Restricting our Right to Freedom of Expression in name of Security and Stability -The Issue of Ethiopia

[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]
[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Blogger Endalk shows support to Ethiopian Bloggers group Zone 9[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

By Iona Mulder -

The right to freedom of expression was first recognized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1949) art. 19 and established as binding international law in art. 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1976). In the last 66 years since the international acceptance of the right of freedom of expression, many states have limited this right in name of transition, stability and state security. In past two decades state security has focused mainly on ‘the war against terrorism’, which will likely increase after the attacks in Paris. Some of these limitations are reasonable and legitimate. Still, it is very important to draw a line on how far we are willing to let our freedom of expression be limited  in the name of transition and state security. The aim of this article is to provide food for thought on where the line should be drawn. In addition, an analysis of the current status of the right of freedom of expression in Ethiopia will be provided, in which the balance between on the one hand transition, stability and state security and on the other the freedom of expression will be under investigation

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many as a fundamental condition for democracy, because it includes the right of an individual to express his opinion, but also the right to have an independent and impartial media. Thus, without this right, people will not be impartially informed and fair elections would not be possible. Nevertheless this does not mean that freedom of expression is an absolute right. There are situations in which it is legitimate under international law for governments to restrict this freedom, either with the aim to protect the rights of others, for example right to privacy,  or to protect national security, public order, and public health, or morals. In order for a court to decide whether or not the government righteously limited the freedom of expression, it must make a balance between the importance of expression and the rights of others, national security or interests. This balance is not the same in every state and every situation.

First of all, in the United States the freedom of expression is almost absolute: hate speech is not restricted. The philosophy of the US behind this is that an open debate is more effective than regulation. In Europe, by contrast, there is a stronger restriction of hate speech. Holocaust denial is for example criminalized in many countries in Europe; it is not in the US. Secondly, a differentiation can be made for new fragile state democracies. In fragile democracies the need to protect national interest, stability and security  in contrast to the freedom of expression, will be higher than in stable states. This concept has also been accepted by the European Court for Human Rights. In the case Rekevenyi v Hungary (1999) a Hungarian police-officer complained that his freedom of expression was denied, because he was not allowed to take part in political activities and debates. The court stated that within Hungary’s transition from a totalitarian (Communist) regime to a pluralistic democratic society, this restriction of expression was legitimate in order for the police to regain the public trust ‘as defenders of democracy rather than tool of the state’. Thus, in this case because of a ‘pressing social need in a democratic society’ the freedom of expression was further limited than would legitimated in other European states. (James A.Sweeney, The European Court of Human Rights in Post Cold-War Era, Universality in transition).

During his visit in Ethiopia in July 2015 president of the United States Barack Obama –the first American President ever to visit Ethiopia- stated: “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recent that constitution that was formed and that elections put forward a democratically elected government.” Though critical about the question of good governance in Ethiopia, Obama stated that the power of the democratically elected government should be acknowledged and when criticizing its policy its difficult history and its democratic juvenileness should be considered. (The Guardian, ‘Obama criticized for calling Ethiopia’s government ‘democratically elected’’27 July 2015).

Ethiopia is a country with a rich history. Most people in the West, however, associate it with the famine in eighties, a disaster of which devastating pictures of starving people went worldwide, resulting in a wave of aid relief to Ethiopia. In contrast to the image that was often presented, the famine was not mainly the result of natural disaster but the effect of the policy of Ethiopian government converting to communism.  In 1974 the Derg, a communist organization, came into power. The Red Terror they spread cost the lives of 500.000 people, excluding the victims of the ‘famine’ that was a result of communalizing the Oromo’s, a large ethnicity of Ethiopia. They were forced into large controllable work communities.  In 1991, the Derg was defeated by an insurrection of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who claimed to bring democracy to the country. In 1995 the first election were held.

During his visit, Obama also made clear that Ethiopia is the biggest ally of the United States in its fight against the Islamic military organization Al-Shabab. Between 2006-2009 the Ethiopian government led a big military campaign against Islamic rebel groups in Somalia, including Al-Shabaab. Two of these groups committed a number of attacks in Ethiopia in 2008, claiming 23 lives. As part of Ethiopia’s so-called battle against terrorism, the state introduced an anti-terrorist legislation in 2009. In this legislation terrorism is imprecisely defined, as including “disruption of public service,” which can also include non-violent actions or demonstration. In addition, “encouraging,” “advancing,” or “being in support” of terrorist acts’ would also be defined as terrorism. Thus, merely expressing support for groups that are defined by the Ethiopian regime as terrorist, under the broad definition, could in itself also be defined as terrorism under this legislation, possibly leading to prison sentencing between 10 to 20 years (Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft of Anti-terrorism Law, 30 June 2009, Human Right Watch).

