By Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
- Wasim Abu Nahi, 36, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently underwent an almost indescribable personal tragedy.
- It came to pass on July 21, as Turkish traffickers dropped him off on the cliffs in front of the Greek island Samos, accompanied by his thirty-year-old wife Lamise, his four-year-old son Oday and his tiny daughter Layan, who was nine months old.
Since the Greek coast guard refused to provide assistance, and since his wife was injured and both his children were exhausted and dehydrated, Wasim left them behind to search for water, food and any help he could get. He was soon arrested and imprisoned by the local police, who refused to even listen to his pleas. As he sat helplessly in his cell, a forest fire broke out on the island, eventually claiming the lives of Lamise, Oday and Layan. The police’s reaction to this unspeakable tragedy was to arrest Wasim’s two Syrian companions who had sailed with him to Greece and charge them with causing the fire, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the charges.
After keeping Wasim imprisoned for five more weeks, they eventually let him go. With the help of friends and local activists, he immediately travelled to Athens, where he met with his nephew from Sweden. Together, they then returned to Samos and, after a few gut-wrenching hours, found the remains of Wasim’s family. Utterly broken, Wasim travelled back to Athens, where he is now stranded. Since he hasn’t been awarded refugee status, he cannot even file for an asylum. He is living with one of his Syrian acquaintances in the anarchist quarter called Excarhia, which was where I met him. What follows is his story. A story about Europe. A story about the human race.
“My family and I, we used to live in Dubai, but in the spring I lost my job. I come from Latakia by the Mediterranean sea. In 1948, my parents fled from Haifa to Syria to escape the Jewish terror. A large part of my family remains there still. So my first impulse after losing my job was to return to Syria, I wanted to help – I could no longer just stand by and watch the destruction of the land and the suffering of my relatives. But my wife convinced me my first duty was to the future of our children. Layan, my little girl, was only a few months old. Returning to Syria was simply not an option. We decided we would head to Turkey and try to worm our way into the European Union. Our ultimate goal was to reach Sweden, because I have some relatives there.”
Wasim Abu Nehi was telling his story in a quiet, monotone voice, and his gaze was focused on some undefinable, unfathomable point in the distance.
In Turkey, some friends got him in touch with the local human traffickers. Because of its proximity to several Greek islands, the Turkish coastline is one of the key points of entry for the ragged, starving immigrants from all over the world who had set out for the promised land called European Union. Yet the vast majority of these refugees from war and unimaginable poverty are quick to learn that, for them, the EU is no promised land, but merely a xenophobic, racist and bureaucrat-dominated new circle of hell.
Wasim, too, was quick to admit he’d allowed his expectations to run high.
“I wanted to go to Sweden, where my nephew could help me find some work. Everything had already been arranged, you know. My wife and children would have probably been awarded refugee status, since they had Syrian citizenship. It would have been a bit harder for me, since I only have Palestinian papers, but I know I would have gotten by somehow.” With an audible lump in his throat, Wasim was telling me this in a murky street in Athens, where the ever-present smell of marijuana mixed with the smell of grilled meat. As he was telling me how his entire life was burnt to cinders in a single day, he kept weeping and shuddering and hugging himself for what pitiful semblance of comfort he could get. He told me that some psychiatrist gave him a prescription for tranquilizers, but these only made him feel worse. He reached into his pocket and produced a grimy grey cellphone.
“This was my daugher,” he clicked through the pictures: “This was my son. This was my wife. My family…” Tears were flowing down his cheeks. He looked up into the darkening sky. In a small quiet voice, he started to pray. Then he pressed the button that brought up one final image.
“This is what we found after the fire.” The picture, like a heavy blow to the ribs, showed me a heap of charred bones and some family jewelry.
“I came to Europe and immediately lost everything. I had come here to live, not to die. My wife and children didn’t pass away. They were killed. They were murdered by the Greek police. By Europe.”
Clenched fists. Firmly shut eyes. This was Wasim Abu Nahi, screaming his silent, impotent pain inside an abyss; in total darkness.
“On the boat, one trafficker and two male refugees from Syria, Jihad and Mohaned, were also present. We sailed from the Turkish town of Cukhuhazi at half past seven in the morning. It took us around four hours to get to Samos. We met no one on our journey. The trafficker unloaded us beneath a huge cliff and told us we were in Greece. In Europe. He told us to climb to the top of the cliff. We shouldn’t have any problem with that, he smiled. Up there, we were supposed to find a trail with someone waiting for us, a person who would arrange our further passage to Athens. There were six of us, and we only had a liter and a half of water between us. We were also running very short on food. We believed the trafficker that everything was in order. So we reached dry land and started to climb. It was awfully, awfully hot. Both my children were exhausted. My wife felt very ill. But after five hours of torture, we somehow made it to the top. Up there, we found nothing, only thorns and rocks. There was no trail, no path, no nothing. We were very high up, and all we could see was the ocean. But I still felt quite optimistic. It felt like we were so wonderfully close to our salvation!”
But salvation, for this fate-whipped band of migrants, was very far away.
The Turkish trafficker had chosen to dump Wasim’s family on one of the most remote parts of the otherwise beautiful island of Samos. Once Wasim grasped what had been done to him, he fell into a rage. Night was descending upon the travellers, and the family had already run out of food and water. Jihad, the 44-year-old fellow refugee from Syria, somehow managed to get the Turkish coast guard on his cellphone. They informed him that they were powerless to act, since the band of migrants was officially on Greek territory. They sent him an SMS with the number of their Greek counterparts, which Jihad immediately dialled. A woman answered and promptly told him they would all get arrested for illegally entering the country. After being informed about the exhausted and dehydrated children, the woman promised she would immediately send help. It was agreed that, once the coast guard ship was near, the migrants would send it light signals to indicate their location.
After two hours of miserable huddling on the rocks, the band of travellers indeed glimpsed a ship headed in their general direction. They immediately started a small fire. Wasim told me that the ship eventually stopped close to the coastline and flooded them with heavy, powerful light beams. “We thought we were saved. But the ship simply turned and sailed away. We didn’t know what to do! We waited, and after twenty minutes the ship returned. But this time, we were unable to start a fire. Our only lighter had gone bust, you see. So we tried to signal it with our cellphones, but the ship turned around and disappeared again. Jihad called the number we’d been given, and the same woman answered and told him they hadn’t even sent the ship out yet, so it couldn’t possibly have been one of theirs. We all felt that was horribly weird, but what could we do save to keep begging to be rescued? And then the cellphone’s battery ran out. We decided to wait until morning. We lay down on the ground, hungry and thirsty as we were. Around five in the morning, we set off in a pretty much random direction. Mohaned, the younger of the two Syrians, went off ahead while Jihad kept pace with us. My wife could barely walk. I was carrying both children and most of our luggage. At a certain point, my wife fell down on the ground and couldn’t get up. She told me to press on and get help, while she would stay there and keep watch over the children… Those are the last memories I have of them.”
Once more, the man telling the story was overcome with tears. His eyes were puffy, his face deeply traumatized. His body was prone to sudden spasms, as if he were being tortured with electro-shocks from afar. Suddenly, he took my hand, looking even more lost and confused than before. “My daughter was nine months old,” he said: “On October 19, my son would have turned four.”
On that fateful night, Jihad, too, had been too exhausted to keep walking. He gave Wasim a sacred promise he would remain with his wife and children and keep watch. Faced with an extremely difficult decision, Wasim chose to go on and seek help.
“So I forged ahead. It had to be done, there was no getting around it. I kept walking for a while, then, on the other side of the island, I descended down toward the sea again. My aim was to reach the first available village or beach and alert the people to our plight. The only way I could get to the beach on the other side of the bay was by swimming. There were many sharp rocks in the water. I swam up to one of them, and then a small fishing boat came floating by. I called out for help, but the man in the boat looked away, he was probably afraid of me. People on dry land could not hear my cries. I had drunk a lot of seawater, and I felt very sick. Then I saw the first helicopter, swooping down to collect some water from the sea. After that, many more helicopters came to put out what I later learned was a huge forest fire, and planes as well. Smoke was rising up into the air in the distance. I got so scared I almost lost control of my sanity. I started to scream and jump up and down on that rock jutting from the sea… I would have done anything to draw attention to myself. And then I glimpsed a house.” Wasim threw himself into the water and started swimming for his life. When he reached the shore, he was still screaming at the top of his voice. A Greek man stepped out of the house and informed him about the forest fire. He gave him water and some clothes, then he called the police. It was in the early morning of July 23.
The policemen arrived very quickly.
“They immediately arrested and handcuffed me. They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. They took me to the local police station and threw me in a cell. Only later they called for an interpreter. Crying uncontrollably, I told him my family was dying. I begged for his help. He went away, and after some more time passed, a policeman came to collect me. He took me by boat to the vicinity of the place where I parted from my wife and children. That particular patch was still unconsumed by the fire, but the fire was raging all around. I asked the policeman to take me up there to dry land. But he refused. I was hand-cuffed, there was nothing I could do. He immediately turned the boat and took us back toward the harbour. Why did we even set off in the first place?!, I kept wondering hysterically. But this time, the policeman took me to another police station.”
As they arrived there, Wasim saw his family’s luggage lying on the ground. For a blessed instant, he was convinced that his loved ones were safe. It was all he cared about, but in the station’s prison he pnly found Jihad and Mohaned. Jihad informed him that his wife had been unable to walk, so he had chosen to proceed by himself.
“Jihad was arrested 44 hours after I left my wife and children. He and Mohaned were charged with starting the forest fire. Without so much as a shred of evidence! Today, they are still imprisoned on Samos, waiting for the trail which is some five or six months away. They threw me in jail again as well. During the first nine days, they only took my handcuffs away when I needed to urinate. One evening, one of the policemen dragged me to his office and forced me to watch pornographic movies to break my will as a devout Muslim.”
When, after a good long while, they started interrogating him in earnest, Wasim told his story in its entirety to the prosecutor. “I cried all the time. I was absolutely desperate. Even then I somehow knew the worst had already happened. None of the policemen went to search for my family. Finally, a representative of the United Nations came to visit my cell and promised to take care of everything. Four more days passed, maybe five. The policemen assured me they had searched the area and found nothing. I spent fourteen more days in that prison. And then – without so much as a word – they transfered me to a local detention centre for the immigrants.
From there, Wasim was able to call his nephew in Sweden, who immediately made the trip to Greece. But since he was an immigrant himself, he should have obtained a special permit from the authorities, and immediately upon his return to Sweden his passport was confiscated. In the detention centre, Wasim was also helped by a lawyer named Marianna and a Syrian activist named Aziz who invited him to come live with him for a while in Athens. Almost a month after that horrible, fateful night, Marianne officially filed three missing persons claims for Lamise, Oday and Layan. Only then the policemen on Samos set themselves in motion. Yet they still claimed there was nothing to be found. Wasim himself was forbidden from moving around the island. The detention centre was really just a prison with a politically correct name. The crime committed by the poor souls locked within its walls was to have been born in the wrong part of the world. In the promised land called EU, such a crime often merits the death penalty.
After his long wait in prison, Wasim’s lawyer and activist friends helped him to finally obtain a set of papers which entitled him to a six-month stay in Greece. In official bureaucratspeak: since he came from Syria, a country consumed by war, his deportation had been ‘delayed for six months’. After he got the papers, he went to Athens and then quickly returned to Samos. Accompanied by his nephew and by Aziz, he started searching the area where he had last seen his loved ones. It didn’t take long before he found their remains. “Their bones and jewelry…” he said and showed me the nauseating picture on his cellphone again. “This is all that was left of them. They murdered them by refusing to help them. They had more than enough time. They knew all they needed to know. We could have easily been saved by the coast guard. We found the bones a mere two hundred meters away from where that policemen took me with his boat. We are now having a DNA analysis made. Once the results are in, I am going to file a suit against those who are responsible. Against the murderers of my wife and children. Apart from legally leaving Greece, this is now the only goal I have left. I am a dead man. I don’t have any reason to go on living. They took everything from me, and there was nothing I could do. I still feel like I am drowning.”
For the last time during our meeting, Wasim Abu Nehi dissolved in a spasm of uncontrollable sobs. Then he repeated: “My wife and children did not pass away. They were murdered by Europe.”
* Check www.bostjanvidemsek.com and his new book “Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall”
Monica G. Prieto / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
Ali Othman became responsible for the Baba Amr media center, the most active in Syria, and devoted himself to filming the military offensive and to promoting his own and his colleagues’ recordings so the world could see what was happening in Homs. And he was arrested as such on Wednesday the 28th in the city of Aleppo, where he had gone fleeing the capital of the Syrian revolt: according to his colleagues, “he is being put through the worst kinds of torture since his arrest”. “We, the members of the media center, call on all NGOs, as well as the Federation of Arab Journalists and the United Nations to act immediately and save the life of journalist and activist Ali Othman. We hold Assad’s regime fully responsible of any harm caused to him”, reads a press release from the Baba Amr information center.
Ali’s name was changed to Eyyed in the article The eyes of the revolution to protect his true identity- like the other Syrian activists, he did not want to give his true name fearing arrest. This 34 year old fruit salesman, born in Baba Amr, married and with five small children, decided to stay in Homs’ martyr neighborhood even when the troops of the Syrian Army’s 4th Division entered the neighborhood in February, after almost a month of constant bombings. He turned down the escape routes used by his colleagues as well as a significant part of the civilian population and the Free Syrian Army fighters due to his convictions. “How can I go when there are people who cannot leave the neighborhood? If they stay, I stay. Somebody needs to witness what is happening”, he argued during the last conversation we had, via Skype, hours before the fall of the neighborhood. Leer más
- Sixth and last chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- It is easy to see why Nur generates an aura of respect around her.
- She is the one behind the protests, its slogans and signs, the distribution of videos and the social organization in Homs that prevents the city, 1.5 million people besieged and attacked by their own Army since months ago, crumbles down due to the lack of supplies.
The most respected woman in Homs goes completely unnoticed. Petite, her shyness becomes evident due to a voice that only emerges as a whisper and is confirmed by a flushed smile each time anyone brings up the role she is having in this revolution. “She is our heroine”, they say, and she looks down blushing. But earning the general and unconditional admiration of Arab men is something very few women can achieve, and Nur al Homsi is one of them. Leer más
By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
- Fifth chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- Standing on top of a platform, Mohamed al Dalaub, 23 year old construction worker, begins to sing a song. Men, women and children are his choir and start dancing as if it were a party. Except that this party, like in all of Syria, can end drenched in blood.
- “When freedom knocks on your door, fear disappears”. That is Al Dalaub’s explanation for the continuation of the protests.
Standing on top of a platform, Mohamed al Dalaub, 23 year old construction worker, starts a songs that the hundreds who almost daily attend the demonstrations in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs have already learnt by heart. “Come on, Bashar, what you are doing is wrong. Leave and leave Syria alone”. Men, women and children are his choir, dancing to the rhythm of the drum played by Mohamed Darmush, 23 year old painter, and start dancing as if they were attending a party. Except that this party, like in all the rest of Syria, can end up drenched in blood because the Security Forces, for the last nine months, have been trying to silence the cries that demand freedom with their weapons.
Protests in Homs begin with songs and usually end with shots. Each neighborhood in this city, which has been under siege for five months, holds rallies against the regime every night. They are not as marked by improvisation as in the beginning, and the main example is that each one has its own revolutionary singer-songwriter, such as Al Dalaub or Zakiah Ahmad, a 22 year old construction worker who spend their days writing and rehearsing in a humble home with Darmoush the songs they will sing by night. Leer más
By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
- Fourth chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- The only source of images from Syria are the recordings made by citizens who use the Internet to broadcast them to the rest of the world.
- Neighbors such as Bilal, Hussein, Eyyed, Abu Saleh and many others learned that no one would believe them without witness evidence. This is their story.
The images that opened the Al Jazeera Arabic news last Monday night were extremely harsh. Several civilians lay in a narrow street in Baba Amr that had just been attacked by a tank, all of them dead. One of them had his head split open, another one had died curled up against a wall, yet another lay on a huge pool of blood. Later, the scenes of tanks shooting through the city gave a clear idea of the range of the repression and, a few seconds afterwards, the images of this neighborhood’s field hospital disheartened Arab spectators.
The author of this article, journalist Mónica G. Prieto, and a citizen of Homs dodge shots fired by Assad’s army while trying to cross a street battered by snipers and soldiers. This video was filmed this Christmas 2011 by one of the civilian cameras in the Baba Amr neighborhood.
By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Siria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
With a kefiyeh (checkered headscarf) wrapped around his forehead to prevent sweat from getting in the way of his work, Abu Berri treats a clean bullet wound. He introduces a catheter with serum to clean up the injury as a woman’s shrieks echo in the humble room that serves as operating room, stabilization unit and even morgue of the Baba Amr field hospital. This neighborhood, and the entire city of Homs, has been under military siege for months, and under the snipers’ indiscriminate shots, like the ones that tear ripped cries from the patient.
“Don’t take pictures of me, they will kill me!”, she repeats when she sees a camera man as she receives emergency medical treatment, clinging to the hand of a relative who looks at her helplessly. Next to the stretcher, which is laid out on the floor, Leila translates whispering while she prepares a shot of local anesthesia that she quickly administers to her leg. “She had not left her house in three days, but she needed to go buy diapers. A sniper shot her on her doorstep”, she explains.
Meanwhile, Sleiman brings a new victim out of a van that is covered in blood on the inside. He puts tourniquets on the injured and digs in the drawers looking for the right medicine. He is not a nurse: he is Abu Berri’s cousin and Abu Sleiman’s son, a stout man in charge of cleaning and embalming the corpses. Leer más
By Mónica G. Prieto, Homs (Siria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
A drum’s rhythmic beat sets the pace of the protesters. A young man, 23 year old construction worker until the revolution, chants songs echoed by the others. “What a shame Bashar, that you remain president being a criminal”. “Go away, Bashar”, the crowd shouts back. Among cries and chants, a male voice comes through a speaker. “Stay away from the checkpoints specially. They shoot to kill, so we repeat over and over again: do not go close to them”. Futile advice: the population of Homs has learnt to avoid, as much as possible, these checkpoints, as well as the avenues, where snipers fire indiscriminately at anyone who moves.
Until the bombings became constant, protests were still being held all over Homs. On Fridays, thousands of people went out on the street; the rest of the week, hundreds gathered in the neighborhoods, isolated from one another by military posts, to chant slogans against Bashar al Assad’s regime and show signs urging the international community to act.
“Freedom for our brothers and sons in prison”. “Stop the massacre”. “Where is the Arab League?”. “We are not Shiite, Alaouite or Sunni: we are all Syrian”. Muted cried in a revolution whose legitimacy is questioned by many, driven by the propaganda that labels as terrorists a civil population united in its call for freedom regardless of their social class, age and religion. A population determined to carry on until the end, because each new crime the regime commits renews their strength.
There are no weapons in sight at the protests, unless someone might try to consider as such the loudspeakers carried by the ones who direct them. None of the supposed terrorists Bashar al Assad claims to be fighting either, just men, women, teenagers and small children, ubiquitous in the marches and with the firm will to expose what is going on in Syria.
Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
- We start publishing a series of reports written during these Christmas holidays by our correspondent Mónica G. Prieto in the Syrian city of Homs, besieged and bombed by the army under Bashar al Assad’s regime.
It was impossible to recognize young Ali Ahmed al Zeib in the remains that lay in the humble kitchen. The inquiring look the 15 year old gave his mother hours before when she remembered the sudden loss of his brother Mahmud, 12, victim of a nail bomb dropped by a Syrian tank a month ago on his street, was now frozen; his limbs were gone. It hurt to remember little Ali while he helped, just a few hours before, Umm Yihad to look for pictures of his brother, when he held his breath while she referred with pride to the loss that, she said, “was breaking her heart”. “But he has died as a martyr of the revolution, thank god, and I’m willing to give out my sons one by one to end this regime. Since I was little I learnt from my parents that Hafez Assad [father of the current president] was a criminal. I thought his son would not be so bad, now I’ve seen that he is even worse than his father”.
What Umm Yihad could not suspect is that barely a few hours after welcoming Periodismo Humano in her home in Baba Amr, one of the most significant neighborhoods in Homs, the military aggression launched by the Syrian regime against its citizens would snatch away two more of his children. At six in the evening of Tuesday December 20th, a missile landed right in her home, unleashing what Baba Amr considers the worst massacre since it rebelled against Bashar Assad. Ali Ahmed lay in the kitchen torn into pieces, his big eyes lost in the emptiness. One of his arms stuck out among the rubble, which just an hour before was a spacious and simple home where Umm Yihad handed out fruit, a luxury given the siege of Homs, to her guests. The remains of Ali and Yihad, his older brother, 24, had been scattered around the room making up a grotesque collection of scraps. On one side of the room, a huge tray with rice makes us think that they were in the middle of dinner when the explosion that has broken once more Umm Yihad’s heart took place.
Al Zeib’s family, well known in Homs, was not the only victim of the tragedy caused by Bashar Assad’s forces. Part of the house next door, which belonged to the Al Aads, collapsed because of the strength of the explosion. The dust and the smell of death and explosives make it impossible to breathe. The neighbors’ howls, completely shaken, made the ambiance even more surreal. “This way, this way!” The stairs, full of debris, led to a second floor where several men worked frantically. One of them held a flashlight, shedding some light onto the impenetrable darkness of the night in Homs, where the Syrian president does not allow its inhabitants to enjoy the luxury of electricity as a punishment for not submitting to his police regime. Another one carried a blanket. A third one, on the roof, brought down with difficulty a bloody lump: a spinal column with bloody bits dangling from it. He threw it onto the blanket and vomited. The second man wrapped it up while the others tried to locate more remains of someone who just hours before tried to wear out another terrible day. Leer más
By Monica G. Prieto (Tripoli, Lebanon) / Traslation Blanca G. Bertolaza
- Syrian activists create a private healthcare network to treat the victims of the repression in private homes
- According to Amnesty International, in government hospitals the patients are arrested, questioned and tortured even by the medical staffSome of the wounded are transferred to the north of Lebanon, where another network hospitalizes them and takes care of the expenses
The four young men lie in two rooms in one of Tripoli’s main hospitals, bright and aseptic. They all have one thing in common: they were wounded during the repression in Syria and treated in private homes by doctors and nurses because they were scared to go to a public hospital, since the regime has turned them into “military bases”, as Syrian activists and NGOs such as Avaaz and Amnesty International have reported.
By Mónica G. Prieto / Translation: Blanca G. Betolaza
- Internet sitcom Just Freedom launches devastating criticism against Syria’s regime and repression in a humorous tone
- Created by exiled artists, it seeks to question official propaganda
- On its first month if life, it has caught the interest of 200,000 viewers
The two young men sip their tea with a blank stare, sitting in a peeled off garage. “You know what? I’d like to go out there.” “Out there, where?” “There, with the people, sing with all of them”, answers the first one. “You’re crazy. They can’t be going out just like that. That’s because they are taking something”. “Taking what?” At that moment a street vendor hawks his goods. “Hallucinogenic pills, I have them all! Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, France 24, BBC… Hallucinogenic pills!” “See how it wasn’t impossible?” points out the second one as he casts his eyes on the vendor. Leer más