Dispatch #2 from the Mussalaha Delegation to Syria

SYRIA IN DEPTH, 20 May 2013

Paul Larudee – TRANSCEND Media Service

Friday, May 10th, 2013

As I begin to compose this, I hear what sounds like artillery and rocket fire in the distance, mixed with occasional small arms and possible explosions. Most of their targets must be far away, because I don’t hear them hit.  The explosions may or may not be something else.

I guess that after two years of fighting it is not surprising that the Syrians take it in stride, and life is surprisingly normal, if hard, for the slightly more than half of Syrians that have not been killed or displaced.  It’s a terrible statistic, equal to almost 10 million out of a total population of 23 million.

The delegation has been disrupted several times by changes of plan.  Our visas were delayed, so our time was lengthened in Lebanon and shortened in Syria, with additional days added at the end.  Then, on our first day in Syria, our appointment with Dr. Kinda Shammat, Minister of Social Affairs, was canceled by a cabinet meeting called by President Assad, leaving us with only an improvised outing to an affected neighborhood, which I missed because of a faulty telephone in my hotel room.

That evening was a large meeting of Mussalaha members from all over Syria talking about their war experiences and the intervention of Mussalaha to turn tragedy into reconciliation.  One of them was the celebrated case of a nine-year-old Christian boy named Sari Saoud, killed by rebels in Homs.  His body was taken by the rebels, but his mother, Georgina al-Jammal caught up with them, and her embrace of her dead son was captured on video by the rebels, who then falsified the account to make it appear that the boy had been killed by government forces.

I talked with Georgina, who supports the government, but blames it for leaving the area without protection. She told me that she recognized some of the rebels from the neighborhood, but that others were strangers.  Part of the story can be found here, by Syrian Arab Television. It has a strong dose of propaganda but the important parts are factual and sincere.  Another account is available here.  It is cruder and more amateurish, and only party subtitled, but it includes some of the footage shot by the rebels and their clumsy attempt to disguise the killing.  It is also quite graphic and captures the terrible moment of the Georgina’s attempt to revive her dead son.

I also met a woman by the name of Shaikha Asya al-Mashi, part of a prominent Muslim family in Raqqa.  Her brother-in-law was offered an enormous sum of money to leave and turn over his properties to the rebels.  When he refused, he was killed outside his home, where the family listened to him die.  I offered to suppress her name and photo, but she defiantly insisted that I publish them.

I do not wish to dwell on these stories, but several things impressed me about them and the Mussalaha gathering:

1.  The witnesses and attendees represented a wide range of communities, both geographically and in terms of confession.  Mussalaha is a diverse and accessible organization that reaches many Syrians.

2.  There are varying degrees of support for the regime itself, but there are clearly many Syrians that support the regime’s attempt to restore order.

3.  Part of the evening’s program consisted of an open mike where anyone who wanted could tell their story and ask for Mussalaha’s intervention in their community.

4. Much of the evening was lost on the delegates because it was all in Arabic and interpretation was inconsistent and hard to hear.  My Arabic was of some help, but I missed a lot.

5.  We did not hear from the other side.

To elaborate on point number 5, there are Lebanese allies of the armed opposition and opposition fighters in Lebanon.  I don’t think it is impossible to meet them, but I’m not sure it is possible for Mussalaha to make such arrangements.  Mussalaha has contacts with such parties for the purpose of prisoner exchanges and reconciliation.  However, offering us the chance to confer with such parties could possibly put them in jeopardy with the regime.  Mussalaha tries to develop trust with everyone, but I suspect that there is a line that they dare not cross for fear of losing their mandate to operate.

Having said that, my experience with the nonviolent opposition is that they, too, are intolerant of the point of view of Syrians that support the regime in any way, and do not want this rather large segment of Syrian society to have a voice in Syria’s future, because that voice is necessarily the regime’s.  As long as some Syrians refuse to respect the views of other Syrians, I fear for Syria’s future.

Early the next morning I began to feel the effects of stomach poisoning, so I spent the day in bed until we met briefly as a delegation.  We then received a visit from Dr. Jihad Lahham, President of the Parliament.  He made a point of the fact that he is from the opposition, but the “loyal” opposition, saying that he would like very much for Assad to find himself in the opposition for a few years.  I left later that evening, still on an empty stomach.

Altogether, we had too many meetings with too many dignitaries, all of whom had essentially the same message.  After one interview upon arrival, I stopped giving them for fear that I would appear to be part of a propaganda machine.  Mairead and most of the others were careful to speak of our solidarity with the Syrian people, not the regime or any other party, but Syrian News kept filming us with dignitaries of the same general stripe.

Perhaps it was too much to expect anything different.  For security reasons we were housed at the Dama Rose Hotel, the most secure hotel in Damascus, because there is no doubt that we were a potential rebel target and an opportunity to embarrass the government.  However, the reason it is the most secure is that it is also the plushest and most expensive hotel, and therefore the hangout of all sorts of government VIPs.  Even hosted by Mussalaha, which has built trust with a wide spectrum of elements in Syria, it is exceedingly difficult to get as full a picture as we wanted and needed.

Nevertheless, we learned a lot, and I had to leave before the end of the visit, because the schedule had migrated beyond my original departure date, which I could not change because of personal obligations.  I am eager to know what happened after my departure, and may yet have some more hopeful news in a later report.  I also helped to draft two declarations for the delegation and want to share them with you, but only after they have been approved by the group, with amendments.  I may also have further news about initiatives that were developed as a result of the visit.

Thank you for continuing to support peace.

*********************

The Mussalaha Delegation to Syria:

William R. Stanley (USA) Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA. – A bipolar view of conflict resolution that began with enlisting in the Marine Corps and service in Korea 1952-53. Starting in 1964 while undertaking field work for the Ph.D. and continuing through the present, yearly research endeavors in various corners of Africa and the Middle East. Realizing that there always are weapons for warfare and men to use them, alternative options had to be explored. Visited the Falklands in early 1983 following that conflict to assess attitudes amongst the Islanders regarding long term political relationships; official election monitor in the northern (Ovamboland) region of Southwest Africa-Namibia during the November 1989 vote organized by the UN; frequent visitor to Sierra Leone and Liberia during their recent implosions. Received two Alexander von Humboldt Fellowships: National Geographic Society financial support, and Fulbright fellowship for research in Namibia. An active investigator, I continue to write on issues of conflict and possible resolution.

Marinella Coreggia (Italy) Italian journalist and writer in the field of ecological justice; and an ecological farmer, Marinella Correggia, has been active for peace since 1991. Associated with the No War Network, she co-organized many demonstrations in Rome, petitions to the UN, sending information to some Un missions in Geneva, writing articles and conferences.

Mel Duncan (USA) is Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Nonviolent Peaceforce. Mel Duncan is the founding Executive Director and current Advocacy and Outreach Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). Modeled on the Gandhian concept of Shanti Sena, Nonviolent Peaceforce is composed of trained citizens from around the world. Mr. Duncan has 40 years of experience organizing and advocating nonviolently for peace, justice, and the environment. He currently focuses on advancing the recognition, policy and funding support for nonviolent peacekeeping at the UN.

Tiffany Easthom (Canada) She is Country Director for South Sudan for Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) which is an international non-governmental organization (INGO) engaged in the creation of a large-scale unarmed peacekeeping force, composed of specially trained civilians. Prior to becoming NP’s Country Director in South Sudan, Tiffany served as Country Director at NP’s Sri Lanka project as well as Country Director for Peace Brigades International in Indonesia.

Denning Isles (Australia) is a graduate of Welsey Institute, majoring in Audio Technology (2008). He currently works for Fr. David Smith with Fighting Fathers Ministries, in which he supports various youth and community organizations such as Dulwich Hill’s Holy Trinity Youth Center, Binacrombi Camp Site and the Dulwich Hill Gym.

Franklin Lamb (USA) is an international lawyer based in Beirut-Washington, DC. A former Assistant Counsel of the House Judiciary Committee of the US Congress, Lamb has written widely on Middle East issues as part of his commitment to the cause of Palestine.

Paul Larudee (USA) is a former Ford foundation project supervisor, and Fulbright-Hays lecturer in Lebanon, and a U.S. government advisor to Saudi Arabia. He has been a faculty member at several universities in the San Francisco Bay Area, an organizer with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine and co-founder of the movement to break the Israeli siege of Gaza by sea, and was aboard the boats that succeeded in doing so in 2008 as well as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which was attacked by Israeli forces on May 31, 2010. He is a cofounder of the Global March to Jerusalem.

Amir M. Maasoumi (Canada) is a sociologist, specialist of contemporary Islam, intercultural and interfaith relations, dialogue among cultures and civilizations. He is also a peace, social justice and human rights activist.

Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland) is Nobel Peace Laureate (l976) Hon. President, Co-Founder Peace People, Northern Ireland. Mairead (Corrigan) Maguire is a Nobel Peace Laureate (l976) Hon. President and Co-founder of the Peace People, Northern Ireland. Mairead was responsible for co-founding the Peace People. She has received many honors and awards, including an honorary doctorate from Yale University, the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Distinguished Peace Leadership Award and the Nobel Peace Prize Award (l976).

Michael Maloof (USA) is a senior writer for WND (WND.com), or World Net Daily, specializing in international political and economic reporting and analysis. He also writes a weekly column for subscribers only for WND’s G2Bulletin providing analysis in these areas. As part of his reporting, Maloof travels many times a year to Lebanon where he is expected to set up a bureau there for WND.

Ann Patterson (Ireland) is a family therapist at the Quaker Centre in Belfast, she works to provide counseling support for families from the divided communities. During the peace process in Northern Ireland, she worked with imprisoned paramilitaries from both sides, preparing them to enter into peace talks. She is founder member of the Peace People, a pacifist movement that played a critical role in promoting the Good Friday Agreement and advancing the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Father Dave Smith (Australia) started Fighting Fathers Ministries in 2002 – a company that aims to offer an alternative culture to young people, based on values of courage, integrity and teamwork. This work has been the subject of numerous TV documentaries and one short film. Particularly well-known for our use of boxing-training as a means to help young men overcome anger-management issues. He was twice nominated for Australian of the Year on the basis of this work. He is known for his friendship with Mordechai Vanunu (the Israeli ‘nuclear whistle-blower’), which started in Sydney in 1986, started my involvement in social justice work in the Middle East and has subsequently developed a strong profile in Australia as a Palestinian human rights activist.

Antonio Carlos da Silva Rosa (Brasil/Portugal) is the editor of TRANSCEND Media Service-TMS since its inception in 2008. He is also the Secretary of the Board of Conveners of TRANSCEND International-A Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founded by Johan Galtung in 1993.

Luke Waters (Australia) photo-journalist recording the trip.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 May 2013.

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