Thoughts from 2016 – no fiction is more interesting than reality

One day, Hollywood will make a film based on these people’s death and suffering, I thought, as I watched in horror the photos drop of crowds fleeing Aleppo in late December. And it will be sick and horrible, and, too late, the world will realise an inch of what happened.  No fiction is ever more arresting than reality.

Death, displacement, maiming and a descent to cynicism for which there are few words. They seem to sum up 2016, which was an annus horribilis in ways I don’t need to describe again.

But against a devilish backdrop – maybe evil I fed off, a fact I am very aware of – 2016 offered me so much. I left a staff job at a newspaper in London, packed a rucksack, did some hostile environment training, and left for Turkey, and ultimately Lebanon. I felt determined and confident and like there was something to live for, for the first time in a while. My life was more precarious, of course – no salary, no office, no colleagues. But I wanted to feel challenged. With the network of friends and contacts I had slowly been building over the previous year, I could no longer just sit in London.

There have been many faces that I will not forget. In the town of Kilis, on the Syria-Turkey border, there was the 17-year-old boy Abdallah, who worked in a bakery. His long gaze spoke of his displacement and hopelessness. His family had fled from northern Syria, but now Isis was throwing rockets over the border, specifically onto the building next to their shop. “We fled from the explosions at home, and now they follow us here”, he said. “We feel like they will follow us wherever we go.”

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A dead pigeon in Kilis, a victim of one of Isis’ rockets thrown onto the town

The next week, I returned to Kilis. Another man’s home had been hit by a subsequent rocket. Half the roof had been smashed away, and a pigeon lay dead in the rubble. A floppy fisherman’s hat covering the man’s eyes, he looked forlorn. He had nothing but his family, and a ruined home.

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Ritsona refugee camp, Greece

The Ritsona refugee camp on mainland Greece, is one of the makeshift homes for the 50,000 people stuck in the country, after they fled violence in their homes – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond – but European countries shut their borders. I interviewed one woman the same age as me, 25, with three children, about bringing them up in the camp. She had sheltered them and their screams from the “baramils” – the barrel bombs that had destroyed their street as they fled. When we finished speaking, she whispered to me and pointed at her hip. I realised she was asking me if I could get hold of any new underwear for her. The elastic was going on her current pair. Displacement means you cannot pop to the souk for new undergarments when you need them.

In July, I met Omar. He was dazzlingly, curiously happy. He had spent three years in Syrian government prisons, and had been released thanks only to a $15,000 bribe. He had undergone the deepest, darkest torture that he recalled to me factually and openly. I am still working out how to do justice to his story.

There are other faces of other people I wish I could have met, but geography, politics, violence and fate keep us apart. Many of them I should not mention, for their own safety. I would send them WhatsApp messages – from my safe apartment in Beirut to besieged towns and cities coming under artillery fire and mortar shelling – and they would reply with emojis conveying joy or warmth. I respected that more than they will know.

In my own life in Beirut, life was filled with Arabic lessons and long afternoons curled up in my favourite cafe, occasionally arguing with people over issues where they saw a 6 where I saw a 9.

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Cafe Em Nazih, Beirut

I will not forget the faces of 2016, and the people who showed resilience and how to live among the cries of “oh how terrible it all is!” They got on with things, and taught me that no fiction is more arresting, more engaging or more interesting than reality.

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An aside: anorexia will not finish with me

I have not written a first-person piece in a very long time and I do not intend to make them a regular thing. There are many other stories to be told. But the time was right for this one. Times anorexia screen shot

“I have been ready to give up my anorexia for a long time […] If I am to make the most of this life, I can’t be anorexic in private and tentatively successful without.”

It is three years to the week since I wrote these words, in a piece for The Times newspaper, pictured above. It is 10 more since I first felt the false succour and satisfaction of starvation, the cool relief of the sense of control it awarded. I thought I would be safe with starvation. It protected me from the need to feel many things: fear; anger (mine and that of others); love; disappointment. Soon, this logic became easy and default. Why would anyone live any other way?, I bellowed inside.

Fast-forward 13 years. I have had two rounds of in-patient hospital treatment and have been under near-constant medical supervision of some kind or another. There have been so many therapists, counsellors, psychologists, consultants, GPs, that of course I cannot remember all their names. But I know I would be dead without them. Yes, I would have been dead a long time ago, some way or another, without them. I am thankful to them.

