Leading a Revolution through a Lens
By Toby M. Cadman
As the Russian-Iranian supported Syrian Army continues its attack on Idlib and more than one million civilians are forced to flee their homes and take refuge in freezing cold temperatures carrying what they could gather in the dead of night as an aerial bombardment rained down, the Syrian conflict takes a further step towards the greatest humanitarian disaster in modern times.
This conflict has witnessed unimaginable atrocities and during the past eight years the world has been a spectator to the mass human rights violations being committed with appalling frequency; from allegations of chemical attacks, to the use of indiscriminate military tactics, such as barrel bombs; to rape and sexual violence; mass extermination of political detainees; to the deliberate targeting of civilians, schools and medical staff, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. During that time, a conservative estimate of more than half a million Syrians have been killed in the conflict, although the real numbers are likely to much higher, over a million have been severely injured, and over twelve million people have been displaced, either internally, or externally in other countries. More than half the pre-war population have either been killed, disappeared or have been forced to leave their homes and with the ongoing offensive in Idlib the numbers are like to rise dramatically. A significant proportion of those that were forced to flee, forced due to circumstances outside of their control due to the brutal conduct of the Syrian State Security Forces, have not been able to return for the very same reasons that forced them to leave, but also the prospect of being targeted as traitors because they fled for their lives, or forcibly conscripted into the Syrian Army where they would be confronted with the choose of committing crimes or being thrown in jail or killed. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, at the hands of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian revolution has been a part of my life for eight long years. It has shaped my career and has touched me beyond words. I have met some truly extraordinary people from activists, to refugees in the camps of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to the heroic individuals, like the activist codenamed ‘Caesar’, who have put their own lives and the lives of their families at risk to document and tell the world what is happening on the ground, and more recently Waad Alkateab who documented the reality of the Syrian conflict with a handheld camera.
In 2016, some four years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled “It’s your turn Doctor”, the words that started the revolution against the brutal dictator, and ophthalmologist, Bashar al Assad. Assad trained as an ophthalmologist in the UK and his wife still holds British citizenship, why you might ask.
In the spring of 2011, a group of seven teenagers in the Syrian town of Dara'a, inspired by the winds of freedom and democracy blowing from the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, adorned their school walls with these words in defiance of the autocratic and brutal rule of the Assad dynasty, the Syrian family who had tyrannically ruled the country for four decades, led a that by a doctor who specialized in ophthalmology and had trained in London. The result of this act of defiance was barbaric and unprecedented. The Syrian Security Forces treated with savage violence the young authors of the graffiti, which led the town of Dara'a to light the flames of revolution, initiating with their action a conflict that has lasted for eight years and has no end in sight.
It is difficult not to be touched by the Syrian people. They are a sincere, passionate and deeply committed people. They have fought, and continue to fight, for the very rights that most of us take for granted. Freedom. Democracy. The Rule of Law.
Before meeting Waad Alkateab for the first time I was told not to be confused by her diminutive stature, she stood not much more than 5’ 4” and yet her presence was all inspiring and somewhat intimidating. Her dazzling blue eyes, her heavily accented English, but what struck me the most was her determination. I was not prepared for what would follow.
We have now met several times and spoken on numerous occasions about what she wants her film “ForSama” to achieve and it is with a sense of pride, and more than a little trepidation, that our team at Guernica embark on a project to take her video footage to a court of law to hold the perpetrators of the greatest atrocities to justice – the Russian State. This is no mean feat and will take years, but it must be done. For the sake of Syrians, for the sake of us all. The mantra never again has to have some meaning. For Waad it means everything, and she is leading the charge.
I first watched her film For Sama at a special screening by Channel 4 last year. It is the most powerful film I have ever seen. Not the most powerful documentary, the most powerful film I have ever seen. It will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It will fill you with inspiration in equal measure to anger and hatred. There is one scene in the film – a baby that has stopped breathing – the doctor is desperately trying to resuscitate the baby. The scene reaches down and rips your heart out of your chest and when the baby suddenly starts to cry, to breath, life is returned, and it is the most magical moment anyone of us are likely to experience in our lives. We see it on a screen. Waad, Hamza and Sama experienced it daily. We get to see that, and we get to see their lives unfold through marriage, pregnancy, birth, devastation of a needless conflict and the ultimate escape from the inferno of war.
Leaving Syria, leaving her beloved Aleppo, leaving her friends, her homeland was a devastating experience for Waad and Hamza, but with the help of an incredible team from Channel 4, particularly Edward Watts, her experience now shows the Syrian conflict in its raw reality, minus the poisonous propaganda and apologist denial, and what it means to Syrians.
The Syrian revolution was a peaceful movement for democracy, and I have no time for those that try to paint it in a different light and try to justify Assad as the protector of western ideals and the saviour of Christians. The Assad Regime, along with its Russian and Iranian military support, has devastated an entire country and broken an entire people. I have no time for rationalising the inaction of the international community. I have no time for those that colour the conflict as complex and multi-dimensional. No, it is one dimensional. Civilians are being killed still today. Idlib has now fallen and Assad has won the war. The question is what we do now. Do we support Assad in reconstructing a devastated and fractured State, a devastation that he has caused, or do we hold him and his partners accountable?
In this regard let me quote Waad in her own words that she would have delivered had her film won the Oscar. It is disappointing that honour was not bestowed upon her and her team, despite winning every other honour:
I am standing here as a proud Syrian.
As a survivor, I want to teach Sama and Taima how precious freedom is.
When we, hundreds of thousands of Syrians, demanded democracy, Bashar Al Assad and the Russians, destroyed our cities, tortured and killed so many, and forced half of our population to flee.
They are still doing so today in Idlib.
When they bombed us, hundreds of doctors, including my husband Hamza and Dr Amani, plus civil defence and nurses - they found a way to save lives.
They couldn't break us.
When they tried to wipe us from the memory, I used my camera to save the story.
They will never break us.
I am proud to announce that with the help of our legal team at Guernica 37, we are launching a legal case against Russia and Syria for the deliberate targeting of hospitals.
I dedicate this honour to the incredible heroes who are still fighting for freedom in Syria, Brazil, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and all over the world - especially for the women.
This is not just For Sama. This is For Syria.
In closing, it is clear that there can be no peace without justice, there can be reconciliation without recognition, and no State without the Rule of Law. As we approach the end of the conflict, we have to ask ourselves this question again. Should justice be a part of the peace negotiations? In my view, no, it should be the central pillar of any peace negotiations.