Today the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, marking one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time. At least 250,000 people have been killed during the conflict and over one million wounded,while life expectancy has dropped by two decades. There is a huge array of opposition forces against the Syrian army and its militias and on both sides the number of external actors is bewildering. Armed groups, including the group calling itself Islamic State (also known as ISIS), have taken control of parts of the country, fuelling an ever more brutal and complex conflict. The human rights situation in Syria continues to be appalling, with widespread violations including war crimes being committed by all sides, some amounting to crimes against humanity.
Syrian and international writers and journalists are increasingly facing danger from all sides. Stuck between pro-government forces and ISIS, Syria now has one of the highest death tolls for journalists in the world. Over 90 journalists and writers have been killed, while many others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured or have disappeared, making Syria one of the most dangerous countries in the world for writers and journalists, as demonstrated in PEN’s annual Case List. Just days ago, poet Mohammed Bashir al-Ajani was reported to have been killed by ISIS, along with his son, in Deir El-Zour, for alleged ‘apostasy’. Faced with such violence, many writers have been forced to flee the country, with dozens seeking protection and assistance from PEN International and its partner organisation ICORN since 2013.
At the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian authorities imposed a media blackout in an effort to hinder the reporting of impartial news from the ground. This blackout paved the way for the emergence of a citizen journalism movement, as an alternative media, with individuals – mainly young men and women – reporting what is actually happening on a daily basis. An alternative media that has become increasingly important in a country where foreign journalists are unable to report from areas under siege. Syrian citizen journalists have been particularly targeted for attack by the government’s forces. Hundreds of citizen journalists have been killed either by snipers from the security forces or under torture, for doing nothing more than to witness, report, film, and photograph acts of violence. Others have been arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared.
In 2011, increasingly frustrated with the media’s approach to covering the Syrian conflict, citizen journalist and filmmaker Osama al-Habali began filming protests in Homs, at the heart of the Syrian revolution; his work was featured in several shorts for the award-winning Abounaddara Collective. In April 2012, Al-Habali sustained life-threating injuries as a result of shelling for which he sought treatment in Beirut, Lebanon. After a period of recuperation Al-Habali decided to return to his native Syria. On 18 August 2012, he was arrested whilst trying to cross the border into Syria. He has not been heard from since his arrest. PEN has been calling on Syrian authorities to disclose his whereabouts.
Since the start of the conflict, dozens of writers, poets and playwrights have been arrested for peacefully expressing their views about the current events taking place in Syria. Lengthy prison terms for trumped up charges have become one of the greatest muzzles of free speech for the Assad regime, expanding on pre-existing patterns of oppression. Writers, journalists, bloggers and rights activists languish in prison for years simply for exercising their right to free speech. Playwright and leading figure of the Puppet Theatre (Masrah Azil), Zaki Cordillo, is believed to remain in incommunicado detention since his arrest in Damascus in August 2013, along with his son Mihyar, an actor. PEN has been calling for his release since his arrest.
Human rights lawyer and writer Khalil Ma’touq disappeared on 2 October 2012 along with his friend and assistant Mohamed Zaza. The two men are believed to have been arrested on 2 October 2012 at one of the various government-operated checkpoints en route from Ma’touq’s home in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya to his office in Damascus. The authorities have never acknowledged holding them, but their families have received news from released detainees who sighted them in various government-run detention facilities.
Writers and citizen journalists are not the only advocates of free speech that are on the firing line in Syria. In 2012, Palestinian-Syrian open-source software developer, Bassel Khartabil started Aiki Lab in Damascus, which vastly extended online access and knowledge of online tools to the Syrian people, in a country with a notorious record of online censorship. On 15 March 2012, Military Intelligence officials detained Khartabil. He was held in incommunicado detention for eight months and reportedly tortured. In December 2012 he was moved to Adra prison in Damascus, where he remained until 3 October 2015, when he was transferred to an undisclosed location. He has not been heard of since. Khartabil’s wife has received reports from sources with alleged links to the Military Intelligence suggesting that he has been tried by a Military Field Court, the procedures of which are grossly unfair, and sentenced to death. PEN has been calling for on Syrian authorities to disclose his whereabouts and for his immediate and unconditional release.
Life for civilians is no better. With no protection, some 4.2 million people have fled the country and a further 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Syria’s neighbouring countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have largely shouldered the influx of Syrian refugees seeking safety. Tens of thousands have made the perilous journey to Europe, contributing to the biggest movement of people through the continent since the Second World War. Thousands have died making the journey. Amongst those fleeing are an increasing number of writers and journalists, whilst those who remain in Syria are at risk of attack and death.
Over the last 12 months PEN has been campaigning at the national, European and global level for a coordinated, humanitarian approach to providing safety to those at most risk. The international community as a whole must not only help neighbouring countries bear the burden of helping refugees who arrive seeking food, shelter, health services and education for their children but also work together to respond to this refugee crisis thorough common, humane asylum laws. The voices of Syrian writers and journalists are important now more than ever, to help the outside world understand the plight of the Syrian people.
To mark five years since the start of the Syrian conflict, PEN International is publishing a series of interviews with Syrian writers and journalists in its Syria’s Voices series. The first of these is withpoet, writer, translator, and human rights activist, Mohammad Habeeb. With a history of imprisonment and persecution, the renowned Syrian translator and human rights activist, together with his family was forced to flee Syria due his human rights work. Habeeb arrived safely in Stavanger city of refuge in August 2015. You can read PEN’s interview with Habeeb here.