Under this legislation, many journalists and bloggers have been arrested in Ethiopia under the accusation of terrorism and assaults against the state. An example is the arrest of six bloggers of Zone 9 and three other journalists on 25 April 2015. Zone 9 is an internet blog on which nine educated Ethiopians write about social and political issues, often with a critical stance towards the government. Their slogan is “We blog because we care”. They were charged with sabotage of the state under the anti-terrorist law. Two of the journalists and two of the bloggers were released a few weeks before the arrival of Obama to Ethiopia. The others afterwards in October. They had been imprisoned for more than a year. (It is possible to read their account of their imprisonment and their current life on the blog).

With these arrests the Ethiopian government restricted its population’s right to receive and seek impartial information in public interest.  Despite the fact that the restrictions are prescribed by law in the anti-terrorist legislation, it does not serve the purpose of national security as the blog of Zone 9 did not incite any violence, or supported groups who do so. Although the Ethiopian state might be a relatively young democracy in relation to many European states, even a young democratic state must be able to accept forms of social or political criticism if its restrictions do not serve any other democratic purpose. It is clear that in Ethiopia the government has crossed the line in its restriction of the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, they are not the only ‘democratic state’ to do so.

The Land of Blood and Honey – Western Media and the Framing of the Western Balkans

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.
Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly build mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

It has often been stated that the history of the western Balkans is “written in blood”. With the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo igniting the First World War, the occupation and resistance during the Second World War, and wars and genocide in the 90s, many people would agree with this statement. However, constantly portraying the region as a barbaric and bloody region has created the notion that war could break out again at any moment in time. Especially with the refugee crisis currently culminating in the western Balkans, many media outlets are connecting real problems in the region with the unrealistic idea of an immediate outbreak of armed conflict.

At a conference in Darmstadt earlier this month German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that closing borders within Europe could lead to military conflict in the western Balkans. “It will lead to a backlash,” she said. Referencing to the wars that raged in the region in the 90s, she added: “I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there again.” As a result many renowned online and print media outlets used clickbait-like headlines such as Foreign Policy’s article “Is War Going to Break Out in the Balkans?”. The Guardian contributed to the discussion with an opinion piece titled “We should heed Angela Merkel’s warning of a new Balkans war”. However, the bold title was immediately followed by a statement indicating that it would be an exaggeration to speak of a lingering armed conflict already..

Fed up with all the Balkan stereotypes, online platform Balkanist posted a poignant blog that does not explain what one should not write about the Balkans, but mockingly stating what you should write as a “Balkans expert”: “you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently”. Where does this urge to frame the western Balkans as a region in which the imminent threat of armed conflict is ever present stem from? Because needless to say, this current journalistic trend that Balkanist is referring to is not new. Popular belief that was propagated by many journalists during the wars of the 1990s saw the cultural differences within Yugoslavia and the ancient animosities between the republics as the root cause of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflict that followed. The 45 years of communism in Yugoslavia were seen as merely a hiatus in which the history and memory of the different people were suppressed. The idea of “ancient hatreds” among the Yugoslav people was promoted, with the dissolution of the communist state as the event that triggered the suppressed hatred and latent emotions.

Even Bill Clinton, at the time President of the United States of America, adopted this view: “how long has the war been going on? Since 1991, in essence. That’s 4 years. It’s tragic; it’s terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years.” However, this explanation is problematic. There have for example never been any repressive measures initiated by the Yugoslav government against the ethnic groups. This was not needed as there was no violence or interethnic confrontation to repress. Granted, there were still memories of the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists who killed a large number of Serbs. However, there is an important gap between collective memories and open conflict. The suppressed memories will not be disruptive until they are, for instance, directed by an extremist leader. In the case of Serbia, that leader was Slobodan Milošević.

Milošević reconstructed the collective identity of the Serbs and in this reconstruction he added a collective sense of victimhood. This sense of victimhood would eventually direct the collective memories to the political goal and it would contribute to the outbreak of interethnic conflict. A speech given by Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the military victory of the Turks over the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1989 clearly showed how this idea of victimhood could feed the outbreak of conflict. At the time the other Yugoslav republics were already shocked by the messages Milošević tried to convey and it would later be seen as a warning signal of the violence that would later come:

 

Today, six centuries later, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.

