Earlier today I passed a small but passionate protest in Sydney’s Martin Place. There were a few men in the group but most of the protesters were women, wearing the modest garb and head coverings that marked them out as Muslim. Waving the Syrian flag, their voices rang loud and clear and their accents were broad Australian. “Assad is not a leader! Assad is a butcher! Assad is a murderer! Murdering innocent people! Free Syria! Free Syria now!”
This was the third time in as many weeks that I’ve seen a Syria-related protest in the centre of Sydney and it was probably the smallest of the three. However, it was the first time that they were chanting in English, making me sure of the agenda. It was also the first time that I stopped.
I was pushing the twins in their stroller on my way to an appointment. I was not intending to stop. Like every other pedestrian, my first instinct was just to walk on by. But after I had walked about 50 metres past the protesters, I decided that I wanted to let them know that this white Australian cared about what was going on. I circled back and stopped in front of them. They paused expectantly and I said: “I just wanted to say that I’ve been to Syria and I’m with you guys.” They thanked me and I went on my way, feeling a little lighter on my feet. In the scheme of things it’s very little, but I felt like I’d done the right thing.
It’s terrible what’s happening in Syria at the moment with the vicious crackdown against the pro-democracy protesters. It’s terrible what’s been happening in Libya and other parts of the Arab world as well but I’ve been to Syria and travel makes it personal.
When I hear about troops opening fire on civilians in Hama, I remember the small city in the north-west of Syria that I visited with my friends Peter and Hawy and Mo in 2008. We were in Syria for Hawy’s brother’s wedding and spent most of our time in Damascus, heading north to visit the 12th-century crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers and Hama.
When I think of Hama, I remember the river that runs through the centre of town with beautiful old wooden water wheels and the remains of a medieval aqueduct. At one stage there were 30 water wheels, now there are 17 remaining and they are kept only for show.
I remember the beautiful young girls we met out strolling around the lake at dusk – especially the dark eyes of the littlest one.
I remember how the sky filled with swallows as the sun set.
I remember the lake at night with the illuminated buildings.
I remember Hama and I think about how little I knew as a tourist about what was simmering beneath the surface and what people were really thinking. I had no idea.
My heart goes out to these people. Everywhere I went in Syria, I was welcomed with open arms and I hate to think of the suffering that must be so widespread across the land. Assad’s regime has killed many people and so many others have been rounded up and “disappeared”. I don’t know how we can help them but I know that the Syrian people deserve a government that represents them and is accountable to them.