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Razan, Ghiyath and the Syria we are turning our eyes away from

by Shady Hamadi

Nowadays it seems as though there were a struggle between two opposed fronts: on the one side the Syrian regime of Assad, on the other side the IS fundamentalists, with nothing in the middle. No one remembers what has happened since 2011. People forget about the peaceful protests broken out in March 2011 against the regime, about the gloomy and brutal crackdown of the Syrian dictatorship, and we forget even about the young people who paid and are still paying a very high price for freedom. This natural inclination, quite typical of Italy, to depict the Middle East in a dichotomous way – fundamentalism vs. regimes – stems from a lack of resolve in promoting dialogue with the other shores of the Mediterranean and trying to get to know more about the others.

When the opportunity arose, to nominate two Righteous people from Syria for recognition as Righteous in cooperation with Gariwo, I immediately thought of Razan Zaitouneh and Ghiyath Matar. These two figures embody the third way for Syria, and even more the third way undertaken by the Arab world, the one that opposes religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Moreover, the tales of Ghiyath and Razan seem to be indissolubly tied one at another in a lively, hard and tenacious testimony of what Syrian history has been like for the past 5 years. In fact, Ghiyath Matar was the initiator of the Syrian pacifist movement in Damasco. It was him who invented the idea of giving water and flowers to the soldiers who had been sent to crack down on the protest, in order to awaken consciences and lead the soldiers to identify with demonstrators. The dangerous feature of this gesture and of the spreading of the pacifist movement (that the Italian media are guilty of not reporting) had been grasped by the regime that, in September 2011, had the young Ghiyath arrested and murdered.

During those frantic days from March 2011 to January-February 2012, many Syrian citizens and expats were vocal in demanding the international community to support the pacifist movement before the war, the necessity to take up arms to defend oneself from the crackdown, prevailed. No one listened to us and the total war, with its consequences, spread all over Syria. Despite this, despite the air strikes, the legions of victims of 2011-2012, Razan Zaitouneh, lawyer and activist, went on secretly, with other personalities, to run the network of the Local Coordination Committees and the Violations Documentation Center. It was Razan, together with her network of activists, to deliver daily the body count and recover the names of the Syrian dead. It is thanks to her relentless activity, that was never supported by the international community, that the world kept trace of the personal details of the victims and the arrested.

The isolation to which civil society was forced because of the void created by the crackdown, let room for the rise of fundamentalism. Nonetheless we should remember that, as early as in 2011, the “secularist” Assad promulgated an amnesty law that merely benefited the fundamentalists jailed in the Syrian prisons. Writers, intellectuals and lawyers did not benefit from that. This served the purpose of causing distress to the pacifist movements and legitimizing the revolution. Assad told and is still telling the West: “Do you see? They are all terrorists, I had warned you. There is no demand for freedom whatsoever. Syrians are very well under my dictatorship».

Razan was abducted precisely by the fundamentalists in the outskirts of Damascus, in Ghouta, where she had gone to document the atrocities that were unfolding.

Honoring Ghiyath and Razan means recovering the legitimacy of a movement, based in civil society, that is seeking a way to set free from the oppression of totalitarianism and religious fanaticism. It is up to us to choose to support them, or accept war.

Shady Hamadi, Syrian writer and activist

Analysis by Shady Hamadi, Syrian writer and activist

18 February 2015

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