Assad At Ease, An Exclusive Face-To-Face In A Surreal Damascus

Monica Maggioni, head of Italy's Rai news service, recounts her meeting this week with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inside his private Damascus villa: "He looks nothing like the defeated leaders of this era."

Assad At Ease, An Exclusive Face-To-Face In A Surreal Damascus
Monica Maggioni*

DAMASCUS â€" He’s the most controversial man in the world, the most talked about president. He was supposed to get bombed by the Americans, until the operation was called off at the last minute. He’s also the No. 1 target for ISIS, other regime opponents and several neighboring countries.

In spite of all that, and after four years of war, he still lives in a bourgeois neighborhood of Damascus. No bunker or underground hideout: The 50-year-old Bashar al-Assad spends part of his day here in the center of town, amidst nondescript, mostly gray buildings, tidy apartments and balconies with long lines of laundry out to dry. His villa is just a tad bigger than those next door.

We expected to meet him at the palace, as the Italian Rai television crew had for another exclusive interview two years ago. We had an appointment by the massive edifice on top of the hill, at the end of a well-kept boulevard with perfectly trimmed trees that line gardens bereft of flowers.

There’s no more traffic in this little section of world up here, secured by checkpoints. Down below, at the foot of the hill, the old city moves about in an attempt at normalcy. It’s as though an island had survived in the middle of a war zone. Veiled women with plastic shopping bags and girls wearing makeup, their hair loose, check out the few clothes on display in shop windows. Almost no one is at the cafés, and a mere fraction of past crowds can be seen on the streets of the old bazaar.

The residents of the microcosm of central Damascus pretend their life is acceptable, knowing very well that the Russians and French are bombing Raqqa; that a car-bomb could go off any moment; and that normality, the real kind, has long since vanished. Only a kilometer away, the black flags of ISIS flutter about. Everyone left has friends and neighbors who have fled to seek a new life in Europe or elsewhere.

We thought we would see Assad, up there, isolated and distant in the presidential palace. Only when we reach the top of the semi-deserted hill do we understand that this isn't going to be our final destination: These days, only a part of the president’s staff is on duty there, so the meeting with the president is to take place in the city. We proceed back down to the downtown streets, the ones with the parked cars, the woman with a shopping bag, and two elderly people who are entering the lobby of Dr. Sharis Hospital.

An almost British air

A few steps, several guards, a barrier and that’s it. No other security mechanism. We’re in front of the white stairway that leads to Assad’s house. He steps towards us with a relaxed smile.

There’s a certain British ease about his mannerisms. He inquires about how things are going in Italy, work, politics. It takes effort to remember that we’re in Damascus, in the middle of a war, speaking with Bashar al-Assad. And yet there we are.

He asks me to come up to the first floor for a few minutes, while downstairs, a small army of technicians is preparing the interview set for Rai correspondent Marco Clementi. We’re able to discuss what’s going on, what this piece of history looks like from Damascus. Assad believes that three key factors â€" which two years ago seemed likely to bring about a total collapse of Syria â€" have contributed to the current scenario, for better or for worse: ISIS’s emergence as a global threat, Iran’s reappearance at the international diplomatic table, and Putin’s military interventions.

He’s very clear about ISIS: “It can still be eradicated, it still hasn’t penetrated deeply in Syrian society, but the risk is great. If they stay here for a while longer, we will not be able to get rid of them.”

He finds Western policies that destabilized the region â€" such as the occasional support of armed rebel groups, with scant concern for the consequences â€" incomprehensible. “Al-Qaeda was created by the Americans, using Wahabi ideology and Saudi money. ISIS and al-Nusra are a direct result of al-Qaeda,” he says, adding that Putin’s intervention is the only thing keeping a lid on the situation.

Downstairs they’re still setting things up, and the president appears to be in no hurry to end our conversation. He says that all too frequently in the past few years, global discussions of Syria have focused entirely on him, ignoring the fact that from the outset of the war, in such Syrian towns as Daraa and Homs, extremist groups were infiltrating the country.

I look at him and search for what he may not want to say out loud. But Assad appears naturally pragmatic as he explains that many people, especially in rural areas, joined the jihadi battle is a way to escape poverty, or to control territory, and he is negotiating with them on ways to take land away from the terrorists.

An opening

This, however, is a sign of change. Two years ago his position was very different. Back then, he said he would never negotiate with those who joined the fight. Now it seems that there is far more room for compromise.

Who knows if he will decide to leave. Someone knocks on the door. It’s his media assistant. A few years ago, she was one of Al Jazeera’s top news anchors, and then she left, because her country needed her. She tells us to come downstairs.

As I follow him to the floor below, I can’t help but think that he looks nothing like the defeated leaders of this era. He’s nothing like the crazed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, still theorizing about victory when he had plainly been defeated. He’s not the Iraqi minister of information saying, “The Americans will never reach Baghdad,” with V corps tanks rolling by in the background. It’s a whole different situation here, and one that’s difficult to understand, full of contradictions.

One thing is certain: This villa in central Damascus offers a singular vantage point to try to shed light on one of the most complex times in modern history. It comes with its share of optical illusions: From up here, the war below seems remote, with the tallest buildings hiding all the destruction and the Caliphate’s black flags. All of it, just a few kilometers away.

*Monica Maggioni is director of Rai News.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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