The voice I was gladdest to hear recently was also the saddest I have ever heard. Qusai Zakarya, the Syrian-Palestinian rebel spokesman from Moadamiyah who provided real-time insights and relays from a town that was starved into submission, was finally out of Syria and safe in Beirut. But the jubilation was confined to his admirers on Facebook: the victim himself sounded exhausted, angry, and defeated over the phone. “I need some time to pull myself together, as they say.”
Which is actually saying the least of it.
Qusai had been incommunicado for over two weeks, prompting emails from fellow journalists who’d known and interviewed him, asking if I knew where he was or could confirm what they’d heard – that he was in regime custody. If that were true, I feared, he would be dead by now given what he’s said, written, and done from one of the most mercilessly targeted rebel enclaves in the capital. So naturally I asked him what it was like to still be alive.
“Believe me, Michael, after coming a very long way and fighting the Assad regime and living somewhere between death and life each and every day – [death] wasn't something that I feared a lot. My biggest fear in life is to be captured. I'm more afraid of prison than I am of death. We felt like we were living in some kind of prison, even before the revolution.”
Fear for Qusai isn’t easy to define. This was the man, after all, who recorded the Assadist nun Mother Agnes admitting to the mukhabarat’s arrest of teenaged boys after their “evacuations” from Moadamiyah several months ago – evacuations which Agnes herself presided over and encouraged, even as civilians were shot at, then arrested and interrogated – and then passed the audio onto me for media release. Qusai had hoped (and the hope may now be justified) that he’d make Agnes’ propaganda tour of North America last October just a little less comfortable. And he did all this knowing that the consequences could be dire if and when he was ever caught.
This was also the man who then chose to go on hunger strike in the midst of a months-long terror-famine that had reduced much of the Moadamiyah population to skeletons. Is it even properly a hunger strike when you’ve been living on a few olives a day? Qusai’s lasted for 33 days. He even blogged about it.
“After I'd seen a lot of women and children dying from malnutrition, I decided to make a stand and tell the world that no man can handle the pain coming from starving to death. It was one of the worst weapons the regime used against the Syrian people. I had nothing to lose. I was already starving along with the other people of Moadamiyah. Instead, I tried to make the best out of the starvation, to raise my voice to say that no one should use this as a weapon of war.”
Qusai’s hunger strike only ended when the “truce” began. You’ve read about the truces, surely, between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Arab Army. Much like the toothless, Russian-edited UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid, these have been praised by well-meaning Westerners, upon whom the regime still relies to mistake “hope” for Machiavellian designs to inflict more suffering. The truces are really opportunities for the regime to exchange the war crime of forced starvation for the one of battlefield victory on its own sadistic terms. In desperation, though, people will believe in the devil’s good faith.
Here is Qusai explaining the truce which surrendered Moadamiyah to the regime: “The terms and conditions were very humiliating and very bad. But storm Alexa, when it hit Syria and Moadamiyah and killed all the agriculture that we tried to cultivate and use it as another food resource – the regime knew about the storm and saw it had an opportunity. So first they asked us to raise the regime flag over the highest point in the town, which is the water tank, and to declare that they now had the town under their control. This gave Assad a media victory. Then they asked to hand over our weapons and also some of the wanted activists to face interrogations with no guarantees as to their safety. They also assigned a military commander in Moadamiyah to have the FSA working under his authority. There were a lot of civilians in the town and we couldn't have their blood on our hands, so we agreed.”
“We raised the flag. The next day, believe it or not, the army tried to invade the town. It didn’t resort to the regular bombing and shelling: it tried to sneak soldiers in because it thought that the FSA would be leaving their positions. But the FSA didn’t.”
People submit in stages, just like bodies die by degrees. Human beings have to be cajoled and enticed by their captors first. The regime knows this, too.
On the third day, Qusai said, Assad’s forces allowed in a very limited amount of food. “It was less than a meal per person – 400 grams, maximum. Rice and sugar. One and a half pieces of bread.” Next, the army asked the rebels to hand over on an armored truck the rebels had commandeered during a previous battle – this in exchange for another food consignment. “We said yes,” Qusai said. “So they allowed another limited shipment just like the one before.”
“Later on, they asked us to hand over some of the wanted so that the Fourth Division could interrogate them.” Again, this was in return for allowing another shipment of food. “The regime said the Fourth Division is running a file on Moadamiyah and they just wanted to have a talk with these people. They will sign settlements to erase their names from the wanted lists, and that's it. So a lot of people volunteered and went to the Fourth Division and got interrogated.” Then another shipment of food arrived, the same amount as before.
“They started asking about us handing over our light weapons as well, in return for more food. Every step we made, they’d give us another shipment of food. We gave them 20 AK-47s, most of them not even functioning well. Another shipment came.”
Qusai saw what was happening and didn’t keep his own counsel. He kept giving interviews to the international media. So he started getting death threats, not just from the regime. “They were coming from everywhere asking me to shut up or they will shut me up for good. If I didn’t stay away from media, they’d come after me or my family. They told me my real name: they knew everything about me. But I refused to stay silent. I continued my work. I resigned from the local council and media center in Moadamiyah on air, on Al-Arabiya, so no one could hurt anyone because of me. I was speaking as an independent media activist so all the blame fell on me alone.”
Then came the Geneva II conference in Switzerland, and the regime’s attempt to start behaving just a little more magnanimously for the cameras. But it wasn’t really John Kerry or Ahmed Jarba it was trying to impress: it was the other opposition areas it wanted to reclaim.
“They started to send bigger shipments of food during Geneva. There were even orders for the soldiers to treat the civilians coming in, to check on their houses or check on their families. No one was allowed to fire a single bullet without facing hard punishments from the government. There was a lot of pressure on the army and the mukhabarat so that the regime could sell the product of Moadamiyah to other places in Syria, to replicate our example.”
Then the mukhabarat paid a call on Qusai. “They just wanted to have a talk, they said, nothing will happen to you. I was under a lot of pressure. I wasn't satisfied about the situation... It was all a big blackmail at the end of the day; it was all happening because of the siege and this terrible weapon of starvation. This was something that all the world needed to know.”
Qusai, too, finally submitted. He rang someone up from the FSA’s negotiation committee and asked the contact to pick him up from Moadamiyah. He was delivered into regime custody, then driven to the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus where he was kept for four days. The “talks” didn’t happen in the hotel, however. For those, he was taken to a Fourth Division headquarters to meet with high-level officers. “I’m not going to say names,” he said. “But let's say that most of them are not famous but have a big influence. They started telling me that they're trying to create a new era, to rebuild the trust which is lost between the people and the government. ‘We are not representing the regime,’ they said. ‘We want to maintain some of the government institutions that can work properly so that we can have some kind of order. The regime isn't going to win, and you're not going to win. We're both going to lose so we should find a way to communicate better.’” (Incidentally, this is what Western governments tell rebels like Qusai, too.)
“It was a long talk. I spoke up, as they say. What the hell, I have nothing to fear, I'm already sitting in their lap. I started telling them that they're the ones who started the killing. They should have known better. I spoke from the heart. They said, ‘You're right, but we cannot turn the clock backwards. We want to look toward tomorrow.’"
“They told me I was free to do what I want. Did I want to sign a settlement paper? No, I didn't do anything wrong. They said, ‘It's okay, it's your call. But your name will still be on the wanted list.’ I told them I could live with this.”
Qusai was then taken back to the Dama Rose. I asked what else happened to him in the Fourth Division’s custody and if he was willing to explain his release from Syria.
“There are some things that happened that I’m going to keep to myself for the moment. I managed to come to Beirut 17 days after leaving Moadamiyah. I’m still trying to adjust and think about what I'm going to do next. Everything is still grey at the moment. I can see, smell, and sense everything, but none of it seems true one way or the other. It's a very unusual situation, what I’ve been through and what I’m going through right now. Maybe I need some rest somewhere.”