“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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The far right rises as the Nordic welfare model is tested to breaking point by immigration

Writing from Stockholm, the New Statesman’s editor observes how mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism.

In the summer of 1999 I was commissioned by a Scandinavian magazine to write about the completion of the longest road-and-rail link in Europe, connecting Denmark and Sweden across the Øresund strait at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. I was a guest at the ceremony, along with assorted Swedish and Danish royalty, at which the final girder of the concrete and steel-cable-stayed bridge was fitted into place.

It was a cold day but the mood was joyful. The Øresund Fixed Link symbolised the new Europe of open borders and free movement of people. There was much excitement about the creation of an economic zone centred on Copenhagen but incorporating Malmö and the university town of Lund in Sweden. The Øresund Bridge has since become an icon of Scandinavian culture, in part because of the success of the noirish television crime series The Bridge, starring the blank-eyed Sofia Helin as the Swedish police detective Saga Norén, which fetishises the structure in its brilliantly stylised opening credits.

Emergency measures

Last autumn, after Angela Merkel declared that Germany’s borders were open to Syrian refugees, it was across the Øresund that tens of thousands of desperate people began arriving in Sweden, straining the country’s habitual openness to incomers. They were arriving not just from Syria but from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa – sometimes as many as 10,000 a week. In 2015, 163,000 people registered for asylum in Sweden, including 36,000 unaccompanied children. Many others are presumed to have entered the country illegally. (The comparative figure registering for asylum in Germany was 1.2 million and in Denmark 25,000. David Cameron has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in Britain by 2020.)

There was a sense last November that Stefan Löfven’s minority Social Democratic government was losing control of the situation. As a result, Sweden was forced to introduce emergency border controls, as well as security checks for those arriving across the bridge from Denmark. The rules of the Schengen passport-free area allow for such measures to be enacted in a crisis. Denmark responded by tightening border controls with Germany as fences and barriers were erected across Europe in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees heading north along the so-called western Balkan route.

Sweden’s Blair

To the outsider, Sweden no longer seems to be a country at ease with itself. Mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism to near breaking point and resentment is festering. “Immigration is now the number one issue facing our country,” Johan Forssell told me when we met at the Riksdag in Stockholm. He is a former chief of staff for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister from 2006-14. As a former leader of the Moderate Party, Reinfeldt is a conservative, but, in his commitment to free markets and open borders, the politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. I was a guest at a lunch for Reinfeldt in London last autumn, and, as he defended his immigration policies, I was struck above all by his liberalism.

In August 2014, in a celebrated speech, he called on his fellow Swedes to “open their hearts” and “show tolerance” to immigrants and asylum-seekers. The speech was received with derision. It surely contributed to the defeat of the Moderate-led centre-right coalition in the general election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, recorded their best ever performance, winning 49 out of 349 parliamentary seats. “It was a brave speech, but Freddie didn’t prepare the people for it,” one senior Swedish politician said to me.

Editorial positions

One afternoon I visited Peter Wolodarski, the 38-year-old editor-in-chief of Sweden’s leading quality daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (“Today’s News”), at his office in Stockholm. The son of a Polish-Jewish architect who came to Sweden in the 1960s, Wolodarski is highly influential: editor, columnist and television commentator, and an unapologetic liberal internationalist. He likened his politics to David Miliband’s. In the past, Dagens Nyheter, which is privately owned by the Bonnier family, supported the then-hegemonic Social Democrats but, reflecting the fluidity and shifting alliances of Swedish politics, it now pursues what it describes as an “independently liberal” editorial position.

Wolodarski, who used to edit the comment pages, is slim and energetic and speaks perfect English. We discussed the EU referendum in Britain, which alarmed and mystified him, and Islamist terror as well as the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Security at the Dagens Nyheter offices has been tightened considerably since the Charlie Hebdo massacre – Wolodarski’s paper as well as others in the group republished Charlie cartoons – and it has been reported that as many as 300 Swedish nationals are fighting for Isis in Syria. One Swede, Osama Krayem, is suspected of being part of the group that carried out the Brussels attacks in March. The Sweden Democrats have seized on this as further evidence of the failures of Nordic multiculturalism.

A refugee’s story

One morning I visited a refugee registration centre in Märsta in the northern suburbs. The people there were fleeing war or persecution. Each was waiting to discover where next they would be moved while their asylum application was processed.

One young, secular Muslim woman from Gambia told me she was escaping an arranged marriage (to her mother’s polygamous brother, who was in his sixties) and the horror of female genital mutilation. Articulate and frustrated, she wept as we talked. The next day, I received an email from her. She was now in a small town in the far north. “It is remote here and cold,” she wrote. And then she wished me a “safe return journey” to London.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred