The 'Syrian Spring', one year on

This text was written in February 2012. Since then, as you will know, the situation has remained very unstable with more deaths every day.
Damascus awakensDamascus awakens
It will soon be a year since the "Syrian Spring" began and it seems to be going on forever. Unlike the other Arab Springs, this one is lasting a long time and is enmeshed in violence. Although, from the beginning, the centre of Damascus, where we live, has been spared (but not the suburbs), outbreaks of violence have engulfed the country, from north to south, in large and small towns (Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor, Idleb, etc.) and also the villages and rural areas. But the areas of conflict were always very confined and isolated from the rest of the country. Because of this one could travel through Syria and pass alongside areas of tension and demonstrations without seeing anything, but that is happening less and less now.

An altercation between tradesmen and the security services, a demonstration with just a few dozen people, graffiti on the walls – these were the first signs of the spontaneous demands of the Syrian people, who demanded freedom, dignity and justice from those who have held power for decades.
At the beginning the demonstrations were peaceful, but they were suppressed very violently. They then became organised in order to defend themselves, in spite of calls from the Revolutionary Council to remain non-violent.
The regime itself attempted to justify the repression by accusing Arab and Western countries of mounting a 'conspiracy' against it, denying the legitimate demands of the population: instead – they said – it was terrorists who came from outside to fight and destroy Syria and its government. The regime also brandishes the threat of Islam, the Moslem Brotherhood and their armed faction, "the Islamist-Salafi terrorists", al-Qa'eda who terrorises the Christian minorities, Alawi, Druze, etc.
This version of events has, alas, convinced many who are allied to those who hold power, among whom there are a good number of Christians. But the revolution taking place in Syria has nothing religious about it, and nobody since the beginning of the uprising has demanded that an "Islamic State" be put in place in Syria.

For the past year it has always been the same cycle of violence, "conflict-repression ", which has ruled in the country. As time goes by it has grown and become more complex, and the number of dead and wounded has continued to rise. Vicious groups, who have nothing to do with the revolution but are profiting from the lack of security, have begun to steal, kidnap, kill and create panic. On the opposition side, local movements have gradually become organised and we have seen the Syrian Free Army (SFA) arise whose efficiency, cohesion and limits we do not yet know. This army (made up of dissidents from the regular army, and also young people who have joined them) benefits from many networks within the population to get food, money, medicines. As for weapons (only light ones) it is more mysterious: they come from everywhere, including the regular army who sells them on, as corruption reigns in the country. Curiously one can see the Free Army moving around in certain urban agglomerations, and in Homs they set themselves up on the terrace of a school opposite the regular army. We have been astonished by the slowness of the repression in re-taking districts or moving into small towns that are controlled by the SFA. The army exerts a ferocious repression against the 'rebel' towns, then withdraws, the conflict resumes and again the repression resumes stronger than ever, crushing the inhabitants under their houses.

The cycle of conflict and repression is a kind of continuing scenario which has arisen and has been crushing the population for what will soon be a year. We will never know how many dead there have been, buried furtively in mass graves or under the ruins of their houses, and the wounded from the revolution cannot go into the government hospitals for fear of being killed. A friend who is an ambulance driver was arrested almost six months ago for having tried to treat someone who was wounded, and doctors have been put in prison or killed for the same reason. Some prisoners, probably thousands, have been tortured. Would anyone dare to go looking for a missing person without worrying that the same might happen to them?
View of the neighbourhood from the fraternityView of the neighbourhood from the fraternity

The country is paralysed. Where the revolution is active, businesses, schools and universities are closed, people are afraid to move around. Increasingly there is an impression that life has come to a halt in the country, even though, in the capital, activity still seems normal but the drop in the amount of traffic is indicative. Tradesmen, both large and small, are unanimous in saying that economic activity has decreased a great deal. As evidence of this there is the fact that the Syrian pound has decreased in value from 65 to 94 to the Euro over nine months. Some of our friends no longer have any work, for others their wages have decreased, and some friends from Homs and from the suburbs of Damascus have had to leave their homes which are too exposed and rent an apartment in a safer area. Another friend can no longer gain access to his farm, which is occupied by the army, and had to slaughter his flock of hens. In Homs, a friend is unable to take his exams which are constantly being postponed. Our neighbours, originally from Rastan, a small town which has suffered particularly badly from the repression, often tell us about unjust incidents of repression, in particular by the snipers of the regime who shoot from the rooftops. Recently several families (among them our neighbours with five young children) had to flee in the middle of the night with only their clothes and come and stay in the empty flats in our building. We could go on and on with the list of misfortunes which afflict the population every day.

But above all it is fear which haunts people's minds. In fact, we cannot see any solution to the conflict. It certainly seems that the regime still enjoys a good base of support and especially the support of its army and fanatical militia; it is not ready to leave and give way to the revolution. On the other hand, it seems that it would be very difficult for the revolutionary movement to attain its aim although it is really rooted in the country and too much blood has been spilled for dialogue to be possible. We can no longer go back. So it may go on, and we cannot see an end to this nightmare. What can the future be when one thinks of all the accumulated bitterness and hatred that has grown between certain communities? Communitarianism has been exacerbated between the Alawi communities (in power) and Sunni, the spearhead of the revolution. Can the Bachar regime still hope to re-establish order by force? It could only be at the cost of a great number of dead and wounded, and that would only prolong the agony and for how long? Some fear a partitioning of the country into religious zones; others, who are more optimistic, hope that a transition could occur or even that a coup d’Etat might put an end to this tragedy!

The Christians are very frightened and we understand their distress. Subjected for a long time, like the whole Syrian people, to an authoritarian regime that has never hesitated to repress the extremist tendencies of Islam, they felt 'protected' and have even benefitted from certain privileges. Now they are frightened of suffering the same fate as the Christians in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein (the number of Christians in Iraq decreased by three-quarters; many of them took refuge in Syria). And the support of Western nations for the opposition has caused them to fear the return of Moslem extremism which would turn against them.Christians at prayer in MaaloulaChristians at prayer in Maaloula
Throughout history, by compromising with Islam and by maintaining good neighbourly relations with Moslems, Christians have succeeded in living here and retaining their presence which goes back to the origins of Christianity. At certain times they have been the forerunners and agents of civilisation in the Moslem world as in the "Arab Renaissance" in the 19th century. In Syria especially, Christians and Moslems have been able to maintain a balance and harmony between the various Christian and Moslem communities; in the 1950s they played an important political role.

It is difficult to evaluate the consequences of the 'tsunami' which is going through our Arab world at the moment. Western democracy will doubtless not arrive overnight, but this revolution marks a break with the past, from now on nothing will be as it was before. It is a new world that is opening up, and we cannot imagine a return to the past. Faced with those who dare to oppose the powers of today, the leaders of tomorrow cannot allow themselves to act like the potentates of yesterday. The wall of fear has fallen, like the Berlin wall in 1989.
Even though the Islamic parties, excluded from the political scene for a long time and probably the best organised, may take advantage of the situation to reveal themselves, they are still prey to internal dissentions and will have to confront a new reality in a pragmatic way. They have before them a citizens' movement, the search for a civil society, initiated by men and women who no longer tolerate, and no longer want to tolerate the way they were treated before. It is a movement of the young who reject the older generations, the idols of the past, the old generals etc.

As Fr. Victor Assouad SJ wrote, "Today, while everywhere in the Arab world the sense of full citizenship is growing, Christians are invited to participate actively in the building of a true civil society at the heart of the Arab world - and it is very important that they do not break their solidarity with the majority of their fellow citizens, which would risk them being enclosed into ghettos, obliging them to be constantly on the defensive and develop aggressive views based on the refusal or the rejection of the other. Don't the Christians of the East risk denying their values and their traditions if they choose to defend one camp against another by allying themselves, for example, with the regime in power, or with other minorities against the majority or even with foreign regimes? They would then enter in to a game of power and force which most likely would be unfavourable for them." [Victor Assouad, SJ, Chretiens d’Orient dans le printemps arabe, Choisir, Geneva, January 2012].

It can be difficult for Christians to leave the 'secure' system that they have known for a long time to search for a life marked by freedom and dignity. The Exodus of the Hebrew people giving up "the onions of Egypt" to set out on an adventure that was just as perilous, in crossing the desert, invites us however to take the step: it is the risk that the Son of God took by coming to share the life of humanity.

Our presence in Syria, our proximity to people of all kinds, makes us more sensitive to their aspirations and because of this we are hurt by the savage repression that has hit the population for the last year. We felt particularly involved after the arrest of our friend Rafah, the Syrian psychoanalyst, having followed her detention day by day. We try to remain in contact with our friends in Homs. We participate in the anguish all Syrians experience, and their powerlessness before the steamroller of repression, a repression before which the religious hierarchies have remained almost totally silent! Roger and JacquesRoger and Jacques
As foreigners in the country, we suffer from the lies which lead the people astray, from the incomprehension of some when faced with the magnitude of the tragedy and what is at stake for the future. Wanting to remain in solidarity with the people while the majority of foreigners have left is a sign of fidelity to this country and to our friends, and we hold to sharing the daily life of the people, their distress, and possibly certain dangers. To demonstrate a friendly presence in these difficult times seems to us to be important. Our friends are very different in the groups they belong to and their convictions, and we include them all, even if it is often difficult for us to listen without saying anything to those among them who approve of the repression in the name of the protection of Christians, or the Moslem peril, or conspiracies from abroad.

As regards our commitments, Pierre-Yves continues to work on improving nursing care, Yves is hoping for a job in a centre for Iraqi refugees and Jacques continues to follow the L'Arche community to which he has been linked for a long time.
In our powerlessness to find solutions to the problems posed, we have to enter into the time of compassion that Rene Voillaume spoke of, in which prayer of intercession takes on particular significance, asking the crucified Jesus, "Why so much suffering, so many lies, so many horrors?" It is his sacrifice that continues in the people.