Syrians on Hunger Strike
Cairo - For eighteen days, six Syrian women were on a hunger strike; outside the walls of the Arab League (AL) building in Cairo they declared their demands on daily basis.
Towards the end of their strike, which will be on hold until October 1, the concrete demands the women were making metamorphosed into the general sentiment that informed and fueled their work.
“It’s a message to the human conscience,” said Syrian activist Rola al-Khash, who traveled from Abu Dhabi to join the Cairo strikers. “The world is silent. Syria is the orphan country of the world.”
Not far from a placard calling for stopping the massacres in her home country, Khash explained that they want to draw attention to the ongoing peaceful struggle that has been overshadowed by the battles between rebels and the Syrian military.
It’s been 18 months since the Syrian revolt started. Peaceful protests were met with brutal force by the authorities and eventually turned into an armed rebellion. Estimates of the death toll range from 20,000 to over 30,000. According to the UNHCR, 220,000 have fled Syria. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been displaced internally.
Georgina Jamil, one of the activists on hunger strike, fled Syria a month and a half ago. “I wanted to protect my daughter. The shelling was getting close. I could see the fighter jets flying over my building.”
The news of peaceful protests is drowned by news of clashes and an increasing death toll. “In the face of the sound of the killing, of death … and of daily massacres, unfortunately the sound of peaceful action dies,” said Lina al-Tibi, the Syrian poet who first called for the strike.
The six women were critical of the sectarian angle through which the media is covering the revolt. A night before the strike was put on hold following the brief hospitalization of Tibi, a tired Khash sat on the pavement outside the Arab League recalling the discussions she’s had over the past two weeks. She was dismayed by the sectarian slant through which some people supported the revolt.
“It’s not a fight between two religious sects. If you have to divide it into sects, then it would be the pro-freedom group on one side and the regime and its supporters on the other,” Khash said. “Egyptians think it’s a fight between Sunnis and Shias. This view is damaging to the revolution.”
The women argue that the regime has succeeded in promoting this sectarian divide, both inside and outside Syria. On the rug that the women have made their home outside the AL walls, together they provide tangible evidence in support of their argument; they include a Christian, a Sunni Muslim and an Alawi. The latter is the sect of the president and the higher echelons of the military. The diversity of Syrian society, they said, is seen among the rebels and regime supporters.
The misrepresentation of the revolt, Khash explained, also includes the balance of power. “They are making it seem as if it’s a fight between equal sides. Even the rebels holding guns could be described as unarmed because the other side has tanks [and artillery],” she said.
On the last two nights, frustration mixed with fatigue. After Tibi’s hospitalization she came back to join her friends (who also suffered health setbacks) on the rug spread at the corner between Tahrir Square and Qasr al-Nil Bridge. They only managed to speak to AL officials for a few minutes throughout the 18 days at the organization’s doorstep. The international envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and AL Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi invited them for lunch and told them not to worry, Tibi recalled with bitter sarcasm.
The women were calling for real action from the AL, not just condemnation. They were informed that there was no consensus among the Arab states as to what course to take in Syria. “The Arab states are waiting for the major powers, which in turn are looking out for their immediate interests,” Khash said, explaining that she’s equally frustrated with the limited pressure people have been exerting on their governments to take action.
The international debate about options and types of intervention is further complicated by the conflicting interests of major world powers at play in Syria. In their midst, voices like these six women’s are barely heard.
“We didn’t achieve any of our political demands,” Jamil said matter-of-factly on the last night.
They chose the hunger strike because it’s the topmost form of peaceful protest and expressing frustration, Khash explained. Her dark curls framed a tired face and defiant eyes. “A hunger strike is a life known only to those who live it,” she said, describing her personal experience: the physical pain eventually fades away; the lack of food takes its toll on your ability to concentrate; the cause takes over your mind; and questions about humanity dominate a resulting state of meditation.
In Cairo, reality hits hard even though the women are far away from the violence in Syria and are surrounded by supporters. Continuous harassment pushed them to stop spending the night on the street. One night, a man ripped the placard denouncing the massacres after conversing with Khash and other supporters. The women complained about the lack of even the slightest attention from the Egyptian government, including security and medical care. They struggled for attention in Cairo, which continues to be a hotspot for protests, rallies and strikes concerned with local demands. Stories about the difficulties Syrian refugees find in settling in abound.
Last Saturday, the last night of the hunger strike — a group of men took over and the women will resume in October — a vigil was held attracting dozens. Two of the women’s purses were stolen.
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