It’s not everyday you hear protesters on Auckland’s Queen Street chanting the words “revolution”. It’s even less likely that the whole crowd will be chanting with the passion and determination that says the revolution is real and right now, not a slogan for the distant future.
But today in Syria, and across the Arab world, revolutions are under way. And on Sunday 100 people, mostly from Auckland’s Syrian community, turned out to show their solidarity with Syria’s democracy movement.
Syria has existed under a “state of emergency” since 1963, when the Baath Party took power. Repression was increased from 1970 when general Hafiz Assad took took power in an internal coup. His son Bashar is now president. This means no free speech, no protests no complaints.
Revolts against the current regime in the late ’70s and early ’80s were brutally crushed. In Hama, tens of thousands were killed by government forces in 1982.
Such massive repression had an impact on many people’s lives. One Auckland protester, Ali said his grandfather had narrowly escape execution in Hama, while his uncle was later “disappeared” by the regime. Although the family learned he had died in prison there were no official records.
In such cases the grief of families is compounded by the fact that wives cannon remarry and property cannon be inherited, because the disappeared are not officially dead. “It is a small problem [compared with the death of that person] but it is also big problem”, Ali said.
News of the what happened in Hama was kept secret from the world. Syrians themselves learned of the massacre, but dared not speak openly about it. For 30 years the memory of the revolt and its repression meant most Syrians were too afraid to raise their voices in protest.
Now, in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egyp, things have changed. Even so, the first response to these revolutions was not mass protests. That came only after a group of 10 to 15 year old school children (who were, perhaps too young to be afraid of what had happened 30 years ago,) wrote protest graffiti on the walls of the small city of Daraa. They were arrested and tortured by police. Outraged, their parents protested and others joined in. Even security forces shooting and killing people did not stop the protests, which spread through the country.
At first the protests were simply calling for reform and the protection of civil liberties, such as the right to free speech, not the overthrow of the government. But as this has only been met with the murder of protesters, the fateful slogan of the new Arab revolt is being heard, “The people want the regime to fall!”
Amongst the oppression there are positive signs. For repression the government relies mostly on the special forces. Described as “little gods”, because they exploit their position to get anything they want, these men have a stake in defending the regime.
The regular army is made up largely of conscripts, the sons, brothers and cousins of those who are protesting. Soldiers have had their cellphones confiscated, to try and cut them off from the people. But in at least one case, regular soldiers moved to protect protesters from the special forces, and were shot at for their trouble.
Even in Aotearoa protesters fear that by coming out on the streets they could endanger their families in Syria, but with people back home facing up to the guns of the regime, they feel they must do what they can to let the world know what is happening in Syria.
Now example of Hama inspires not just fear, but determination. People know if they do not succeed, the government remains in power, then the lives of everyone who has protested, their friends and their family will be in danger.
“There is no way back, we have to go forward to freedom.”
For more on the Syrian revolt and solidarity events in Auckland, check out Syria Solidarity on Facebook.