Sami, by his own account, is an activist-turned-school teacher who writes about changes that have taken place in his hometown of Qusayr since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began nearly two years ago. In the midst of the conflict that has destroyed much of Quasayr, Sami recently visited its newly-elected city council to learn about its efforts to restore the supply of power and water since regular municipal and state services were disrupted a few months ago, and to learn what is being done to make bread and other basic staples available for local residents. Sami is not the author’s real name. Read his account below.
Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” series features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.
With Syrian expatriates having begun to enter areas of Syria now under rebel control, we have expanded the series to include their accounts.
Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names. Accounts may be edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.
By Sami in Qusayr, March 2013
Before the Syrian revolution, the people of Qusayr never fully understood what democracy meant. They were so busy making ends meet that basic values like freedom of speech and the right to vote were of only secondary importance to them. They were scared of a regime that had turned Syrians against one another: brothers and sisters would report anything that was said or done to the regime’s intelligence services.
I remember the stories circulating about the regime’s powerful reach and how the Assads supposedly knew what “happened inside people’s bedrooms.” There was a widely-known story about a soldier who spent two years in jail and was dishonorably discharged because he made the mistake of telling a friend that the regime had been overthrown in one of his dreams.
Video: Lights in Qusayr come back on
(clip provided by Sami; contents and authenticity cannot be independently confirmed)
“Democracy is something that requires continuum,” local resident Abo Fida told me. “You cannot expect people to exercise it properly after being deprived of it for over 40 years. Putting democracy in motion, he said, is like having to cross a dangerous river.” Fida is a member of our town’s civilian council that has been trying to restore local public services disrupted by the Assad regime.
Re-building our communities
In many parts of Syria where the Free Syrian Army has been able to repel regime forces, local intellectuals and community leaders have formed local councils to restore services once provided by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The first civil council in Qusayr started organizing about a year ago. Most of the members were prominent protesters who had been active from the very start of the revolution. Some two months ago, however, a new council was formed.
“A former teacher by the name of Adnan runs the relief office, and a pharmacist, Ihasan al-Simer, heads the town’s political office.” – Sami in Qusayr
At first, I thought that it would be easy to form a council since now there would not be any favoritism or duplicity, but I now realize how mistaken I was. While all protesters were united under the goal of overthrowing Assad, members of the opposition have conflicting agendas and, because of the frequent shellings by the Syrian military, few of these leaders can risk meeting under one roof. Under these circumstances, numerous councils were formed – often with one denouncing another. Eventually, however, they gathered and selected a large 23-member council. Members serve three months and then a new election is held.
The council consists of offices for the president, a deputy, an executive secretary, a political officer, a coordinating and inspection officer, who keeps an eye on all the other offices, and other officers who manage media, legal issues, and services for education, medical care and relief. Unlike many activists, the members of this council do not hide their true identity. They are well known in the revolution and are already wanted by the regime. A former teacher by the name of Adnan runs the relief office, and a pharmacist, Ihasan al-Simer, heads the town’s political office. The latter plans to invite youth to discuss social and political issues with him.
Since I wanted to learn more about how our local government functions, I went to see for myself.
Meeting the new president of Qusayr
All of the council members work in a modest flat that is divided into offices with labels on the doors of each. The president’s office is on the right side of flat.
As I entered the president’s office I noticed that he was not seated behind his desk, but actually sat next to an elderly citizen who was complaining about having no water or power in his neighborhood since they had been disrupted by government shelling.
The president promised he would personally supervise restoration of power there.
Then the president rose to greet me. I introduced myself and requested an appointment to interview him. He suggested that it could be done right away.
I was struck by this forthrightness because I remembered how nervous and tense I always used to get when I had to enter a government office. In the old days you had to bribe someone to get anything done; and that was not everything – aside from being corrupt, they were always very mean.
The president of the Qusayr council is Ziyad al-Akhras. He used to be a lawyer. He looks like a modest man, probably in his 40s. He is quite tall and very welcoming. At the same time he’s also quite magisterial and serious.
I asked him about the difficulties involved in getting a council up-and-running.
“The Syrian National Coalition gave us $43,000. That is all! And this barely pays for the bread that residents here need.” – Ziad al-Akhras, president of the Qusayr city council
“Getting people to gather in one place was a problem sometimes,” al-Akhras said. But he also pointed to another issue: “The Syrian society is very diverse. It is not easy to please everyone, but we have finally found common grounds and goals upon which all people agree.” Bread and water were the lowest common denominator but a top priority for all, he said.
He also said that setting the criteria for selecting candidates was also problematic but they were able to please most if not all people in the end.
Al-Akhras said that he did not mind dabbling in politics now, but stressed that he was not doing it because he was aspiring to get elected to some office in “a future Syria.”
Currently, the siege imposed on Quseyr by government forces poses the greatest threat as there is an increasing demand for the basic needs such as bread, water and power amid a severe lack of funding. Among the various responsibilities this council has is to protect the public buildings like schools, power stations, and post office and to provide flour and water to the general public.
Smuggling food into town
Finances – or lack thereof – are the council’s biggest problem.
“We have not received much,” al-Akhras said with a sigh. “The Syrian National Coalition gave us $43,000. That is all! And this barely pays for the bread that residents here need.”
Most of the funds are being used to smuggle bread into the city and to help the families of those killed or detained by regime forces, as well as care for the wounded and disabled.
“If we were able to form this council amid all these hellish conditions, there is a very good chance that there will be better days ahead once this regime is no more.” – Sami in Qusayr
Since the siege began in January of this year, flour is not available in the city.
The Syrian government used to subsidize the supply of bread for its citizens by means of price reduction. But after the revolution started, the prices sky-rocketed and many people stopped being able to afford it. Now, the council subsidizes the price of bread.
Democracy enters Qusayr
One of the upsides of having established this council is that it has helped restore residents’ dignity. Syrians are not used to being able to express their views freely. Before the revolution, people hardly knew anything about democracy and how to properly practice it.
Now, people in Qusayr feel that their voices are being heard. They come and file complaints or suggest things to the council without fearing persecution or arrest as in the old days.
As I was leaving al-Akhras’ small office, I felt quite hopeful about the future of Syria. I thought to myself: If we were able to form this council amid all these hellish conditions, there is a very good chance that there will be better days ahead once this regime is no more.
NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.