Branch 251/
S2E7: Anniversary


This episode is not one we expected to make, but as we were pitching and developing, it became clear that we couldn't have made anything else.

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Episode Transcript

Fritz Streiff: Things don't always go according to plan.


Fritz: In fact, they rarely do. I can tell you right off the bat that this episode you're hearing is not the episode we planned to make initially. Let me explain why. When we develop this podcast, the episode about the 10 year anniversary of the Syrian revolution was one of the first we knew we had to make. It sat at the top of our wish list before it moved to our episode planner and then to our production schedule. Content-wise, it had always been a fluid idea. Maybe we'll describe the very beginning of the revolution. Maybe we'll go into geopolitics. Who are the key players in this war?

Where does Koblenz fit into it? Then we thought of drawing a direct line from the first protests in Daraa in 2011 to the Koblenz court of 2001 to explain how we got to where we are today or maybe we should profile someone who organized the early protests and had to start a life elsewhere since then. As we were pitching ideas and developing and brainstorming, we felt that something just wasn't right. Our podcast Branch 251 has always had the ambition to empower Syrians, to amplify Syrian voices, and to be sure that our team reflected this philosophy.

While we deeply believe that this is the right thing to do, we also want to acknowledge that it means that we don't always have the distance necessary to say, write a script, develop an outline, and record narration. The truth is that the story of the Syrian revolution is dynamic and it's current. It's something that some of our colleagues are living and experiencing every day. When this anniversary approached, that fact came into focus like it hadn't before. This anniversary has left Syrians all over the world to reflect on the last 10 years of their lives. I recently listened in on a clubhouse meeting on the topic of the Syrian revolution and memories about it.

As I listened, I heard how Syrians in the diaspora exchange thoughts, memories, and quite a bit of pain. For anyone that wasn't touched by the Syrian revolution, it's impossible to know what that's like but you don't have to know. Just trust that it's difficult enough to put all the thoughts and feelings that come with the anniversary into writing and narration for a podcast episode, and so we decided to do something different with this episode. We asked Asser and Noor to simply sit down in front of a microphone and let the thoughts flow for a few minutes.

They each chose a topic to discuss. What you're about to hear is their unscripted train of thought. You'll first hear Noor. We asked her what role she thinks the Syrian diaspora will have to play in the next 10 years in telling the story of the Syrian people.

Noor Hamadeh: I actually think the Syrian diaspora will play a really big role in the Syrian story, the Syrian narrative, moving forward over the course of the next 10 years. First of all, I think one important thing is that what makes up the Syrian diaspora has changed so much in the last 10 years. I think prior to 2011 when you think about the Syrian diaspora, I would think about Syrians who left Syria years ago and who have raised families abroad, and people who are Syrian but were born and raised abroad, that to me was the Syrian diaspora prior to 2011.

I think now when I think about what the Syrian diaspora encompasses, I think about all the types of people that I just mentioned but I also think about Syrians who left post-2011, Syrians who had to flee the conflict, Syrians who were afraid for their lives and left the country. I think now the Syrian diaspora encompasses all of those people. It encompasses people who have never lived in Syria but also people who lived their entire lives in Syria and now have only been outside of Syria for 5 years or 10 years maximum but who very much lived under the Assad regime very much lived in the conflict and experienced it throughout the country.

To me, that's what the Syrian diaspora entails now. I think the diaspora has a really big role to play in telling the Syrian story moving forward because for so many of them, I think one really important element is that the civil society space and the space for freedom of expression inside Syria especially in government-held areas is extremely limited. What that means is that there is limited civil society or at least there are limited things that Syrian civil society can do safely. What that means is that the most vibrant and active civil society actors are outside of Syria.

I think most of the advocacy efforts, most of the efforts to tell Syrian stories, to share experiences, to raise awareness around the world about what's happening in Syria, are efforts happening outside of Syria by Syrians outside of Syria. To me, that's really important because I think one thing that's resulted from Syrians leaving the country and from the revolution in the first place is opening up of space to be more vocal to have conversations that previously people weren't willing to have, to be critical and think critically about things that previously people hadn't really question or were taught that they couldn't question, for example.

