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'A show to which the world is indifferent' Samar Yazbek's Oxfam Novib/PEN Award keynote

Friday 17 January 2020 - 5:20pm

Samar Yazbek delivers the keynote address

Author and activist Samar Yazbek delivered the keynote speech at the 2020 Writers Unlimited festival at The Hague.


Why am I going to talk about Maria Al Abdeh? Shortly you will understand the meaning of innovation, resistance and fighting evil. Maria is one of the millions of unknown Syrians who is not a party leader, whose picture does not feature in the newspapers and whose activities are not covered by the media. She is a 44-year-old Syrian woman. Maria was 33 at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. She shies away from talking about her personal suffering given the hell her people are going through. Maria holds a PhD in bacteriology from a French university and a master’s degree in administration. Maria has been working with us for six years. In 2012, I decided to set up a women’s network on the ground in war zones and on the front lines and latterly in refugee areas. I was looking for a strong support on which to build our movement and project, which was not easy.

I was forced to leave Syria in 2011. I then crossed back illegally through the Turkish border in order to write about the revolution and so that together Maria and I could found community-based civil activist groups. For this reason, I founded "Women Now For Development". I also wanted at the same time to write from within the revolutionary movement.

I still believe in the power of words. I still believe in the role of educated people in making a change within their society and in transmitting the truth, or at least part of it. However, the revolution I came back for ended up as one of the ugliest wars in modern history. Of course, the war is still ongoing. When I met Maria, who would become the Executive Director of “Women Now” – a project based on the idea of innovation and faith in the power of changing minds – we thought together: what can we do with only our brains, our words and our faith in democratic change?

What can we build while facing a new global form of colonialism in a world of neoliberalism? What can words do in the face of weapons and war? Colonialism left by the front door to return by the back door disguised as the most horrifying form of economic and military invasion. What can we do when concepts have been turned upside down, and new tools for fighting and changes have emerged from the digital revolution? How can we catch up with the instruments of change? How can we master our new tools? How can this be done in a Syria divided up between several invaders after it emerged from half a century of dictatorship? Yes, colonialism is no longer as straightforward as we knew it. Russia is cutting out a slice of our land and gets the gas; the Americans get the oil; Turkey is getting a slice of the northern area as a result of its geopolitical interests and the tangled issue of the Kurds. Even Iran has a slice under the pretence of anti-terrorism. However, terrorism cannot be fought by dealing in arms, waging wars, bombarding civilians, and dividing up and ransacking a country.

I have been asking the same question every day: what can we do except write about the truth and demand justice for the victims? We counter terrorism through freedom of expression, educating children and providing them with opportunities to become an enlightened generation of equal citizens and not soldiers or suicidal extremists. We fight terrorism by eradicating dictatorship and the terrorism of a state that justifies its existence and fascism by the presence of extremism. Extremism is the result of ignorance and repression; ignorance breeds violence against people, as stated by the philosopher Ibn Rushd. Yes, violence transforms the victims of violence into tools of evil. I wondered how can we do something despite the war, how can we build community hotspots with the children and women? We cannot put an end to the war. We are witnessing the destruction of our country and the exclusion of women from public spaces by the Jihadi brigades. We knew and spoke to women abused in the prisons of the Assad regime. What should we do? We should resist. We set up this action network on the ground.

I met Maria Al Abdeh, the Syrian woman who managed, brought together and followed through every stage of our work since the foundation of “Women Now” until now. Since 2012 we have stayed with the women under bombings, during the exodus and through the bloodshed. We have accompanied them step by step, under Russian and Assad bombings. In areas controlled by extremist terrorists we build schools and deliver educational and awareness-raising lectures. We have tackled political, economic and political issues and provide psychological support. We have started up a political network project. We have provided support to women’s associations in remote villages in Northern Syria, and we have encountered unbelievable war, evil and madness.

For these reasons, I am speaking about Maria. She still bares the burden of the work and never rests or sleeps, thinking about strategies and plans to protect different forms of women’s gathering and unify their objectives, by requesting democracy and justice. We have tried to protect our network - Maria describes it as a feminist movement, not only a network, and she is right. Women who have become literate with our help wrote their stories and created different memories. Women who attended political leadership training became part of negotiation meetings. Women who received first aid and nursing training and management training gained the tools of personal freedom and independence and revolted against the traditional framework of society. They lived alone despite social condemnation and the patriarchal tradition. They became economically independent, and this is the first step towards the independence of Syrian women.

Maria is running this very complex network under the daily painful conditions of war. Yes, I say painful, but it inspires us to build a peaceful future. Maria is the watchful eye, modest and anxious. I used to discuss every issue with her. We talked about how to break down evil and we knew that in this long war in which the tools of evil became the victims of evil, our role is more than breaking evil down. We are also the mediators and the peacemakers between the components and the spectres of the Syrian people. We have a strong desire to unite the Syrian women and to find the right solutions to bridge the gap between national, social and religious factions. For this reason, we support other initiatives in Europe such as “Families for Freedom” demanding freedom for Syria's detainees. We also want to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice; we seek justice and hope that Syria will become one day a democratic, independent country.

