The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Syria: my week on the frontline

University of Manchester student Ibrahim Olabi tells The Mancunion about the horrors he encountered during a week-long trip to Syria


As it became clear that Barack Obama had been comfortably been re-elected to serve a second term in the White House in the early hours of Wednesday morning, his British counterpart must have been quietly delighted to hear the news. But rather than watching the drama unfold from the comfort of his Downing Street office, David Cameron was 6,000 miles away from Washington D.C., visiting Syrian refugees at a makeshift camp in Jordan.

The Prime Minister described what he heard and saw over the course of his trip to the Middle East as “truly horrendous,” citing a resolution to the Syrian crisis as a key priority for him and the rejuvenated President Obama. “Right here in Jordan I am hearing appalling stories about what has happened inside Syria, so one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis,” Cameron said firmly.

Not before time. It has taken over a year for the international community to wake up and smell the coffee, but perhaps Obama’s re-election will serve as the catalyst for serious action to tackle one of the gravest humanitarian crises the world has faced in recent years.

Thus far, the international community has indicated that it has no desire to intervene militarily in Syria, opting instead for mere rhetorical condemnation of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. The region is, put simply, a volatile tinderbox; Syria lies at the very heart of the ‘fault lines’ of the Middle East, a microcosm of the region and its complexities. Take one look at Syria’s strategic location and observe the countries with which it shares a border – Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel – and the picture that emerges is of a complex crisis with no immediate solution.

In the days following his end of year exams in June, one University of Manchester student decided that he had seen enough. Not content with serving as an anti-Assad voice from the sidelines, Ibrahim Olabi embarked on a journey to his beloved home country to see the devastation for himself. His story is a harrowing one, illustrated by “pictures that will be carved in my memory forever.”

Ibrahim was one of many young Syrians who sensed – having watched the Arab Spring topple dictatorial regimes across North Africa – that this was an opportunity for his country, too. Armed with little more than a backpack and burdened with what he calls a “heavy responsibility,” Ibrahim touched down in Turkey tasked with smuggling himself into Syria. It would be a perilous journey across the border.

“Now it’s less dangerous, because [opposition force] the Free Syrian Army has taken control of the border entrances, but at the time it was more difficult. We could hear shelling as we entered the country”, he recalls.

“It was dangerous, but I knew it was dangerous and I wasn’t going there frightened. I understood the risk, but I had to do what I had to do.”

Over the next week, Ibrahim travelled far and wide across a country in turmoil. “The Free Syrian Army escorted us because I didn’t know the way from city to city, and there may have been government ambushes… it was too dangerous to stay in one place,” he explains.

Ibrahim was under no illusions about the risks he was taking upon entering Syria. As the uprising has gathered pace over the past 18 months, the regime has unleashed every facet of its brutal security forces. In a desperate attempt to cling on to power, Assad’s men have resorted to collective punishment, cutting off water and electricity supplies and besieging entire communities whilst employing tanks, bombs and rockets to shell cities – a horrifically violent reminder of the 1982 Hama massacre which killed as many as 40,000 people.

The Syrian regime is firm in its stance – determined to crush the revolt as efficiently as possible – but Ibrahim and his fellow protestors are equally resolute. They will not allow the next generation to be crippled by the Gestapo-like culture of fear which has paralysed freedom of speech in Syria under Assad’s regime.

Until recently, Ibrahim says, there was “barely” anyone he could trust. “If I saw a Syrian on a street corner here in Manchester before the revolution I wouldn’t speak to them, even here. It’s very dangerous because I’m then putting my relatives back home in danger, so I’m not allowed to speak about such things,” he says.

“We were ruled by a police state. You couldn’t ask people for their opinions. You couldn’t trust brothers, you couldn’t trust siblings – you certainly couldn’t talk about the government to them.”

It was with a brighter future for Syria in mind that Ibrahim risked his life to traverse sparse, mountainous terrain in unarmoured pick-up trucks and on motorbikes. “With a motorbike, if you see the army coming you can take a diversion into the trees and hide there. We used the trees to hide all the time, because planes cannot see through the trees, so whenever we see a plane, movement stops – everyone just goes in the trees and stays there into the danger has passed.”

“The first day was one that I will never forget,” he continues. “I had a sleepless night because of the constant sound of the regime’s artillery, and wondered how those around me could sleep so deeply. They told me the next day that they had gotten used to the noise.”

It is one of many astonishing stories which illustrates the bombardment that Syria has suffered at the hands of Assad governmental forces for over 18 months. “I know a lot of activists who have died,” says Ibrahim. “One guy died and I didn’t know until about a week later because when we had agreed to talk he wasn’t on Skype, and then a friend told me. I’ve had cousins disappear. I’ve lost a lot, a lot of friends.”

During his time in the city of Taftanatz, Ibrahim encountered a mother sitting on her doorstep. She told him the tragic story of her son’s murder – shot in the head by a sniper bullet when he went out to buy bread. “He was 25, and he was just about to get engaged,” she told Ibrahim with a smile, holding back her tears.

The UN estimates that at least 31,000 Syrians have been slaughtered over the course of the conflict, but Ibrahim suspects that the official figure may be the tip of the iceberg. “I’ve seen mass graves where you couldn’t tell by looking at them who people were any more – so damaged that you wouldn’t be able to tell. About two million people have been internally displaced, plus there are refugees who have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – it’s quite devastating.”

Ibrahim’s profoundly personal anecdotes bring much-needed humanity to the horrific plight that his country faces. One cannot help but question the international community’s failure to intervene decisively in the conflict, though Ibrahim suggests that the UK is “doing a far better job than the others” in working to bring about an end to the Assad regime. “William Hague has been speaking all of the time – but again, he is speaking,” Ibrahim laments.

In an interview with The Mancunion last October, Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt attempted to explain his government’s position. “The international appetite to [intervene militarily] in relation to Syria isn’t there, for a whole series of reasons. Syria is a much more complex issue in terms of the nature of the protest against the Assad government… we have made it clear that military intervention wasn’t part of that resolution, it isn’t being considered, it’s a wholly different situation. Pressure must be applied on the Syrian regime in other ways.”

In recent weeks the government appears to have shifted its position, with Number 10 now claiming that “nothing is off the table” in terms of possible courses of action against Syria. Yet Ibrahim remains broadly sceptical: “There is no action that has been taken, because of the sensitivity of the area. America is fighting Russia over Syria, and Saudi Arabia is fighting Iran over Syria.”

If it were not for the flagging American economy, Syria would undoubtedly sit at the very top of the presidential in-tray and, in the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election, analysts are daring to articulate an end game for the Assad regime.

However, the despot himself remains defiant. “I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria,” Assad declared in the wake of Obama’s comprehensive victory.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim has returned from his homeland more determined than ever to see Assad overthrown. He is keen to spread two messages; first, that the death toll we see reprinted in newspapers as we wake up to a comfortable liberal democracy each morning represents thousands of human lives torn apart in the name of power. On the other hand, he brings a message of hope: that his younger compatriots will be the first members of the ‘freedom generation’.

“What astonished me most was how, although now more than 31,000 people have lost their lives, people still have high morale,” Ibrahim says tellingly. “I can tell having looked into these people’s eyes they are far from giving up, no matter the cost. Their drive? A just cause.”