Memories and lives destroyed by brutality in Darayya, Syria

Zaher Shehab lost his mother, brother, and five other relatives in attacks on the Damascus suburb, and could only listen to their funeral on the phone.

When seven members of my family were killed in a single attack this summer, I didn’t think that things could get any worse. My mother, brother, and five other relatives died after being hit by rocket fire on our farm in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Thousands of miles away at Bath University, where I am a student, all I could do was listen in to their funeral on the phone.

Then, last month, Darayya became the victim of the biggest atrocity that we have seen so far in Syria in 18 months of revolution. 

You might have seen the pictures – rows of bodies of men, women and children wrapped up in white, makeshift shrouds, lined in communal graves because there were too many to bury them one by one.

It began on Monday 20 August, the second day of the Islamic festival of Eid. There was a terrifying campaign of shelling, which got worse and worse. Forces loyal to the murderous President Assad surrounded all routes out of the town. After four days, on the Friday, they invaded and went on a killing spree.

They executed hundreds - tying their hands, lining them up and shooting them. Others they dragged from their homes and killed them on the threshold. Mothers were murdered in front of their daughters, sons in front of their fathers.

Any group of men or boys found together were killed immediately. I know someone who was killed because a wooden bracelet bearing the revolutionary flag was found in his house.

My 18-year-old cousin, Morhaf Shehab, worked to distribute food to those who had been left destitute. He was kind and modest, and always concerned with helping others. He decided to take some supplies to a group in a shelter taking refuge from the bombing. But Assad forces arrived while he was there, and killed him and dozens of others. When his body was returned to his family it bore signs of torture.

During the attack on the town, many were also arrested. One Sunday, two of my cousins, aged 26 and 29, were detained along with 13 others.  In some ways this is the worst fate of all. They could be being tortured right now, as you are reading these words.

For those lucky enough not to be killed or captured by the regime, life is still impossibly difficult. The government cuts off electricity and water for long periods. There is not enough food. There is a huge shortage of doctors and medicines. Being caught with first aid equipment is a crime – many medical workers have been killed. 

One evening during the siege of the town, my 70-year-old grandmother fell ill. It was too dangerous to leave the town, which is dotted with checkpoints and surrounded by snipers. In the morning, my father woke up to find that she had died in the night.

My old memories about Darayya are amazing. It was surrounded by beautiful farms, bearing all different kinds of fruit. In spring it would fill me with hope as the colourful flowers woke the town from its winter sleep.

Now, the place is unrecognisable. They have destroyed the roads and burnt the buildings. They broke into shops to steal everything that is valuable. About 250 homes were damaged. The infrastructure is ruined, and rubbish is piling up on the streets.

So far, 683 bodies have been buried from the massacre. We only know the identity of 460 of them – some were tortured so badly, or so decomposed, that no one could tell who they were. From my extended family 30 have been killed. There are 1,100 wounded, many of whom are in need of urgent medical help. Almost 3,000 families have been left in urgent need.

I have a hard time knowing how to cope with what is happening. I do not know what to do, or how to help. All I can do is tell the world about these terrible events. The state media spread lies, saying that the people of the town had killed each other and that bastard Bashar al-Assad had sent his army to protect civilians. My friends and family feel that no one knows what really went on.

Our biggest hope is that we will eventually get justice. We keep careful lists of all those killed or arrested, and the names of those who committed these terrible acts. We are waiting for the day when we will use them against Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court.

Zaher Shehab is studying for a PhD in pharmacy at the University of Bath. He is from the Syrian town of Darayya.

A young boy holds up a sign during an anti-regime demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
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Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.