On the Syrian border

Abdulhafiz Abdulrahman, who lost most of his teeth during weeks torture at the hands of Syrian secret police.

I have just returned from a week in Hatay and Mardin provinces, writing for The Times on the Syrian uprising.

Right now it is extremely difficult for journalists to enter the country. I had hopes of speaking to people crossing the border, or to those with family on the other side. I succeeded in making contacts with activists in Latakia and Al Qamishli.

Many them have recently been detained and released by security forces, and were obviously taking a big risk by speaking to me. They are very brave people.

It was interesting that in Hatay there was a very strongly pro-Assad atmosphere. I was repeatedly told that the entire uprising was a media conspiracy and that everything in the country was normal.

The prevalence of this attitude may be at least partly explained by the fact that there is a large Alawite population in Hatay (Syria’s ruling sect), and they see the uprisings as a threat to their kin.

More generally, many in Hatay seemed more worried by the prospect of turmoil on their border than the idea of the Syrian government slaughtering and torturing its own citizens.

I interviewed a Kurdish-Syrian asylum seeker who told me of his ordeal at the hands of the Syrian secret police (pic above):

Abdulhafiz Abdulrahman, 45, was arrested in March last year because of his work for the Kurdish human rights charity that he founded. He is now in Turkey, where he has claimed asylum. He has lost most of his teeth through beatings, and his hands shake from the trauma of his ordeal.
He said that he was kept in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured almost continually for six weeks by the Mukhabarat, Syria’s dreaded secret police. They tried to force him to admit that his charity was funded by external forces bent on harming Syria. He was kept in a small, windowless cell, with 23 other inmates. He slept for only six hours during the six days he was there.
He believes that the uprising is the inevitable result of 40 years of oppression. “This is not a government, it is a mafia,” Mr Abdulrahman said. “The country is at war with its own people.”

In Nusaybin, the Kurdish border city that lies near the Syrian-Kurdish city of Al Qamishli, the picture was very different.

Despite being separated by a huge minefield, the two cities are bridged by strong family ties. As in Turkey, Syrian Kurds appear to be at the bottom rung of society.

The sense I got of what’s going on inside Al Qamishli was that the regime is acting with restraint (relative to Daraa), allowing the protests to continue undisturbed, but making arrests afterwards. Yesterday I was told that the imam from the mosque at the heart of the protests had been arrested.

Protest leaders in Qamishli fear the situation in the city will get far worse if security forces start firing on demonstrators. My feeling is that this is only a matter of time. If there is one virtual constant in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, it is that once the cycle of protest has started, it is not easily stopped.

I have been told that yesterday demonstrators gathered outside the military security headquarters to protest the arrests of their leaders.

You can read my Times stories here, here, and here.

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