I think that's really, really important moving forward for Syrians and for thinking about the experiences that Syrians have had. I think this means that for a lot of Syrians, they're looking at their past experiences, they're looking at what the Syrian government and the Assad regime has done in Syria through a different lens. I also think that the revolution and the thinking behind the revolution and the demands of the revolution have also resulted in wider conversations about what freedom means and what rights are important and has turned into opening up of greater conversations about a larger number of topics.

I think that's really important for the Syrian narrative because it means that now people are really thinking critically about what's happened in the past and what is currently happening in a way that maybe they may not have been willing to speak about earlier. Regarding the role of the Syrian diaspora in advocacy efforts, I think a lot of Syrians play a really important role in raising awareness and advocacy to their government representatives.

I think for a lot of governments, they really would have no-- I think the only really connection they have to what Syrians really want is through members of the diaspora who are reaching out to political actors, to policymakers, to share with them and represent Syrians both inside Syria and outside Syria based on who they're able to be in contact with and who they have conversations with. I think that's really important for shaping the way that a lot of governments respond to Syria. Obviously, I think a lot of governments don't really respond to Syrian's demands and that's really unfortunate but I still think that those conversations and those connections to political actors have been really important.

I also think that the Syrian diaspora plays an important role in the political process, in the constitution drafting process. They've been involved in that and I think it plays an important role because at the end of the day, even if someone is not living inside Syria, they still are Syrian and even Syrians who are part of the diaspora and have been their entire lives not only recently, they still are Syrians and they still have a connection to the country. I think they play a really important role when it comes to the constitution drafting process to international advocacy and efforts toward ensuring human rights in Syria in terms of raising awareness.

I think an important thing to keep in mind is that the Syrian diaspora is extremely diverse and so that also means that they can play different roles. That includes people who come from illegal background, come from any other background, they can all play an important role in creating efforts towards justice, like the trial in Koblenz. I think things like that will be repeated in different countries and I think a big part of that will be because of the efforts of Syrians within the diaspora and their advocacy within the country that they're living in.


Fritz: Asser chose to discuss return, if he thinks it will ever be possible, and what that would look like.

Asser Khattab: To me, the question of returns is a complicated, and yet very important one and should be addressed. I think that in the middle of all the claims and the talk of Syria being safe again, and people being able to return, some governments even in Europe, pushing for people to go back to Syria or be sent back to Syria because it's safe, allegedly, to them to go back there, is very important to clarify that actually, most of the reasons that pushed people to leave in the first place and prevented them from returning until now are still quite there.

Even if your city, or town, or village is not technically being bombarded at the moment, it's not the scene of explosions and two-sided attacks, it still is a place where the Mukhabarat, the secret police, are still scrutinizing everyone. They still keep their eye on every word that's being said or every action that's being done. People returning to Syria are being arrested at the border. They don't have to be a journalist, or an activist, or a politician to be arrested. We never know the reasons for some people.

The arrests, the detention, the torture, all of these things, they still exist. Assad is still in power and people who have left as refugees are regarded as people who have less sense of patriotism than those who remained. It could even go further to accuse people that they have committed treason, or have abandoned their country, or men, in particular, for having not done the military service, which was also another reason why so many people have left. It was a conscientious decision that they would not want to serve in this army, not so much for fear for their lives as much as it was they didn't want to be put in a position where they would have to fire and shoot at fellow Syrians and innocent civilians in order to protect the regime.

Returning is complicated. There is already quite sensible talk of returning, even as a visit, being a privilege to some Syrians that the vast majority of those of us abroad don't have. I am sure that many people dream of the day they return. I personally am very nostalgic for some aspects of my life in Syria that I had to abandon quite abruptly and go abroad. I'm sure that so many Syrians are the same. Some want to move back there and resume their lives there the moment that they're able to, which for many people means the moment that the regime has fallen and it's a little bit more clear what's going to replace it.

To others, it could be a little bit more complicated because I know and I also understand that for so many Syrians, that country and their lifestyle, even before the revolution and the war, was so complicated, so full of challenges, so full of difficulties, that it has become quite, quite difficult for them to separate what they feel towards their home, and their favorite streets, and restaurants, and their schools, and all the nice memories they have from the daily challenges that they had to face there as Syrians under the police state and everything else that's wrong in Assad's Syria.

Many of them had decided never to go back again. Maybe they will change their minds. Some of them believe that they might change their minds. Some are firmly saying that, "I never want to go back to Syria, and I don't want my children to grow up in Syria, and I don't want my children to go to a Syrian school." Now, this is all a superposition that Syria will remain the same, the education will remain the same, the situation will not change. We have to understand, I think, that it's a very traumatic experience for so many people, and they don't want to see it repeated even if some of the circumstances have changed in the country.

Returning for a visit would be great. Of course, everyone would be delighted to see the places that they love and they've missed so much, and the people that they loved and they miss so much. Even though for so many Syrians also, everyone else has left almost. Living there for so many people is a tougher question, and I haven't been able to find people who readily can answer that, yes, they want to go back to Syria as soon as possible and settle there, and abandon whatever they have done in the past 10 years or fewer, in the case of many people as well in the West, or in neighboring countries, or wherever they are today.


Fritz: To end the episode, we'd like you to hear some Syrian stories that we collected in Koblenz, right after the verdict in the case against Eyad A. They are a collage, a loose collection of impressions and thoughts. Some may answer questions, some may raise them.


Male speaker 1: [Arabic language]

Translator 1: The main aspect that moved me today was the judge's description of the events of the revolution. She transported us way back to the beginning of the non-violent revolutionary movement. When we first came out as united Syrians in nonviolent gatherings and protests. She talked about the flowers, about the peaceful approach. She talked about the peaceful assemblies that were met with bullets, torture, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, and even death. The president of the court walked us through all of these memories with her words.

I believe that a very important message was stated and presented today. There's a judicial system that would have bring justice through this trial and upcoming ones. This might even encourage other countries to walk the same path towards justice. The mentioning of Bashar al-Assad specifically in this trial, the conversation about how he used the same methods as his father, Hafez al-Assad, how he followed in his footsteps by giving the security services complete authority to suppress protests. This was a significant point today, along with fixing this fact into a sentencing hearing for the first international trial. It was crucial.

Male speaker 1: [Arabic language]


Male speaker 2: [Arabic language]

Translator 2: I wholly believe in the revolution. The revolution at its core is a concept and ideology, what's happened today, along with being a month away from celebrating the 10th anniversary of the revolution. This presents a huge boost of hope for Syrians. This reassures them that no matter how long it takes, the evolution will triumph, the war criminals will all be dragged to court and will be prosecuted and brought to justice. This is a wonderful message to receive a month before the anniversary. Every person who was frustrated by the world turning a blind eye to massacres in Syria, they will receive a boost of hope today. Their optimism will verify to lives. I'm sure that people have started to renew their faith in the world and the judicial system, but we have to do our duty now. We have to present the judicial system with whatever is needed to prosecute these criminals.

Male speaker 2: [Arabic language]


Female speaker 3: [Arabic language]

Translator 3: I have mixed feelings about it all and I think many Syrians are going through the same feeling. The most painful matter is that the various violations are still ongoing. Families of the hundreds of thousands of the forcibly disappeared still don't know anything about their people. The shilling is ongoing and there are still cases of enforced disappearances happening. Syrian and international organizations report monthly on enforced disappearances by the regime. Although I do want to acknowledge this moment and its importance in the history, I still need to keep both feet on the ground. I need to be in touch with reality.

At this moment, my thoughts kept drifting back to every Syrian, everyone who is still within Syria's wall, and the exhausting economic circumstances. Everyone dealing with the collapse of the Syrian currency. What does justice look like to them in this exact moment? I'm privileged to be in Germany and to be witnessing this historical moment up close while people in Syria don't even have electricity or an internet connection to follow along. They're exhausted living under a vicious machine that's crushing their souls every day. This trial is the least of their concerns. What is justice to them? Justice, to people in Syria after those 10 years might just be being able to survive. It might be just making it to the end of the month to have enough money to buy fuel to keep them warm during the cold winter months.

Speaker 3: [Arabic language]


Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. This episode was produced, edited, and written by myself, Pauline Peek, and hosted by Fritz Streiff with contributions from our other hosts Asser Khattab and Noor Hamadeh. Saleem Salameh collected the stories of people outside the courtroom in Koblenz. Special thanks to those who lent us their voice for this episode. A big thank you to the voiceovers in this episode. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by EFAs civic funding program.

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