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Syrian opposition women team in Rome

Europe must raise its voice and force Assad to listen, said the group. Addressing the humanitarian situation on the ground is paramount for credible negotiations about political transition

With peace talks in Geneva in a state of limbo as the summit in Vienna failed to agree on a date to resume negiotiations, and with a ceasefire pretty much gone, fallen under the attacks and counter attacks of the regime and some rebel groups, many members of the Syrian High Negotiation Committee (HNC) keep up the efforts to raise awareness about the Syrian cause.

On May 19, the Syrian HNC women team landed in Rome to meet with Italian institutions and civil society representatives, and to make an official visit to the Vatican.

On Thursday morning, the group participated to an event organised by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in cooperation with the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry, a conference on the role of women in peacebuilding.

They are five proactive, strong and resilient women who often paid a high personal price for dreaming of a free Syria.

As they enter the room, I walk towards one of them, Hind Kabawat, a lawyer and conflict resolution practitioner.

Kabawat is a tall and elegant woman; she is a Christian from Bab Touma, in Damascus Old City. She wears a Syria-outline pendant.

I met her in Amman; I was her student. During long and, at times, hard hours in the field working with Syrian refugees in Jordan, I learnt to deeply respect and admire her.

She is straightforward; she is motherly, reassuring and encouraging. She has this sort of soothing power on the people.

Once, we visited a women centre in Zizya, a Palestinian camp in Jordan that hosts many Syrian refugees.

Most of the women were Syrian and Muslim, many were wearing black clothes and veils, even if it wasn’t really their usual outfit, not back home.

They expressed their grievances, their daily problems, their sorrow and their despair. They didn’t see a way out of their hopeless situation.

Kabawat listened carefully; then, she spoke. The women cried silently while they listened; her words were full of empathy and hope. She asked them to take the hand of the people sitting next to them to feel they were not alone, to feel the solidarity of people close to and far from them, to feel that together they have the power to build a better future.

Kabawat and her colleagues have the power to bring light into darkness, and they have the power to unite.

She introduces me to all her friends; they smile; they have that friendly and frank attitude I learnt to appreciate in the Syrian people.

When they sit, their gaze is determined. They are focussed and they listen carefully to IAI director’s introductory speech.

Bassma Kodmani, former SNC representative, talks about the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict. She says it’s due to the Syrian regime stubbornness and indifference to the plight of its own citinzenry asking for reforms.

As her colleagues will do after her, she stresses the international community’s responsibility to protect the Syrian people and the moderate opposition, and to pressure Bashar al-Assad’s regime into listening.

Kodmani says that the HNC wants to start direct negotiations with the regime and talk about political transition. “But Assad,” she says “is simply not interested.”

Suhair Atassi, a secular activist and member of the SNC, follows suit: The political solution has no credibility if the situation on the ground doesn’t improve. How can we talk about solutions while air strikes and sieges continue? How can the Syrian people have faith while suffering so much?

Atassi blames Assad, and she blames Russia and Iran. She doesn’t spare the international community either. “We are asking for three things: clear condemnation; aid for the Syrian people, like air-drops; and pressure to implement UN resolutions.”

“Who said that the United State and Russia alone should have a say in the Syrian crisis?” says Atassi. “Europe must play a bigger role.”

Alise Moufarej, teacher and activist, wonders why UNSC resolutions and international law find no application in Syria.

“We want war criminals to be put on trial, and I don’t mean the regime only. We want a task force, we want investigations, we want the ICC to start trials,” she says.

Above all, she is concerned with dissidents being arrested and forcibly disappeared. She herself was jailed twice.

I was tortured in a room full of corpses,” she recounts. “The bodies of those who were tortured before me and died. I lost my mind in that room.”

Moufarej says that around 200,000 people were arrested or disappeared in the last years. Men, women and children.

The international community turns a blind eye to the issue of these desaparecidos and ignores the fact that many dissidents are being executed on terrorism charges.

“We want the dissidents to be freed. We want to know what happened to those who disappeared. We want the names of those executed and of those who died while in prison. We want NGOs to be granted access to detention centres, included those run by Hezbollah in Syria.”

Moufarej talks about the role of Europe, too. She says Syria needs real support: “We want to send this message, that Europe is by our side.”

Samira alMasalmah, former editor-in-chief of Tishreen (the first women to take the job in Syria), talks about the reason why the world seems deaf and blind in front of the reality of life – and death – in Syria.

She claims that the international community focussed on ISIS and on its violence because the Islamic State has a powerful weapon: Its media outreach, especially on the internet.

Masalmah says that ISIS killed 6 per cent of the Syrian casualties, while the regime killed 80 per cent.

The moderate opposition media outreach is far more limited than ISIS, and it received no support to improve the situation.

Our voice is feeble amid the frenzy of violence perpetrated by ISIS and the regime. The political vacuum makes it possible for the arms to raise their voice. But if arms have the last word, then the conflict will be perennial.”

Kabawat answers on the issue of minorities and, partly, to the charges often brought against the Syrian opposition that it is too divided to accomplish a political solution to the conflict.

I heard her discourse before. Her mantra is the mantra of the revolution since its very beginning: “Syria is one, the Syrian people is one.”

Kabawat explains that Syrian ethno-sectarian communities have always lived with each other. The HNC advisory group counts thirty women from all denomination and they work in synergy.

Im not a minority, I refuse to be labelled as a minority, we are all equally Syrian,” says Kabawat. “When I’m told ‘Assad protects Christians’, I say he can’t protect me if he attacks the Sunni majority. I can’t be protected by a ruthless criminal with his hands covered in blood.”

“We are united, Syria is one,” she insists. “Syria’s strength lies in its diversity. We’ve been living together for thousands of years. Having different opinions is inherent in democracy, but we all want the same thing: A free Syria.”

After their speeches some questions were raised, including the issue of militias and the role of Saudi Arabia.

As for the first issue, the perspective is somewhat naive: “You can be sure that once the civil war is over, all weapons will target ISIS,” says Kodmani.

Moufarej agrees and says that when the time comes, the men who took up weapons to defend themselves and their families will return to their civil life or will be absorbed in the Syrian army, which will turn to confront ISIS.

However, militias in Syria grew to many groups, including radicals that will be extremely hard to disarm and disband.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Syrian HNC women team says that its interference is limited. Saudi Arabia knows that Syrian society is different from its society and won’t try to impose an order that doesn’t fit it. Furthermore, it knows the regional balance is shaky and won’t risk endangering it.

However, recent history taught us that in Syria is being fought a war much larger than the civil conflict. A subtle war to win the hegemony over the Middle East, a game with many players, inside and out the region.

Lastly, a Syrian woman in the public speaks. She is disillusioned and angry, as many Syrians.

The West will do nothing for us,” and it’s pointless to ask for its help. “We can count on ourselves only.”

“And you, what are you doing for us?” she continues. “Before I came here today, I was mad at you. Now, my heart is with you and I want to believe you, but I lost hope.”

After the conference, I watch as Kabawat reaches the woman. She hugs her and talks with her; she does what she’s good at: Bringing light into darkness, proving once again the importance of emotional healing, the importance of giving hope to a people that is deeply hurt, let down and legitimately angry.

But those women know better than anyone that Geneva is leading nowhere if the regime uses it to shuffle the cards and leave everything as it is, with Assad sitting on his chair, and if the international community doesn’t resolve to apply every instrument it has to stop the slaughtering.

This article was originally published in Italian on ‘The Post Internazionale‘.

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