Maria knows the path is long, but she believes we will persevere despite there only being fragments of hope. Just last December Maarat al-Numan, a small town in north Idlib, was bombed and one of our centres was destroyed during a strike. It was a centre used by women from all over Syria who had been displaced to Idlib including those who were working with us in Ghouta. Maria said there were no words to describe what happened. Over the past years, our centres, which only have women and children in them, have been bombed and destroyed and each time we rebuild them. We want to educate women and children, we want art, we want the Internet and technological knowledge, we want to teach them languages, and we will not stop. This is what Maria says.

The foundation of “Women Now” was part of my idea for resistance and building bridges between local women who did not leave their homes because of the war and the outside world - the media, educated people and politicians. We can be this link between them and the outside world. These women are strong and dedicated but little is said about them. They are active like bees and never stop sowing hope. This is one way of making freedom. We are founding democratic pillars for our ideas. We are transforming words into a revolutionary act on the ground that emanates from people sufferings and rights. It was not enough for me to be a novelist and a journalist. It was not enough that I started to write the Syrian memory project told through the voices of women. My presence in the front lines to relate the facts to the world was not enough. As a writer, I thought of changing the world by talking to those who disagree with me and connecting them to a democratic project for the future of the country. I did it. I found people like Maria Al Abdeh and Mazna Al Jundi and many others.

I was forced to leave my country the first time. I decided to go back to northern Syria to stay and to follow the revolution, but I was removed again. I was deported twice from my own country. The second time was more painful because I could see how the extremists had hijacked the revolution, killed and kidnapped our friends and before that the Assad regime had also destroyed, killed and abducted. We will pursue the revolution despite the violence. Our revolution was hijacked, and ISIS occupied some territories.

I have not been able to return to my country since 2013. I am now in exile and hold French citizenship, but I hope to return to my country one day. I saw ISIS brigades enter the country. I saw the extremist fighters flying through the Turkish borders with the benediction of the Turkish authorities. I was there in Northern Syria when children’s bodies were gathered up under the bombs. The Syrian and Russian regimes have not stopped bombing civilians. They say that they are bombing terrorists, whereas they target schools, markets and hospitals. I witnessed Syrians demonstrating for freedom being killed and tortured under the Assad regime. I travelled all over the world to talk about the freedom of my country and the right of the Syrian people to a united and independent nation. I spoke so much about our victims and deaths and for so long, it feels like we, the Syrians, have become a show unfolding again and again in front of the world. I now think that we have desecrated the victims by transforming their tragedy into a show to which the world is indifferent.

I will be honest with you. Today we must talk about liberating the mind and the act of resistance and freedom, our commitment to justice, and making the world a better place. However, I will not hide my disappointment in the international community. My biggest disappointment is the recycling of the violence that we feared would happen. The recycled violence has affected Syrian society and after eight years division has become so deep it is not easily overcome. Not only do we need to work on the ground with those who stayed in Syria but also with the displaced. A third of the Syrian people have become refugees. There are millions of displaced people and a wrecked infrastructure. There is a profound social, religious and class rift. There is poverty. There are disabled people and precarious post-war conditions in all Syria. Syrians inside Syria cannot pay for food and those who left perish while trying to escape death. Syrians are still awaiting their fate which is in the hands of countries which will decide the war. This is a tragedy that can only be faced by initiatives linked to a global resistance movement.

The world must understand that what is going on in Syria is not only a religious and civil war. Syrians began their popular movement with economic and social demands. These demands are part of a global popular movement that manifested itself in different parts of the world. However, their primary demand was to restore their trampled dignity under decades of dictatorship. The Syrian revolution was part of the first wave of revolutions in the Arab world, followed by revolutions in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan. Syria is no different from other people demanding democracy, dignity and freedom. Syria is a historical country through which the greatest civilisations in history have passed. Syria is rich in natural resources and is endowed with a privileged geopolitical situation. The Syrian people were denied their right to self-determination, and the international community stood with the dictator to eradicate the revolution in the ugliest manner known in history. Then some countries intervened to support extremist Islam while the international community stood watching until the day they said: “Look, this Syria is a hotspot of terrorism that we ought to fight.” So, they invaded our land and killed our people. And here we are. I am standing here before you to emphasise that we will not lose hope, and we will not shy away from naming the invaders with their real names. We will not despair from creating forms of resistance and acts of freedom. I want to go back to my country, to Maria and the many other women working with us. I want to be somewhere in my country to work together with Syrian men and women to build our society. But will this be possible?

Who listens to us and joins our voices demanding that the war is stopped and its perpetrators are brought to justice?

- we want justice for the victims.

- we want the release of male and female prisoners from the prisons.

- we are confident justice will be part of the peace process and accountability is the first step to eradicate the remains of this hellish war.