Anorexia’s verse and chapter is that it is normal to make oneself sick after eating; it is normal to refuse any sugar or fat; it is normal to turn down any social occasion involving eating

Here, in this recovery, there is discomfort such that I cannot describe. I have made myself something resembling “normal” again, and that is a very difficult thing for anorexia to cope with. It does not want its disciples to be normal. It wants them to be very ill. It wants them to focus solely on following its doctrine and its counsel. It pretends it is the norm: for example – the verse and chapter is that it is normal to make oneself sick after eating; it is normal to refuse any sugar or fat; it is normal to turn down any social occasion involving eating; it is normal to think about suicide and how-many-ways-can-I-hurt-myself-today. By convincing its victims that this is how everyone behaves – and those who don’t, well, they are somehow weak and stupid – it gives the anorexic a false sense of strength, and superiority.

This, of course, only serves to further distance the followers from others, who may not see this at play. Relatives and friends see the behaviour as obnoxious, and rightfully so. Anorexia is, really, a very lonely place to be. But sufferers have the illness for comfort. That makes everything fine.

So now, after years of cruising on numbness, I have allowed myself to sit with the discomfort of feelings.

It turns out that this is a wonderful thing. It has enabled me to make bold decisions about my life: I have quit my stable job in London, moved to another country, and found great satisfaction in working and learning. I no longer feel like an outsider at social events – I am no longer clearly the person who has a serious health problem and needs to see a doctor.

Prioritising living above keeping feelings locked in a box controlled by food and hatred has allowed me to travel to Turkey, Greece, Lebanon – where I am currently – Sweden and more, telling stories and working in a way that would have simply been impossible within the sad limits I enforced for so long. This new methodology has allowed me to stand up to government and corporate grey suits whose agendas I have somehow managed to upset in the course of my work. Relinquishing the need to people please – a distinctive trait of the illness – has been enormously satisfying.

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Relinquishing my anorexia has allowed me to travel to places I would have never visited while clinging to it – including Hasankeyf on the Tigris in south-east Turkey – but at the same time the illness’ allure remains.

But at the same time, I miss awfully the comfort of anorexia.

All those years ago, as part of my first recovery process – oh if I had known how long it would last! – I wrote two letters to my anorexia: one to the illness my friend, the other to the illness my enemy.

To my friend I wrote: “I am never alone with you. You’re my greatest comfort, and I know you’ll always be there when I turn to you, with a solution to my problems.”

It is a grim but discernable truth that I have felt this way again in recent weeks. Maybe it is some attempt to swallow the sadness and the loneliness of moving away from one of my most steadfast companions.

As I have spent time mourning other relationships that have not worked out – oh how people are confusing! – I have felt awfully seduced by my eating disorder’s reliability. It never ignores me. It always tells me what it feels and why. It is angry with me because I have eaten too much. It orders guilt because I crave chocolate. It deals punishments for failure to work, or weight gain. It is always there and does not leave me crumpled on my bed in the middle of the night, wondering where it has gone, or why I was not worth its time.

I live in a city surrounded by one and a half million other people, many of whom live in circumstances far less fortunate than my own. I am extremely aware of that. I enjoy my life here, in Beirut, far more than I did in London. And yet as I move further and further away from my anorexia, and do normal things, such as make attempts at relationships with other people, I feel great sadness and loneliness.

I am sometimes tempted right back into my lethal anorexic ways, which I resist. But their allure is still frightening close.

One can live surrounded by 100,000 lights from 100,000 windows, and feel the loneliest of all. That I have so much to be happy about makes the grief – and grief for what ? – all the worse.

I am sometimes tempted right back into my lethal anorexic ways, which I resist. But their allure is still frighteningly close.

A fortnight ago I showed a close friend the silver foil packet of my Venlafaxine, the strong anti-depressant that I take in order to function normally.

“You must take these every day?”, he said, horrified.

Yes. If I will not let anorexia control my feelings, I will let the wonders of modern pharmacology do so. Maybe I will go without them one day. I am not sure when that will be.

