In Iraq in the 1990s, the UN came up with an “oil for food” program. In Eastern Ghouta today, the international community is sponsoring a new formula: water in exchange for dignity, writes Osama Nassar from the besieged enclave.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 2 April, 2018]
DOUMA, Eastern Ghouta: Today, all that the people of Eastern Ghouta want is to be treated like human beings, exactly like those who are deciding their fate. They want the continuous holocaust against them to be stopped; to know their fate; to know the form that will be taken by their future and that of their children. The truth is what they want.
When Nour was trying to use his body as a shield to protect his fiancée Amani from the salvo of rockets that swept their workplace, he wasn’t thinking of a UN Security Council resolution to stop the spray of volcanic lava around him and all over the streets of his city, Douma. Perhaps he was thinking of paying off his debts or buying the trousseau for his wedding. He certainly wasn’t thinking of a thirty-day truce, to be shortened—despite the UN resolution—to five hours, then violated dozens of times every minute of the day.
Nour was killed. His fiancée, Amani, survived, and continued her life with pride, despite losing one of her feet.
As for Yahya, he realized that his father was one of the victims of a napalm strike on his town when he recognized his keychain among the ashes of the charred bodies. His father, Abu Yahya, the late Muhammad Jamous, head of the Local Council of al-Shifounieh, was burnt to death with five of his colleagues while they were trying to get food for families whom he had sheltered in the basement under his office. Walking around under fighter jet strikes and rocket launchers was not part of the job description of Local Council membership when the people of al-Shifounieh elected them to manage the town’s civil affairs, but it’s now become known to all that the votes of the small town’s electorate went to men who didn’t wait for a political decision governed by veto, or fleeing from it, in order to provide a humanitarian response. They possessed a living conscience, and more than enough gallantry and morality to offset the depravity and villainy of this deplorable world.
A child, Ahmad al-Ahmad, is the third victim of the chlorine attack on al-Shifounieh. His nine months of life scarcely sufficed to teach him to say the word “Mama.” He didn’t yet know that the world to which he’d arrived had a Security Council, which since 2015 has resolved to punish those convicted of the crime of using chemical weapons in Syria. Maybe Ahmad would have become a school-friend of another child, Muhammad Shihab, when they grew up, were it not that the same strike took both of their lives, before being followed by a napalm strike that charred Muhammad’s body along with that of his father.
It might mean nothing to their mothers that the two children are now friends in another, just, world, not ruled by veto rights turning the downtrodden into a bite of food for the big sharks; eating them or extracting their resources, while the rest of the ocean’s creatures turn a blind eye to the scene.
In Eastern Ghouta there are medical cases which need specialized capabilities and equipment not available in the enclave besieged by the Bashar al-Assad regime for five years. According to local medical professionals, in late 2017 the number of such cases was 1,036, of whom thirty-seven were evacuated to Damascus, where they were dealt with by the regime as detained hostages, with cases of arrest and forced disappearance recorded among the sick and their companions.
The number of those on the list is decreasing, not because the international organizations to which the list was submitted have succeeded in getting them out of the concentration camp and into hospital, but rather because people on the list have died, and the medical teams in Eastern Ghouta have realized the futility of adding new names to the list. The only update they make to the list now is the removal of the names of the dead. Exacerbating this futility, and contempt for human life, is the fact the UN ceased counting the numbers of the war’s victims at the start of 2014.
The tormented residents of al-Ghouta have a voice. In spite of the transformation of their enclave into a concentration camp earmarked for holocaust for five years now; and the continuous bombardment over their heads which has escalated in recent days; and their open wounds; they were adamant about building their country after taking over the reins.
In al-Ghouta, there are official alternative institutions established by and for the people. There is an educational system that absorbed the children who have never known anything in their lives but war, and that also brought back to school those children whose studies had been cut short; we are talking here about fifty-two thousand schoolchildren now denied education once again due to the present escalation.
There are medical institutions offering healthcare to all residents of al-Ghouta, free of charge and high-quality, in spite of the scarce resources. Before the closure of the smuggling tunnels at the start of 2017, patients used to come from Damascus to al-Ghouta to have surgery or consultation at its medical facilities, at the hands of staff who had acquired substantial expertise on account of the abundance of work.
There are also successful sanitation, sewage, and infrastructure projects, superior to many of their counterparts in non-besieged, or more stable areas.
And, on top of that, in al-Ghouta there is a real civil society, with specialized organizations that offer services and support the community and its cohesion.
In besieged Eastern Ghouta there are: elections; civil society; independent volunteer work; variegated journalism and media; criticism of the de facto authorities; repeated protests and demonstrations against the rule of the armed groups and their behavior.
In the areas controlled by the regime, on the other hand, there are: photos of the president and his non-Syrian allies; compulsory conscription into battles against Syrians; campaigns of arrest and detention; checkpoints and search points; and social and commercial institutions belonging exclusively to the regime, or the president’s wife, or his cousin.
