A Glimpse Of Post-Assad Syria? Inside Aleppo's New Islamic Justice Committees

In Aleppo, a glimpse of the future?
In Aleppo, a glimpse of the future?
Florence Aubenas

ALEPPO For nearly three months, a rumor has been spreading through Aleppo: whoever faces hardship, however small, can go to a hearing of the “Committee for the promotion of good deeds and support of the oppressed."

There, in this northern neighborhood of the country's largest city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are “enforcing justice” and “asserting the rights” of the ever growing number of people who are deeply distressed or simply disgruntled.

“It has become one of the town’s most popular areas, everyone wants to be a part of it,” says Abu Mustapha. It’s not quite a courthouse, but almost. It’s not quite social services either. It’s not even a political space – the only thing it is is religious. It’s an unprecedented glimpse, the people hope, of what an Assad-free Syria would look like.

Like everywhere else in northern Syria, the civil servants paid by the Assad regime (teachers, doctors, judges, policemen, administrative employees) fled when the FSA arrived. It sometimes only took one night for public services and institutions to empty, leaving a 70-kilometer long strip disconnected from the official Syria, the Turkish border to half of Aleppo.

“We went from dictatorship to nothing. The war is not over yet, but chaos is looming at every corner. So we are taking things in our hands, everyone is doing what they can,” says Ahmed Al-Rhami, a member of the committee.

In this administrative desert, it takes pragmatism, improvisation and incredible willpower to launch initiatives. The day after the Bab Salama customs office was taken over by the FSA in Aug. 2012, a new customs stamp was already in effect, stamping documents with “Syrian Arab Democracy.”

You would think a brand new regime – even temporary – would choose a truly symbolic name, the fruit of much debating, brawling or even quick brainstorming. Think again. “The group who had the stamp made in Turkey came up with it,” says an official at the border’s press office. Here, like elsewhere, nothing was looted – or almost nothing. The official buildings are intact – minus combat scars – and a list displaying the items of furniture found by the rebels when they took over have been posted on the wall “so that we are not accused of stealing anything, like Bashar’s bandits would.”

One of the most sensitive subjects for the new authorities is justice: “If it wasn’t for this issue, would the revolution have even happened? If you recall, the first slogan was against injustice. The rebels know that they have to show they are different,” explains a pastry seller. He came to volunteer his services to the committee.

Every day, more and more want to participate, with volunteers lining the halls this day. “It’s also a way to support the current movement without holding a rifle,” says a man wearing a Lady Gaga t-shirt under his winter coat. “In my case, I’m too old to fight, I don’t even like fighting.”

A mixed bag of misery

As we talked, the lights suddenly go out in the hall, but we continue to talk in the darkness of the rainy morning. Nobody seems to pay attention to the blackout – electricity problems have been a regular occurrence since the beginning of the war – except in Damascus, they say. “But we don’t really know what’s happening over there,” says someone from the shadows, in a djellaba loose-fitting outer robe.

A member of the committee announces that the candidates have to go through a selection process. “You mean we need connections, just like before?” shouts a barber. The committee member adds that there are criteria and a test. “What kind of test?” asks the pastry seller. “You will be questioned on religion: what are alms, what is purification,” the man answers. Silence. “Will you establish Islamic justice later on?” asks the man from the shadows in the djellaba.

The committee has started seeing the day’s cases. One after another, people come to explain their problems, a mixed bag of war and poverty-related misery. A father asks for a new home, his house is on the front line, in the Salah Adine district, he says. “We only give a home to large families who had their houses destroyed,” says the committee.

Two youths have cut down trees in the street to heat their families. Forbidden. “Don’t forget that the trees have souls too, don’t do it again.” A man has come to report that an armed group kidnapped him for a 5 million Syrian Pound ransom ($64). A woman asks for her son’s freedom. He was taken away by the FSA for stealing a TV set. A man asks for bread to feed his family. Another wants a generator for his textile workshop. “Buy your own tools,” says the committee.They say yes for the bread, but just this once.

It is the turn of a woman. She stands, smiles cheekily. She doesn’t overdo it, because just like everyone else, she has come to ask something. “Look at you, you can’t even wear your veil right, your hair is showing,” says the president of the committee. Abu Souleyman, 50, is one of the people who became famous during the revolution.

Here, everyone knows Souleyman, an educated man from a poor but charitable family. In the 1980s, his father and brother were arrested and tortured – they were accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood party, the regime’s archenemy whose members were viciously hunted down.

Souleyman knew that his name alone could get him arrested, and that he wouldn't amount to anything under this regime. He tried his hand at the business world in Dubai. He studied the Koran and grew a beard, which he wears proudly. For him it is a strong message addressed to a regime known for its intolerance against the display of religious signs. Those who were caught with them are made to kneel before the presidential portrait and say: “There is no other god than Bashar.”

A natural

During the first protests, almost two years ago, Souleyman realized he was a natural “revolutionary.” With a group of neighborhood people, “whose hearts had been blackened by the regime,” and not a lot to lose, he organized protests. It wasn’t about ideology. The Arab Spring was their model, and Bashar’s fall the objective.

Souleyman was almost immediately arrested, tortured and freed two weeks later as an example for his fellow citizens. Until the fall of the city, he hid in a basement under a mechanic’s workshop. “In the beginning, we only wanted to change a few things, now we want everything to change, but no one knows what to do. There is not a single candidate to replace Bashar,” says Mohammed, another protestor from the same group. “To be true, we didn’t let any of the parties in. Even the Muslim Brotherhood asked to join us, but we said no.”

Mohammed shakes his head. He says he is willing to sacrifice his life for Syria, but doesn’t know exactly how or why. “We don’t like to talk about politics anyway, we’re not used to it after 40 years of dictatorship.”

Unlike the cities, every one of these little rural towns has its own courthouse. Running parallel to Assad’s courts, there has always been a traditional Islamic justice as well. “Here, more than 70% of people have always these courts, they didn’t trust the other system,” explains a sheik who has been working in these courts for 30 years. When the regime collapsed, this religious justice system spontaneously replaced the other.

Around the sheik, bearded youths are drinking tea wearing combat fatigues, keffiyeh cotton scarfs around their heads like a turban, sometimes only revealing their eyes. No one here is in the army: “it’s just the way we dress,” says one of the men. If the region were still under Assad’s authority, the youths wouldn’t walk around wearing this kind of garb. The thought of makes him laugh. The man next to him is a former magistrate, the only one who didn’t flee the region. “I will have to start learning Sharia law,” he says.

The sheik nudges him in the back: “For me, ‘judge’ means ‘thief.’ I never would have thought that I’d be working with you one day.” The sheik sighs and says what really peeves him are the Western journalists who ask the same questions over again: “Will you be cutting hands off? Will you be stoning women?” He says he is for a softer Islam.

Another round of tea is served. The youths joke. “I hope there won’t be any hand cutting, but then again, that wouldn’t shock me. No more than an American would be shocked in front of an electric chair. Who knows what is going to happen?”

A Mig fighter jet rips through the air. The youths rush outside. The jet is flying low, making a nearly apocalyptic roar. As it flies over the city, it drops a bomb. The young men are shouting, “Who’s going to die today!?” The each lift an arm in excitement, pointing up at the sky to film it all with their mobile phones.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!