1. What would I do?
As a sixteen-year-old girl I saw the movie The Girl with the Red Hair, a Dutch production about Hannie Schaft, one of the most famous heroines of the Dutch resistance during the Second World War. At that time, I was touched by the courage of this woman to rise up against the occupier and to fight for the liberation of the Netherlands. I remember a discussion in class: What would I do in similar circumstances? Would I have the same courage to stand up and resist when my country was suffering under a dictatorship or an occupation?
For Razan Zeitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamade and Nazem Hammadi this has never been a hypothetical question. Long before the Syrian revolution began in the spring of 2011 the question 'what shall I do?' was part and parcel of their lives.
I have never met Samira, Wael and Nazem. I know Samira a little bit through conversations I had with her husband, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, and the movie Our Terrible Country by Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, which will be shown after this ceremony. So please forgive me if, in this speech, I focus on the one person I have met and who helped me understand the human rights situation in Assad's Syria when I was working in Damascus as a Dutch diplomat between 1999 and 2004.
I met Razan for the first time in 2001 when she was an intern at the office of Haytham al-Maleh, another well-known human rights activist. Razan appeared shy at first, but once we started to discuss the price the Syrian people paid for the Assad dictatorship I began to realise that there was a burning fire beneath her shy demeanour. In the following years Razan became one of the most prominent lawyers defending the rights of political prisoners. She founded organisations such as the Human Rights Association in Syria and the Syrian Human Rights Information Link. In everything she did she focussed on the importance of documenting human rights violations in Syria, hoping that one day there would no longer be impunity and that the reign of fear would end.
2. What do they do?
I was not surprised to learn that Razan played a pivotal role in the Syrian revolution. It was almost as if, her whole professional life, she had been preparing for this. Together with many other activists she founded the Violations Documentation Centre and co-founded the Local Co-ordination Committees. At the Violations and Documentation Centre (VDC) they tried to document violations and human rights abuses committed by all sides, be it the Assad regime, the opposition or extremist Islamist groups.
She, her husband Wael, her friends and colleagues Samira and Nazem, as well as many other activists, worked with civil society organisations in besieged Eastern Ghouta. They understood that real revolutionary work needs contact with the street, with the needs of the people who have suffered for so long under the Assad dictatorship. The Syrian activists did the same as the resistance heroines of my youth. They spread information, co-ordinated demonstrations, took care of the wounded and provided humanitarian aid wherever possible.
They understood very well that 'clicktivism' (that is, the notion that revolutions are about tweets or ‘likes’ on Facebook) will lead to no real change. Still, at times, when Razan had already gone into hiding, she would post pictures of cute cats on her Facebook page, cats that seemed to defy the dark side of the revolution during a period when it became increasingly violent.
The VDC activists knew that conventional and social media and digital activism should always be a means to achieve wider goals. For the VDC this goal was to collect and share data about human rights violations in order to end the impunity of human rights abusers in Syria.
Razan is not only a symbol of the Syrian revolution as a non-violent movement to change the Assad regime; she also became a symbol for the important role women play in the Syrian revolution. Whenever possible she tried to convey to Western media the message that the Syrian revolution is a peaceful, non-violent movement of people who want nothing but free themselves from a cruel dictator. For her relentless efforts she was awarded the European Parliament’s 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
But Razan was and probably still is not interested in awards. A friend who asked her whether she would agree to being nominated for the prestigious Dutch Human Rights Tulip told me that Razan immediately suggested someone else, as she didn’t want to be in the limelight for something she felt was a normal thing to do. In one of our last email exchanges I asked her what kept her going. She answered, “I am working towards the dream of tomorrow. I cannot give up out of respect for everything that generations of Syrians before me had to go through.”
3. What can we do?
When I was asked to give this speech I was hesitant at first, as I do not want to deprive Syrian activists of the opportunity to have their voices heard. Then, however, I realised the importance of solidarity between European activists, audiences, authors and advocates – because what is happening in Syria is also about who we are as Europeans. How do we react as citizens of Europe when a country on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea is pushed into a terrible war? This is not the place to discuss whether the international community should have intervened militarily, either in 2011, or in 2013 (after the poison gas attack in Ghouta), or now in the fight against ISIS/Daesh.
However, this is the place to ask ourselves whether we as citizens can pressure our governments into being more strategic in their policies towards Syria by including the voices of activists such as the Douma 4 and many others. We should ask our governments, what did the international community do (read Europe, the US, and other like-minded countries – as it is clear that Russia and China are obviously not on the side of the Syrian people). What support was given to activists such as Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem? Shouldn’t we regret the lukewarm and, at times, rather ice cold reaction of the international community during the first months of the Syrian revolution, when many did not believe that the Syrian people could succeed? Were too many of our politicians, policymakers and public opinion folks taken in by the public image Bashar Assad and Asma had created for themselves – that of a “secular regime” that would protect religious minorities and women?
How can we still believe this – after close to four years during which the regime committed murder and atrocities and used chemical weapons against its own people? After the regime’s tacit support of a terror nobody seems to be able to stop? After millions of refugees had to flee to neighbouring countries? And before anyone rejoices about the fact that today less people are fleeing Syria, let us just think of the millions of displaced inside Syria –people who have lost everything and very often have no access to humanitarian help, as the Assad regime will not allow this in the north or in places such as Yarmouk and other areas under siege. The regime’s killing machine and the inaction of the 'international community' has heightened the Western media’s morbid attraction to Daesh (ISIS) and nurtured nihilism among many Syrians, a mood that fosters extremism. In Europe we are very afraid of the potential return of jihadists, yet can we imagine what this means to communities in Syria – to places where people are scared into submission by those groups?
I reiterate my question. What did we do to support civil society activists in Syria? Was there any long-term strategy in Europe’s capitals? How many of the millions that went towards civil society were actually spent on strengthening the capacity of Syrian organisations and activists? Initiatives supporting the Syrian Opposition Council, the Assistance Co-ordination Unit, local governance initiatives or 'moderate armed groups' were mostly short-term and erratic. While European donors always emphasise that the recipients of aid have to act transparently and sustainably, they themselves have proven less assiduous in this respect.
It would be wrong to think that we can do nothing. In fact, it is quite simple – we should trust the Syrians and support them, as they are the ones most capable of writing their own future.
Today, the international community has to open its eyes and begin to realise that there is a third Syrian narrative – that of the humanity Syrians share with all of us present here and beyond. Yassin alHaj Saleh, the husband of Samira al-Khalil, once said: “The West does not see us, therefore we have to submit evidence that we exist. We do, I swear!”
The question is, are we willing to accept such evidence? Why is almost every posting by Syrian civil society activists flagged as “images that can not be verified,” while every YouTube post by Daesh (ISIS) is seen as the complete truth about Syria? Why is it that a video featuring Razan and recorded only four days before the abduction of her and her colleagues has little more than 6,000 views? Are we really more interested in watching beheadings than in calls for freedom and justice by courageous Syrian activists?
So what can we, the members of this audience, the press, the public, policy makers and politicians do to highlight this other narrative so totally different from the two stories that have dominated in the media, that is, the story of Assad as ‘the devil we know’ and the story of unknown devils with long beards, calling themselves “Islamic State.”
Side note: I would like to suggest to call them “Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham that has a negative connontation to Arabic speakers and is disliked by the socalled IS followers as it does not spell out the crucial Islamic element. And in plural Dawa'ish it means 'bigots who impose their views on others. So the feeling of the word Daesh describes to me what they are – a criminal organisation using elements of Islam to wage a war of terror against the Syrian and Iraqi people – and in the end, against humanity.
It is in human nature that things “at home” touch us more closely. This, however, does not mean that we should be silent about those more directly affected by Daesh and the violence of the Assad regime. Concern about so-called European Jihadis going to Syria is omnipresent in our media. The voices of fear and the deeds of hatred and cruelty of Daesh are on our news and can be viewed in countless YouTube clips. The voice of the dictator responsible for over 200,000 deaths among his own people is more than a whisper of the devil we know.
Indeed, there is a third story to be told. Beginning today, and until the 9th of December, the sad anniversary of the abduction of Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem, a campaign will try to create awareness of their plight and work towards their release by calling on governments and the public to exert pressure on countries that might have leverage over the presumed kidnappers of the four activists.
I hope that the Petra Kelly Prize of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for the VDC/Douma 4 will help to draw more attention to the story of Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem and their work for a better, more just and free Syria.
It is time to tell this other story, it is time to listen to the voices of people who represent what many Syrians wanted when the revolution began – a life in dignity, a life in freedom. Once we have listened and heard what they want, we can start to act – and we can help promote the work of the VDC and of Razan and her colleagues. No matter how difficult it is under present conditions in Syria, the Violation and Documentation Centre is trying to continue its work. In this, it deserves our moral and financial support in ways appropriate and relevant to their activities in Syria. One day the war in Syria will end. Then, it will be up to Syrians to rebuild their society. We can start to support their vision of a new future by giving real long-term support to Syrian civil society organisations and activists inside and outside Syria. Then, one day, we will be able to tell Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem, ‘you may have been away for a while, but your work has continued because we did believe in what you stand for.’
Yassin al-Haj Saleh told me last Sunday in a skype conversation: "You know what makes Samira so special? She loves solitude – but at the same time she is an amazing listener. She will encourage people to speak about what's in their hearts. They love her because of this."
I dare say that I speak from all of our hearts, when I say, we hope that one day, rather sooner than later, we will be able to tell Samira, Razan, Wael, Nazem and the tens of thousands of other prisoners of conscience arrested by the thugs of the regime or kidnapped by extremists that we have continued to work in their spirit – together, Syrians and their European friends, towards a Syria that is free and just for all of its citizens.
Thank you for your attention.