Rocking the cradle: the Syrian siege on innocence

    Emar Nassar

    Maimouna Alammar clutched her baby girl to her chest last Friday in her home in Daraya, a suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus. Security agents appeared at her door at 8 p.m., with Maimouna’s younger brother Suhaib in shackles. They stormed the home searching for her husband, then demanded she hand little Emar Nassar over.

    “My baby!” Maimouna held her firstborn tight. The men dragged away Suhaib.

    “We’ll bring your brother back in a coffin if your husband doesn’t turn himself in,” they said.

    The man they are after, 26-year-old Osama Nassar, is a nonviolence activist from Daraya, an epicenter of nonviolent thought and activism in Syria.

    This regime has the usual authoritarian playbook for dealing with armed insurrection, but is stumped by the largely nonviolent uprising facing off with the regime since March 2011. It has responded to the protests with a frenzy of violence and a media spin campaign that desperately tries to patch together a narrative of a regime bombarded by what it calls “armed gangs.”

    Osama, who has studied nonviolence since 1999, has been imprisoned extrajudicially three times since the Syrian revolution began. Six-month-pregnant Maimouna accompanied him into the first imprisonment on March 16. This makes her daughter a veteran of Syrian prison herself, one might say—in the womb.

    I counted down the days to the birth of Maimouna Alammar’s baby. Back in March the birth seemed a long time off, and I wondered if it would come in a free Syria. Maimouna’s late May due date came and went. Not only was Syria not yet free, but the baby’s father was still in prison.

    “She refuses to come out until her daddy is free,” Maimouna posted on her Facebook account. Osama was serving his third term of illegal detention without charge, when their healthy baby was born in June. The baby’s name is an Arabic synonym for “freedom.”

    Osama Nassar and Mainouna Alammar

    Osama was forced to go into hiding since his last release on June 27. He slipped home once, against all advice, just to hold his baby daughter. He couldn’t bear not meeting her.

    “Please go into hiding yourself,” friends begged Maimouna in September.

    “I can’t do that with a baby in tow,” she said. “Don’t worry about us!” She worried about her father, Mouhammad Alammar. A doctor who risked his life to help people wounded in regime massacres, he was imprisoned extrajudicially for the third time in the revolution on September 17.

    Maimouna, though married into Daraya, is a green-eyed beauty from Dara, the rural southern province where Syria’s uprising began. Dara has been under siege since April 24, surrounded by tanks that restrict the entry of food and medical supplies. Government snipers regularly pick off pedestrians violating curfew; civilians are arbitrarily detained in stadiums and schools, because the prisons are full. Maimouna’s seven-year-old cousin Zuhair Abdullah Alammar was playing in the field of his family’s farm when he was shot and killed by security agents on May 23. State police stormed her father’s home in the small town of Namar, where he has led the study of nonviolence for decades, detaining him and several neighbors without a warrant or charge.

    On September 6, 26-year-old Ghiyath Matar, a friend of Osama, was captured by Air Force Security, the branch responsible for repressing protests in Daraya, in an ambush that also took the town’s leading nonviolence visionary, 32-year-old Yahya Shurbaji. Osama was staying in the same safehouse as Yahya and maintained phone contact with Yahya as two state police SUVs chased him to his capture that day, along with Ghiyath and five other young men, all known for their commitment to nonviolence.

    Yahya and over six hundred other Darayans imprisoned during the revolution are still in detention. Ghiyath’s tortured body was returned to his wife Amina Jinnah on September 9. Amina was pregnant in her third trimester with their first child.

    “He’s kabab now,” the security agents delivering the mutilated corpse of Ghiyath gloated to Amina and to Ghiyath’s parents, according to Afra Jalabi, a friend of the family and Syrian activist living in Canada. It was the body of a man who had offered roses and water to soldiers who aimed guns at him and his friends in protests. Tied to the flowers were little notes that said “Don’t shoot. You and I are brothers.” Ghiyath’s larynx, which had spoken “peace” in the midst of live gunfire, had been pulled, his throat bruised. He had been castrated. Amina wore a white flowery dress to her husband’s funeral, defying tradition and resisting immense grief, in an act that was bracing not only to herself, but to all invested in the Syrian struggle for freedom.

    Little Ghiyath Matar

    Only a day before the threat to Maimouna’s daughter, Amina had given birth to a son. He was born on November 17. Amina named him Ghiyath, and tried to keep his birth secret as long as possible, fearing the possibility of a threat against him from Air Force Security. Little Ghiyath, like little Emar, the girl named “freedom,” has become a symbol of hope for the Syrian people inching agonizingly toward their freedom.

    Baby Emar and Baby Ghiyath are the littlest strugglers for freedom in Syria. They may not have been born in a free, democratic Syria, but they will grow up in one. It is no longer a question of if this regime will fall; it is only a question of how.

    A high international profile helps to protect people who live under regime threat in Syria. Osama Nassar is being hunted although he has done nothing beyond use his inalienable right to freedom of speech and nonviolent assembly to demand a regime based on freedom and democracy. Write now to Syrian embassies demanding that Air Force Security retract the threat to baby Emar and apologize to her mother, Maimouna Alammar. Hold the government of Syria responsible for any harm done by the regime to the children, nonviolent protesters, and prisoners of conscience in Syria.

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