Thinking Global, Reporting Local
Why are these women here
Dancing on their own?
Why is there this sadness in their eyes?
Why are the soldiers here,
Their faces fixed like stone?
I can’t see what it is that they despise.
The opening words to They Dance Alone, Sting’s tribute to Chilean women confronting General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, drawn from his 1987 album Nothing Like the Sun, would be an equally fitting tribute to the women leaders of the Syrian group Families For Freedom, who visited France in late January to draw attention to the issues of political detainees and forcibly “disappeared” opponents in Syria.
None of them were physically dancing, no choreography was performed. There were no French soldiers around, looking at them in disgust or hatred. Although, had they been in Damascus doing a dabke, Syria’s traditional folk dance, in defiance of the regime’s harsh repression of dissent, the women likely would have felt the heavy hand of the army or the shabbiha — literally “the ghosts”, the militia backing Bashar al-Assad.
Yet they did do a dance after all. A dance of courage in the face of oppression. A dance of love for their missing relatives. A dance with consciences that needed awakening.
Since the early 1980s, women leading the march for the truth about “disappeared” people and the release of political prisoners has been a cross-cultural, ideology-blind feature in world politics. Even the Chilean “dancers” against Pinochet were not the first of their kind.
Their counterparts in Argentina, then under a military regime too, opened the drive in 1981 with their demonstrations on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. In the wake of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student protest in June 1989, a group called the Tiananmen Mothers was formed in Beijing whose members have been kept under strict police surveillance.
A notable current instance is Cuba’s Damas de Blanco, “Ladies in White”, a movement led by wives, daughters, sisters and other women relatives of political detainees. Founded in 2003, Damas de Blanco was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament only two years later.
Claiming inspiration from the Plaza de Mayo mothers and women activists in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, Families for Freedom describes itself as “a movement of Syrian families, women-led, peaceful, and determined”, as many traits it has in common with its counterparts worldwide.
Among the leaders of the Families for Freedom delegation that stayed in France from January 27 to January 31 were two founding members, Fadwa Mahmoud and Noura Ghazi Al-Safadi.
Mahmoud, now living as a refugee in Germany, used to be a member of the Communist Action Party, historically opposed to the Assad dynasty. Many party members were imprisoned and tortured, including Mahmoud herself. Her husband and son have been missing since their arrest at Damascus International Airport in September 2012.
Al-Safadi, a human rights lawyer who specialized in defending political detainees and prisoners of conscience, is both the daughter of a man who was frequently sent to prison for his opposition to the regime and the widow of a man she had married during his detention, opponent Bassel Khartabil. Last August, Khartabil, who was arrested in March 2012, was revealed to have been summarily executed.
Families for Freedom may not be an all-female group, describing itself only as “women-led”. But the inspiration does come from grassroots women’s movements, and the words the two women choose to express the reasons behind their fight and their own feelings from which it stems are the words that women use. A cry from the heart to the mind.
Unlike the Syrian Communist Party that supports the Assad regime, the Communist Action Party – founded in 1976 and no longer in existence – was banned by the Syrian government throughout its fifteen years of activity. “I started out in politics as a party member when Syria was under its former dictator, Hafez al-Assad”, Mahmoud recalls. “At that time, just like today, any opinion dissenting from the ruling Ba’ath party was prohibited. We had to act in secrecy.”
As for Al-Safadi, a traumatic moment in court set her on a course for justice, not just for herself and her father but for everyone in Syria. “My father was a real hero to me. One day, as he was appearing once again before the Supreme Security Court, I went there to give him a hug, but a military policeman stopped me. That guy and I came this close to fighting. That is when I told my father that, as an adult, I would become a lawyer and defend political prisoners in Syria.”
Mahmoud’s husband and son have been missing since their arrest. Al-Safadi’s husband died before the two spouses could ever live as a free couple. Both women bear the scars of a national tragedy that starts from a personal level. But neither lets it out without pain.
“Of course, it’s a national tragedy,” Mahmoud acknowledges. “But then, what is the nation? The nation is my husband, my son, my brother. It is every person’s husband, son, brother. It is the whole people of Syria. A national tragedy indeed, but as far as I am concerned, it is primarily a personal one. It affects every Syrian family.”
“It is not necessary to view one’s life as a tragedy,” Al-Safadi replies. “But I believe that most of us, Human Rights Defenders, whether in Syria or anywhere else in the world, get to face violence and have our lives broken by a human rights issue someday. I have met a great many people with lives plagued by human rights issues. That is why the issue is so important.”
Ever since Emmanuel Macron became President of France, beating the pro-Russian, pro-Assad National Front leader Marine Le Pen by a two-third majority, the young head of state has often appeared to change his mind about Syria. Rather supportive of the Syrian revolution as a candidate, in some speeches as President since May 2017, he has hinted that Assad could stay in power and escape prosecution for his regime’s war crimes, albeit temporarily.
If “dancing alone”, the women of Families for Freedom would not be content with being “shadow dancers”, visible to the French authorities but not paid attention to. As they were preparing for a meeting with the presidential staff the next day, Mahmoud and Al-Safadi were hopeful but immune from any undue optimism. Reading Macron’s mind, or so it seemed.
“Seven years of armed conflict in Syria have taught us many things,” Mahmoud confessed. “My personal opinion is that the involvement of certain countries in the conflict has only made the martyrdom of our people last longer and longer. In coming to Paris, the city of freedom and democracy, we were hoping French politicians would have paid greater attention to our cause, especially considering the humanitarian disaster we are going through.”
“Honestly, we are not satisfied,” added Al-Safadi. “We have not seen anything positive thus far. But we do remain hopeful. We have only so many days to spend here in France, and to date, we have not had any official meeting with anyone. Tomorrow we are meeting with the Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador for Human Rights. We will see what comes out of it, but then we remain hopeful. We will do whatever it takes, we will pay a second visit to France if necessary, for we believe this country has a role to play.”
Quite an optimistic claim when France is widely known to be struggling with unprecedented shortcomings in human rights terms, such as a two-year state of emergency that finally ended last November only to become part of regular law and, most (in)famously, a government stance on undocumented migrants – and, for this purpose, against any French national who dares show solidarity – that has never been tougher. Even the United Nations recently stated that France was going too far.
That said, at the very least, France does not have arbitrary detention at home. With a United Kingdom very much at odds with itself over Brexit and a Donald Trump jeopardizing domestic political stability in the United States, France also emerges as the very last democracy among the United Nations Security Council’s Permanent Members the Syrian revolution can possibly turn to for support.
Support – that is what Families for Freedom desperately needs, as it strives to get the exit doors of Syrian prisons opened for all political detainees to recover freedom and return home to their families, as well as to have the fate of the “disappeared” finally made public and end the unbearable anguish and waiting of their loved ones.
One might think the organization is unduly pushing arbitrary detention as the most pressing issue to be addressed when it comes to Syria. That would be ignoring or denying the plain, simple truth.
“We want everybody to understand that detention is a paramount human rights issue,” Mahmoud stresses. “We want everyone who believes in humanity and human rights to understand that every person has the right to freedom. In Syria, reconstruction issues can wait a year or two; but I, for one, know what it’s like to be arrested, I know what it’s like to be in a detention center in Syria. I will know for a fact that detention-related issues are resolved when my own problem has been solved at last. There will be no peace in Syria until all humanitarian issues have been resolved, until I finally find out what happened to my husband, my son, my other loved ones too. There will be no peace in Syria unless I have eternal peace in my soul, as a mother and a family member within my beloved country, Syria.”
“Arbitrary detention appeared in Syria in 1936 and has since then been used consistently,” concludes Al-Safadi. “It was the main cause behind the Syrian people’s uprising in 2011. Despite even that, the regime has only been using it more and more. Arbitrary detention is the worst possible kind of violence, the most atrocious form of contempt for human rights that may be inflicted to humanity. We need whatever help is possible, from every country in the world. That scourge has basically plunged all our lives into confusion. We must get it over with as soon as possible. We want peace in Syria. We dream of a new Syria without any kind of torture or assassination.”
One day we’ll dance on their graves,
One day we’ll sing our freedom,
One day we’ll laugh in our joy
And we’ll dance.
Hopefully, “on their graves” will not end up applying to every Syrian praying for the release of a prisoner or the reappearance of a missing loved one. That is what Families for Freedom is all about.
Whoever might object that, compared to terrorism as we have seen it in action through the “Islamic State”, or Da’esh, over the last four years, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances are side issues can and should think twice. No less than 100,000 Syrians are now arbitrarily detained or have been forcibly disappeared, although it could be really twice to three times that number.
An everyday citizen abroad has no control over the actions of Syria’s military and security forces, that is a fact. But many everyday citizens joining Mahmoud, Al-Safadi, and their colleagues as they “dance alone” can make a difference and add enough weight to their campaign, if not for the Assad regime to Set Them Free – another song by Sting, one that was on the debut album of his solo career, The Dream of the Blue Turtles – at least for the French government to realize that this is no time to be playing politics with the fate of a people to whose own government the right to freedom has always rung hollow.
We should all join the women’s dance. Let’s do it.
And we’ll dance …