“All the world will be affected, not just Syria”: Interview with a Syrian Australian artist

Miream art

Artwork by Miream Salameh.

Ani White interviews Miream Salameh, a Syrian artist living in Melbourne.

First of all, can you tell us why you were forced to seek refuge and how this happened?

At the beginning of the revolution, I worked with a group of my friends to create a magazine against the tyrannical regime that ruled Syria for fifty years. This regime is represented by the Assad family, which seized power in a military coup by Hafez al-Assad.

Our aim in founding this magazine was to present our ideas, the goals and principles of our revolution and our dream of building a new free, civil and democratic Syria. All of us should be equal under the law that achieves equality and justice for all. The aim was also to document the crimes of the Assad regime and its violations of international law – which is still under the eyes of the entire international community – against all those who have participated in this revolution and supported it even with a word.

But after six months we were forced to stop it after we were attacked by the Assadist forces. I remember very well how in the second raid we miraculously survived the inevitable deaths by field execution that Assad carried out at every raid. I lost two of my friends in that brutal way; during a raid on Deir Baalba in Homs in the first year of the revolution, the Assad gangs shot my friend Hatem Mohammad, who was an artist too, directly in his head and heart. His relatives could not take the body until fifteen days after Assad’s forces left the area – or face being arrested or dying under torture in his prisons. On this day we were three friends in the house watching a video that I filmed in a region loyal to Assad in Homs to document the crimes of Assad and his regime. In this video I documented the stolen property that Assad’s regime and its intelligence and army were selling at the lowest prices in a market they call the Sunni market; they rob those areas whose people were shelled and forced to flee, then the Assad regime enters and steals, and sometimes do not just do that, they also burn some houses. One person shown in the video told how when they left these areas with cars full of stolen stuff, the army at the checkpoints took the LCD screens and laptops and left them the rest of the stuff to sell in the Sunni market.

Going back to the raid day, as we watched the video and handed over the caricatures, Assad’s forces began to besiege the neighborhood and prepared to raid it. I quickly went out with my friends who took me out of the neighborhood and then returned to document what would happen. Assad’s forces committed an outrageous massacre, killing 20 people and arresting many, including women, who were stripped naked in public, and arrested them. Assad’s forces destroyed all our things and stole all that was valuable. During that time I received many threats and warnings, and was forced to leave for Lebanon without informing anyone. But death threats, arrests and rape will continue if I try to go back to my country. During my stay in Lebanon, one week after my arrival in Australia, I was attacked along with my friends by Hezbollah and they attempted to kidnap me. But we were rescued with the help of two Lebanese gendarmes and three Syrian people who were there by chance and brought us home safely. I don’t know if I would be alive now otherwise. Then we came here on a humanitarian visa.

How did the Syrian revolution begin? What were the demands of the revolution?

The Syrian revolution began after students at a school in Daraa wrote anti-Assad slogans on the walls of their schools. So the Assad regime arrested and tortured them and this angered their parents who went to claim and demand the release of their children, but the security forces told them: forget your children and make others, and if you cannot, send us your women to do so. People in Daraa began to take to the streets and demand the release of their children and all those detained in Assad’s prisons. These demonstrations moved to the rest of the Syrian cities, one of these was my city Homs. Our demands were initially to reform the regime, release the detainees and abolish the state of emergency, but the regime did not respond to these demands and tried to suppress the demonstrations in a brutal way, from firing live bullets at the demonstrators to firing missiles, and using internationally prohibited weapons such as cuneiform bombs. They carried out campaigns of detention against all those suspected of joining the revolution or supporting it even with a word, but the more violence the regime inflicted, the more the demonstrations grew to overthrow this bloody regime and build a free democratic civil state in which we all live equally under a law that protects the freedom and dignity of the individual – not a law that is amended to suit the regime’s interests, the way they did when Hafez al-Assad died, and they amended the constitution within three minutes to let Bashar take power after his dead father.

Who is primarily responsible for the atrocities (and the political crisis) in Syria?

All the responsibility for war crimes is with the regime of Assad, no one else, all the destruction and half a million refugees at home and abroad, and large numbers of detainees and abductees. The Assad regime committed all of this and was responsible for it with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, as well as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. I include ISIS and al-Qaeda in this because Assad assisted them in entering Syria and put them in the areas to be a pretext for him to bombard and control and create displacement of their people. No-one benefits from their presence as much as Assad. In addition to al-Qaeda, Assad is the one who released the extremists and criminals from his prisons at the beginning of the revolution, for the same reasons that I mentioned earlier and to make it seem like our revolution is Islamist in form. Thus he has a strong argument before world public opinion to eliminate the revolution. Assad is the one who released Zahran Alloush [leader of the Jaysh al-Islam armed faction] who used people as shields and put them on the roofs of houses to prevent Assad from shelling them. He is no different from the Assad regime and is similar in criminality. All these Assad did to justify the war crimes he committed against unarmed civilians, bombarding them in their schools and homes, hospitals and markets using internationally banned weapons including phosphorus, chemical and others.

We all saw the massacre committed against our people in as-Suwayda city at the hands of ISIS. But we all know who brought them on buses from Yarmouk camp to the east of as-Suwayda to control the area there. This claim comes from the people of as-Suwayda who knew Assad’s games and put all the responsibility for what happened there on the Assad regime. And some of them said that the kidnappers allwere Da’esh [ISIS], in fact they were detainees in the prisons of the regime.

The Assad regime is the one who made our land an area of ​​international conflicts between America, Russia and others. There is so much evidence that the only man responsible for what happened to my country is Assad.

How do you respond to claims that Assad protects Christians and minorities?
Assad did not protect the minorities but protected himself by using them. The Assad regime did not show mercy to any of its opponents, neither the Christian nor the Druze, nor even the Alawites, who are the sect be belongs to. He arrested and killed a lot under torture and displaced them. Also he killed people whom were from his own sect and loyalists at the beginning of the revolution to claim that it was the rebels who killed them, and to lie to them that our revolution was an Islamic revolution aimed at killing all the minorities, I remember once sitting in al-Arman area, one of them told me: We shelled three buildings here in al-Arman. I asked him why he did that. He said because we want to make the people here believe that the revolutionaries did it and that their revolution is an Islamic revolution. I told him, but what about the children, women and residents of these buildings who were hit by these missiles? He said: It does not matter, the important thing is to believe what we want and fight alongside the regime. The regime has done a lot of these dirty tricks.

I am from the Christian minority in Syria and from a village called Marmarita, a Christian village in Wadi al-Nasara. I was forced to flee my country after I received many threats just because I stood against this criminal regime and participated in the revolution. Many young people in my village were arrested for the same reason, and after their release they immediately left the country. The artist and my teacher Wael Qustoun, who is from my village and was based in Homs, was arrested by the Assad intelligence and tortured to death because of his refusal to paint a helmet for the army. None of his family members knew of his fate until someone saw his body in the hospital with 200 other bodies. That person called the Wael family to take his body before they took him with the rest, to bury them in mass graves without informing anyone about their fate or what happened to them inside the prison. They forced his family to say that the unknown armed groups were the ones who kidnapped Wael and killed him. This what happened to me and my family and people really close to me. There are many, many more stories that anyone can learn, like the story of Marcel Chahrou, Basil Shehadeh and many others. They deny the claims that Assad protects minorities.

What role have international actors played in Syria, particularly the USA and Russia?

I am not a political analyst, but everyone who follows the Syrian situation is fully aware that no one cared about the death and displacement of the Syrian people. The Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah participate with Assad in his war crimes against defenceless people. This applies to America and even to Australia, when they participated in the bombing under the pretext of eliminating terrorism.

We all know that all of them took part in this for their own interests, so that they don’t care about Assad himself and were ready to get rid of him when they were done with him. Even the Turks themselves, who some believe they are friends of the Syrian people, killed many Syrians as they crossed the border to escape the bombing to Turkey.

America has bombed many military sites and bases of Assad: but it is known to the free Syrian people that it is not because it cares about the Syrian people, especially after Trump’s decision to prevent Syrians from entering America. This applies to everyone.

After almost seven years, we no longer trust anyone, not even the United Nations and the international community, who could not prevent Assad from committing his own massacres, especially forced displacement and ethnic cleansing against the people, which is an international war crime under UN resolutions. Instead of stopping that, they were working to find safe passages to Syrians leave their homes and neighbourhoods. That is, Assad committed this crime under their auspices, and they came in after that and set up tents for us in neighbouring countries.

Can you explain what Assad and Putin’s assault on Idlib means for Syrian politics?

It’s crushing one of the last areas held by the revolutionaries. The same will happen as happened in Aleppo, Darya and Ghouta – massacres of people. Idlib has refugees from those areas that have already been assaulted. So three million people will be attacked. Assad is ethnically cleansing, which is a war crime. It will not relieve things for us, and also Turkey will face a huge wave of refugees. And many refugees will go by boat to reach Europe. All the world will be affected if this happens to Idlib, not just Syria.

And Turkey made a deal with Russia, to pursue a political resolution, not because Turkey cares about the people and want to save lives, I think Turkey just wants to save their country and not have to deal with refugees. And we all know what Russia and Assad want from Idlib, they want all of the territory in regime hands.

How do you respond to claims that the revolution is simply sectarian?

How can the revolution be sectarian? It includes all people from different religious backgrounds. There are the Druze, the Christian, the Alawi, the Sunni, and all of us have a dream of building a free and democratic Syria that is equal to everyone under the law. But what we talked about previously, about the release of the extremists by Assad and giving ISIS entry to our country, in addition to the media, which also played a big role in the painting of our revolution as Islamist. Not just this, but also it tried to show that there was no revolution at the start; when the media mention the Syrian situation they only mention civil war and never mentioned the Syrian revolution. But after seven years of the Assad regime, trying to crush our revolution in the most brutal ways, and the hypocrisy of the big powers and the international community and the United Nations closing their eyes to the crimes of Assad against us, the demonstrations in Idlib embarrass them all showing that the revolution is not dead, and did not die, and will not die.

During the revolution, its activists whose work was characterized by civil action were targeted by all the extremist parties represented by ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Assad regime. Naji Al-Jarf was targeted by ISIS who shot at him in Turkey, and Jaysh al-Islam kidnapped Razan Zaytouneh and her comrades, whose fate we do not yet know, and many more who were targeted by ISIS and al-Qaeda. And we don’t need to mention what the Assad regime did and still does to all of the activists of the revolution, because it is clear and obvious to all of us. All these criminals share one interest: to eliminate the revolution because they know that the victory of the revolution means the end of all of them.

What bearing does understanding the political situation in Syria have on refugee solidarity in Australia?

When we started leaving Syria in the first year of the revolution, the government badmouthed refugees. I don’t think the government cares about refugees. I remember there was one guy who was in the detention centre in Syria, and the Australian government deported him back to Syria, and the Syrian government arrested him there for 28 days, and they bombed his area and killed his father. If I went back to Syria, they would arrest me.

You’ve said Australia has a discriminatory refugee policy in how it ranks Syrians. Can you explain that?

Australia gave priority in granting asylum to Christian asylum seekers, ignoring the many refugees who had been stranded in the refugee camps for almost 7 years without any basic necessities of life, and that leads these people to risk their lives and the lives of their children at sea. Those who survived the drowning were detained in the detention centers of Nauru and Manus Island. In these prisons, there are families – women and children held for four years – and many more. Can you imagine children being forced to spend their childhood in such places, after they survived inevitable death in their country, for no reason?

In Australia, the boats were stopped under the pretext of preserving people’s lives. But if they really cared, they would offer an alternative to getting in unsafe boats, and offer a real solution to their suffering, like granting a humanitarian visa, easing restrictions on humanitarian visas. Humanitarian visas should be based on the conditions that people are in, not based on needing sponsors. Also Australia has bombed my country and made more refugees. If they really cared, they would not participate in the bombing.

What do you think about the protests against Trump’s bombings?

It’s funny how people get angry about this bombing, when the US has been bombing my country since 2014, and killing many civilians, yet people only protest when he bombs an Assad military base, killing nobody, and announcing it in advance so that Assad could evacuate. Listen to Syrians before you try to do something for us.

Do Syrian refugees (practically speaking) have the right to return?

The right of refugees to return will not happen until something changes in our country. They need to stop the ethnic cleansing. Assad remains in power. They need to address these things, before they talk about our return to Syria. It will not be possible to return while the regime stays in power. And in terms of ISIS and al-Qaeda, as long as the regime stays in power these problems will continue. First Assad needs to be taken out of power, then we need to address the sectarianism, then we can rebuild our country.

What can people in Australia or Aotearoa do to support Syrians?

We have to listen to Syrians, convey the truth of what’s going on, stand together as people and pressure the government here, and the rest of the world’s governments. My country, especially the media, is politicised. We must exert great pressure on the international community and the United Nations to do their work honestly, in protecting the human rights for which they were founded.

I believe that only people have the power to change for a better world. I believe that this will be the first serious step to stand with the Syrian people in their revolution and end their ordeal.

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming issue on Migrant and Refugee RightsTo support our work, please consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: