Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}

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Remembering Beslan

The Memory of Beslan
Takie Dela
September 1, 2017

On the anniversary of the tragedy, Takie Dela remembers the principal witnesses to the events in School No. 1.

On September 1, 2004, terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan. The gunmen herded over a thousand hostages, including small children, into the school’s gym. For three days, the hostages were forcibly held in the building without food and water. The security services assaulted the school to free the hostages.

A total of 334 people were killed in the terrorist attack, including 186 children. 126 of the former hostages were crippled. During the assault, the FSB killed 28 terrorists. The only terrorist taken alive, Nurpashi Kalayev, was arrested. A court later sentenced him to life in prison.

Many articles, investigative reports, and special projects have been written about the Beslan tragedy, and several documentary films and books have been released. Takie Dela recalls the primary witnesses to the events in School No. 1.

Novaya Gazeta

Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina was in Beslan during the terrorist attack. The first article she filed about the tragedy, “Lies Provoked Terrorists’ Aggression,” was published in the newspaper’s September 6, 2004, issue.

“According to the police officers and special forces soldiers with whom we have spoken, the preparations for the assault were vigorous. That the authorities were learning toward this option is borne out by one other fact. They did not, in fact, negotiate with the gunmen. No one intended to meet even their formal demands. They explained to us, ‘It’s not clear what they want.'”

In 2014, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, Milashina recalled how events had unfolded before and after the terrorist attack .

“The Beslan terrorist attack will go down in Russian history as an instance when the populace was disinformed on an unprecendented level. Up until the assault of the school, officials concealed the scale of the tragedy (the number of hostages). They also concealed negotiations with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was ready to ask the gunmen to put down their weapons. Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov’s emissary, was ready to fly straight to Beslan and take part in negotiations with the terrorists.”

In 2006, Novaya Gazeta published a special issue on the outcome of its investigation, featuring forensic evidence, annotated maps, official reports, and eyewitness testimony. The newspaper came to several conclusions. Reliable information about the upcoming terrorist attack was known to the authorities at least three hours before the school was seized, and Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, offered to replace the children with 800 officials and local MPs, but Moscow forbade him under pain of arrest from entering into negotiations. The biggest public outcry was caused by the newspaper’s claims that the school was fired upon by grenade launchers, flamethrowers, tanks, and helicopters on several occasions when the hostages were still in the building. According to the newspaper, the official inquiry, while it was in full possession of these facts, found no wrongdgoing in the actions of those in charge of the operation to free the hostages.

Twelve years later, Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko wrote down the dreams of surviving hostages.

“Vladimir’s dream: “I want to pick a plum. “Now,” I say, “I want a ladder to the plum and to pick the plum.” A young girl below me says, “I’m not your little girl.” I say, “And where is my little girl?” She says, “She is not here. I am another girl here.” After all, she was lying with my wife in the grave. “I’m not your daughter,” she says, “Don’t pick me plums.” I say, “Where is my little girl?” She says, “I don’t know. Look for her.”‘”

Kommersant

Kommersant reporter Olga Allenova was returning from Grozny, when her editors called her and told her about the terrorist attack in Beslan. She went to North Ossetia to write a story.

“‘Don’t let the hostages’ relatives on the air. Don’t cite any number of hostages except the official figure. Don’t use the word “storm.” The terrorists should not be called gunmen, only criminals, because terrorists are people you negotiate with.’ This was what several national TV channel reporters, located in Beslan, heard immediately from the top brass. We were all side by side, and I saw how hard it was for those guys to carry out the orders of the top brass. And I saw one of them crying in the evening after the school had been stormed.”

On October 17, 2004, the newspaper published an article entitled “How Did We Help Them?” The story dealt with the fortieth day after the terrorist attack. [In Orthodox culture, the fortieth day after a person’s death is usually remembered and marked by a ritual.]

“In Moscow, we say that forty days have passed since the school in Beslan was seized. Here those days did not exist. In their place is a black hole, like the hole made by a grenade in the floor of the assembly hall. And every day is a day of mourning.

“The entire city of Beslan is dressed in black. There are houses here in which not a single child is left, and entryways through which three caskets a day are carried out.”

In 2011, an infographic was posted on the newspaper’s website: it features a map of the school on which the main locations where the events took place are illustrated by short excerpts from archival video footage.

Esquire

In 2006, the Russian edition of Esquire published an article [in Russian] by New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, in which he retraced the events in Beslan School No. 1 hour by hour: from the beginning of the ceremonial, first-day-of-school lineup at nine in the morning of September 1 to the medical care administered to the victims in the Vladikavkaz Hospital on September 4. Chivers had written the article [in English] o understand who the hostages had felt the whole time.

“Like many people who have been to Beslan, I subsequently thought a lot about what had happened. Like the people of Beslan, I was infuriated by the endless contradictory statements, the lack of information about many important episodes in the hostage crisis and the actions of the Russian authorities.”

Radio Svoboda

Ten years after the tragedy, Tom Balmforth and Diana Markosian published a story on the Radio Svoboda website about the lives of the surviving schoolchildren. The former hostages talked about their memories, features, and thoughts of the future.

“The children behaved heroically. We all grew up immediately. We really supported each other. In fact, we came together like a family there. Even many of the adults did not behave with as much dignity as the children. Apparently, the adults understand everything in terms of their being grown-up and wise, while we children saw it all through rose-tinted glasses, maybe. I know for a fact that, after those three days, we became completely different people,” recalls Zarina Tsirikhova. She was fourteen when the terrorist attack occurred.

Takie Dela

Takie Dela published Diana Khachatrian’s story about how, in September 2016, the memorial events in Beslan ended in arrests. During the ceremonial school lineup at School No. 1, five women staged a protest. They removed their jackets, under which they were wearing t-shirts that bore accusations against the regime.

Voice of Beslan activists in the gym of School No. 1. Their t-shirts are emblazoned with the slogan, “Putin is the execution of Beslan.” Photo courtesy of Diana Khachartian and Takie Dela

“The female activists of Voice of Beslan stand apart in the gym. The five women are wearing handmade t-shirts on which the inscription “Putin is the executioner of Beslan” has been written in marker pen. This is not a hysterical slogan. Based on their own impressions and evidence from the investigations, the women argue that on September 3, 2004, Vladimir Putin or a member of his entourage gave the orders to storm the school in order to expedite events and prevent negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov. They argue the hostages could have been saved.”

Photography

Photographer Oksana Yushko has for many years produced unique photograph projects on the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy. Yushko takes pictures of the children who were taken hostage in September 2004 at different stages in their school careers, both in everyday life and during graduation from school.

Amina Kachmazova, left, and Fariza Mitdzieva hugging each other in the old school No. 1 in Beslan. Fariza, 18: ‘Here we are, such heroes, living after the attack. And somehow we are able to find happiness in life. Life just goes on and we cannot change what already happened to us. Just the opposite: now it is more pleasant to look at how we laugh, have fun and enjoy life.’ Beslan, North Ossetia, 2013. Photo courtesy of Oksana Yushko

Documentary Films

In 2005, some of the relatives of those who were killed during the terrorist attack established the grassroots organization Mothers of Beslan. That same year, due to friction within the group, a number of committee members left the group and founded another organization, Voice of Beslan.

Rodion Chepel’s The Committee, released on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, focuses on Beslan’s female activists.

Chepel discussed how the film was made in an interview with Rusbase.

“We have never met such people. They are such uncompromisingly honest people, it was if they would be shot for lying. From a distance it seems that Beslan is god knows what, part of Moscow’s war with terrorism. But when you go there, you understand it is just human grief that has made them so tough and very honest. It’s not a matter of politics. They’re in touch with their humanity. You talk to them and you realize you simply have not met such people. This was what we wanted to show in the film: what these ten years have done with these people is incredible. They just want someone to explain to them what happened, for someone to say, “Forgive me. It was my fault.” Instead, they have been threatened and slandered. People have tried to sick them on each other, drive a wedge through them, and present them as insane.”

Filmmaker Vadim Tsalikov has shot four documentary films about the terrorist attack in Beslan. One of them is Beslan: Memory.

Foreign filmmakers have also shot films about the tragedy in North Ossetia. For example, Joe Halderman shot the film Beslan: Three Days in September for Showtime. The picture was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.

Personal Diary

In 2012, one of the hostages, 14-year-old Agunda Vatayeva, decided to publish her memoir of the terrorist attack. The young woman launched a diary on LiveJournal and wrote three posts in which told from beginning to end the story of the three days she spent in captivity.

“If you deliberately searched for my diary, you probably want to read my memoir of the terrorist attack in Beslan: Day One, Day Two, and Day Three. It is unlikely that you will find my LiveJournal exciting or at least positive reading. It was started once upon a time for quite different purposes. It was a kind of psychotherapy for me.”

***

In April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights award three million euros to the relatives of the victims. There were over 400 plaintiffs in the case. The court ruled that the Russian authorities had not taken sufficient measures to prevent the terrorist attack and had violated Article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: the right to life. In addition, Russia had not prevented a threat to people’s lives and had not planned the assault on the school properly. The European Court of Human Rights likewise deemed that the Russian authorities had not properly investigated all circumstances of the terrorist attack and the causes of the hostages’ deaths.

The Kremlin reacted to the ECtHR’s ruling by saying that “an emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.”

“Of course, we cannot agree with this formulation. In a country that has been repeatedly attacked by terrorists, and the list of such countries has been growing, unfortunately, these formulations and purely hypothetic arguments are hardly acceptable. An emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.

“All the necessary legal actions related to this decision will be taken,” said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman.

Translated by the Russian Reader