 

This lost Battle of Kosovo was a chosen trauma, that had been passed on each generation. The memory of the Battle of Kosovo clearly shows how trauma can feed ethnic pride and eventually incite a group to avenge its ancestors. This becomes clear when the narrative is seen in the context of the war and massacres of the 1990s. For example, the Srebrenica genocide was put in this narrative of victimhood. According to Serbian politicians, the Srebrenica massacre had a symbolic purpose, the genocide was seen as an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge. Various strands of national history became a source of inspiration for Serbian nationalists. General Ratko Mladić even mentioned this historical importance when he entered the empty streets of Srebrenica:

 

Here we are, on 11 July 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region [emphasis KK].

 

This victimhood-centered propaganda continued when Milošević forcefully portrayed the Croats as Ustaše and Bosniaks as Islamist fundamentalists. Any opponent of a Yugoslavia where Serbia dominated was put down as a threat to Serbia.

The nationalist and radical rhetoric still echoes through the politics in the western Balkans. Indeed, one should not downplay the problems that are still very much present in the region and are a direct consequence of the wars of the 90s. As Dr. Jochen Töpfer, expert in South European politics at Berlin’s Freie Universität, stated: the wars of the 1990s are ‘dormant rather than solved.’ But especially because of this lingering nationalism it is unwise to dramatize current events and consequently alienate the western Balkans from the rest of Europe. Merkel is clearly trying to create fear among the politicians and stop them from closing their borders for refugees. However, it is dangerous to create fear among politicians in countries in which there is already widespread poverty and a struggle over the already few resources with half a million refugees added to these already existing problems. Both politicians and media outlets should refrain from these oversimplified statements as it clearly does more harm than good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Place to Hide: War Criminals and Terrorists Among Refugees

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC
Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images – CC BY-NC

 

By Kari van der Ploeg -

This summer the world was shocked when a photo of a little Syrian boy went viral. He was pictured face down in the sand, drowned before the coast of Greece. In no time, the public opinion regarding the European refugee crisis turned emotional. A consensus was reached among the European population that a more empathetic approach to the problem was needed. However, as people started arriving in Europe and the local population saw the practical consequences of the crisis, public opinion soon shifted to anger.

As you can read in Marieke’s article, locals are mostly concerned about the large amount of new refugee shelters that are being set up and the presumed problems that come along with them. How is our government going to find money to feed these people, are the means present to give them social benefits, what if they ‘take our jobs’? Concerns about welfare are supressing the empathy some people once felt. The consequence is that the debate is polarizing and people are becoming increasingly scared. Moderation in the debate is being shunned as everyone needs to be pro or against refugees*. Fuelled by right winged politicians and media, many people no longer see refugees as people escaping war but stereotype them as troublemakers, freeloaders and war criminals. A dehumanizing rhetoric is taking over the debate by referring to refugees in terms such as a ‘tsunami of refugees’ (in other words: a deadly force of refugees).

While reading certain social media content such as the Dutch Geen Stijl’ or the Facebook page ‘NK vluchteling vangen met een vangnet’ (National Championship catching refugees with a safety net – recently removed by Facebook) one comes to believe that the majority of refugees are thugs and terrorists who have come to Europe to convert us to the Islam and rape little girls. Under the pretence of humour, people vocalize their frustrations, anger and fears and push each other into a more violent rhetoric against refugees. Some examples of these comments are: “To what extent are refugees armed exactly? I am reading more and more disturbing things about this”, “They work in groups, they don’t need weapons to rape little girls”** The continuous outpouring of venomous thoughts is  shocking to read. A lot of counter arguments are being heard as well but moderation is hard to find in the debate among common men. It made me wonder how it was possible that the debate has shifted to fast from empathy to concern and anger. Is there any truth to these worries, do we really have to be concerned about our own safety and welfare?

In September, the story of a Syrian man and his seven year old son headed the news when they were tripped by a Hungarian camerawomen as they were trying to escape from a collection point in Roszke village, Hungary. Abdul Mohsen’s life was turned upside down when it became public that he used to be a football coach back in Syria, and he was offered a place on a Spanish soccer coach academy. Mohsen and his son were welcomed personally in the Spanish capital by players of Real Madrid, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Soon after however, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) accused him of being a member of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Syria. They released a statement holding Mohsen accountable for war crimes against Kurds and other civilian minorities since 2011. The PYD published a photo of Mohsen’s Facebook account where he identifies himself as a member of the Al-Nusra front, adding that he fought Kurds near Amudeh, Serekaniya and Afrin.

