Saturday, 2 September 2017

In the heart of Syria's brutal war, Daraya was a small bastion of hope

Hosam, one of the members of Daraya's now disbanded governing council.

 'War is always first and foremost a breakdown in order. But what documents from the Islamic State's rule over cities like Mosul and Raqqa tell us is that governance of a kind can emerge even in the midst of violent conflict.

 The Syrian war spawned not only the dark officialdom of Islamic State, but also lesser-known examples of rebel governance, such as the city of Daraya on the outskirts of Damascus.

 In August 2016, when Daraya finally fell to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, one of the most promising democratic experiments of the Syrian civil war seemed to have come to an end. However, for Hosam, a local council member, and a group of around 30 of his friends, the bonds that were forged as a result of their experience in Daraya are impossible to break.

 While the Syrian civil war constrained, and ultimately ended, the governance project in Daraya, Hosam says that he and his fellow pioneers in Daraya, "wanted our small city to be a kind of ideal city, a utopia".

 Throughout many massacres, battles for control of the strategically located town, sieges and starvation, the ideals of freedom and equality remained the guiding force.

 Daraya was one of the only areas in Syria where the armed group that sprang up from local ranks, the Martyrs of Islam Brigades, remained subordinate to the democratically elected local council.

 The local council itself was divided into portfolios that covered media, the military, hospitals, food and services – these included maintaining tunnels used during the siege as well as fixing cars.

 It also managed a budget of thousands of dollars in the early days of the uprising and had the foresight to future-proof their precarious situation, to the extent that was possible, by establishing a "general kitchen" with food stores stockpiled from residents that had left the town in order to provide those that remained with three meals a day. This dwindled to two meals a day in 2013 during the second year of Assad's siege and one in the third. When the warehouse was nearly empty all they had left was rice and then only wheat that they made into a type of soup they would eat along with tree leaves.

 "We made sure that no one died of starvation, but we were all very skinny," says Hosam.

 He and his friends are now scattered between Amman, Turkey and Idlib but still talk together every day via social media, and with them the founding principles of their revolution are kept alive.

 Many years before the war in Syria even began, these ideals were propagated by their local religious leader, Abdulakram al-Saqqa. Hosam was 15 when he attended his first class with Saqqa, whose curriculum was filled with grand themes of gender equality, freedom of religion and expression, and liberalism.

 Saqqa and his followers quickly gained the attention of Assad's security apparatus. During a street cleaning campaign organised by al-Saqqa, Hosam was arrested for the first time by security forces and beaten. He was one of the lucky ones – other older boys were arrested and then detained for a number of years. However, when they were released they brought with them a somewhat surprising message: "Syria's jails are full of maverick thinkers. There is hope for change in this country yet."

 After demonstrations for political reform began in Daraa in southern Syria in March 2011, and Assad's subsequent lack-lustre "reform" speech, Hosam and his friends organised similar demonstrations in Daraya. Following the teachings of Saqqa, who was arrested for the third time in July 2011 by the regime and has not been heard of since, Hosam was determined to keep the protests peaceful. "Even after the regime opened fire on protesters ... we gave out roses and water to the soldiers in a gesture of non-violence."

 Over the course of the next five years Daraya experienced some of the worst brutality the Syrian regime could offer but the remit of the Council that Hosam and his friends had established in October 2012 only expanded.

 While the number of fighters entering the town increased over time, the armed group always remained subservient to the Council. The Council established a checkpoint at the frontline to control bribery and theft and later would not allow soldiers to bring their weapons into the town.

 Additionally, under the auspices of the Council, Hosam organised to pay two supermarkets in the neighbouring town of Moadamiya to funnel food into Daraya during the siege. This enabled the Council to reopen the general kitchen and provide food for the fighters and the small number of civilians that remained.

 Despite their high level of organisation under difficult circumstances, things did not always run smoothly.

 Hosam says that there were many conflicts at work. Yelling and screaming was not uncommon. For example, during negotiations for a truce with the regime there was disagreement between Council members about whether to accept the deal or to wait to see the outcome of international peace talks in Geneva.

 While those in favour of waiting and seeing won the round at work, once they left for the day they were all friends first and foremost. "There would be fighting in the morning and cooking together in the evening," said Hosam. "We all agreed that the conflict would have been useless if we destroyed each other in the process."

 The Syrian government's aim in pacifying towns like Daraya is to show the international community that there are no other actors in Syria capable of governing and hence securing its own viability. However, while the governance structures that Hosam and his friends created may now have ended, the unbreakable bonds that developed because of their collective experience means that Assad may have been able to destroy the edifice but he has not been able to dismantle their dream for a more equitable and inclusive Syrian society.'

Daraya fell in August 2016, days after Russian and Syrian fighter jets had reportedly bombarded the city with ...A mural in the besieged Syrian city of Daraya accuses Syrian government troops (right) of fleeing in the face of ...
"A utopia": The logo of Daraya's city council, an experiment in democracy cut short by Syria's war.

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