Barcelona City Council and Catalan PEN yesterday welcomed the Syrian poet, Ugar to the city. Barcelona is a member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), and the Catalan Branch of PEN International has been welcoming persecuted writers to their city for the past ten years. Ugar uses this pseudonym to avoid the public dissemination of his name, and he has asked the press not to show his face in the pictures to protect his family in Syria.
Carme Arenas, president of Catalan PEN said: ‘the writers of Catalan PEN are delighted to host our persecuted colleagues, we welcome them with the hardships and with the literary weight they bring with them. They are ambassadors for their cultures, their perspective on our society can only enhance the way we see ourselves. Beyond offering shelter at a time of persecution, we take care of their integration into the literary fabric of the city, working this popular book fair that the first Catalan translation of Ugar’s poetry was read out.’
Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International said: ‘PEN International has been working closely with ICORN for a number of years on a programme of protection for persecuted writers. Good examples of PEN International commitment for the protection of writers at risk are the recent arrival of Bangladeshi bloggers in Sweden thanks to the intervention of Swedish PEN, the hosting of refugee writers in eleven German Cities thanks to German PEN or the active role Catalan PEN has played in welcoming endangered writers from the Middle East, the Maghreb or Africa.’
PEN International’s call for the European Union to create common, humane asylum laws and procedures to tackle the current refugee crisis in Europe, reaffirms PEN’s commitment to the protection of writers. Looking back at the long history of PEN, the current crisis only remind us of the active role played by PEN Centres during the major refugee crisis caused by the Spanish Civil War and by the Second World War, legacy that we must continue.
"The solution for the refugees?
The expulsion of Assad and ISIS from Syria"
What is the story of your exile?
In March 2011, we started a revolution against Assad. Since then, there have been more than 300,000 casualties and 4 million made homeless. From a very young age, I criticised the religious and social traditions. At age 16, I became a rebel and was part of the clandestine opposition.
The police began to watch me and prevented me from accessing any form of work.
I was imprisoned for my political activities for four years and two months, from 2006 to 2010, in terrible conditions.When I finished my sentence, I went to Beirut for two months, but before the threat of Hezbollah - 60 Syrian workers were killed in an attack - I left for the mountains; from there I went to Egypt, and after two years, to Barcelona.
What ideology would you defend?
I founded the Party of the Republic in 2013 - it is socialist, democratic and in favour of the revolution. But we are faced with new situations that we haven't come across before, and the ideology of the party is evolving.
When did the revolution begin to fail?
When they didn't want to remove Assad, supported by Iran and Russia, from power. No result, from all of the tragedy caused.
Four million Syrians made homeless, with all the drama involved, in return for just one person to remain.
There are those who, before the emergence of ISIS and the decomposition of Libya, Iraq and Syria, preferred the previous situation as the lesser of two evils...
The dictator Assad is worse than ISIS, ISIS was born as a result of the politics of Assad.
In prison he had a thousand Islamist prisoners and I know very well his way of thinking.
Almost all came from very poor villages and sometimes were in jail for holding a CD of the Quran, which could be found on any street in Damascus.
They arrived at the prison without knowing how to read and put in the same cell with older Islamist prisoners who converted them into Salafis, or Islamic fundamentalists.
The police stopped the forbidden readings from being sold in the streets, they watched buyers and arrested them.
Such as Ben Ali in Tunisia: he commissioned a survey to find out how many Islamists there were: this came to 35%, with a spread of 60%.
The government army left behind weapons after its withdrawal so that the Islamic State could use them.
They want to make the West believe that they are opposing Islamism. In Syria you can't get married, find employment, move home or make any major expenditure without the consent of the secret police, which has absolute control of people, schools, universities, media and sports.
The press is government-owned and half of the Syrian economy is owned by the family of the current president. The regime has killed 300,000 people and detained one million, in addition to the 150,000 who have been injured.
What about Western reaction to the arrival of refugees, only sensitised through seeing the photo of the Alyan Kurdi?
The images, you'll understand, affect me dramatically.
The solution: the expulsion of El-Assad and ISIS from Syria in order to return Syria to a place where various ethnicities and beliefs live together peacefully.
There are other refugees that Europe does not see, those who are moving through Syria internally...
Yes, yes, they are many, and they are in a terrible situation...
What will happen in a civil war of everyone against each other?
There are now 1,200 armed groups and each one controls its own zone, with Druze, Kurdish, Alawites, Sunnis, and Shiites fighting with money, ideas, fighters and weapons from external forces:
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, in search of areas of influence... The four largest cities and 80 medium-sized towns have been destroyed.
This interview first appeared in La Vanguardia on 9 September 2015.
(Translated by Laura Hargreaves)