The sub on that piece in The Times did a fine job with the headline: he or she summed up there feelings I have not been able to condense so well in more than a decade. I have finished with anorexia, but it has not finished with me. For now I need to concentrate on not giving into the temptation of my anorexia, however lustrous his allure. That way I can make the most of this life.

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Eid al-Fitr for Syrians in Saidon: Assad’s eyes are everywhere

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Inside Sidon’s Old City, Syrians are not under official curfew but know their lives are restricted. 

Youssef looked disgusted.

“I cannot look at him”, he said, of the president of his country, Bashar al-Assad.

It was the eve of Eid al-Fitr in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. The 28-year-old carpenter from Latakia in Syria knew his family would not be celebrating the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan heartily. This year, there would be no lamb with nuts, or helewiyat – sweets – or presents for his three young boys.

So the sight of President Assad in a posed photo with Syrian Arab Army, tucking into a large iftar in supposed solidarity with his soldiers was rather too much to stomach.

“Bashar al-Assad has the eyes of the world on him,” Youssef says. “He needs to make a good impression.”

I say how the regime has been publishing images like this frequently, and that pro-regime media says nothing of attacks on civilians.

Bashar al-Assad has the eyes of the world upon him.

“The Alawis [the minority sect from which the Assad family hails] have no fear of God. When many others in Syria went without a car, they had four. Other people did not have much and they ruled in money, politics, everything. The Alawis were the ones with the power.”

“All my friends have been killed apart from those who escaped here and two who went to Europe”, Youssef continues. “Everything is destroyed.”

Throughout the final days of Ramadan, the Instagram account of the Syrian Presidency was filled with propaganda photos of Bashar al-Assad and his British-educated wife Asma doing goodly deeds. Here she is, glossy locks and all, cuddling a child, greeting the families of “martyrs”, as the descriptions go; here he is, offering moral support to Syrian Arab Army soldiers, breaking the Ramadan fast with them. The image of the President’s iftar is taken at the Marj al-Sultan airbase in the Ghouta region of rural Damascus province. It does not, of course, show the thousands of people starving in villages besieged by the regime just kilometres away.

A Sunni Muslim carpenter from the Alawi-dominated Latakia province on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Youssef now works from 8am to 6pm for $20 a day, in both Beirut and Sidon. His three children, aged one, four and five, are not in any type of care or education now, and it is now up to his wife to try to teach them at home. Eid will be a subdued affair.

“My parents have been dead for three years; they died in an airstrike. So I have not had Eid with them for three years.

“My children will say ‘where are the presents?’ But we cannot afford Eid presents this year.

“We will have nothing more than olives and bread, maybe. Life in the south here is very hard.”

He hopes to return to Syria for future Eids, and find again the celebrations in the street, the rich meals of meat and nuts and sweets, and gatherings with friends.

And to be with your family?, I ask.

Youssef stops and looks at me. “But my family has been killed, apart from those who escaped here.

“My parents have been dead for three years; they died in an airstrike. So I have not had Eid with them for three years.

“I want to see my children grow up. I do not want to see more children killed.”

Youssef is thankful he can speak more freely here – at least in comparison with Syria. But he wants his life back.

“We can see that they don’t want us here [in Lebanon]. We are living under restrictions and we live in fear and danger. Bashar has his hands everywhere.”

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Saidon’s Old City souk was busy with buyers and sellers on the eve of Eid al-Fitr.

Earlier, out in the beautiful souks of Sidon, a city state for the Phoenecians, destroyed by the 551 earthquake during the Byzantine era, and conquered by Crusader Baldwin in 1111, the alleyways bustled with pre-Eid excitement and trade. Children zoomed on small tricycles across the town squares and soak themselves in the fountains on a roundabout beside the bus station. People buy chocolates and new clothes by the stackful.

 

Since a double suicide attack on the Christian village of El Qaa near the Syrian border, Syrians have faced restrictions on their movements, making Eid a less than free affair. The attacks have been variously blamed on people from refugee camps and assailants who came specifically from Syria to carry out the atrocity, ordinary Syrians have been living under tight security, with more than 400 arrests made and frequent raids on camps and apartments in towns and cities.

In any normal situation, Syrians in Lebanon are required to obtain permits for public celebrations, such as weddings or parties. In the current climate, things would be even tougher and more subdued.

One international NGO separately told me that their local partner had toned down Eid al-Fitr celebrations for Syrians in the Bekaa valley camp where it operated.

