Geopolitics

In Syria, Hunger And Humiliation As Weapons Of Mass Destruction

A writer in Damascus says Assad's regime is trying every tactic to reduce its adversaries to something subhuman. "Kneel," his soldiers laugh, "or you will go hungry ..."

Yarmouk refugee camp, home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria
Yarmouk refugee camp, home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria
Omar Kaddour

-Essay-

DAMASCUS — About two months ago, here in the Syrian capital, people in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk were allowed to leave for a short time to buy food. They were told that each man had the right to bring a bag of pita bread back into the camp for his family. But when they came back, the men were stopped at a military checkpoint and their bread was taken away. In order to get it back and be allowed into the camp, they were told they had to kneel down and bark like dogs. An old man stepped forward, knelt down and started to bark, tears of humiliation streaming down his face.

The Syrian government soldiers nearly killed themselves laughing. On a wall by the checkpoint they had hung a sign saying, “Kneel or go hungry.”

Kneel or go hungry — that is the regime’s new motto. Even with the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, the government hasn’t succeeded in bringing the rebels to their knees. In fact it has drawn the attention of the world to Syria and placed the government under international pressure to give up its chemical weapons and have them destroyed.

Now it seems that the regime is searching for an alternative weapon of mass destruction, and it has settled on the starvation of civilians. The officer who forced people to bark like dogs is only a small part of the government’s targeted policy of humiliation. The slogan “Kneel or go hungry” is posted at the edges of several besieged quarters in Damascus and the surrounding area, which is home to around a million people. This is a policy that sees Syrians as animals and denies them the basic right to a life of freedom and dignity.

Just as in the past Adolf Hitler classed his political enemies as subhuman, at the beginning of the protests Bashar al-Assad referred to the rebels as "germs". He compared the brutality of his troops to the work of a surgeon whose hands are stained with blood from cutting out a cancerous tumor.

The regime’s aim is to take away people’s dignity so that they simply give up fighting. Soldiers have been filmed forcing civilians to kneel before Assad’s picture and acknowledge him as their master — an image reminiscent of the worst form of slavery.

Here in Syria, Assad’s government has established a comprehensive system of physical and symbolic violence. Dehumanization leads to mistreatment: If a person is seen as an animal, he can be treated like an animal. It is no coincidence that the regime’s soldiers have filmed themselves both killing donkeys in cold blood and shooting unarmed people.

What hunger does

As I write these words, only half a kilometer away from me the Syrian army is shooting civilians from airplanes and with rocket launchers. They are the same civilians who find themselves under siege and have no access to food or medicine. There are no longer any words to describe people’s suffering here. Some families have already been forced to slaughter their pets for food and others have resorted to eating poisonous leaves.

At the beginning of the revolution, state television was working on a report in which a young man named Muhammad Abdalwahab shouted to the camera, “I want to say to Bashar al-Assad that I am a human and not an animal! And the same is true of the others!” The film was not aired, but one employee secretly posted it online and it spread quickly through social networks.

I am a human and not an animal — this cry is for all Syrians. For more than 40 years, this regime has been robbing us of our human dignity. Many Syrian farmers who have been taught to value their livestock treat their animals better than they themselves are treated by the regime. When government soldiers started killing donkeys for practice, the people reacted with widespread horror.

40 years without elections

Like all Syrian schoolchildren, I was forced to repeat the speech in which we celebrated Assad as the eternal president of our country. I also had to pay tribute to the father of the current ruler, Hafez al-Assad. Throughout my life I have been ruled by a president who came to power through a military coup and then passed his power onto his son. For more than 40 years, Syrians have been denied the right to decide who represents them.

That was what brought the people of Syria onto the streets: They wanted freedom. The regime wants a population of animals with no will or ability to express themselves. That is why it is using all forms of violence available to it, as the world looks on. This approach has worked once before, with the Hama massacre in 1982. Led by the president’s brother Rifaat al-Assad, Syrian special forces and air forces murdered 30,000 people under the pretext of crushing an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. The world looked the other way.

But the Syrians will not be reduced to animals. They want to live in freedom and dignity. These are simple wishes. Why should they not be possible?

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