By Liana Dobrica
At UCU, we hear constantly how we are tomorrow’s leaders. What we do all day long, though, is enjoying the coziness of our bubble. There is a world outside for us to explore and engage in! To what extent do we care to make a difference?
“The sheerest kind of betrayal is that of letting things go by whilst condoning oneself for doing so”
Inspirational people can spur our ability to make a difference. Pierre Piccinin da Prata is a historian and political scientist based in Brussels. He is also a reporter; one who visits the border between life and death, who pursues objective and independent journalism above all, and who really experiences the reality that he writes about. As a teacher in my high school, he always encouraged us to question and scrutinize how authorities (from school teachers to news agencies) portray the world around us. His blog heading could be his motto: “The true betrayal lies in following the world as it goes and attempting to justify it.”
In these heated times, Piccinin da Prata has been traveling all over the Middle East. He joined Egyptian protestors in Tahir square, he witnessed the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia, and he has sided with the rebels of Benghazi in Libya. His last mission has been mapping the insurgencies and following the rebel movements in Syria. His articles offer a detailed portrayal of these gruesome conflicts, with the scent of spilled blood and the cries of the Tarik al-Bab hospital.
Far from intending to make any normative claim about the Syrian conflict itself, I want to tell the story of one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. To understand him and his activity, though, we need to have a look at the background of the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian conflict
The modern Syrian state was established after the First World War as a French mandate. Even though an independent parliamentary republic since 1946, a large number of (attempted) coups have shaken the emergency-law-ruled territory since. Most constitutional protections for the Syrian citizens have long been abolished, something that is justified as being a necessary precaution due to the constant state of war with Israel. Simultaneously, security forces have been granted extensive powers of arrest and detention, predominantly used against human rights activists and critics of the regime.
The one-party state has been embroiled in civil war resulting from the uprisings against President Bashar Al-Assad and his neo-Ba’athist government. For decades, they have been running more of a personality cult and ethnic type of favoritism rather than a concrete Arab-nationalist ideology. Great socio-economic discrepancies between government-affiliates and the rest of the population emerged. The chain of peaceful protests against Assad and his Alawite-sect government commenced in March 2011, and turned into the Free Syrian Army upon the crackdown of the Sunni Muslim-dominated Syrian Army. There are no clearly delimited fronts as conflicts run all over the country. The government and opposition forces alike have contributed to the deteriorating human rights situation. However, human rights groups as well as the United Nations have ascribed the majority of abuses to the Syrian government.
“The trap closed within a few minutes and my journey to Hell began on that day towards five in the afternoon”
In May 2012 Piccinin da Prata embarked on his third journey to Syria to evaluate the Syrian Liberation Front’s potential to overthrow the regime. For previous journeys to the country he had received a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Brussels – this time he crossed the Lebanese frontier at the Masnaa site, proceeding to the town of Jdaidit where it is possible to obtain a visa without any formalities. After a couple of days around the country, photographing the ruined rebel areas of Tal-Biseh and talking to fighters of the opposition, he presented himself at the army’s check-point in the area of the Homs Governorate. He was promised to be allowed into Tal-Kalakh. After tw-hour waiting for permission to enter the city, some armed men arrived telling him that they would accompany him on his voyage.
He describes getting into the car with them for French publication Le Monde (translation by Tony Davis): “The trap closed within a few minutes and my journey to Hell began on that day towards five in the afternoon… From there, in the evening, I was moved to the centre of the Intelligence Service in Homs, where my personal possessions were removed from me in the first building, in which, already, I could hear muffled cries which troubled me, and I could well imagine what was happening there. Soon after, two agents led me to another building. The cries had stopped. There, they were washing off the ground what was quite clearly blood. Everything there was dirty and squalid; the doors, walls, floor-tiles, everything was filthy.”
The plea for international involvement
In May 2012, Piccinin da Prata was arrested by the Syrian Intelligence Agency, tortured in Homs and held prisoner in Damas. Nonetheless, he has returned to Aleppo in July and August. The Belgian paper Le Soir has published thirteen chronicles telling the story of the merciless war between President Assad and the people of Syria, abandoned by the international community. Upon his return from Aleppo, he has published ‘La bataille d’Alep’ (the Battlefield of Aleppo), a book and documentary which comprise a new series of war chronicles as well as his experience in the infernal prisons of the Ba’athist dictatorship. For Piccinin da Prata, this journalistic endeavour merely represents the echo of the Syrian people’s cry of despair, a people that faces death day after day, feeling the general indifference of the Western public and tomorrow’s leaders.
“I hope that the testimony of this book will arouse the interest of the public opinion with regard to the Syrian revolution. So far, it seems to have been taking place inside a box that no one wants to take the lid off.”