I spent the last iftar of Ramadan 2016 with Youssef, his wife and three boys, in the tiny flat up a perilous spiral staircase in the Old City. With us were the Palestinian woman, Amal, who rented it to the family, alongside a Lebanese woman, her daughter, and another seven-year-old girl whose mother’s whereabouts were unclear, although they later spoke on the phone.

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The last Iftar of Ramadan 2016 : olives, fuul and vegetables.

It was crowded, but the iftar was good. We ate labneh, mint, kilos of tomatoes and bean stew, with squidgy olives and plate-sized flatbreads. They argued over how they would have bought chicken if they had known I was coming.

I went out onto the platform that lead, somewhere, down to ground level, although I could not see the souq floor from where I stood.

The azan, the call to prayer, was accompanied by hour-long Eid prayers and recitations, bouncing between the mosques clustered in the Old City and beyond. The sound of firecrackers rings in between them, and I am pretty sure that some of the whizzes and bangs are coming from celebratoty gunfire. Other than that, it is silent, and rather strange.

Around 12.30am, cries, whoops and whistles return to the streets. What is that, I asked Youssef’s wife, Ba’diya, with whom I am sharing a room for the night. “It is Lebanese parties”, she answers. “Are there any Syrians in the streets?” I ask. “No”, she replies. “We are staying here, inside.”

 

 

 

 

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Gaziantep’s restaurateur from Palmyra

In the Orjinal Halep Lokantasi, paper-thin bread is singeing on a hot metal plate. The baker smoothes spicy muhamarra – crushed nuts and peppers –across the oval and covers it with flutters of salty cheese.

This hot, thin sandwich is saj – the best of Syrian street food, now to be found in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

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The Syrian staff in the Orjinal Halep Lokantasi serve up piles of salad, flatbreads and falafel. 

 

The tiled dining room – families at the back, smokers and coffee-sippers out the front – has become a meeting point for Syrians. It is just 100km from the restaurant’s namesake, Aleppo, across the border. Syria’s largest city was famed for its cuisine before it became all too well known for barrel bomb attacks.

The only Turkish elements to the Orjinal Halepi are a few menu translations and the business registration form proudly hanging on the wall. Everything else, down to the lurid beetroot-dyed pickles, is wonderfully Syrian.

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Flat breads, hummous, falafel and salad ready to eat at Abu Ahmed’s restaurant

Abu Ahmed, the current owner, is in fact from Tadmur (known in the west as Palmyra), not Aleppo, as the restaurant’s name might suggest. He has had the restaurant walls painted with murals of the heritage site’s Arch of Triumph, which was destroyed by militants from the so-called Islamic State group last year.

“I will go back”, he says hopefully. “Whenever we can we will pack our bags and go back to Syria.”

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Murals of Palmyra’s Arc of Triumph cover the restaurant walls

On the day I eat his team’s doughnut-shaped falafel and lemon salad, a replica of Palmyra’s famous arch is unveiled on London’s Trafalgar Square. It is far from Abu Ahmed’s feelings about the place. He sadly shows me dozens of photos of the Pearl of the Desert, as Palmyra is often known, on his smart phone.

The restaurant is an escape from tensions in Gaziantep – the 300,000 Syrian residents often feel resented by Turkish locals, who have blamed them from everything from poisoned water to Isis.

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Syrians gather at the restaurant in a Turkish city that is now home to some 300,000 people who fled war across the border.

On May 1 the city was rocked by an Islamic State car bomb that left three people dead. Two Syrian journalists have been shot in broad daylight in Gaziantep in the past six months. Others who sought refuge here are increasingly nervous: some avoid frequenting public places, or leaving the house at all.

Syrians face higher rents than their Turkish counterparts – they tell of being charged 700 TL for accommodation that would be offered to locals for 300TL.

Other reminders of Syrian life, such Gaziantep’s hammams, built under the Ottoman period before the border was traced between Turkey and Syria, are too expensive.

