Sunday, April 15, 2012

FEATURE: Damascus, through the lens of Carole Alfarah

Written by Adam Niemi
Photos by Carole Alfarah

A photojournalist in Syria found my blog through Twitter. When I noticed that she lives in Damascus, the country's capital, I was interested in her perspective on a country relentlessly throttled by violence in the last year.

  Carole Alfarah.
Carole Alfarah, a 31-year-old freelance photojournalist from Damascus, has seen and documented the rapid change in Syria for the last five  years. Despite a year of political instability that has given rise to violence and death, especially recently in Homs, Alfarah is insistent that Damascus is a safe place. She said as long as the person knows where the dangerous places are, and how to avoid dangerous situations, Damascus is safe.

Alfarah's work has been published internationally in newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and magazines including Syria Today Magazine, Newsweek and Time. She has published photo essays online, both of the violence around Damascus and the everyday life.
The uprising in Syria is important for two reasons.

First, the Syrian uprising today is, in some essence, the early history of the United States. The people of Syria are fighting to liberate themselves from a government that has grown oppressive and tyrannical. This isn't just exclusive to U.S. history — it's a piece of history common in the births of many countries.

A boy and his older brother look at a photo of their father the day after he was killed in one of the two terrorist explosions that took place in security centers in Damascus, Syria on March 17, 2012. The explosions killed 27 people and injured 140 more.

Second, Syria is another Middle East country in the last year that has been part of the Arab Spring, a wave of uprising in a region that for so long was passive to violent and destructive governments. The opposition of the Syrian government mirrors similar uprisings that occurred in Egypt and Libya. The political landscape in the Middle East has changed forever as a result of the events in the past year.

Alfarah said she has not processed what's happened in Syria. Sorting through the confusion is an emotional battle.

"For me, it's still early to build an opinion," Alfarah said in an email. "I know it's a year now (since the uprisings began), but the Syrian issue is very complicated and I need more time to analyze the events that surround me. I don't like the emotional answers and now all is emotional in Syria."

A young man cries during his father's funeral in Damascus, Syria.
Alfarah went to Contrast Photography School in Brussels, Belgium in 2004. In 2008, she was selected as the official photographer for the Arab Capital of Culture festivities hosted in Damascus. Alfarah said she doesn't cover the battles themselves. She was given press credentials on certain conditions: covering battles, for instance, cross a "red line" that could result in her imprisonment. Instead of conflict, she focuses her camera on the protestors themselves, away from the scenes of bloodshed.
Alfarah describes the Syrian protestors demographic, at least in the Damascus area, as mostly college-age and expressive. Despite reports of a dwindling population in Damascus, Alfarah said the population has grown. Since attacks in Damascus are considered rare events, families have moved there from cities in turmoil like Homs, Idlib and Dara'a with hopes of living in peace.

A man shouts "Ya Allah" (Oh God) near the scene of a terrorist explosion in al-Kassa'a, a neighborhood in Damascus.
"The majority of the café habitués here are from the enlightened Syrian class, young artists, intellectuals, bloggers and university students; and some of the 'curious-type.' This place is well known for being the summit point of Syrian activists, but basically it is more like a free-platform where they can express themselves freely."  
       — CAROLE ALFARAH, in a photo essay.
Cars in ruins in front of a damaged housing complex in al-Kassa'a, a neighborhood in Damascus. The explosion, which occured at 7:20 a.m., killed 27 people and injured 140 more.

Alfarah's observations in Damascus of both the pro-government and opposition civilians are a sample of what exists in the more violent regions of Syria. Alfarah said she has not witnessed any violence. Young, college-age kids -- much like the ones she finds in cafes in Damascus -- have fueled an energetic uprising that has pressured the government into invading towns and cities, squashing protests and slaughtering their own people at the mercy of their war machinery.

       Blood on the sink inside a house nearby an explosion in
       Damascus on March 17 that killed 27 and injured 140 more.
Assad is an Alawite, a minority sect in a country that is mostly Sunni Muslim. Much of the nation's elite are Alawite, which make up just 12 percent of the 23 million Syrians. Sunni Muslims make up 75 percent of the population. Neither violence nor diplomacy has brought an end to fighting in the country. Recent international negotiations have brought a cease-fire within sight, but delegates are still unsure about the Syrian government's intentions.

Alfarah shot photos at the scene of a terrorist attack in the Damascus neighborhood, al-Kassa'a, on March 17 that killed 27 people and injured 140 more. There were two explosions, the first of which came at approximately 7:20 a.m. in the Rotunda of Customs. A few minutes later, a blast occurred at Tahrir Square. It is unclear whether the attacks were religiously or politically motivated.

Alfarah, born in Damascus in 1981, has grown up with political instability in her home country. The last serious uprising came in 1982 when violent conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood convinced Hafez al-Assad to make a move. He sent troops out to kill at least 10,000 people and destroyed the old city of Hama. According to news reports, hundreds of fundamentalist leaders were jailed and many never again seen alive.

Scores of people have been murdered by the Syrian government as it worked to suppress a growing revolutionary effort. Groups either seeking prominence or showing support for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, have taken part in terrorist attacks that have literally shaken Syria. Even attacks in Damascus, considered rare, have rattled any lingering feelings of peace in the capital.

The spread of Arab revolution reached Syria on March 15, 2011, when residents in Dara'a protested the torture of students who created anti-government graffiti. Since then, the effort of the revolution has been made up of factions of differences in ethnic, religious or political ideologies.

Men at al-Othman mosque during a funeral for the victims of two terrorist explosions at security centers in Damascus, Syria on March 17, 2012.

"Everything has changed in Syria, forever. Before eleven months, Damascus seemed to be stable and far from any 'spring storms.' Now, the sense of tension and change is filling up the air." 


A damaged room of a house nearby the scene of an explosion in the Damascus neighborhood of al-Kassa'a that killed 27 and injured 140 more on March 17.

The revolution has grown as soldiers in the Syrian military have defected and joined the opposition, mostly because they are unwilling to kill civilians. More than 9,000 people have been killed, and thousands more have displaced as a result of the fighting, according to United Nations estimates. Sunni Muslims who fled the country described the crackdown as one in which people affiliated with the Assad regime have taken arms against neighbors who oppose the government.

Vehicles damaged by the March 17 explosion in the Damascus neighborhood of al-Kassa'a.
Many fear that Assad's power and willingness to kill may prevent the opposition from developing an effective uprising. The government trips are widely considered a hostile presence in much of Syria and the growing conflict has raised concern that it could become a cause for terrorist groups to rally and recruit.

Resolutions proposed in United Nations meetings to sanction the Syrian government have gained little momentum after being blocked by Russia and China, Syria's traditional allies. The lack of options for international help have complicated efforts to bring the violence to a halt. In early April, the government agreed to a six-point plan for a cease-fire, Syrian troops had not returned to their barracks as promised.

The Syrian government announced on Feb. 27 that 90 percent of voters approved a new Constitution. Many Western countries dismissed the results as a farce. Some changes in the Constitution included ending political domination by the Baathist Party and implementing presidential term limits.


The United States has maintained a complex approach towards Syria. The Obama administration has worked through the Arab League and the United Nations, instead of independently, so as not to impress upon the region that it is trying to intervene in Syria. Analysts said it is also to avoid giving Iran any reason to believe it should join with Syria, its regional ally.

On Feb. 19, two American senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, expressed strong opinions that the U.S. should intervene directly in Syria, mostly by arming Syrian opposition forces. Any intervention in Syria could be complicated by Russia's involvement with Syria.

Various reports indicate Russia supplies food, medical supplies and weapons to the Syrian government. After the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring, Russia's presence in the Middle East has decreased. A strong presence in Syria by either the United Nations or the United States could dramatically impact Russia's involvement, if not stop it altogether.

The Sunni Muslim-led opposition against the Syrian government, a majority of which are Alawites, a part of Shiism, has become especially dangerous in aggravating religious and sectarian tensions. Across the border in Iraq, a majority of which are Shiite, support is increasing for the Assad government.

The decade-long effort of Iraq by the United States to root out the Baathist party may be undone by Iraqi Shiites' support of a Baathist dictatorship in Syria. The elimination of dictators and strongmen in the region has only strengthened alliances and identities.

The complex changes in political and religious relationships, along with the violence, has prolonged Ms. Alfarah's opinions. is waiting until she's done with a project before she reaches a judgment on what's happening in her home country.

"I really don't want to share my opinion because I don't know it; I'm very confused because of everything. I meet people from the two political sides every day," Ms. Alfarah said. "They both tell me their stories. I'm working on a documentary project about the Syrian victims, the real victims from all sides. When I finish it, I'll be able to then talk about my opinion."

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