“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

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What does the end of the one-child policy mean for China's disabled population?

Even after the policy was abolished last year, cultural prejudices against disabled people have proven hard to shake.

In a small shop hidden in the shadows of the gleaming, golden arches of the two-storey McDonald’s next door, Liu Wenzheng has been developing photographs since 1995. Business in his north Beijing neighbourhood is slow but steady. Every now and then, a Western couple will come in to have a photograph taken of their newly adopted Chinese child. The child is nearly always “imperfect” in some way, whether it’s something as minor as a cleft palate, or a more challenging disability.

“Westerners have higher morals. They will adopt disabled children,” Liu tells me over a glass of baijiu, the distilled Chinese rice spirit, at a nearby restaurant. His disappointment in his own people is personal: Liu has been disabled for all of his adult life, since a run-in with Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution left him so badly beaten that his left leg had to be amputated. He was 22 and had been arrested for reading banned American literature.

He spent six months in hospital. After being discharged with a rudimentary wooden limb, he returned to his old job on a Beijing factory floor. “I was tough and people were scared of me,” Liu says, his brusque manner and burly frame illustrating his point. “Not every disabled person would have been allowed back to work with a full salary, to stand there and not do much.” Throughout our conversation, he emphasises the rarity of his situation compared to that of other disabled people. He has worked all his life, is happily married and has an adult son. Most disabled people in China are not so lucky.

A few miles north of Liu’s shop, on the outskirts of an eerily quiet retail park, Alenah’s Home is a warm hub of activity. This private centre for disabled orphans has been looking after children since 2004. The children come from orphanages all around China, which don’t have the funds or the facilities to provide disabled care. Many children, such as Furui, a one-year-old who was abandoned after a premature delivery, arrive with muscular atrophy – a result of months of neglect.

Alenah’s Home is one of the few private centres of its kind in China that look after disabled orphans. They don’t receive any government funding. Chris Hu, a full-time volunteer, tells me that children who are abandoned in China are nearly always female, disabled or both. This is in part a result of China’s one-child policy, which made China’s disabled population fall to 6 per cent of the country as a whole (the global average is 15 per cent) and also produced a gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls.

China’s one-child policy was officially abolished in January 2016. But Hu agrees with experts who predict that this won’t necessarily redress demographic imbalances. Cultural prejudices against disabled people are hard to shake. Confucian ideology emphasises the idea of the body as a point along an ancestral continuum. Thus, any defect is attributed to a spiritual flaw in the family, even for disabilities, such as Liu’s, which are caused by injury. It is easy to dismiss this kind of abstraction as stereotyping, but when Yuan Xiaolu, a retired journalist who has been blind in one eye since birth, repeatedly tells me, “I don’t blame my mother,” it suggests a genuine anxiety about the perception of her family’s morals.

In wealthy cities, and especially in popular tourist areas, public facilities are becoming more accessible to disabled people. The Chinese government claimed to have invested 500 million yuan in the construction and renovation of 25,000 public toilets in 2015, most of them wheelchair-friendly. This follows changes in the law to encourage greater inclusivity: employers are required to reserve 1.5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities, or pay a fee to the Disabled Persons’ Employment Security Fund, which is managed by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government body.

However, meaningful social change lags behind. Disabled children are more likely to be found – and often abandoned – in poorer rural areas, where women can’t afford abortions and facilities don’t exist to support disabled people. Liu describes the government’s measures as “barely a cup of water when you need the sea”, saying that most companies would rather pay the fine than employ a disabled person.

Even then, John Giszczak, a former China programmes manager for Save the Children, has said that the fees paid to the CDPF often end up being spent on overpriced “pseudoscientific ‘therapeutic’ equipment”.

The CDPF was founded in 1988 by Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Like Liu, Deng Pufang was paralysed – left paraplegic after an assault by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Having such a high-profile disabled person in Chinese public life contributed to a more open attitude towards physical disabilities, but this didn’t necessarily spread to all aspects of life.

Similarly, when the Hubei-based farmer Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy, published her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”, which went viral on Chinese social media, she illustrated that her situation was an exception to the opportunities for disabled people, rather than the norm. Like most disabled people in China, Yu was unable to finish school and has spoken about how she has felt “undermined . . . [and] hated” by her body. Still, she insists, “My disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.”

“It’s not the government that’s the problem. It’s the people,” Liu says. China is often characterised as a country where the official Communist Party line is the only one that matters. But most Chinese people I speak to see their culture as running far deeper than political diktats. Policies may change behaviour or improve facilities for disabled people, but social rehabilitation seems a long way off.

Still, I suggest to Liu, he seems to have done quite well for himself. His family and his photography business aren’t the future he foresaw when he first became disabled. “Not really,” he says glumly. “Digital ruined everything.”

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge