A New Zealander's story: My escape from Syria's civil war

By Warren Searell

Former NZ diplomat Warren Searell called Damascus home until the Arab spring made life far too dangerous

From left: Zenobia (Warren's daughter, aged 5), Hanlie (Warren's wife), Warren Searell and Richard Trist (cousin of Warren) at a Syrian crossroads. Picture / Talei Searell
From left: Zenobia (Warren's daughter, aged 5), Hanlie (Warren's wife), Warren Searell and Richard Trist (cousin of Warren) at a Syrian crossroads. Picture / Talei Searell

A few weeks ago I packed a few suitcases of clothes, gathered my 5-year-old daughter, Zenobia, and headed for Damascus airport to get out of Syria as it descended ever more deeply into the horrors of civil war.

The mood in the car was sombre. Zenobia's enthusiasm for air travel was buried under her apprehension about leaving behind her mother, my diplomat wife Hanlie, who would pack up the house and tie up loose ends.

She understood these were not usual times.

The route to the airport was, thankfully, clear of trouble and the armed soldiers and security intelligence officers at the five checkpoints we passed were polite and relaxed. But a couple of kilometres to the north, towards the Old City, columns of smoke could be seen rising as Government forces bombarded the Tadamon and Jobar districts, trying to flush out rebels.

Since Syria's version of the Arab uprising against decaying authoritarian regimes broke out in March last year, security across the country had been steadily eroding. In December, big car bombs hit two security compounds in Kafer Suseh, central Damascus, close to where I was helping with some writing and editing for Syria Today magazine. Forty-four people were killed and 166 injured.

Spasmodic violence continued in the following months, making life steadily more dangerous. Then, in July, armed rebels took over some districts in the city. Fighting and shelling became a daily event and the peril ever-present. It was no longer worth the risk to remain in the city.

In our three-and-a-half years in Syria, we saw the country not only from street level but also from the edges of elite circles - our daughter was at school with the son of President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma and they attended school functions like any well-to-do couple. And for two years I was able to travel extensively, from the black-stoned Roman remains in Bosra in the south, to the crumbling 5000-year-old Mesopotamian ruins at Mari on the Euphrates.

I visited the Roman ruin at Palmyra, the 3700-year-old site of Ugarit and the luminescent St Simeon Cathedral ruin north of Aleppo near the Turkish border.

On the other hand we knew what it was like to be shadowed by the security forces and to be surrounded by angry mobs. Many of our Syrian friends told stories of rampant bribery, cronyism, arbitrary arrest and lengthy imprisonment without trial.

Yet when the Arab Spring broke out last year, Syria seemed the least likely place that would succumb. Though it was still a totalitarian state, some reform had been allowed and Bashar and Asma seemed to be popular, at least among the middle classes.

All that began to change in March last year when security forces overstepped the mark by torturing a group of children caught writing anti-government graffiti. The cracks swiftly appeared in the brittle structure of the state, exposing deep divisions in the country along regional, religious, ethnic and class lines.

These divisions had been hidden by a ruthless Soviet-style police state, in which all organs of government were controlled by the presidency and the security apparatus. The citizen effectively had no rights and the government no requirement for accountability.

About 15 branches of the 70,000 strong security apparatus, supported by networks of informers, ensured that all political space was shut down and the media tightly controlled. Any active opposition figures were imprisoned or exiled.

The secret police, the Mukhabarat, were everywhere. Young men in black leather jackets and jeans with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders frequently reminded me that I could not take photos near the multitude of security and military compounds around Damascus. Whenever I travelled out of the city, they followed in the security services' standard issue beat-up Peugeot 404s.

There was no hiding the poverty in the poorer towns and the slums encircling Damascus and Aleppo. In 2010, per capita GDP was only US$5200 ($6228) and 34 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. Unemployment was estimated at over 20 per cent, and was especially high for the young.

Cronyism, corruption and nepotism were rampant throughout government. A friend of mine returned to Syria in 2009, after living outside of the country for several years. To clear her possessions from customs at the port in Lattakia, she was required to pay a bribe of US$1000.

The regime controlled all government employment. Merit was not part of the process. It was "wasta", or patronage, that counted.

Citizens were frequently arrested and detained without charge. A friend spent many years in Assad jails without charge for suspected association with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, membership of which carries the death penalty. The Assad family occupied the very top of the Syrian power pyramid, and controlled the security apparatus including the police, the military, and the Mukhabarat. Below them were layers of mostly fellow Alawite senior functionaries, supported by Christians and Sunnis who knew their only way to get ahead was to ally with the regime. The Government was essentially a huge family mafia.

The Alawites, a Shia sect, make up 10 per cent of Syria's population, Christians 10 per cent, Sunnis 70 per cent, Druze two per cent, Kurds 7 per cent and others 1 per cent.

On the surface the sectarian make-up of the country had little impact on daily life. Government censors would not allow reference to any sectarian group. Syria was a secular Arab nationalist state with social and religious freedom: there were no restrictions on dress and alcohol was discreetly available.

But the regime ruled by fear. Its propaganda machine instilled in the population a fear of Muslim extremism, of Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahabis and Al Qaeda. The aim was to ensure the support of Alawites, Christians, and Druze, and the more liberal Sunnis.

In the first couple of years we were there, Syria seemed to be emerging from a long period of isolation. Relations with Turkey had improved dramatically, with free trade and visa-free agreements. The economy was also growing, if slowly at 3.4 per cent, with tourism making up for declining oil and gas revenues.

Since 2005, Assad had moved, if haltingly, to reform the economy on a market-social model. Foreign investment, particularly in the banking sector, was encouraged. Despite the obvious poverty, in Damascus and Aleppo wealth was evident on the streets with luxury cars and European boutiques evidence of a growing elite.

Against this background, when colleagues asked me in February 2011 - after the Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya uprisings - whether Syria might be next, I said "very unlikely".

At that time Assad was 45 years old and his wife Asma 35. They were a popular couple. Some economic reforms had brought change, and although Assad's talk of political reform had produced no results, there was the hope that the regime would read the signs in the region and get ahead of the reform game.

Importantly, unlike Tunisia and the other dictatorships in the region, the Syrian leadership was not allied to the West. Syria stood, with Iran and the Lebanese Shia militia cum political party Hizbullah, against the so-called "Zionist-American project" in the Middle East, a policy popular on the Arab street.

Well, I was wrong.

My perspective was perhaps coloured by personal experience. Zenobia spent a year in the same class as Karim al-Assad, the president's son.

When I attended parent-teacher meetings, Asma, the "first lady", was present. Her contributions were always low-key, but it was clear she was a liberal, modern, intelligent and eloquent woman.

At the end-of-year school concert Bashar and Asma came along in their jeans and leather jackets, and mingled freely with the children. This outgoing and relaxed style had endeared this couple to the country's moneyed elite and the rising middle class, if not the country at large.

The regime's true colours were shown when 15 children wrote anti-government graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Dera'a in March last year.

The security forces arrested them, took them to Damascus, beat and tortured them, including pulling out some fingernails. This outraged their extended families and fellow citizens who took to the streets in protest where security forces fired on the unarmed crowd, killing several people.

The regime's strategy was immediately revealed - it would intimidate and bludgeon all opposition into submission using deadly force if necessary. But demonstrations spread across the country. Syria's time had come.

The protests, and the regime's response, shocked everyone. After 40 years of fear, suppression, censorship and intimidation, a self-liberation took hold as citizens massed in the streets, initially shouting for democratic reforms, dignity, an end to corruption and a reigning-in of the security services. As protest spread and the crackdown intensified, the demands escalated into calls for an end to the Assad regime. The fear barrier had been broken.

In April last year we saw for ourselves how the divisions in Syrian society were opening up when we travelled to Aleppo, stopping on the way to view the "lost cities", a cluster of AD400 Byzantine towns.

At the town of Murat Al-Numan we noticed a large group of young men standing around with Syrian flag; a kilometre away was another group of 200 or 300 marching toward the town.

A young Syrian pulled up and shouted in English that we must turn around, "there was trouble". We did so. But by then the group in town had swelled. Armed with sticks and clubs they were marching towards the other group, shouting pro-government slogans. We were caught in the middle. To our relief the angry mob let us pass through their ranks without incident.

The two groups embodied the sharp divisions that were opening up in Syrian society.. The regime's propaganda response was that the violence emanated from "armed terrorist groups", including criminals and religious extremists, supported by foreigners. The regime staged televised "confessions" of young men with their weapons to validate the story, while armed thugs were recruited by the regime into the mostly Alawite "Shabbiha" gangs to do the more unsavoury intimidation work.

The torture of protesters, mostly young, became routine. A friend of mine had one of his workers arrested. They beat and humiliated him for 10 days, then left him alone for 20 days for his wounds to heal, then released him to his family. Such stories are very common. In some cases the regime would return a mutilated corpse.

Assad belatedly announced some modest political reforms as protests increased. The emergency law, invoked following the 1963 Baathist coup, was lifted. A new media law was passed. A referendum on a new constitution was held on February 26, 2012. Parliamentary elections were held on May 7, and a new government formed on June 23. However these "reforms" were a sham and included no input from the opposition, who boycotted the elections.

The secular veneer of Syrian society began to lift as the violence intensified. The protesters and victims of state violence were overwhelmingly Sunni. They were being killed and tortured by a security apparatus which was predominantly Shia Alawite.

The UN Human Rights Council appointed an independent commission on Syria which released a report last month confirming that government forces had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder, torture, sexual violence, looting and destruction of property.

The report also found that government forces and "Shabbiha" had massacred 108 civilians in Houla, a massacre the regime had blamed on "armed terrorist groups". The commission found opposition fighters had also committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture.

During the first six months of the uprising, the regime was able to mount some huge pro-government demonstrations, particularly in Damascus. These were held on weekdays so government workers and schoolchildren could be marshalled to attend.

But communities of Alawis and Christians and others also willingly attended. These rallies stopped as the regime became increasingly aware its support base was shrinking.

It is very difficult to assess support for the regime, but there is little doubt that it is still considerable. A Christian friend of mine remains implacably in support of Assad, but only because he fears the rule of the majority Sunnis, a rule he believes would be extremist and anti-Christian.

The sharp domestic divide is mirrored at regional and international levels. Iran has been closely allied to Syria since the Assads backed them in their 1980-1988 war against Iraq. Iran is supplying both weapons and technical assistance to the Assad regime. Syria has also facilitated the supply of Iranian arms to Hizbullah, which is now the leading faction in the Lebanese government.

The US-British invasion of Iraq facilitated the rise of the majority Shia to power there, and as a result Iraq too supports the Assad regime.

On the other side of the regional divide Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have all called for an orderly transition and for Assad to step down. It is widely believed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying arms to anti-government rebels. The Arab League sent monitors to Syria in December last year to help negotiate a ceasefire, but they were withdrawn three months later, having been ignored by both sides.

The international community is also divided. Russia and China have blocked three UN Security Council resolutions to put pressure on Assad to implement a ceasefire and engage the opposition in dialogue. Though the Security Council did agree to a joint Arab League-UN peace initiative under former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the mission was without teeth and it failed. Annan left his post last month and the 300 strong UN Supervisory Mission in Syria, which included a small New Zealand element, was withdrawn.

Lakhdar Ebrahimi, an Algerian diplomat, replaced Annan three weeks ago. He admitted that his mission is "almost impossible", and most analysts doubt he can conjure up the peaceful solution which eluded Annan. Too much blood has been spilled.

Coinciding with Ebrahimi's appointment, Mohammad Mursi, Egypt's president, convened a regional "Quartet" comprising Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Quartet seems as divided as the Security Council and without a change in Iran's stance is unlikely to be in a position to pressure the Assad regime or the rebels to lay down arms and begin a dialogue.

After 18 months, the Syrian uprising has claimed more than 20,000 lives according to a conservative UN estimate. More than 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, 2.5 million require humanitarian assistance, and more than 230,000 have fled and are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Syrian opposition groups say 26,000 people have been detained.

From the outset, Assad's regime has unswervingly followed the security solution, and government forces have resorted to artillery, tank, and more recently air bombardments including on residential areas.

The regime is morphing into an Alawite militia prepared to fight it out to the bitter end, regardless of the cost to the country.

Negotiation and compromise are not part of the state's lexicon. And the ranks of anti-government rebels have been growing steadily as more and more Syrians take up arms to avenge the violence against their families, villages and towns. The boldness of their attacks on government targets has increased, and regime "insiders" are helping them.

Our lives over the past few months had become increasingly constrained by security considerations. There were several small roadside bombs targeting military vehicles exploding just a few kilometres from the house.

All unnecessary travel was curtailed. However the wider dangers of this war came home to us personally in July this year when the opposition Free Syrian Army assassinated four top security officials, including Assad's brother-in-law, at a meeting in a military compound a few hundred metres from the presidential residence.

In response Assad forces dramatically intensified their artillery bombardment of several districts of Damascus making life unpredictable and dangerous, and provoking an exodus of tens of thousands from Damascus across the border into Lebanon.

We joined that search for safety because there were clear risks of a dramatic escalation of the conflict. We spent 10 days in Beirut waiting for a break in the fighting so we could return and pack our things.

There is a high risk that the conflict will become an increasingly sectarian proxy war with, on the Assad regime's side, Shia Iran, Iraq, and Hizbullah, backed by Russia and China; and supporting the opposition, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey backed by the US, Britain and France. This is a civil war which could last years and take countless lives.

On the day we left, Zenobia and I reached the airport in time to catch one of the last Etihad flights out before the airline stopped its Damascus service. As the aircraft swung south over the parched August desert towards Abu Dhabi, my thoughts turned to the wonderful Syrians who had proudly shared their beautiful, ancient and romantic Damascus with us for three and a half years.

Though many Syrian friends who had the means had already left the country, and others had escaped on study grants overseas, I was leaving most behind to face a violent and uncertain future.

It seems the price Syrians will pay to achieve their freedom from a corrupt, brutal and inept dictatorship will far outweigh that paid by their awakened Arab counterparts in the region.

The writer
Warren Searell is a former New Zealand High Commissioner to South Africa. He is married to a South African diplomat. The family are now safe back in Pretoria. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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