For Sama, by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019, Channel 4, 9pm

https://www.channel4.com/programmes/for-sama/on-demand/66428-001

When you get personal, you get real. Waad al-Kateab, using phone and camcorder gives voice and sound and fury to what was once her home, Aleppo, before it was levelled and she, her husband and daughter, Sama, were forced into exile.

There’s echoes of other diarists such as James Baldwin’s, A Letter to My Nephew, which argues ‘it’s the innocence which constitutes the crime’.

Waad al-Kateab dedicates the film to her daughter, Sama. A precious child that sleeps soundly through air raids, missile, and barrel bomb attacks and knew nothing but war.

One of the most poignant scenes is a pregnant woman brought to the makeshift hospital where Hamaza, Waad al-Kateab’s husband and father of Sama, works as a volunteer doctor. Bashar al-Assad’s government forces routinely targeted hospitals. The woman has been wounded in the stomach and it’s pierced her womb, she’s nine months pregnant. Hamaza performs an emergency caesarean and the neonate is dead. An assistant tries to bring the baby back to life. He rubs its back. Massages its heart. Shakes it like a piece of meat. Then a miracle, the baby cries. The pregnant mother survives, reunited with her boy.

The Arab Spring offers a prelude to the winter of Aleppo in 2016. ‘Bashar has killed our people. That son of a killer,’ one banner read.

Aided by Russia, the war in Syria goes on. For Sama documents how its people can expect bombings, shooting, torture and death.  For the lucky few, exile – and hatred, classed as non-persons, refugees.

As Baldwin reminds us, ‘I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.’

Amen.

A Dangerous Dynasty: The House of Assad, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, director Nick Green.

house of assed.jpg

Panorama, BBC 1, BBCiPlayer, editor Rachel Jupp.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bb6yw0/panorama-syrias-chemical-war

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnfn0d/a-dangerous-dynasty-house-of-assad-series-1-episode-1

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bp1b9v/a-dangerous-dynasty-house-of-assad-series-1-episode-2

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bpyvvh

Civil War in Syria has lasted seven years, around 13 million of its citizens have been displaced and the refugee crisis in Europe has led to a right-wing orchestrated backlash against those who dare to cross borders and not die quietly at home.

Bashar Al-Assad the President of Syria was never meant to be in the position of leadership, never meant to be a mass murderer of around half a million of his people, never meant to sanction the use of barrel bombs, low-tech chlorine and high-tech Sarin chemical weapons against men, women and children, in the city of Idib, targeting hospitals – and then of course, deny it. He was never cut out to be a war criminal that should be charged under the 1949 Geneva Convention for crimes against humanity.

Bashar Al-Assad was destined to be a run-of-the mill eye-doctor who trained at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, London. A largely forgotten figure outside his own country, where his father Hafez was a conventional Middle-East dictator with a billion pound sea-front property in which to bring up his five children.  A pragmatic man who seized power in a 1970 army  coup d’etat and intended to keep it by whatever means necessary, which included bombing and killing up to 20 000 of his own citizens in Homs and jailing and torturing many others.

Not surprisingly, when the Arab Spring flooded the Middle East in 2011, Homs home of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni Muslims was anti-Assad. Again unarmed civilians were murdered and tortured, prisoners in Syria’s largest prison massacred.

Watch what seems ancient footage of newly trained recruits stabbing puppies as a mark of loyalty to President Hafez, but they had it easy, female soldiers had to bite the heads off live snakes.  But Hafez also saw off Israeli advances in Lebanon, a state he kept firmly in his grip as a satellite and he lived long enough to see off six elected American Presidents.

Bashar’s eldest brother Bassel was in line to take over from Hafez. He showed the right credentials. When a fellow army officer in a horse-riding event, for example, beat Bassel in an equestrian championship he was arrested. It doesn’t tell you what happened to him next, but we can guess. Bassel also liked fast cars and that’s what killed him.

Hafez had to decide who to pass his crown to, his daughter, of course, was ruled out for being the wrong gender. We can take the script from a cross between the Corleone family in The Godfather and King Lear, ‘nothing will come of nothing’. Quietly spoken Bashar comes from nothing to lead the family when his father dies, but he has married wisely and married well, Asma’s Lady Macbeth and would-be first lady of Syria, but supermodels herself on Lady Di.

Fast forward to 2013, millions fleeing Syria, the advance of Islamic State and Bashar’s family only controlling 14% of Syria, and the rebels three miles from his presidential palace.   One word: PUTIN.

Poems for Refugees (2002) edited by Pippa Haywood.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosened and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction; while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

Timothy Snyder (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

black earth.jpg

We think we know the bare bones of the history of the holocaust. Hitler as bogey man and the German nation following him to the abyss, where around six million Jews perished and many more minorities. That was my take on it. Not bad, around a D grade. But Snyder does more than root in the history of the past. He drags us into the present and the lessons are illuminating.

For the German nation the war was portrayed as necessary, a colonial war to maintain food supplies, a war against the inferior Slavic nations, or ‘shitty countries’ are our friend President Trump termed them.  But when Lebensraum came unstuck at Leningrad and the Red Army began to roll back German colonial gains the genocidal war against Jews continued and grew even more intense.

‘The Auschwitz Paradox’ the complex of Treblinka, Belzac, Sobibor and Chelmno was a factory in which people were murdered for being the wrong type of people. The gas chambers also stood as a metonym for the evil of a racial policy of mass murder and genocide, but most of the killing had already taken place further East,

‘where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them…German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave’.

Auschwitz processed a lie of left and right, separating the living and dead effectively, and more importantly it allowed a generation of Germans to say they didn’t know. It also allowed the Russians to act as liberators when earlier they had played a large part in the murder of Jews and other Slavic nationals.

The key to survival, then as now was citizenship. Jews in Denmark, for example, retained their citizenship and almost all survived.  In contrast, all 963 Jew in Estonia were murdered, not by the Germans, but Estonian citizens. And from the Baltic to the Black Sea people who killed Jews killed others such as psychiatric patients and gypsies. Lithuanian policemen who took part in the killing of 150 000 Jews in 1941, also starved to death the same number of Soviet prisoners.

Similar elements are at work in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s genocidal onslaught in the second Chechnya war helped set the template for what was to follow.  Russian troops that committed atrocities were fighting terrorism.

When Russian invaded Ukraine its citizens were deemed to be terrorists. Snyder draws explicit parallels with Hitler’s ideology:

In 2013 Russian leaders and propagandists imagined neighbouring Ukraine out of existence, or presented them as sub-Russians…an artificial entity with no history, culture, and language, backed by some global agglomeration of Jews, gays, Europeans, and Americans…In the Russian war against Ukraine, the first gains were the natural gas fields in the Black Sea…annexed in 2014…The fertile soil of mainland Ukraine, its black earth, makes it a very important exporter of food, which Russia is not.

Bashar al-Assad, Syrian’s dictator, whom Putin brought back from the brink of military defeat, using high-tech Russian jets, chemical weapons that put them outside the Geneva Convention, old-fashioned barrel bombs, artillery strikes on hospitals and schools while classifying these murders as fighting against terrorists. There is no such thing as non-combatants.  Women and children are also terrorists.

Three million people in Idib. Three million non-citizens and terrorists. On the Turkish border civilian forces offer a sense of humanity and prepare for a million refugees. Perhaps an overestimate when the Russian fleet offshore are engaged in ‘exercises’. Non-citizens can expect no mercy in a kill-box that would have been all too familiar to Eastern European Jews. Ironically, those fleeing towards Israel in the hope that proximity to another nation state will provide a safe haven of sorts are simply classified as terrorist by another nation state.

Snyder’s template of taking away citizenship as the first step in genocidal murder applies equally to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi occupied Poland, on 27th August 2017 Myanmar’s army attacked unarmed civilians and forced more than 700 000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ian Figel and Benedict Rogers in The Observer report thousands were killed, thousands of women raped. Children were snatched from their parents’ arms and thrown into their burning homes or drowned. Villagers lined up and shot.

Britain’s response to refugees mirrors that of the Americans during the Holocaust – no entry. The United States and richest nation in the world patted itself on the back for allowing around 5000 Jewish refugees, around the same number that were gassed in Treblinka in a morning’s work. Remember David Cameron talking about ‘swarms’ of them waiting to cross the English Channel. Swarms of children, who we agreed to take, then reneged on the deal. Without the sovereign protection of citizenship those without passports have no rights and can be disposed of.

With global warming the numbers of refugees Snyder argues is bound to increase exponentially and the poorest nations in the world will be hit first and hit hardest. Already we are preparing our defences. The first defence being rhetoric, them-or-us fundamentalism. The warning from history is a lesson we have learned too well. Enough talk produces hate and murder, but no real people die. Only terrorists.  Believe that and you’ll believe anything. We often do and justify it to ourselves by saying we didn’t know. Read this book.