The incident of Abdul Mohsen poses an example of what many people in Europe are scared of. With a large amount of people streaming in to Europe it is nearly impossible to research the background of every single one of them. According to newspaper ´de Volkskrant´, the Dutch secret services (AIVD) claim that there is no indication to be scared for large numbers of terrorists among refugees. However, prominent public Dutch figures such as Geert Wilders and Bram Moszcowicz fuel fear with fictional numbers and simplistic statements. Wilders claims that 2% of the  refugees that arrive in Europe are radicalized. Moszcowicz added that he is scared that the people that find it normal to behead others are among refugees.  “They don’t allow us to live” he said at a meeting of the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, in September. The AIVD however does not recognize these numbers or sentiments. It is possible that in individual instances a radicalized person could be among the rest of the refugees, but the numbers are in no way as high as politicians claim, according to the AIVD. There is a sound procedure in place to screen those who are entering our country. Last year only a very small number of Syrians were arrested on the suspicion of being involved in possible war crimes. It is also important to note that ISIS actually warns its men not to travel to the West, away from the caliphate. Leaving the caliphate is considered treason and makes it therefore highly unlikely that there are large amount of ISIS members among refugees.

Cases such as the one of Abdul Mohsen focusses a large part of the discussion on the dangers of war criminals among refugees. What people do not realize is that this focus brings dangers of its own. Genuine refugees are being stigmatized and threatened by the local population, whereas the presence of war criminals among them is most dangerous for them. Rena Netjes, Arabic scholar and Middle-East expert spoke with Radio 1 on Tuesday and vocalized the sentiments among refugees. According to Netjes, refugees are scared for Assad’s power, even here. Most of them still have family back in Syria and fear that their family members will be hurt if the Mukhabarat (Syrian Military Intelligence Dictatorate) discovers their identity. Netjes confirms that members of the Mukhabarat are among those who are entering Europe right now. I have spoken with a Syrian refugee myself who told me about similar sentiments. She escaped Syria and the threat of being arrested by the government in 2011, leaving her family behind in Damascus. Knowing that the people she tried to get away from are still among her, makes her feel trapped, she tells me. She is not necessarily scared for herself, but more for what they might do to her family if they find out who she is and why she left Syria.

The debate in Europe has been consumed lately with the fear of the loss of welfare to the influx of refugees. Stereotyping them as war criminals seems like an easy way of channelling these fears, which are sparked by extremely right-winged politicians. It has to be taken into consideration though that the numbers are in fact much lower than for instance the 2% of war criminals among refugees that Geert Wilders claims. Since the 1990s a lot of procedures have been created to screen these criminals and even bring them to trial. This is not only important for our own safety but also for the safety of genuine refugees themselves. I believe it is important that the public debate incorporates a more moderate discourse in which questions will be answered to the European population based on facts instead of fears. It needs to become clear who we are giving refuge to and why we do not need to be scared of them.

 * In this article I define refugees as people that escape war, not to be confused with people that migrate due to economic reasons.

**“In hoeverre zijn asielzoeker/vluchtelingen/immigranten eingelijk bewapend? Lees en hoor hier steeds meer zeer verontrustende berichten over, ook bij mij in de buurt…..” en “Ze opereren vaak in groepjes. Dan heb je geen wapens nodig om dat jonge meisje je wil op te leggen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From nitrate bombs to parties on a farm: the migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands

WIEN_-~1
WIEN_-~1

Refugees at Vienna West Railway Station. CC BY-SA 4.0

 

By Marieke Zoodsma

“Why did you come tonight to this meeting?”, an AT5 reporter asks one of the visitors of an information evening in Amstelveen, a municipality in the suburbs of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “To defend my neighbourhood. This has scared me to death. Well, the whole thing is all of a sudden very near you.”* It is one of the many reactions to the opening of an emergency asylum centre in Amstelveen, which in this occasion is more emotionally charged due to the large Jewish community living in this neighbourhood.** However, it is not an uncommon reaction of inhabitants of any Dutch town, village or municipality confronted by the influx of asylum-seekers*** in their neighbourhood. Quotes such as “I cannot let my daughter outside alone at night anymore” or “All they do is come and take our money and houses”, are frequently heard in the media.

 

And then, unavoidably, come the ‘incidents’. First in Oranje, a small village of 140 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands, where the decision was made that in total 1.400 asylum-seekers will be sheltered. When the Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice came to explain the reasoning for this decision, his car was blocked and attacked by the angry residents of Oranje. A nitrate bomb is what scared the inhabitants of Woerden, a small city close to Utrecht, on Friday evening 9th of October. A group of about twenty men with black coats and balaclavas broke into the gates of the recently opened emergency asylum centre and threw nitrate bombs, fireworks and eggs at the facility. The shaken group of 148 asylum-seekers, many of who came here to escape violence, have been relocated to a different location four days later. This week, councillors of the municipality of Rijswijk (close to The Hague) have received threatening letters in response to the announced opening of an asylum centre. One of the letters read: “First of all, what a lovely daughters you have… Mmm. If that asylum centre will come, I will go and look for them at school.”****

 

So far, it have been mostly Dutch citizens who publicly exercised, or threatened with, violence – not those feared refugees. While they are being portrayed as criminals, racists and free riders, a fair share of Dutch society is getting more and more anxious with ‘such people’ living around ‘their’ corner. It is as correspondent Rob Wijnberg rightly puts “the fear of high numbers”. If the news tells you every day that there are “ten thousand refugees” here and “millions of refugees” there, the whole subject will dehumanize eventually. In the end, one does not notice that those numbers actually represent individuals. Fortunately, there are also positive reactions to the influx of refugees. Last Saturday, the people of Onnen (a small village in the north) organized a party for asylum-seeker who were sheltered in the neighbourhood and in Woerden, after the attack, there were so many people bringing food, clothing and flowers that the municipality was overrun by the donations.

 

Short to say; the European migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands, dividing its people as well as its politics. There is a clear divide between those that would like to discourage or even block asylum-seekers from coming to the Netherlands (or Europe for that matter) and those looking for a solution within the framework of European cooperation and who are working for a sustainable solution to this issue. But the protection of refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, entails more than only their safety. It also pertains a perspective to rebuild or continue to build a life for themselves and their families. If that is still not possible, as is often the case with sheltering refugees in ‘the region’, then the actual protection of refugees is in the end not guaranteed (see also: protracted refugee situation).

 

In my opinion, anyone who thinks that the solution to this problem lies in the closing of the ‘gates of Europe’, does thus not understand the core of the migrant crisis that we are facing. The solution lies in European cooperation, similar as to what the unfortunately heavily criticized German Bondskanselier Angela Merkel has been propagating. Responding to the critique to her stance toward the crisis, Merkel said that “slamming the door ‘shut in the 21st century of the Internet era is an illusion.’” For instance, one of the options for European cooperation would be to broaden the possibilities for legal seasonal labour within the EU for people from Eastern Europe. This would be in order to confront or even avoid the misuse of our refugee policy by economic migrants from, especially, the Western Balkans.

 

Perhaps it is important to keep in mind that this is not only an abstract issue for politicians in the European Parliament, the Dutch government or town municipalities to act upon. ‘The whole thing’ is literally ‘very near you’, as the visitor of the information evening in Amstelveen told us. When the Dutch Red Cross called out for help two weeks ago, I signed up to volunteer – and with me, as it turned out later, 10,000 other Dutch citizens that week. The day after they asked me if I could come and help at a recently opened emergency asylum centre in Amsterdam. Already 600 asylum-seekers were sheltered in the huge building on the outskirts of Amsterdam and when I arrived, busloads with new arrivals kept on coming. Because there was such a large influx at the moment, it was deemed impossible to register all the newcomers and it was decided they first had to be given food, water and a bed. In this chaotic setting, I cleaned used camp beds from dirt of their previous users, handed out food that was donated by the catering of Schiphol Airport, explained to people where they exactly were (address? city? Amsterdam?), and played with the children that gathered in the recreation room. There was a mobile shower-facility outside the building that looked like the showers after a multiple-days-music-festival and the food for babies was too little. What I am trying to portray here is the situation that these people, these families like yours and mine, ended up in. Not for us to pity them, but to realise that this is not only happening somewhere on television and is for politicians to deal with. This is what is happening now, right around your corner.

 

* (Newsreporter) “Waarom bent u op deze bewonersbijeenkomst?” (visitor) “Nou, om onze wijk te verdedigen. Nou je schrikt je eigen de pest. Het komt dan wel heel erg dichtbij”. News item AT5, 13/10/2015

** According to several Jewish organisations, it unwise to locate refugees (400 in total), “many of whom have grown up with the idea that Jews are their enemy”, in one of the only municipalities in the Netherlands with clearly recognizable Jewish inhabitants and institutions.

*** Although a large part of the immigrants that enter the Netherlands would be considered refugees, such as people from Syria or Eritrea, there are also those to be found who cross our borders due to economical reasons. Economic immigrants are officially defined as asylum-seekers. For the sake of generalization, I therefore decided to use the term asylum-seekers instead of refugees. Please see the definitions for asylum-seeker and refugee in the conflict dictionary for more information.

**** “Ten eerste wat een heerlijke dochters heb je… Mmm. Als dat azc er nog komt, zoek ik ze nog wel eens op op school.” NOS News, 14/10/2015

 

 

“We Fought With Our Bodies and Voices, Not With Guns and Weapons” – Interview With the Cast of ‘A Syrian Love Story’

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

 

 

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Tayfun Balçik -

 

The IDFA-screening of A Syrian Love Story – a documentary depicting 5 years of the life of a troubled Syrian family filmed against the background of the war,– caused many emotional reactions among  Amsterdam’s Tuschinksi cinema visitors. Some people in the audience cried, some were obviously distressed. The main characters of the film, Raghda (mother), Amer (father), Ricardo, Bob (sons) and Sean McAllister (director) received a standing ovation. The discussion afterwards with journalist Marcia Luyten was too short to be really satisfactory. Therefore, it was great that Koen and I had the opportunity to have an interview with the crew the day-after. Both the family whose story is told in the documentary as well as some of the crew-members were present. It is exactly the visible tensed togetherness of the family which makes ‘A Syrian Love Story’ so moving. After all, we see how revolutionary parents in a dangerous context struggle between their ideals and normal family-life, forcefully catched in Amer’s lamenting phrase about Ragdha in the film ‘You cannot be Che Gueverra and a mother’. The whole audience was witness to a marriage crisis, so closely filmed by Sean that it even felt somehow wrong to watch the evolving drama between a husband and his wife. We saw their children trying to make sense of what was happening between their father, mother and the whole Syrian carnage altogether at the same time. In conversation with Sean, the teenager Ricardo reveals his true feelings about the situation in Syria: “In the beginning I was happy with the revolution. Now, I hate it.” And little Bob’s anger with Assad in his mother’s arms is heartbreaking and a simple but clear reminder to the rationale behind the armed opposition against the Assad-regime. Eventually, the family draws the same conclusion as thousands of other Syrian refugees and leaves their home. First from Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, and then their desperate flight to Lebanon and France. Raghda now lives in Istanbul and is part of the Syrian opposition. Amer lives in France with his children.

 

“Why does the West want Bashar to stay?”

 

Because of the focus on the situation of the family the political discussion somewhat degrades to the background but never fades away. In reaction to a question during the Q&A about the prospects for Syria, Sean McAllister remarked shortly: “I don’t really want to get in that discussion, but the removal of Assad would be one thing to start if you want to talk about future prospects for Syria”. The moderator looked surprised to hear that and asked, “who should remove Assad?” Raghda stepped in and responded with a question, “why does the West want Bashar to stay?” Amer said that he has no hope for Syria.  This interview can be seen as an in-depth follow-up of that short discussion.

The managing director of IDFA, Cees van ‘t Hullenaar, said that he sensed some sort of change in Europe with regards to the treatment of refugees and the Syrian crisis? Do you feel that too Amer?

 

“Not really, it’s getting worse actually.”

 

Yes, yesterday you said there is ‘no hope’ for Syria and there is also mentioning in the film that the Middle-East problem will eventually come to Europe. What do you mean exactly by that?

 

Amer: “I hope the problems won’t come to Europe, but what you see now is that everyday thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. And those refugees have big problems inside them. There are another 5 million Syrians who are just waiting for their chance to come to Europe too. Why? Because they lost their chances, their homes and everything. So it’s a difficult situation over there, which cannot continue any further without causing bigger problems.”

 

In Europe people fear ‘jihadists’ coming with the refugees. They see this problem as a security issue.

 

Amer (defensively): “I don’t want to see it that way. Daesh (ISIS) comes, Daesh goes. After all, what is Daesh? Daesh’s origins lies in the USA. That problem is not here. The problem here, in Europe, is that families are coming with complicated psychologic troubles, because of the horrific things they saw. And these people will have to start a new life in Europe. But how? They need help. They need at least 10 years to dig ways. And what about the new generation that will come? The kids. How can they be in a school again after what they have seen in Syria? It’s a big problem.”

 

What do you mean with that ISIS originated in the USA?

 

Amer: “In just three months Daesh captured an enormous territory in Syria and Iraq! How could that happen? Where were the eyes of the world, with their big satellites. Really they can’t find Daesh? I cannot believe that. I think they could erase Daesh in one night.”

 

“As long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope.”

 

But what would be the interest of the USA in creating Daesh?

 

Amer: “How do you think these group came up? When the revolution in Syria started in 2011, we were the first peoples on the streets. And what did we want? We wanted freedom and democracy like the countries in the West. And still we need the right steps to be taken to have a good life and a good economy.”

 

But yesterday you said you have no hope for Syria?

 

Amer: “I just imagined how it would be if I were in Syria right now. If you have hope for Syrian people, OK, be there, and think about what now? If you are here, in Amsterdam, with girls, with beers, camera’s everywhere, then I can imagine one says I have hope. But if I’m a Syrian in Yarmouk camp near Damascus, or Homs, hope would not be the thing I would think about. In such a situation you just want to stay alive, just want to eat something, some grass or anything!”

Amer’s eyes gets wide open and he talks fast and passionately.

 

Clear. But Raghda reacted differently when you said you had no hope?

 

Amer: “Yes, we have different opinions about it.”

Raghda: “Amer only sees problems. My view is, also during my time in prison: as long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope. We will make a comeback as Syrians.”

 

You are from the Syrian opposition, situated in Turkey. What is it exactly that you are trying to accomplish?

 

Raghda: “Mostly I talk with different group representatives, and work together with them as Syrians. We prepare the ground for the day when we go back to Syria. We try to build something and be together.”

 

What about armed groups? Do you also represent them?

 

Raghda shakes her head and leans back: “No, no no.”

 

What should the world do for Syria?

 

Raghda: “We have hope because living Syrians are depending on us. We cannot know what the next steps will be, but we always try. I cannot say everything.” (Laughs).

 

But how do you envision a future Syria, with or without Assad?

 

Raghda (resolutely): “Without.”

 

How do you want to do that?

 

Raghda: “The world, all the governments, support Assad. If the world decides to let Assad go, the killing will stop. This is our message.”

 

Koen: But what about the changes that should take place within Syria? It’s a divided country.

 

Raghda: “The problem is the regime. All Syrians should work together to change the regime. Not just Assad. The Mukhaberat (secret services, TB), they control everything. It’s a big lie that half of the Syrian people support Assad. No, that is not true.”

Amer: “I think the world has no memory or there is a hole in the story. We fought with our bodies and voices, not with guns and weapons. That time we asked the world to help us, to be with us in our fight for democracy. And what did they do? They asked: ‘OK, where is the opposition, who can be a new government in Syria?’ We said: ‘We are the opposition.’ Than they asked to form a union. And we did! Than they said: ‘It’s not enough, do another one.’ We did another one. What after, what do you want? People were starting to get killed in Syria. And the world continued to make a picture, to make a video. And the people in Europe, they all watched on television. For this we died. What after?! Hope is not enough. The memory of the world is bullshit. They must remember when the laique (secular) people started the revolution in Syria. We wanted democracy. People who used religion, who fought in the name God, there are reasons to fight in the name of God, if you have the Islamic way, like we had before: fight for Syria, like a united country. For the people, that was our way. But nobody supported that, nobody moved to do that. How then can we talk about hope or democracy? There is no way you can do that. They put your head on the roof if you say that.”

 

So, the revolution was initially secular?

 

Amer: “There was no religion. There were people from Christian, Islamic, Sunni, Alawi, Shia, Druze, they were all together in the streets. But after that, when nobody supported them and left them weak, nobody gave them anything to continue against Bashar al-Assad.” Resentful: “They let us alone. Most of us died, is now in prison to die more or left the country.”

 

So, before the revolution in 2011, there were no tensions between Sunnis, Alawis and Christians?

 

Amer: “You have to believe me on this one. The ex-husband of my sister, I only knew after four years that her ex-husband was Shia.”

 

You really did not know?

 

Amer: “I never thought about it. It did not matter.”

 

Raghda: “We did not speak or know about whether a person was Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia.”

 

“If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.” 

 

What exactly was the problem then? (This question was received with laughter.)

 

Sean: “I think one of the problems was if you sleep at night, and you have a bang bang bang at two o’clock in the morning, and you get kidnapped, that is not an acceptable society to live in. That was fundamentally the problem.”

 

They were painting a picture of Syria as a nice multicultural society.

 

Sean: “Well, people were living in fear and they could get kidnapped at any point, fuck all the multiculturalism! She was taken and nobody knew anything were she was taken. The prisons were full of people without any trial. Fuck multiculturalism!”

 

So the multiculturalism before the revolution was a façade.

Sean: “The whole thing was bullocks!”

 

Amer: “If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.”

 

Sean: “How could people live like that? Why should anyone live like that?”

Amer: “You cannot write, you cannot move. All the problems are around you. You feel like you live in a cage, even in your bed. All the time you are being watched. You are not safe. All the time you dream about freedom outside. If you go to Lebanon you see more freedom, even though it’s tough sometimes. Yes, of course there were corrupt Alawi people around Assad, in the cities especially. But in the poor villages, Alawi or not, the regime was as oppressive as it was against everyone who was against the dictatorship.”

 

Raghda: “There is no problem between the different communities. The problem is the regime, if he goes, than Daesh and all other problems will go away.”

 

But I hear other voices. People who are afraid of a Islamist or Jihadist takeover. In Christian, Druze, but also Alawi communities. That Assad is protecting them and keeping Daesh down.

 

Amer: “Bullshit.”

Everybody starts laughing.

 

“Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

Raghda: “People risk their lives when they speak the truth about the Assad regime. What would you do if you know that doors are slammed and people are taken away to get killed? I know many families who have three or four family-members who are taken away by the regime or Daesh. Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

OK, what if Assad is gone and all the killings stop, how to build-up a community again?

 

Amer: “It’s too late to have a community. Because now, with the country crushed completely, and the opposition is bullshit everywhere, in Turkey and other countries, they are shit, they cannot do anything! There is no opposition actually. But to answer your question, if Assad is down, because his friends don’t support him anymore, I think that the fighting will continue without any goal. They will just fight on. Because they cannot forget their blood! If you are Alawi, and you kill my son, I want to kill you and never stop my war against you. It’s not about “community” now between Alawi, Sunni or Durzi. It’s about revenge in the streets, between neighborhoods. Everybody wants to continue.”

 

Well that is a reason for the international community to come between the warring sides and stop the killing.

 

Raghda: “When the revolution started..”

Amer: “Nobody had a plan..”

 

Raghda: “And we paid with our lives for that. Now people wake up, and try to make something…”

 

Amer (cynically): “I think now it’s a good time, for the big powers in the world like America, England to go and shoot Daesh. But there is nothing to shoot Daesh. They are big liars. They go with air forces and shoot Daesh. To crush more and continue the war. For what? For the time-after, so their companies can come and build a new Syria, which will be good for their economy. It’s a big game and everybody now know what’s happening. So how can I have hope? Who can do anything for Syria? Its not a country anymore. Its like a shape, everybody can touch it, everybody can put a finger everywhere.”

 

Yes, but the killing continues. And some countries in the West and Turkey said there should be a security-zone and no-fly-zone.

 

Amer: “Yes, I support the idea of a security-zone, not just around the Turkish border, everywhere in Syria, if they can support these kids with their families to stay alive and create some perspective for them, maybe so they can have hope later. But the big powers must do that. Not other players, who put their fingers everywhere.”

 

Koen: Do you think that Syria can be one united country again?

 

Sean: “The only way for Syria to be a united country again is to have another dictator. You cannot bring the country together democratically. It’s a divided nation now, it’s impossible to have it like it ever was. I think it will be like Yugoslavia. Carved up. The more interesting question for me was, if we had gotten involved, which was not cool, early on, if we had made that concerted effort and supported the Free Syrian Army to remove Assad, which we didn’t want. What would have been the outcome? Now we have 350.000 people killed. And ISIS is growing. People from Britain are joining them. For me the problem was one man. What do you think?

 

I am for military intervention. Especially after the chemical attack in Ghouta.

 

“I think that was the fundamental thing. We set the red lines and Obama let him go with a lousy deal. The green light was provided for him. And it’s a little line in the film, which goes unmissed (sic): The Middle East problem will come to Europe. We thought we could ignore their problems. OK, fine, ignore Syria. We did, we ignored it until it collapsed into massacre, but now the problems comes from two ways. In refugees, which we see, and in Daesh. Daesh is coming to Britain! And this is what they are going to do: they are gonna start targeting Europe and America. So when we think about Syria, we have to think in terms of our own security, and therefore we have to get involved. We should have gotten involved.”

Amer: “Actually they lie too much. When they say they want to help Syrian people, they want us to die more. They have never given anything. We know the games they play with us. Every day we lost many thousands people. Than we started to know that they lied.”

 

Last question. In the film we also see your struggles as husband and wife. And during one of these fights you explain what it means to be loved by someone and say ‘every man in his life seeks for that person’

 

Amer: “You want me to fight with her again?”

 

Everybody Laughs.

 

It was really beautiful.

 

Amer: “I think every man wants to be loved by the one who he sees as his heart, his love. Not like friends. You can’t remove that feeling, it comes along with love. I am like any man, I want to feel it. And it’s hard. Because I lost it.”