By Andrew Kelly.
Have you heard? Hope swirls in the air again. It is only over a month now since President Francois Hollande cried in his victory speech in Tulle: “le changement est arrivé. L’espérance est arrivé.” Austerity will have to go, as Greece, Spain, and Italy all lift their heads towards France in the hope that Hollande is right. With pleasantries and formalities out of the way, the austere world continues to wait as the Hollande-Merkel relationship tries to resolve to a position that is favourable for themselves and the Eurozone. A process that some may progressively liken to Sisyphus’s eternal relationship with his rock, or perhaps the more popular association between a rock and a hard place.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, President Obama has dusted off his fabled ‘Hope’ portrait (courtesy of Shepard Fairey), along with the highs and lows of his first term in office, to remind the people of why they had turned to him. ‘Hope’ was the theme of Obama’s victory speech – embodied in a touching story of a lady who at 104 years of age cast her first vote believing in change. And hope is exactly what the 99% will be holding on to, to see that Romney does not take up residence at the White House.
Yet, while these familiar narratives of change and hope are churned out by the elite media blocs of the world, the people of Syria find themselves confronting a more sinister form of it.
A Torture of Hope?
Not too far from where President Hollande saluted his nation beside the French flag under the Arc De Triomphe while being sworn into office, the 19th Century short-story writer Count Villiers De L’isle Adam conceived of his story of hope. Located in a collection of the world’s greatest short stories on my book shelf lies L’isle Adam’s famous story called ‘Torture by Hope’.
Set in the backdrop of the Spain Inquisition, L’isle Adam’s story conveys a darker aspect of hope. The protagonist of his plot, one Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, a Jewish man, is introduced to us in the dungeons of the Grand inquistor and his master torturer (fra redemptor) who is determined to have the Rabbi abjure his faith. They had exhausted all means of tormenting the Rabbi; who was the stronger for embracing the eventuality of his death. Astute to the fact, the torturers set in motion a series of (un)fortunate events that allow the Rabbi to believe that his prison is “divinely” left unguarded and his door ajar. Hope stirs in our tormented Rabbi, and he desires to live again. Every inch he gains crawling away from his cell feeds his hope, every guard eluded fortifies it. And yet, the reader must fear for the Rabbi, for they know where his story ends; in the arms of his captor and torturer, who awaits the hopeful Rabbi outside the prison in the courtyard.
Syria: The Houla Massacre
The people of Syria face this torture every day at the hands of President Bashar Al-Assad and the international community. Not just in terms of the dark dungeons that have systematically tortured the people detained, which according to an independent non-profit organisation called the “The Syrian Youth Movement” exceeds 69,000, but also a level of torture that L’isle Adam’s Rabbi experienced. The international community continue to give the Syrian people false hope, by incessant claims that they “shall not stand idly by”, and yet do so. Meanwhile, the Syrian President systematically squashes any real traces of hope, à la Col. Gaddafi: “zenga zanga” (street by street), with every shot fired at the innocent.
The recent massacre at Houla on 25th of May, is a stark example of this. All the signs and facts were present. A little over three weeks before the massacre, a Human Rights Watch report revealed that extrajudicial killings, stabbings, and burnings – mostly of women and children – continued to be committed, even as the UN envoy Kofi Annan negotiated with President Bashar al-Assad to call a cease-fire and withdraw his Syrian troops, under his Six-Point Peace plan. Yet, the response from the international community continued to take the shape of more fact finding commissions, inspections and assessments.
What followed the Houla Massacre, was the Al-Qubair massacre on the 6th of June, which saw a number of women and children once again shot, burned, and stabbed. BBC correspondent Paul Danahar, gives us a chilling first hand account of the state of the village of Qubair after the killings took place: “The flies found the evidence of the Qubair massacre before UN got there. They buzzed and swooped around what remained of the tiny community.” Yet, the massacres only serve as brief departures from the usual killings that take place in cities such as Homs and Hama, that are ceaselessly shelled.
Of Hope, and Children.
John F Kennedy had once said, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”. The rate at which the Syrian government seems to be killing them, suggests that Syria is not likely to have much of a future; not one of “value” in any case. Out of the 108 killed in Houla, 34 were women, and 49 were children. In the small village of Qubair, out of the 78 that were murdered it was reported that 35 were women and 20 were children. In these two incidents alone, the victims were primarily women and children. Going by a UN annual report on children and armed conflict; some of the children that have not been killed, have instead been used as human shields – not to protect the future of Syria, but of its tanks.
Back in the US, where news networks actively debate Scott Walkers’s recount while drawing unnecessary parallels to Obama-Romney, the networks remain passive about Syria; failing to draw more relevant parallels between the horror of inaction in Rwanda and the horrors taking place in Syria. Louise Mushikiwabo, the Foreign Affairs minister of Rwanda, says that despite the distance between Damascus and Kigali, “Rwanda and Syria share the same experiences.” Experiences untied not just in terms of the kind of atrocities being committed, but also the experience of being abandoned by the international community, and being left at the mercy of ruthless blood-thirsty groups: In this case, the Syrian army and the Alawite para-militants or Shabiha (Arabic for “thugs”).
The on-going tragedy throws up a significant set of issues concerning intervention policy; the hailed arrival of the R2P or the Responsibility to Protect following the Rwanda genocide has clearly not been able to counter crimes against humanity, and the old songs about UN Security Council reform are being sung again. But, what this crisis is also throwing up is a need to recognise the different experiences of hope that the people of Syria live with.
Should Obama not be re-elected, or should Hollande fail in his mandate, their respective nations will undoubtedly find another beacon of hope. But one has to ask, what becomes of Syria? What happens if the international community continue to fail and remain as passive as the descriptions in L’isle Adam’s short story? There the trees and the tactile wind that the Rabbi experiences for a brief moment do nothing more than represent symbols of hope that are unable to reach out to help, but instead torture and torment the Rabbi as he is gently escorted back into the prison of his captor a broken soul – a state that some would say is far worse than death. In the end we are left to consider what really tortured the Rabbi: the fra redemptor he had resigned himself to being killed by, or the hope that was rekindled but never fulfilled?