Defected Syrian MP faced a wall of denial

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Former member of Syrian parliament Imad Ghalioun speaks with RNW in the first major interview he has given to Western media since defecting earlier this month to join the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. From Cairo, the former representative of the rebel stronghold of Homs describes how the tension mounted until he reached his breaking point.

In March 2010, Imad Ghalioun was in his constituency office in Homs, about 160 km north of the capital Damascus. Hundreds of young people had gathered at a mosque down the street, defying a government clampdown on public gatherings. No one had any idea what was going to happen. Most of the protesters didn’t even know each other. But when they exited the mosque in full view of armed security personnel, they were attacked, beaten, arrested and shot at. Many were killed. “It was the spark that ignited the rest of the protests,” Mr Ghalioun told RNW.

Caught in the crossfire
The tension ratcheted up further when he went to a market in Homs with his nine-year-old son. A delegation of UN Security Council observers had come to assess the humanitarian needs of the city. As the delegation started off to another location in their cars, protesters walked ahead of them on the same side of the street. Security forces were on the other. In the middle, a young man began videotaping the event on his cell phone. When the last UN vehicle passed him, security forces opened fire, and shot him. Everyone saw it, including Mr. Ghalioun’s son, who begged his father to run and hide. They did. When they eventually drove away, security forces were still firing indiscriminately. Mr. Ghalioun and his son could actually feel bullets spraying past them.

Wall of denial
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continued to tighten its grip on Homs. Roadblocks and checkpoints divided the city into controllable districts. Curfews were imposed and snipers deployed. Ambulance drivers were shot at if they tried to reach wounded protesters. And protesters themselves were arrested and killed if they turned up at hospitals. Women were kidnapped and raped by security personnel. Many of them were also killed. Garbage and filth piled up on the streets in a collateral assault on the senses. The city began to reek of chaos.

Mr. Ghalioun couldn’t do much even as a member of parliament. When a colleague tried to convince others to acknowledge the protesters’ demands, he was shouted down: there are no protesters. He wanted his own Syrian National Party to raise the issues driving the protests. But he too faced a wall of denial. So he handed in his resignation.

Then came the snapping point: “At the door of my office there’s a sign that says: Member of Parliament. Despite that, they [security forces] broke down the door and they took my computer and searched it. They took my business cards and other documents from my office. It became clear that I was being targeted. That I couldn’t stay.” So on January 16, Mr. Ghalioun took his family to the airport. His children cried, sensing his tension: he knew he was being watched. When he approached passport control, he offered his normal passport, not his parliamentary one. The customs officer looked surprised, and asked him why he’d never left the country before. A long pause. Then the officer stamped his passport, and those of his family, and they were through.

Nearly. The flight to Cairo was delayed two hours. “I was, up until the last moment, expecting to get stopped. Even when we got on the plane and the plane took off I couldn’t believe it -- that I was finally out of the country.” The next day, the Syrian government banned all international travel for its officials.

Sacred ground
Now living in exile in Cairo, Mr. Ghalioun’s tension comes from a new source: trying to contact family back home, who’ve also been threatened. Despite his anxiety, he’s convinced that the Syrian regime will fall within three months. Economically, militarily and politically it can’t endure, he argues. Yet his confidence turns to silence when he’s asked what he’ll do if he ever does get to return home. He paces around the room. He starts to cry. He apologises. Then he asserts quietly, but firmly: “I will of course kiss the ground as soon as I arrive in my country.”

The full interview with Imad Ghalioun can be heard on the latest edition of The State We're In - Freedom's Road.