No, The Progressive Syrian Opposition Is Not Dead

A Syrian activist from the northern countryside talks about keeping alive the anti-regime, non-Islamist revolution amid the constant threat of shelling and the spectre of ISIS.

"Your weapon is guilty."
"Your weapon is guilty."
Mais Istanbelli

KAFRANBEL — Raed Fares, a Syrian activist from the northern city of Kafranbel, in the Idlib countryside, has long been at the forefront of protests against President Bashar al-Assad. He is the man behind the witty Arabic and English-language banners in his city, addressed to Western and Arab governments, which became famous as the voice of an uprising. As a result, he's become a hero to some and a target to others, narrowly surviving an assassination attempt in January.

Now Fares is struggling to keep the spirit of that uprising alive, as Kafranbel deals with regime shelling, wartime living conditions and the fallout of U.S.-led airstrikes. Fares spoke to Syria Deeply about the state of revolutionary fervor in his town, a bellwether for the moderate, pro-democracy protest movement across Syria.

SYRIA DEEPLY: How are you, Raed? How’s life in Kafranbel?
RAED FARES: Acceptable. Putting aside the daily grind of living in a war zone, I can say that the situation is good here, and that we've gotten used to it.

It's definitely not normal, but I can say that after three years of being at war it's become normal. People go on with their lives: They go to the market and move around the city in a normal fashion. Most of them are looking for employment. The prices have gone up, and it's become difficult to make ends meet. The economic situation in the city is bearable and better than it was two years ago.

The city hasn't had any running water for three years now, and no electricity for two. There have been no phones whatsoever for two years now. We're working on a project to provide drinking water to the residents of Kafranbel with the help of an American organization. We're expecting to wrap things up in December. Over the past three years, several people have dug up shallow wells up to 70 meters deep as a personal initiative. They built pumps and started selling water to the residents. It cost $50 a month to have access to water. We hope that our project would alleviate people's worry that the wells might dry up soon, which would present a real problem.

There's a power shortage of up to 20 hours a day, so residents started paying for generators, but these too cost $50 a month. This is a considerable sum for a Syrian to pay, so most people buy water but forgo electricity.

The Free Syrian Army is currently controlling the city, mainly the Fursan al-Haq Brigade, which is stationed in the southern section of the Idlib countryside. The brigade is responsible for protecting the city, and has set up five checkpoints at the city entrances and exits. Naturally, there are daily regime air raids on the city.

You were the one responsible for organizing protests and writing banners every Friday in Kafranbel since the beginning of the revolution. But you suddenly stopped demonstrating against the Assad regime. Was it because of the U.S.-led airstrikes?
We haven't demonstrated in a month and a half, but not because of the airstrikes. There are several reasons that go beyond that, most importantly that the number of participating residents in the protests has declined sharply. While the essence of the protests is to show a popular sentiment, when I realized that it's only the activists who are taking part in the demonstrations, I had to stop and think of something else. I tried calling on people to demonstrate in Kafranbel and the surrounding villages. I talked to the residents there, and we organized three consecutive protests under the slogan of "getting the revolution back on track." The first demonstration took place in the village of Maarat Harma, the second in Maarat al-Numan and the third in Kfaraawi. These were all a success, and the demonstrators included civilians as well as activists.

So why did the residents stop taking part in the protests?
They lost hope that the demonstrations would translate into change. They talk about the bleak reality that once they demonstrate, a few media activists take their photos or videos, people would watch them, but everything ends there. After three years of demonstrating, nothing changed, even when the situation in Syria has been widely publicized and the world now knows of the Syrians' suffering. The world didn't lift a finger. The second and main reason is the shelling. Kafranbel is bombed at least three times a week, and the raids usually target large congregations, especially the demonstration square that's been shelled twice. People are now scared and stopped demonstrating.

Another thing is that when I organize a protest, I tell the residents about it a week in advance so they can tell their friends and relatives about it. But the regime knows about the date and time via its informants and shells the demonstration. The three villages mentioned above were all shelled only a few hours after the demonstrations. Civilians had an extremely negative reaction to that.

What are the reactions of the moderate Syrians in Kafranbel with regard to the coalition airstrikes?
Kafranbel was never a target of the airstrikes since the Islamic State has no presence here. The U.S. bombed Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, parts of Homs and Aleppo. But their airplanes fly over our city along with the regime air force, which means that they and the regime are coordinating. They say they don't want to coordinate with the Assad regime, but U.S. planes are flying with the regimes in the same air space.

Opinions vary, but the moderates say that the heart of the moderate movement in Kafranbel is the media center and the activists there. They are responsible for the protests, banners and other activities that the media has covered. That's why Kafranbel is seen as moderate, whereas the city is just like any other in Syria. There are moderates, conservatives and radicals. Kafranbel civilians are part of the Syrian people, but the community here is patriarchal and extremely conservative.

I and a group of young activists in the Kafranbel media center were angry about the airstrikes. Personally, I was even more so after the first strike targeted Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. I was angry because they overlooked Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime, which have killed and terrorized the Syrian people. It killed using all means available, from knives to chemical weapons. Yet they targeted Islamist groups, which are, in my opinion, a product of the regime. As a person living in Kafranbel, reality changed after the airstrikes.

Also, the airstrikes negatively affected the Syrian opposition, which we the activists have built our hopes upon for a revolution. The majority is angry because Western countries target Islamist groups while allowing the regime a free hand to kill and destroy for four years. The majority believes that their goal is to fight Islam and not terrorism. It's become linked to a specific religious identity, and that's when people turn to support Islam and Islamist groups to defend their own identity. This is what happened in some areas such as Kfarroma and Hass, where people demonstrate to support ISIS after the airstrikes. Whoever is fighting ISIS today is, in fact, fighting an ideology and not individual people.

What is your opinion on the quick spread of ISIS on Syrian soil? How dangerous is it?
In my opinion, ISIS is a lot more dangerous than the regime. We, as a Syrian people who are in the opposition, are in agreement that the regime is our bane and that it's our duty to topple it. The problem with ISIS is that it's related to the religious identity of Islam. It's known that any society living in a war zone under the threat of death on a daily basis would radicalize, and going to extremes to stand up the regime is expected. The danger posed by ISIS is that it takes advantage of the idea that not all Syrians opposing the regime believe ISIS is a threat.

If you could talk to President Obama, what would you tell him?
I believe that he, 10 years from now, will consider that his biggest mistake was Syria, just as Clinton did when he stated that his biggest mistake was Rwanda.

You've organized protests for three years until people slowly started abandoning the streets. What are your future plans? Anything for the upcoming month?
I'm working on a project to start a radio station and a TV channel. I'm taking part in two conferences next month, one in the U.S. and the other in Poland. Regarding the revolutions, I will return and so will the protests. We will carry on. Don't dwell on the bleak picture I draw you. It's been there since day one of the revolution. We have many challenges and obstacles. We go to bed tonight not knowing if we will wake up tomorrow. We were displaced from our homes and spent a year living in tents in orchards until the city was liberated from the regime forces. That's when we returned to our homes. There've been many massacres in Kafranbel, and the shelling is ongoing. A people who have lived such events will not be deterred and will not be silenced until we get our demands.

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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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