“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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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here