Sweida Students: “You’ve Shattered Us!”
Translated by Maya Milani.
An anti-conscription student movement has risen to prominence in the southern city of Sweida. The Asad regime continues to draft teachers for reserve military service, and teachers continue to migrate or hide. Some have been permanently suspended from their positions due to their absence whilst evading the recruitment. This has led to a void in schools. Many other despotic measures against students and teachers, such as arrests and death threats to crush their peaceful activism, have made matters worse.
Hundreds of students have therefore gathered to oppose the diminishment of the teaching staff. The campaign was named “You’ve Shattered Us (Hatamtuna)”. They started to stand in front of the Governorate building on April 7, voicing out their denunciation of the teachers’ draft and of administrative corruption.
Since September 2015, another campaign titled “You’ve Choked Us (Khanaqtuna)” runs throughout Sweida. One of its most prominent activities was a three-day sit-in organized by locals in front of the Governorate building on 1 September 2015. Demands were limited back then to some service related matters, such as fuel shortages and power cuts.
Then the protesters started to call for the dismissal of the Governor of Sweida ʿAtef an-Naddaf, after he had refused to meet with them, as well as the discharge of Shibly Junoud, the head of the local Baʿth party branch. According to Sweida activists, the regime proceeded then to cut the internet off with the aim of preventing the organization of another sit-in.
The so-called Sheikhs of Dignity, an armed group of Druze clerics, played an important role in protecting the demonstrators from shabiha and security forces, by participating themselves and encircling the sit-in with a security cordon.
As a political movement, the Sheikhs of Dignity had called for ending corruption and ensuring that the daily needs of Sweida residents were met, such as mazut (low-quality fuel oil). They had also prevented the regime from enlisting locals, and this led to several confrontations with government forces.
The next day, while authorities kept ignoring the popular demands, a new demonstration swept through the city streets, and ended with an explosion that resulted in the death of the most prominent leader of this movement, Sheikh Wahid al-Balʿous, alongside another 50 civilian casualties. This caused a widespread outburst that ended a few days later. In the following months, the movement has declined in the absence of its most charismatic figure.
Now Sweida goes back to sit-ins again in the campaign “You’ve Shattered Us”, as a continuation of “You’ve Choked Us” according to those launching it.Author and opposition activist Tareq ʿAbdul-Hayy, a native of Sweida who lives in Damascus, spoke to Syria Untold about the nature of these protests. In his opinion, mobilization in Sweida is twofold, “revolutionary and based on demands”, and these sit-ins fall under the latter. “Although they carry within them an air of revolutionary change, the students attempt purposely to underplay it, due to the security situation and the societal nature of Sweida (under regime control and with a Druze majority which is generally unsympathetic with Sunni armed opposition groups),” said ʿAbdul-Hayy.
In the author’s viewpoint, the students also want to make clear that they are a definite category with its own interests and rights that must be respected, especially high school students who are left with no future in the absence of their teachers.The sit-ins are not held on a daily basis at the moment, but activists organize them periodically . Students have already staged a protest in front of the local branch of the Ministry of Education on March 23. However, this time the open sit-in stands against the military crackdown, and may later develop to overtly oppose the regime, as happened before the assassination of al-Balʿous. A likely scenario as Sweida’s educational and public services head from bad to worse.