Don’t ask the tormented people of al-Ghouta today about the form of the solution. Don’t tell them—while they are under fire—to solve the riddle of international interests and complexities heaped on top of one another by decades of tyranny and despotism. The larger riddle for the people of al-Ghouta today is to find water to drink, food to feed their children, or medicine to treat their wounded. If they lose a loved one, the riddle is how to prepare a grave in which to bury their remains in the land where they were born, while the world accepts to stand as a false witness to their extraction from that same land.
Today, the world fails at protecting the downtrodden. The sole task at which it succeeds is the production of extremism. All international dealings regarding ‘thorny’ matters tell us that the world moves in accordance with the interests of the strong, even if these contradict with justice, or morality, or the interests of the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants.
So what is to be expected other than nihilistic choices when we parade wretched outcomes before the vanquished?
These are the choices put forward by villains today, calling on fools to bless them or to be false witnesses to them:
- In all simplicity, it’s proposed to forcibly displace 400,000 human beings from al-Ghouta to somewhere else, which in its turn is vulnerable to the same dangers to which al-Ghouta is subject, only in lower doses currently. It’s as if they’ll be transporting a consignment of commodities, or a heap of sand. Thereafter, the people will be permanently forbidden from returning to their houses or traveling around their country. In fact, the humiliation reaches the extent of making Syrians themselves request displacement from their cities, like a prisoner under torture asking his executioner to finish him off. (While writing this article, such forced displacement did indeed get underway, and the way of its implementation is in keeping with the ignominy of the idea’s origin. The distance between al-Ghouta and the exchange point at Qal’at al-Madiq does not exceed 300km, yet the journey of the displaced residents’ convoy takes more than twenty-four hours, despite the existence of an international highway between the two places, because the regime and their Russian guarantors make the convoy pass through the villages and areas through which they pump their narrative about armed gangs and terrorists who killed the sons of these villages, naturally with all the sectarianism and hate speech required in tandem.)
- Alternatively, there is talk about the regime taking back the land of al-Ghouta, and its residents, in order for it to act like a pirate aboard a hijacked ship; detaining whomever it fancies; torturing them to death; throwing the young men into battles against Syrians in other areas, to kill or be killed. This is not imaginary; this is what really happened with the people of al-Tall, and Barzeh, and al-Qaboun, and Western Ghouta, and Eastern Aleppo, and every other area in which “reconciliation” agreements were made with the regime. There is no place here for reminders that the finest kinds of peaceful opposition activities came from these very same areas, which today face every conceivable kind of criminality, and that the regime responded with violence from the very beginning and at all times thereafter, until it succeeded in poisoning the peaceful revolution, and turning dreams into nightmares. (Also prior to this article’s publication, the ground advance of the regime’s forces reached a number of al-Ghouta’s towns. News from these places is limited to that provided by the media arm of the invading, “liberating” army, for anyone who could have provided alternative information was either able to flee before the arrival of the “liberators,” or was forced to seal their lips, like everyone else living in the Kingdom of Silence.)
- The third option is a new opening created by the latest developments, for it has been permitted for those wishing to leave al-Ghouta to escape the rockets with their children toward the platform from which those rockets are launched. They are crammed once again in the shelter centers; men separated from women; everyone interrogated; Syrian citizens requiring a sponsor from the valiant army to obtain a “visa” to enter Damascus! Even those fleeing from the hell ignited by the regime in Eastern Ghouta to “the Nation’s Bosom,” who were supposed in regime propaganda to be hostages detained by the armed gangs, are treated as inferiors. These exhausted, dust-caked people are obliged to chant in praise of the valiant army; to carry pictures of the Dear Leader; to teach their children phrases flattering the murderers; and to give humiliating statements to regime TV channels, insulting the revolution, and perhaps Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar too.
In 1995, during the sanctions against Iraq, the Security Council issued a resolution to begin a program called Oil for Food. Those leaving Eastern Ghouta today are obliged to chant in praise of the president of the regime in order to get food and water. This truly happens, and in front of the cameras. Iraq had oil, which it was asked to provide as a price, and the United Nations had no embarrassment about naming its program after its content directly: oil for food. And now the Syrian regime demands the commodity which the people of al-Ghouta still have, despite everything that has been taken from them, and which the regime and its officials lack: dignity, in exchange for a sip of water.
During the military campaign against al-Ghouta, the United Nations admitted that it provided the Russians with the coordinates of medical centers: the same centers that were at the top of the list of targets for the Russians’ smart weapons.
The international community has taken no trouble to think up a resolution for Eastern Ghouta that would preserve whatever’s left of humanity in this world, for what is implemented once may be repeated many times, regardless of its ethical or humanitarian content. Yet when the matter pertains to the interests of arrogant ‘great’ powers, the international community manages to come up with creative solutions, outside-the-box, without waiting for the institutions that intervene only to impose constraints and measures and control mechanisms, as when in 2013 the “deal” of handing over the regime’s chemical arsenal was contrived, saving Assad from what seemed for a time like an inevitable fatal blow, after he had struck al-Ghouta itself with Sarin, killing over 1,500 humans in a single day.