military-security, social affairs, and media-comms committees.

Basmat Amal recognise the role aid can play in buying loyalties according to a donor's agenda, and how depoliticising desperation can be. Self-sufficiency is key. By opening the first primary schools in Ma'arra since the revolution began, a low priced products supermarket, cash for widows and a soap and shampoo factory in the pipeline, they hope to create autonomy and strength for the community. They still see themselves as part of a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrations, but was met with bullets, then bombs, and then warplanes, until street-protest-as suicide was no longer an option. According to Basmet Amal, 850 people have been killed, and 2,000 houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011. 'We are fighting for our dignity' we hear again and again.

But what is the scope for people – especially women - to participate in their own relief? Can people come together and make collective decisions? "Everyone is locked in their own homes," starts Ahmed. "Everyone just cares about their own problems". "But there are always shared problems, no?" we suggest. "I suppose so, but just to get people together in one place, to feel safe, is a struggle." Shelling and gunfire rattles in the distance as he speaks. Neither landlines or mobiles work in Ma'arra, but there is internet if you have a satellite and generator. Otherwise comms are face to face, and door to door. Kinship and neighbourhood networks have been fractured by the town haemorrhaging so many residents. Who will look after your children? Who will drive you home, when fuel and cars are in such short supply? And even if you put together a group, with 90 per cent of your town in exile, who are you representing?

It's an ongoing conversation throughout our trip, "How to build participation?" If Basmet Amal have 30 volunteers now, how can they reach 100 and more? Particularly under the lengthening shadow of militarisation and sectarianism, and external regional and global interests "all wanting to eat from Syria". How do you keep up a revolution which you keep being told is a civil war, that it's gone, it belongs to 'warlords' eating the hearts of their opponents and shooting children in the face, that is going to break Palestine, and will be Iraq mark two, is something you should never have started. This is not your revolution is the message. For many of us in the West it's the same, that it's too complicated, leave it to the big boys, you can't relate to this, there's nothing you can do, this is not your revolution. Isolation and disposession creeps and the work of creating spaces of resistance and reclamation is eclipsed by a what-bleeds-leads agenda.

It's a burning hot afternoon and we're in the languid garden of the Kafranbel media centre talking solidarity with local organisers. The centre is famous for its' viral banners. For UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's visit, locals raised: "BRAHIMI: 'NEVER MIND BURNING THE WORLD WILLINGLY THAN HAVING ASSAD FOR ONE DAY MORE' GO FUCK YOURSELF." And "USA – YOU LIVED SEPTEMBER 11TH ONCE, WE LIVE IT EVERY DAY." "We never get visits from activists, only journalists," says local fixer Amer.* "We want to show them our demonstrations but they just say, 'Take us to the fighters'." It's a common obsession. This May Al Jazeera reported from Raqqa, central Syria but focused squarely on Al Qaeda chopping three peoples heads off and not demonstrations by public sector workers demanding wages from money looted from the central bank or protests against Sharia courts. 

We discuss the idea of a joint news-behind-the-news project that can profile struggles that mainstream media ignore. Mona* a local feminist activist working on a children's support project called Karama Bus (Dignity Bus) is lukewarm. 'Everyone in Syria knows what is going on. It's a good idea but we do not have the capacity. We literally do not have the people on the ground. Too many Syrian activists are outside in Turkey or Lebanon. They need to be here'. We talk about skills-sharing on facilitating meetings and organising but stress unequivocally that this is dangerous territory for foreign activists because it reproduces colonial dynamics of white Westerners telling Arabs what to do and how to organise; the NGOised "facilitator" that conducts, regulates and wields power over locals. But co-training with Syrian and Arabic speaking activists, is agreed, could be useful...

The thread continues back in Ma'arra. We eat breakfast with a young medic who treats fighters on the Front. "You were in Kafranbel? They have three functioning hospitals there, we only have one and we are on the Front! I don't understand why they don't help us," he says. Emergencies take up energy. "Our revolution is a baby," he explains. "It needs milk, it needs nourishment, it needs to grow. Of course we want people to be organising their own representation, but that's walking, that's further down the line. For now, we need to survive." As if on cue a war plane tears through the sky above us. He starts to utter prayers. His wife, an organiser, but still unable to go to the internet café without a male relative, begins to breathe shallow and fan herself. It passes over. We sip our tea in silence until we can find our words to talk again.

*Names changed to protect identity

A shorter version of this piece appeared in last week's New Statesman magazine

People walk past damaged buildings in Ma'arrat al Numan, Idlib province in March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war