In Syria, Life In Harmony With War

A Turkish journalist travels with an Alawite fixer to Damascus to understand what life is like in the Syrian capital as war in the country rages. Life goes on, but it's not all grim.

A man cleans blood from the site of an explosion in Damascus on Aug. 12
A man cleans blood from the site of an explosion in Damascus on Aug. 12
Fehim Tastekin

DAMASCUS â€" We landed in Beirut at midnight to meet my fixer, who would accompany us to the Syrian border because Syria's Information Ministry had invited us to attend an international conference on fighting terrorism. My fixer was accompanied by a young man devoted to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Our driver took us towards the Lebanese mountains at full speed. Beside him, there was Ali Ekber Bero, who showed me scars on his arm and neck when we stopped at passport control.

"I have been fighting in Syria for three years," Bero said. The 22-year-old joined the Damascus militia forces in 2012 to protect the mausoleum of Lady Zaynab.

We left Lebanese customs and entered Syria from the VIP section. The Kalamun area where Hezbollah and the Syrian military fight the opposition forces was just north of us. A three-car convoy accompanied us from the border to the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus. I was expecting a darkened Damascus because of power cuts, but we arrived to the hotel after passing lightened streets and parks. When I opened the room's window, I saw Qasioun Mountain, where Cain and Abel fought. The People's Palace is also there, but President Bashar Assad doesn't live in it. He lives instead at his own house nearby.

The next day at the Opera House, where the conference was held, more colleagues than I expected wanted to speak to me, a Turkish journalist. By noon, I felt suffocated and made my escape. I didn't yet have the necessary permit for carrying a camera, and I was stopped at one of the checkpoints because of it. But they let me go after asking a few questions.

At the checkpoint, soldiers were enjoying mate tea, imported from South America and served with a metal straw. The tea is more than a little symbolic. People are hesitant to say out loud what their their religious sects are â€" for example, nobody would say, "I'm an Alawite" â€" but if somebody drinks mate tea, it's a pretty good indication that that person is an Alawite.

Given the very hot weather, the streets were empty and stores closed. Shutters were painted with the flag of Syria, which the government commissioned after the opposition declared its own flag. Cement barriers at checkpoints are also painted like that.

Lots of news, but few to read it

I found a newsstand in the Shaalan neighborhood, where local dailies are on sale along with foreign newspapers and magazines. But circulation is just a third of what it was before the war, the newsstand man says. In the nearby Sarouja neighborhood, one of the city's oldest, I visited a perfume shop. The salesman told me that prices there are eight to 10 times more than what they were before the war.

"We cannot get products due to the embargo," he said. "The second-rate French goods produced at the Gulf do not come anymore either." I stopped for coffee at Gemini Patisserie, where a portrait of Assad hangs at the entrance.

I walked around Damascus a little more and then sat at a small restaurant called 3 Tavilat. On television, the patrons were watching the conference. "I'm uneasy with this many Iranian speakers," the man next to me said. "Yes, we are grateful to Iran, but we are also worried that it will intervene with Syrian domestic affairs." What about Hezbollah intervening? That's different, he said. "They are people of this region and an organization, not a state. Hezbollah cannot dictate anything to us."

There are photographs of Nasrallah everywhere, but I haven't seen a poster for any Iranians. Asked whether he thought Assad could stay in power without Iran and Hezbollah, the man said, "Assad leaving or staying, it's a matter for the Syrians. "If he leaves at this point, the military would disassemble and terrorist organizations would threaten not only Syria but Turkey and Jordan."

I met other Syrians who also thanked Iran with caution and thanked Hezbollah with cheer.

I didn't attend the afternoon meetings of the conference's second day either. I hit the streets of Damascus towards the Cafe Kemal, where the Ba'ath Party was founded. I met a long-haired, bearded young man on the road carrying his guitar on his back. I raised my camera, and he posed with joy. He was going to the same place, and we took a seat. His name is Sadi el Husseini, and he plays death metal and draws designs for tattoo artists.

"You don't seem like an Arab," I joked. "I'm Chechen," he said. But Caucasians in Syria don't use surnames like his. "My mother is Chechen, my father is Arab," he explained. He stopped talking when he learned that my fixer was Alawite. "I can't talk to you. This man may be from the Muhaberat," or Syrian intelligence, he said.

We convinced him otherwise, but he was right to be cautious. "They send papers to our home and called me to their headquarters when I was just 17 years old," Husseini said. "They questioned me, threatened me because of my music, hair and beard. The Muhaberat perceives this as rebelling against authority. I have been questioned 10 times."

He has a boat ticket from Trablus to Mersin, Turkey. He says he doesn't run from the war but that he wants to be able to play his music. The tables in the cafe's garden were completely occupied as the sun set and the water pipes got busy.

A businessman's tragedy

I talked to Kemal Benkesli, an Aleppo businessman, at the hotel. His story also summarizes how the rebellion has developed. "The opposition kidnapped me," he said. "They wanted one million Syrian pounds as ransom. I refused. They tortured me. They sliced my arms, broke two of my toes. At last, the judge of the group ordered my execution. Their leader stopped the executioner during the act, but he had already fired. The bullet hit me in the knee. Then I learned that they had discussed this among themselves. I waited four hours in a pool of blood before they released me to my family."

Sitting across from me, journalist Rula El Salih showed me a photo of her sibling, wounded, his wrist bones exposed. "I've lost 35 relatives in this war," she said, adding that 185 people have died in her neighborhood alone.

Photographs of "martyrs" are posted in front of many Damascus buildings. The Radio and Television Institution had its own losses on display, as the photographs of 25 journalists were lined up on a gigantic board. The number of casualties is inversely proportional to the Syrian government's acknowledgement of loss.

People are determined to live their lives despite all this suffering. There was a wedding at my hotel each night. Singer Mecide el Rumi was entertaining the guests on the terrace with popular Syrian songs.

The old city resists

On my third day in Syria, the Information Ministry issued my camera permit. I started from the Fenham area, a conservative neighborhood where the marketplace was crowded with the prices of fruit and vegetables three to four times more than before the war, despite the fact that wages have remained the same for the last five years.

"Everybody used to buy a lot before," a shop owner said. "Now everybody buys a little." There are two reasons for the price increases: the rising cost of fuel and falling agricultural production.

"Our business dropped a lot in the first year of the crisis because no tourists came," one gift shop owner said. "Now it's improving slowly. It's not because tourists come. Many Syrians went abroad, and those who go to visit them buy gifts."

Old Damascus still has many visitors, but nothing like before. Some of the stores on these narrow streets weren't able to survive and have been transformed into cafes or fast food restaurants. A store owner who was willing to sell me a Shiraz carpet for almost nothing probably closed his store without a single purchase that day.

And the silence is broken

The silence was broken on my fourth night in Damascus. Bombardment in the rural Cobar area during the early hours kept people awake. Opposition forces also shot rockets toward the Dahyet al Assad area. The regime is taking serious precautions to keep the opposition forces from the center of Damascus, but the opposition controls some areas east of the city and can terrorize Damascus with rockets from time to time.

We ate in the Bab Duma neighborhood, famous for its restaurants, mansions turned into hotels and stores selling handicrafts. The streets are full with live music at night despite everything. It turns out that Syrians experience death and joy together.

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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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