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Middle East and Africa

Syria: the last step of a betrayed springtime

The revolution, the role of the West, and the Jihadists. His kidnapping and work as a journalist: interview with Domenico Quirico from La Stampa, by Claudio Fontana.

Travelling along the Asti’s hills on lake of Lecco, travelling from Milan at the busiest time, there is time for an exchange of ideas (“ it’s better to be a hostage in Syria rather than be blocked by bypasses”), but also for a long dialogue on Syria, but not only on Syria. He talks about himself: a journalist with a degree in law with the passion for history who “ thinks he’s also a bit of a historian, because serious journalism gives the daily history”. And he also hopes that one day some professional historian will also deal in part with the events which I have written about”. Domenico Quirico, a war reporter, has been in very dangerous situations all over the world, with the distinct preference for Africa. “I am interested in the Africans, because I think that in no other part of the world has man being so subjected to the exploitation of history and has to have such courage and daily heroism, as in today’s Africa”. Then, inevitably, we go on to talk about Syria.



Do you think that there is something different in the Syrian people and in the Syrian situation, which makes it different to all the other states caught up in the Arab Springtimes?


This is a very complex question, which presupposes a knowledge of Syria I do not possess. I went to Syria for the first time when the revolution started. But up to that time Syria had remained a peripheral country, in respect to my usual destinations.


Therefore I arrived in Syria completely free of prejudice. I knew what country was and what the Assad regime was but I had no specific knowledge of the Syrian people. There is one thing I can say, however, after five journeys in the country and many more in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt. I think that in the respect to the other Arab Springtimes the problem is the Russian presence. For Russia Syria is the last piece of its status as a world power. If Russians withdraw from Syria, Russia goes back to its own reduced borders, and loses its imperial status. Russia will never leave Syria unless it is absolutely forced to do so. This fact has weakened the revolution. Russia was only peripherally engaged in Libya.


The Bashar regime greatly profited from the situation of being a necessary ally of the Russians and this allowed it to oppose the revolution with determined resistance. There are also weak points intrinsic in the Syrian revolution for which the West is also to blame: the opponents are extremely heterogeneous and when at the beginning we should have helped them, we left them alone. But on their own they did not have sufficient strength to overturn the Assad regime which was strongly supported by the Russians, Chinese and Iranians.



Did the West therefore lose the chance?


I think so. It lost the chance from the political point of view, in the sense that it is sufficient to look at the frontiers of Syria to realize that it is a country central in a neuralgic area of the world. But above all I would say that it lost an occasion from the ethical point of view in the sense that the refusal, the cowardice, the miserable and short-sighted consideration of the interest of the time, did not encourage the West to help the Syrians because this could have been at a high price. The sin is ethical before being geopolitical. If Syria really becomes the first territorial state of international Jihadism, it will be able to provoke damage beyond the borders of the Middle East.



How did your kidnapping influence, if it did influence, your way of judging the Arab springtime?


The Arab Springtimes had flourished and died even before I was kidnapped. I went to Syria at the beginning of April when the situation in Egypt was already wildly compromised by the terrible and unnatural pact between the Army and the Muslim Brothers, which was strangling the Tahir square revolution. Tunisia was already suffering with an-Nahda in power and the Salafis uncontrollable. Libya was in chaos. Certainly at the beginning because of the intrinsic energy which developed on the streets and in the clashes between generations , I believed that the Arab Springtime could bring about much bigger and important changes to what we now see, in spite of the fact that the weak points linked to the absence of an elite and the lack of a political project which was not Islamic (the Islamists have one, while the others hope for one, dreams without political projects) were clear. But that story was already old at the moment of my capture. Syria is simply the last step of a previous delusion.



Do you believe that the so-called “moderates” can dominate the opposition and then also Assad? Do some support this aspect of the revolution?


No. In my five journeys to Syria, from the beginning of the revolution to the time of my kidnapping, I saw how quickly the weakening and disappearing of the Syrian Free Army occurred, that is of the first revolution, and its substitution with the flags and military forces of terrorists, radicals and Jihadists. Add to this, the new groups which disguise as revolutionaries, but who in reality are just bandits or use the revolutions for their own ends of enriching themselves, controlling and exploiting certain parts of the country.


The “moderates” got no help from the West, but they do not even had financial help from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the great sponsors of the Jihadist movement, and therefore they found themselves without means. I even met many young people who had been in the katibe (units) of the Syrian Free Army and then seeing how these were deprived of means and were not able to fight as equals the Army or the Hezbollah, although not fanatic Islamists they become, they joined units like Jabhat al-Nusra. This was because they are better armed, more organized, because there is a chain of command, because they are not bandits, because they have a political project which others no longer have or can no longer realize them.



After he was freed he said that al-Nusra has treated him as a man, whereas the bandits which whom he spent most of the time did not…


In the 10 days with al-Nusra I was treated with great dignity, I ate what they ate, I was not beaten. I was treated as a human being. The others treated me like an animal. Why? Quite simply because the others have no honor, whereas al-Nusra although cruel and bound to an extremely determined political project of which we will be the next targets and adversaries, have their own “dignity”, that is they behave according to a correct principle.: the other human being is an enemy but he is a human being. The bandits instead simply aim at filling their pockets with money, and raiding the population. I must say one thing however, even within the factions of al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (even more radical than al-Nusra) there are different units. If you meet an al-Nusra unit composed of Syrians, there is a good possibility that you will be well treated, but if you meet a unit of Chechens OR Iraqi or Kyrgyz, Mauritians, there is the serious risk that they will kill you simply because the Westerners must be killed.



You declared that during your kidnapping you had books and when you came back you emphasized the importance of having had them with you. Why?


Books are my life, I passed my life reading. I always travel with books. I leave my underwear at home but I take my books with me, because it is like travelling with other people and in fact in these 152 days books spoke to me, as they had spoken on other occasions – they were books I had already read. But in such a situation, you can imagine what a book with the title of The way back could have said to me. One of the things that I regret most is that I had to leave them in Syria and I could not take them back with me free to read them again in Italy for the tenth time after this experience. But a book is never the same twice over: you read it today and tomorrow it tells you something different. It is life that is passing through words. I live with words, they are a tool that I can manage, my instrument for communicating the reality with others, with myself. Black marks on white pages… I shall never read an e-book!



During your time as a hostage you said you had the possibility to kill your guards to escape, but you did not do it.


Fortunately, in the end we managed to escape without having to kill our kidnappers, who then managed to capture us again quickly. But the point is that I do not know whether I would have been able to kill them or not. Technically it is easy. You throw a grenade and you destroy four human lives. The problem is whether you can live with the fact that you have killed four people or not. I cannot honestly say. To learn to kill, become Cain is not easy, contrary to what is thought. Besides being Christian, and the prohibition to kill, it is very difficult to look at another person and say “in five minutes you will be in pieces because I did it”.


Something clicks which I think comes from deep within us, which stops us. There is something within you, a man in front of another man, which holds you back. My problem was to be kept separated from the people I love and this desperately pushed me to try to escape. Because otherwise I could have said rationally with certainty, that others were working to free me, and it was perhaps better to remain tranquil and wait. But my instinct kept telling me: “No! Get out! Get your life back, the joy of running, of breathing country air!” this was what was forcing me to try to escape.



It was also a real trial for your wife and daughters…


I am saying what concerns me, and I am not answering for them. I have been to a number of awful places, even worse than Syria, like Somalia, Ruanda, Liberia, Mozambique, Chechnya, but for the first time I am asking myself (and I don’t know if I found an honest answer yet) if I have the right to write, to tell what happened, to impose on other people fear, sorrow, suffering and waiting for my own vanity. I accept all of these things willingly, but they are constricted to do so. Have I got this right? It is clear that if the answer is no I must stop doing this work.