“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

Sean Rayford/Getty Images
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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.