My second Syrian Protest Friday starts in Mena Cafe: The gathering place for the young up-and-coming and of the creative types in Latakia. The clientele here occupy the expanse of opinion on both sides of the Syrian crisis as much as they occupy the expansive, comfy sofas.
We push aside our half-forgotten coffees to make space for our laptops. I open an email from Amnesty International, forwarded to me by my friend Melissa. She wants my view on the email. I am gob-smacked at its oversimplification; inviting people to ‘click here to save the Syrian People’. My friends in the café find the email amusing.
“Let’s click here and save ourselves,” they joke.
I don’t find the email amusing at all. The email is a rallying call to back a UN resolution for what would be war. I am fearful and annoyed. I quickly reply to Melissa in no uncertain terms as to what I think of the email. After pressing send, I think she may regard my response as critical of her, so I quickly knock-out an apology.
After swilling down the dregs of cold coffee, Bassel and I take the fifteen minute walk into the centre of town. As we approach our destination, we can’t fail to notice the ever-increasing number of armed soldiers. As in Damascus, they sit around, chatting, smoking and playing on their mobiles. Their guns are close to hand, but I can’t help thinking that if they came under sudden attack, a good few would be killed before the rest got their act and guns together. I have heard so many stories of soldiers oppressing the citizens, some of the stories may be true, but its hard to be intimidating when you’re playing ‘Angry Birds’ on your mobile phone – even if you do have an automatic rifle within arm’s reach.
We stop for a much needed fruit smoothie. The small booth-like cafe is close to the large mosque in Latakia. A TV crew is interviewing men coming out from prayers, asking for their opinion on the troubles. I want to be interviewed. Bassel isn’t keen, but we walk over anyway. The interviewer spots my European face almost immediately. I can tell she wants to talk to me, but she hesitates, so I wave her over.
I am asked for my views on Syria and whether I feel scared or worried being here. Bassel translates. I tell her how much I adore Syria and that I think the West has a skewered view of what is happening here; this beautiful county and its generous, friendly people. As I am being interviewed, Syrians gather behind the camera, listening so intently to everything Bassel translates; they hardly seem to blink. I half-expect a rousing cheer at my translated comments, but they look at me blankly as if I am just stating the bleeding obvious. When it’s over, Bassel and I wander off, followed by a government security guy, but he quickly loses interest in us.
We walk for ages, passing old haunts I knew five years ago when I lived here. We reach an old part of town that I know well. Nothing has changed except for the presence of military personnel and vehicles – and the Americanisation of some clothes shops. Bassel explains that it’s a part of town from which a lot of the protesters come. He tells me he feels uncomfortable being here in shorts that are above the knee. I look around at what others are wearing. I notice all are in more religious garb. We walk a little further and then grab a taxi to cover more ground in our search for trouble.
What we see on the outskirts of the centre is the immediate aftermath of stone-throwing. Small rocks are scattered on the road and pavement. Some have exploded and left brick-powder. We see a shopkeeper shout at a soldier who is walking towards him, trying to calm him down. The man is annoyed. His shop has been a target. He waves his hands aggressively at the soldier and then at the rocks. I get the impression the shopkeeper feels the solider is not doing his job of protecting the people of the community. It’s the first visual indication I have that people regard soldiers as protectors, not here to kill or even to intimidate. We ride a wide arch back to Mena Cafe, but see nothing else of interest.
News filters through that a part of the town has been closed-off by soldiers. Details are patchy. It is so difficult to know what is going on in the town where you live in Syria. Imagine, then, how impossible if you are outside the country.
I want to take a taxi to the area. Some of my friends are scared to go with me. Others say it’s pointless as we won’t be able to get near the zone. Bassel and Fouad are up for coming with me. Bassel asks if I have my camera with me. He advises me not to take it. I slip it in my trouser pocket and pretend I don’t hear him. I think he has seen me do this, but he says nothing.
We don’t get close, but even from afar I see it’s another poverty-stricken area. I know the type. I have seen these people and these areas so many times on my travels all over the world.
Amnesty International want to get UN permission to go to war in order to protect these people, but when has war ever brought riches and rights to the poor? Time after time these destitute people are the ones that war-mongers entice; claiming to grant them prosperity and opportunity. Yet war after war, the poor end up simply being the cannon-fodder for a conflict that is never really explained to them and from which they will never really benefit.
All ’email clicks’ to save the Syrian people that Amnesty International can muster isn’t going to change that.