by Zakira Suriyeh
“Today, we march in millions to the squares across Al-Assad’s Syria. We march to declare that this is Al-Assad’s Syria. It is Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria and nothing will help you, not your money, not your betrayal, not your false media; nothing in the universe will help you. We will chant, ‘God, Bashar, Syria and nothing else’ and ‘The people want Bashar Al-Assad.’ The entire world will witness the march of millions, from all Syrian sects.”
This was the Syrian president’s message a few days ago to his people via Facebook, a call for a nationwide march (maseera) to support the regime on March 29. It was dubbed the “March of Loyalty” for the people to express their love and obedience to the president, the great defender of Syria. And they responded, in the thousands, filling the squares across Syria, bearing flags and posters, chanting and dedicating their souls and blood to Bashar Al-Assad.
These marches are a typical control tactic used by the Assad regime for the past 40 years. I remember the marches of the late 80’s and 90’s under the leadership of Assad, the father. They were carefully planned to include all schools, universities and governmental offices, and most importantly they were mandatory.
On the day of the march, we were asked to come to school with our military uniforms cleaned and pressed, our black combat boots polished. Our teachers organized us first by height then by looks, the tallest and the prettiest would lead the rest of the school. The dreaded second row were assigned to carry the flags and banners. We walked from our school to the main square, as the students from the other schools streamed in from different directions. We chanted “Hafiz Al-Assad for eternity!” until our voices grew hoarse. The teachers made random checks during the march to make sure no one defected along the way to the square. Those who dared to escape, as they called it, would face a harsh punishment the next morning, like being ordered to crawl across the school yard on their chests without using their hands or legs, or suffer a humiliating slap across the face during morning assembly.
Although, we were a typical group of middle school girls who loved any opportunity to get a break from the daily grind, we still resented these mandatory marches. We knew that our enthusiastic chants against imperialism and zionism, and chants for socialism and nationalism, were forced upon us. Most of us didn’t know what those big words even meant, but we did understand that we were being used as part of the ideology machine, the same despised machine that our families whispered about at night. We could do nothing about it. And our parents could do nothing to protect us from it.
As students, we had it much easier than the adults. For a government employee, missing a mandatory march is like committing professional suicide. An employee could face being fired or worse being called a traitor. There were always colleagues who were watching, noting who was there and who was not, who was chanting loud enough with enough emotion, and who was just giving lip service. The machine was designed to create monsters out of all of us. From youngest to eldest, we were all mukhabarat. The secret police roamed among the crowds, the teachers counted the students, the party leaders checked employees. Everyone was ready to report who was missing, speculate why he was missing, and draw up a new list of traitors, a new list of prisoners-to-be needed to feed the blood-thirsty machine.
The march of March 29th was important. It was the first call for national support after the regime was questioned and threatened by the dissidents. Assad, the son, after leading 15 days of bloodshed and terror from the south to the coast, used his father’s old tactics to dictate the next move: The March of Loyalty. Does the Leader, really need our love? And why ask for it now? Because he needs to know that we will all bow our heads down in humiliation. He needs to know we are willing to swallow the injustice. He needs to know he can count on us to turn a blind eye to the atrocities. And a bit of ego-inflating never hurt a dictator.
We support you, we love you, our mighty Leader, even as you threaten to slaughter every one of us. We pledge our souls and our blood to you alone.
It may seem that once again the people had no choice but to be another brick in Assad’s wall of control. But, this march was different. This time could have had an alternative ending. The people who have died, who have been injured, who have been imprisoned, who have disappeared, they gave the rest of us a priceless gift: a choice. The Syrian people must understand they have a choice to stand with the revolution or against it, to march or not. And once there is a choice, there is a responsibility.
On March 29th, the Syrian people blew it. There may not be many more opportunities to take responsibility for our actions, as the blood slowly transfers to our hands because of our silence. It won’t be long before our children will be rounded up for another march on another March day to celebrate their humiliation. For eternity…