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Much of Gaziantep’s architecture is reminiscent of Aleppo’s: they were ruled by the same leader before the drawing of modern boundaries

So a meal at Abu Ahmed’s restaurant is a small reminder of home. Sitting in public here is a small act of defiance. Syrians’ long history of culinary culture has been a point of pride among those forced to flee their homes. Old gentlemen in caps and woolly jumpers lean on sticks outside, smoking thin brown cigarettes and sipping from voluptuously shaped tea glasses. Next door, a barista serves Syrian coffee from a small street stand. It is far superior to the more famous Turkish kind, I am quickly informed.

The restaurant has attracted Turkish diners too, “and the odd British customer”, Abu Ahmed says, smiling at me.

The restaurateur – a real estate investor back in Syria – opens every day, “whether there is one customer or there are 1,000 customers. I will open and serve whoever is hungry. I am treated well here. But most Syrians feel the same. When we can, we will go home.”

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The bizarre charade of Merkel’s refugee camp visit

It is difficult to create original stories or interesting copy from press junkets. There is an inherent difficulty in writing on occasions organised by people whose job it is to control the media.

But there was something altogether more bizarre and awful about Angela Merkel’s visit to the Nizip refugee camp in south Turkey, which I covered last weekend.

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Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk arrived in a coach topped by gun-toting guards

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Syrian girls in Turkish gowns greeted Mrs Merkel but it was a far cry from the Chancellor’s claim of listening to refugees’ needs in her trip

The German Chancellor arrived in an enormous coach with blacked-out windows, topped with two gun-toting guards. She sailed in through the rows of barbed wire with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Prime Minister, in a mêlée of 50 men in grey suits. Bunting bearing the Turkish flag and those of AFAD, the government agency managing refugee camps in Turkey, whispered in the wind.

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Most of the refugees at Nizip were kept penned in behind wire fences and press were prevented from talking to them by security guards

Metres away, small boys and girls from Syria were kept penned in behind a wire fence, as the politicians and press looked on.

Mrs Merkel had claimed her trip to south Turkey was to better understand refugees’ needs, and listen to them on the ground. I wondered how politicians had the gall to continue to claim the trip had that purpose as Mrs Merkel was greeted with flowers by four Syrian girls from the camp. They were dolled up in Turkish robes and make-up for the occasion, but later said there had been no time on Mrs Merkel’s whirlwind visit for a dance they had spent time preparing for her. German Chancellery press officers didn’t answer when I asked them why it had been dropped from Mrs Merkel’s schedule. Still, the sight of the flower presentation was astonishing , as the German Chancellor shook hands with a small number of refugees (the rest were still penned in behind the wires) – was this really Europe’s idea of listening to refugee needs?

Funnily enough, it felt more like the refugees being used as a prop in the EU’s continuing kowtowing to Turkey. European politicians know that they need to praise Turkish efforts over housing Syrians because, for all their faults, they  have been so much better than our own. It was almost shameful to watch.

Press were barred from speaking to any Syrian other than those selected to meet Mrs Merkel and entourage

I should add at this point that press were waved away by security guards when we tried to speak to refugees inside the camp. Officers were stationed inside its perimeter to prevent us talking to people through the bars, and any attempt to take photos of anything but the official presentation was curtailed.

The Sheikh from the camp was permitted to speak to reporters, and funnily enough said that he, “felt like the Syrians were among brothers in Turkey.”

  • Merkel appeared to have only the time and will for conversations with people who would repeat the rehearsed “truth” that they want to hear

Those interviewed through the wires inside the camp said they wished Mrs Merkel would grant asylum to every Syrian who requested it in Germany.

Mrs Merkel and entourage finally went inside the refugee camp, where they spent about 45 minutes. Press were not allowed to accompany them, so we never got to know if they really spoke to refugees as they claimed (and under what circumstances) . We never got to find out if they saw the reality of living conditions there (which,  from my understanding and non-press-junket conversations with camp residents in several locations across south Turkey, are better than those in camps in Jordan and the make shift tents in Lebanon. But we are not talking about the palaces that Turkish authorities would have you believe from their AFAD brochures).

As the politicians left – queue more lovely photo ops with Davutgolu’s wife – Syrian children caged behind wire bars appeared to break into chants saying “the Syrian people are one”. But the revolutionary song had been twisted to fit the Turkish agenda. “The Syrian and Turkish people are are one,” they sung instead. I later heard they had been told to sing that – and no guards stopped us from videoing them this time.

The German Chancellor’s visit was rather embarrassing on several other fronts. It was, for starters, a replacement trip. She did not visit a new refugee camp on the Syrian border point of Bab al-Salama, set up for people being returned from Europe under a deal struck between the EU and Ankara in March.

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The media scrum around the German Chancellor’s visit to Nizip refugee camp

She was supposed to attend an opening ceremony at the camp 1km from the border town of Kilis the previous weekend, but the trip was cancelled over security fears, a Turkish government source said. Rockets fired from IS-held territory in Syria have killed at least 18 people in Kilis recent weeks, including four children who were playing on a roof.

Mrs Merkel attended the opening of a mother and child centre in Gaziantep for Syrians not hosted in refugee camps, allowing Europe to claim it is aware most Syrians in Turkey do not have the relatively easy access to accommodation, healthcare and food that organised “container cities” allow. Around  90 per cent of the 2.7 million Syrian population in Turkey live in towns and cities, particularly Gaziantep (Syrian population of 325,000), Istanbul and Sanliurfa.

They often face resentment, higher prices than their Turkish neighbours for basic goods and services (rents are often doubled for Syrian tenants, for example), and difficulties finding work. I still struggle to see how Merkel saw  the reality of life for most Syrians in Turkey on a brief photo tour of what Human Rights Watch quite accurately called a “sanitized” refugee camp, and a shiny new project.

Merkel appeared to have only the time and will for conversations with people who would speak the rehearsed truth that she and other  EU politicians on the trip, including European Council President Donald Tusk, wanted to hear : that life is good for refugees in Turkey, and the EU-Ankara deal to return any Syrian who dare cross into Europe from now on while escaping war in  their home country is working because people can be sent back there no trouble at all.

The whole thing showed an astonishing level of group think, blinkered vision, and politicians seeing and hearing only what they wanted to hear. It was embarrassing to watch and hear Merkel and Co’s claims that the visit had really allowed them an insight into Syrians’ lives here.

The press junket was awkward because people were being used as props for politicians confirming their already-made-up minds.

Merkel saw the four Syrian girls who greeted her with flowers. I wonder how she would have reacted to the woman I saw same week, her eyes wide and wild, rummaging through a municipal waste bin in Gazaintep. Or the boy from Aleppo selling tissues from the side of the road in the same city. He was alone and scared because his mother was in mourning for his dead father, and therefore could not be seen in public. I wonder if Merkel would have agreed to meet them – or if that would have risked disrupting the picture the EU is busy painting itself of life for Syrians in Turkey ?

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Shawkan ‘sad and hopeless’ as trial further delayed until April

An Egyptian court yesterday pushed back the trial of a man arrested for taking photographs, extending his pre-trial detention to nearly 1,000 days.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid – better known as Shawkan – is a photojournalist being held in Cairo’s Tora Prison, where he is suffering from Hepatitis C complications.

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Shawkan in court on Saturday March 26, 2016. His trial was delayed until April 23. Photo: Ahmed Roshdi 

The case shows the dark and hostile environment in which journalists work in Egypt, despite claims from the country’s leadership that there is freedom of expression.

Shawkan’s case was due to be heard in a mass trial with more than 700 other defendants yesterday. But Judge Hassan Farid – who dispensed the three-year jail sentences to Al Jazeera journalists last year – adjourned the hearing for another month to April 23. Shawkan will remain in prison during this time, in conditions he has described as “like a cemetery.”

“Again, and again and again and nothing happens. Shawkan has no freedom. We share his feelings of hopelessness.”

In an interview  for this website this week, his brother Mehmet said Shawkan was “depressed and hopeless.”

“My brother is sick: he has hepatitis and anaemia. He is sad, depressed and hopeless.”

Shawkan’s hearing has been delayed three times and the length of the pre-trial detention breaks Egyptian law, which states individuals must not be held for more than two years before their case is heard.

Mehmet said: “They delay [the trial] again for no reason. Again, and again and again and nothing happens. Shawkan has no freedom. We share his feelings of hopelessness.”

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Shawkan’s photography appeared in international publications including TIME and Die Zeit. Photo: Freedom for Shawkan

The family have appealed at least 17 times to the Public Prosecutor to release 29-year-old Shawkan on medical grounds, without success, according to Amnesty International.

