Geopolitics

Where Are The Men Of Damascus?

Forced conscription for what many describe as "someone else's war," has led to widespread exodus and shuttered up draft-dodging for much of Syria's adult male population.

Men walking in Damascus
Men walking in Damascus
Ahmed Haj Hamdo and Mohammad Bassiki

DAMASCUS â€" Walking through the streets of Damascus in the middle of the ongoing civil war, you see very few men. There are boys, teenagers and the elderly, but except for those in military uniform, one rarely sees men between the ages of 18 and 50.

This is a fairly common phenomenon in any war; soldiers are sent away to fight and many die. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in the United Kingdom estimates that at least 52,077 of the more than 250,000 people killed since the beginning of the war in Syria have been Syrian army soldiers and allied fighters, including many from the capital city.

Thousands of other men are being detained and face horrendous conditions in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. According to Amnesty International, more than 65,000 Syrians have been forcibly "disappeared" by members of Assad’s security apparatus since 2011.

Many thousands of men from the capital have also fled the country and have joined the mass exodus from Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 4.6 million Syrians have fled the war in their country, many to the neighboring states of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

There is an unusual twist to this phenomenon, however, which is that thousands of Damascus’ men have also shut themselves inside their houses â€" effectively becoming war househusbands â€" because of secret conscription lists aimed at forcing those who have previously completed their military service back into uniform.

It’s been known for some time that government forces have been depleted and exhausted by the five-year war. Even Assad admitted the insufficiency of his forces as the conflict continues.

Draft dodging is also on the rise. Some men refuse to enlist in the army because they oppose the Syrian government, while others fear being placed on the front line because of their religious affiliation. Some believe the government views soldiers from Islam’s Sunni sect as more "disposable" â€" soldiers from Assad’s Alawite sect are usually given safer positions, staffing airports and checkpoints.

Samer, a young father from rural southern Damascus, remembers the exact moment he became one of these househusbands.

It was the morning of July 26, 2015, when he received a phone call from his brother, Ahmad, telling him that a police officer wanted him to report to the local station right away because he had been drafted to the reserves â€" despite having completed his compulsory service six years earlier. Legally, he was not supposed to be drafted again.

Ahmad told his brother not to leave home except for emergencies.

According to a leaked document from the official conscription office, published by pro-opposition Syrian news website Zaman al-Wasl on November 20, the government gave all of its checkpoints the full names and dates of birth of 55,000 men who had evaded military service.

Since that date, the military and security checkpoints spread over the government-controlled areas in Damascus and the coastal region have been strictly screening everyone.

"My dreams are just shattered. I have family obligations. I have two kids who need me more than anyone else. No one can take care of them except for me. I work night and day to save them from hunger," Samer said.

Samer told us that his brother Ahmad was recently arrested at a checkpoint and conscripted to serve in the reserve force. Ahmad had never received a notice of conscription.

The conscription campaign has left men in government-held parts of Syria with one of two options: either take the dangerous path of illegal emigration or head to the front line. Samer said he did not want to fight anybody.

"This war is not ours. There is no cause to fight for, and no one knows when it will end," he said. "I have been living in fear for the last five months. I have been imprisoned in my own house. I never leave. My wife takes care of everything. She is the one who shops for our groceries, takes the kids to school and pays the bills. Every time someone knocks on our door, I look at my kids and think that this might be the last time I see them. My name is at each and every checkpoint. I am gone. There is no way out," he said.

In the capital city, many women have taken over many traditionally male roles, as women did in the United States and Britain during World War II.

"The roles have switched. Men now stay at home and take care of children, while we are out. The hardest part for me is getting documents taken care of at governmental departments," said a 30-year-old woman named Bushra. "These places are very hard for women â€" they are crowded, and nothing functions unless we pay bribes."

Nadia, 53, said "the situation is unbearable" for women in Damascus. "Thankfully, my husband left three months ago. He is in Austria right now, and I will follow him soon," she said.

Children are also doing more. Um Nazeer, 65, who lives in Damascus with her elderly husband, has relied on her 11-year-old son, Zein al-Din, to run all her errands since her two elder children emigrated to Germany and Norway. He does the grocery shopping and waits in line to buy bread, propane and other daily necessities.

"My two older kids left as soon as they reached the age of compulsory military service. They do not want to be a part of this war. I now have to take care of everything, but my little son helps me a lot. I hope that this war ends before he grows older and leaves, as well," she said.

Um Nazeer’s son, who is in the fifth grade, told us that since his mother relies on him for many things, he frequently has to miss school â€" especially on the days he gets water. Because tap water is cut off most days, the boy has to buy water from water trucks and carry it home in plastic bottles.

In the same neighborhood as Zein al-Din lives another Samer, this one a 14-year-old boy. His older brother, who used to provide for the family, emigrated two years ago and Samer and his sister are now in charge. The young boy sells bread and his sister works for a public transportation company. He waits in line at the bakery for hours, then he resells any bread he buys for a slight profit. Samer is seriously thinking of quitting school, since he already misses many classes because of work.

The dearth of men has also created a new phenomenon: Women are remarrying while still legally married to someone else â€" men who have left the country or gone missing for a long time.

"The family court in Damascus receives many cases of women who remarried in religious ceremonies, but without consulting the court. These are women whose husbands have been away or missing for more than one year," said Iyyad Hassan, a social researcher who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

According to the researcher, a woman from the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor came to the court to get married and as the civil registry showed that she was not married, the judge approved her marriage. It was later discovered that she had actually been married in a religious ceremony, and that her former husband had been missing for more than a year, but her original marriage was not documented in the court.

Hassan points out that courts in Damascus receive five cases of missing men every day. Due to the increase in prices of furniture and housing, many engaged couples have given up wedding parties and go with the simplest housing and furniture so that they can afford to marry at all.

Widespread poverty, he said, has caused the emergence of other phenomena, like group weddings and underage marriage.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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