By Dwight Holly
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 12/05/2011
Lina Mansour is a young lawyer in her 20s. She works for a human rights organisation and, like many doing this job in Syria, she is using another identity to talk to the media. Since last week, Syrian authorities have stepped up their campaign of arrests, trying to crack down on activists that are communicating with the world outside and those who are joining the protests inside the country.
Many, like the 28-year-old cyber activist Rami Nakhle, have already left and are working from neighbouring Lebanon. Others – among them human rights lawyer Razan Zaytoun and dissident Haitham al Maleh – are still active inside the country, often spending no more than two or three nights in one flat before moving to the next.
Lina has experienced this a couple of times, while her father, an old and well-known activist, has been regularly spending nights out of his house. But if you ask her if she is scared, she smiles and says: "We have been scared all our lives. Now at least we have hope, too." Hope that the regime will change, even if "it might take years".
She looks very confident despite the gloomy updates she is getting from all over Syria from people who continuously ring her second phone, which is registered under a fake ID.
Lina has just been meeting a friend who managed to return from Deraa, the city that has been occupied by the Syrian army for more than 10 days in order to "find and punish terrorist groups", as the official media describe the military operation.
She conveys pictures of a human tragedy taking shape: people being randomly killed, others being arrested and threatened to be shot in the head by snipers if they demonstrate. She describes a mass graveyard, corpses being thrown there without names and identity. A city with no food, no medicines, no connections with the outside world.
A few days ago a group of TV actors and directors signed a petition known as the "milk manifesto". They called for immediate humanitarian aid for the people of Deraa, and particularly for children who need milk and medicines. The official reaction has been almost unanimous condemnation.
Dunya TV, the Syrian satellite channel owned by a consortium of powerful businessmen led by Mohamed Hamsho (a close friend of the president's brother, Maher) has been hosting incendiary talk shows where the brightest stars of Syrian TV drama have joined forces against the milk manifesto and its signatories.
With the help of other activists in the country, Lina is trying to collect money to help civilians in Deraa. So far, some humanitarian convoys have been rejected and sent back to Damascus. The UN inspectors have been trying hard to send a delegation to verify the humanitarian situation although, so far, they haven't been successful.
But apparently people are not giving up on their will to help, even on individual basis. "Lots of help is coming from Jordan, which has got a very strong link and affiliation to Deraa, being [part of] the Houran region between the two countries." But also people from Saudi Arabia and many of the rich oil countries are joining these efforts, adds Tony, a journalist friend of Lina who is helping her to compile a list of the people that have been killed so far.
"It is very important for us that humanitarian help comes from families and ordinary people, not from governments," Lina says. "We don't want any official intervention here, not even if it comes from an Arab country." Lina has attended different meetings where this was the most debated topic.
"There is not such a thing as one view or a common opinion about how the west or other Arab countries should help Syria," she says, while describing heated debates between different groups that could fall under the generic definition of "Syrian opposition" despite not being organised as such.
"My father and I completely disagree and have heated arguments about what the west should do with 'the Syrian file'," she points out. Here there is a generational clash: her father's opposition to western intervention – even a humanitarian one – is probably nurtured by an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist discourse that was a common mark of international leftist movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Lina is not only less ideological, but also more pragmatic.
"I think the west can help us at a humanitarian level and at a diplomatic one. We are not going to ask for milk and medicines but, if they can manage to send, we'll be silently grateful," she adds, putting an emphasis on the word silently, as if to excuse herself for not being able to openly manifest satisfaction for any kind of foreign intervention "at least for now".
Before even being able to ask her what she means by "western help at a diplomatic level", we both look at the TV screen, where al-Jazeera's anchor is reading a list of Syrian figures who will be prevented from travelling to the EU and whose assets there will be frozen. Top of the list is Maher al-Assad, the president's brother and commander-in-chief of the fourth armoured division, who is said to be responsible for the Deraa massacre and the violent repression of protesters in Syria.
Lina drinks her last sip of green tea and smiles. Her eyes have the look that you can find only in those who are young and have the courage to see a different future for their country