Mehmet described prison visits to his brother, during which they try to talk about brighter topics than his incarceration.

“We talk about the country, friends, cameras. He loves cameras. We talk about the latest lenses from Canon. We try to talk about things that make him happy.”

“We take him books as that is one of the things we are allowed.”

Shawkan was arrested on August 14 2013 while covering violent clashes between supporters of former President Morsi and security forces in Rabaa Square, in the Egyptian capital.

His photography, which covered a range of subjects from Egyptian dance to moulids and street art, had appeared in the international media, including Time Magazine, Bild and Die Zeit, and through photo agency Demotix.

 According to local media, Shawkan’s lawyer Taher Abu el-Nasr explained to court that his client was arrested “while doing his job as a photojournalist” while two foreign journalists apprehended at the same time were released shortly after.

Egyptian authorities accuse him of what Reporters Without Borders call “trumped-up” charges including murder, membership of a banned group (the Muslim Brotherhood), participating in an illegal demonstration and possession of weapons.

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Shawkan before his imprisonment. Photo: Freedom for Shawkan

Shawkan was carrying his camera while arrested and there is no known evidence of any of the other crimes he is being held for.

In a letter sent from prison via Amnesty in 2015, Shawkan described his treatment on arrest and imprisonment.

He wrote of being treated “like animals” upon arrest, with low-ranking police officers called Mokhber, “punching and cursing” him and the two other journalists.

“I am dying. No one knows what going inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive. I am not only trapped inside these four walls, but I’m trapped inside my mind.”

He was taken to a police station where officers beat him more. “They seemed to enjoy giving the beatings. They were telling each other how to beat and torture us to cause more pain and harm. ”

He was later taken to Tora prison, which he described as “a place where dreams come to die.” He described sharing a cell of three metres by four metres with 12 political prisoners, and receiving no access to sunlight or fresh air for weeks on end.

“I am dying. No one knows what going inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive. I am not only trapped inside these four walls, but I’m trapped inside my mind. I vomit frequently. I find it hard to breathe. I feel pressure on my chest. I carry the weight of failure and it is heavy. ”

Rights groups have condemned Shawkan’s continued incarceration.

“Keeping this journalist in prison proves the absence of any real political will to preserve independent media voices and therefore to protect freedom of information and expression,” said  Alexandra El Khazen, head of Reporters without Borders’ Middle East desk in a statement this week.

Last year, President al-Sisi claimed there was “unprecedented” freedom of expression in Egypt.

“I do not want to exaggerate, but we have unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt. No one in Egypt can bar anyone working in media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views,” he said in an interview with CNN.

Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 158th out of 180 in its 2015 world press freedom index, describing the country as one of the “world’s biggest prisons for journalists.”

You can follow updates on Shawkan’s case on the Freedom for Shawkan Facebook page, and at freeshawkan.com

 

 

 

 

Posted in Africa, Egypt, Human rights, Journalism, Middle East, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Dear Brussels, my parents died in a bomb. Stay strong.’ A message from a Syrian orphan

In the aftermath of the heinous attacks on Brussels, claimed by Daesh, there has been a regrettable outpouring of hate and blame towards refugees from the Middle East.

People such as Katie Hopkins (whose heinous “commentary” I won’t repeat or link to – but let’s just say it wasn’t pro-safe passage for refugees) seem not to understand one rather large element in the mix. Hundreds of thousands of people who are risking their lives fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are escaping the very same sorts of attacks that Isis is carrying out in Europe. You only need to Google the latest headlines from Iraq to see that.

So any message that fights back against that rhetoric is a voice that needs hearing. I wonder how Katie Hopkins would react to Osama, a refugee,  and his message to Brussels. The people she is blaming such Isis attacks on.

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“Dear Brussels,

My parents died in a bomb in Syria also. I feel in you. Stay strong.”

Syrian refugee in Lebanon. 

Osama is 15. Both his parents were killed in a bomb attack on his village near Damascus two years ago. Shortly afterwards he fled to Lebanon, where he now lives with his uncle, two brothers and sister. Osama also lost his leg to the bomb, and he now has an amputated limb.

Osama’s words ring stronger than anything Hopkins and co have to say. Syrians and Bruxellois have both lost a lot. This boy knows that all too painfully.

Posted in Ideas, syria, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment