Geopolitics

Marah's Diary, Part 1: Childhood Hunger In Syrian War

A Syrian girl walks past Syrian army soldiers in Harasta, near Damascus
A Syrian girl walks past Syrian army soldiers in Harasta, near Damascus
Marah

As part of a collaboration between Syria Deeply and Rookie, we’re publishing the memoirs of a teenage girl living in the midst of Syria’s war. Marah, as she’s chosen to be known, lives in a city under siege. She was 15 years old when the uprising began. This is the first in her series of articles.

My city was once magnificent. In spring, it bloomed. We used to wake up to the sound of birds chirping and to the fragrant scent of flowers. Today, spring is here again. But what kind of spring is this? We now wake up to the sound of falling bombs.

Every day, we open our eyes to our bleak reality: to the mortar shells that bring fear, death, disease and destruction. It has robbed us of our loved ones, destroyed our special places, hurt our close friends. Take my neighbor's daughter. At just seven years old, she has lost the ability to speak after a rocket landed close to our street.

Today, my city’s familiar face has been replaced by the suffering of its residents: the young boy who has been exposed to chemical weapons and is unable to receive treatment. An old man who feels powerless after he lost his legs. A young man who wears black sunglasses as if to hide a severely scarred face that frightens children. A young woman who is now blind after doctors couldn’t extract the shrapnel from her eyes because they lacked the proper medical equipment and medication.

The shelling has turned my city into a ghost town of decrepit buildings and charred trees. Even our animals weren’t spared. You often see a limping dog, a dead cat or a bird mourning its destroyed nest.

The bombings have not only altered my city’s face, but also fundamentally changed its people.

During the hardest times, when bombs fell from the sky, we dreamed of bread. We rationed our food intake to one meal a day, depending on whatever greens we could find for sustenance.

I remember well the day cattle food was smuggled into the city. We milled the animal feed to make dough. It didn’t take us long to get used to the bad taste and weird texture of our new “bread." It brought us a semblance of happiness with the little olives, juice or yogurt — Syrian food staples — that we had. Our only concern was to eat. One can never get used to sleeping on an empty stomach.

Our collective will to eat meant we started getting creative with the cattle feed, also known as fodder. We cooked it as if we were cooking rice or wheat. We became so accustomed to it that we almost forgot what chicken, meat and fruit looked like.

One of the hardest days was when we heard that a car carrying fruit and candy had entered the city. At first, we were beyond thrilled, but our happiness was fleeting. The exorbitant prices for the items on display meant no one could actually afford them.

That day, a young boy with holes in his shoes squeezed his mother’s hand as they passed by the fruit car. He begged her for an apple. Holding back her tears, she promised to make him “fodder cake” when they got home. Similarly, a father ignored the car carrying the goods and picked up the pace as he dragged his daughter, who was demanding a banana or an orange. Who would believe that the availability of fruit would be worse than the lack of it? Is it not a child’s right to have an apple, a banana or a small piece of candy?

In this world, we have been stripped of our rights, starting with food. We try to entertain ourselves to forget our hunger, but there is no power and it is difficult to be without electricity after our lives once depended on it. I feel as if I’m living in the Stone Age. We wash our laundry by hand and burn wood to keep warm. In this new world, everything we know is gone. We miss the things we took for granted, like TVs and laptops.

Nowadays, the children refuse to stay indoors. My younger brother gets bored quickly, so my mother keeps him busy by delegating him the task of breaking firewood. His small hands have become thick and calloused. He executes his chore with anger and an air of rebellion. He now lives with a prevailing sense of deprivation. His feelings, along with mine, have altered without our knowledge or will.

I find myself forming a grudge against people who live outside my city. I wonder, why did this happen to us? What fault have we committed to live this bitter reality? Why were our childhoods stolen?

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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