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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Welcome to South Africa’s new political landscape

The era of one-party rule is over.

Last night, after a whole day of drama, tedium and tragedy, Johannesburg had a new mayor. 

Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) councillors, dressed in conventional suits, sat quietly throughout the mayoral election, looking very much like businessmen and women. Their sartorial code was completely at odds with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – supporters of the far-left’s Julius Malema. They came dressed in their trade-mark red overalls and matching miner’s helmets. 

Singing and dancing, the EFF held up the voting for hours, demanding that an ANC councillor against whom they had laid charges of corruption should be excluded from the election. Finally an ANC councillor collapsed and died in the chamber, having suffered a heart attack.

The proceedings had dragged on for eleven hours, with South Africans complaining on social media that they wanted to go to bed. But eventually the DA’s Herman Mashaba was sworn in as mayor. The 56-year-old businessman, who made his money in cosmetics, would not have been in post without EFF support.

It is a strange alliance. Malema refused to go into a formal alliance with the much larger DA. It was – as he put it – a question of choosing between the better of “two devils”.

It is difficult to see how the DA, whose policies are clearly free-market and capitalist, will work with the EFF. Malema has repeatedly called for nationalisation of the mines and the land, without compensation. But on one issue the DA, EFF and other opposition parties are united: their loathing for the ANC and the quagmire of corruption and nepotism that it has dragged the country into.

The ANC won the largest share of the 3 August local elections, taking 54.5 per cent of the vote – against the DA’s 27.0 per cent and the EFF’s  8.3 per cent. Yet it has found itself excluded from running most of South Africa’s key metropolitan areas.

The opposition holds Tshwane (which includes the administrative capital, Pretoria) Nelson Mandela Bay (including Port Elizabeth) and now Johannesburg itself, as well as Cape Town, which the ANC lost back in 2006.

The ANC has found itself largely relegated to rural towns and villages, with only the metropolitan area of Durban and cities like Kimberley and Bloemfontein in its control.

Transformation

What the election really marks is the end of one-party rule.

From 1948 the National Party ruled the country, imposing apartheid. After 1994 and the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC governed, with little the opposition could do to challenge its hold on power.

The local government elections ushered in a new era of multi-party politics. Communities across the country are now run by coalitions.

Take Nelson Mandela Bay, as an example.

In the 3 August 2016 election, the ANC lost their majority. The DA gained 57 seats, 4 seats short of a majority. So the DA negotiated a coalition including the African Christian Democratic Party, the Congress of the People, and the United Democratic Movement.

Athol Trollip – the DA’s Xhosa-speaking mayor – has set about rebuilding the metro's reputation. Outlining his plans for his first 100 days in office with promises of jobs and a clean administrations, Trollip said: “Political instability in this metro has rendered this city moribund and unresponsive… It is time to lock the revolving doors of corruption‚ cadre deployment and cronyism and bring about a new model of administration by this multiparty government, that will eschew the blight of such practices and that ushers in a model of good government…".

Can the opposition deliver?

As the reality of their new responsibilities become apparent, the opposition may discover that winning the election was the easy part. The DA will have to show tact, skill and extraordinary diplomacy if it is to hold together its relationship with difficult parties like the EFF.

They have already faced challenges from trade unions allied to the ANC, with protests from South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). Journalist and commentator Stephen Grootes has warned that the going will get rough.

"Samwu is likely to try to bring administration in DA-led metros to a halt. But it also faces a risk. It has tended to get what it wants through illegal actions and political pressure in the ANC through Cosatu. This time, it could well find that Mashaba, Msimanga and Trollip are tougher nuts to crack."

The ANC and the president

Meanwhile, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are not without resources.

They still run central government and have at their disposal the finances of the Treasury and the state’s highly politicised security apparatus.

Yet the ANC is struggling to react effectively.

Its first response was to deny that Jacob Zuma had lost the party votes – preferring instead to take collective responsibility for the defeats.

There are suggestions that the ANC is now so divided and ineffectual that they have almost ceased to govern.

Writing in Business Day, the South African equivalent of the Financial Times, columnist Carol Paton today suggested that: "No one runs SA. It is an aircraft in which the pilot has left the cockpit and locked the door behind him."

Paton accuses President Zuma of having: "Centralised power in his office, using his powers of appointment, in a way that is highly effective in achieving his personal goals, but has had chaotic consequences for the process of governing."

It is difficult to see how this can continue. There is a real loss of a sense of direction. Ordinary South Africans can only watch in anger and frustration as they attempt to muddle along.

But one fact seems certain: the era of one-party rule is over. South Africa has become a much more interesting, complex country.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?