Maged, a young officer who's defected from the Syrian police, says his countrymen often never even knew each others' religious and tribal backgrounds. “We used to live in peace," he says, recalling life before the past year of violence. "But the regime has managed to breed sectarianism in people.”
Syria has not yet turned into a Lebanon, where religious animosity and resistance to cohabitation is the rule, but religious sectarianism is definitely floating near the surface, spreading in people’s minds and across the nation's landscape.
After defecting, Maged preferred not to join the Free Syrian Army and has been moving back and forth between his village and his family, which has fled. He chose not to partake in fighting, but he still hangs out with the young fighters and joins them in their gatherings over tea and coffee.
When the debate during one of these gatherings intensified, Maged, a Sunni, said, “The Alawis and Shias have always controlled us; they ruled us and brought shame on the Islamic nation. Praying was prohibited in the army, and when we prayed in the mosque, we were always followed by state security.
Maged also said the good jobs and high-ranking positions in the army went to Alawis, Shias and Christians. "The regime insisted on humiliating the Sunnis.”
Most of the listeners nodded to Maged’s words in approval, even though one would always find others who insist that this is not the case in Syria. You often hear that the regime’s thugs in Aleppo are Sunnis, that those fighting in the army today are mostly Sunnis, that Christians have announced their impartiality in the conflict early on, and that the regime has abused the Alawi sect.
Apart from the emotional impulse that informed Maged’s words and those of many like him, in reality, before joining the revolution, he was himself an officer who used to accept bribes.
“After 18 years in service, my monthly salary reached 15,000 Syrian liras ($300). The regime forces you to accept bribes and divide it among your colleagues,” he told me.
Captain Nimr, who was later killed in one of the many battles he fought alongside the Free Syrian Army, spoke to me more comfortably. He did not have any sectarian inclinations; he often told me he was fighting for freedom.
“Go tell people that Syrian fighters grow their beards because we don’t have the money to buy razors. We buy bullets from the little money we manage to collect; we are not Salafis or radical killers,” Nimr said as he was driving us to a village close to Aleppo.
Ahmed, who was sitting next to him, seconded Nimr’s words — this was after they had delivered a 23mm machine gun to be used in shooting down a Syrian army chopper.
When we reached the village, we saw a young man getting ready to join the fighters heading to Aleppo. He was holding a black banner with the words “There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his messenger,” inscribed in white.
An older fighter approached the young man and asked him, “What’s the deal with this banner?”
The young man was perplexed and said that it was a banner that called for God’s oneness.
The older fighter scolded the young man and said, “This is an Al-Qaeda banner; are you Al-Qaeda? Haven’t we had enough of these rumors? Do you like the media to depict us as radical villagers? And that we slaughter people?”
Hassan, who came from Jabal al-Zawiyeh and did not mind beating the regime thugs into quick confessions, spoke of the oppression he was subjected to by the regime and other sects.
Hassan’s brother disappeared in Iraq. The family was told he was killed at the hands of Shias after the American invasion. This is the story that the 22-year-old Hassan grew up hearing about his brother’s death — that it was at the hands of Shias who supported the Americans in Iraq.
Abu Hussein, the defected, tried to explain to his co-fighters that Alawis were very scared about their future today. He tried to explain that the regime abuses the Alawis for its benefits.
Abu Hussein, an Alawi officer who defected and chose to stay in Syria and fight alongside the revolutionaries, spoke of how the majority of Alawis were poor and uneducated. He added that few families benefited from the regime.
Maged, who sat next to Abu Hussein, conceded that there were also examples of Sunnis who have close ties with the regime. All these words, however, brought back the Lebanese imagery.
“We are all brothers, but it seems impossible to live side by side in peace,” Maged said.
Syria is not Lebanon yet, but if this happens, the consequences will be devastating.
Fidaa Itani is a Lebanese journalist. He blogs at www.journalismnl.wordpress.com
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.
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
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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