Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Summoned to Vote for an Unwanted Leader in Syria
It was the eve of the 2014 presidential election in Syria, and sleep eluded me. As I tossed and turned in bed, I recalled the events of the revolution, and felt overwhelmed by sorrow.
I thought of the people killed by the government and its supporters, I thought of the destruction our country had suffered, and I thought of the continuous state of mourning we lived in as we lost loved ones.
All this had happened to us because we had rejected the president.
I spent the night praying and counting down to “zero hour”, when rebel forces were to attack Idlib and halt the election process. I asked God to help them aim well, and to shield civilians from crossfire and government shelling.
I was still awake at seven the following morning, but my city was still asleep. Another half hour passed, and still no action. By eight o’clock, the city was slowly beginning to wake up. It was election day.
People began to make their way to polling stations. Most were public-sector employees. When the government launched its election campaign, all government staff had been told they must vote or face suspension from their jobs and prosecution. These employees, whose families survived on their meagre salaries, could not help but be puppets in the hands of the government.
I was a public employee myself, working at two different offices. All I had thought about in the days leading up to the election was how I could avoid casting my vote.
I had received my summons a few days earlier from my superior at work. She was a government informer who had been unfairly promoted from her job as caretaker to office manager. She showed up at my office holding a sheet of paper with the names of all employees on it.
“I’ve been looking for you for the past few days,” she said. “You are the last person to be summoned.”
“Summoned?” I asked innocently.
“To vote for Dr Bashar al-Assad,” she replied.
“But I’ve registered to vote at my other workplace,” I said. “How can I be at two places at the same time?”
She gave me a suspicious look, then said, “Write that down on this piece of paper next to your name.”
I did as I was told, and signed my name next to my statement, feeling like a criminal.
I did the same thing at my second workplace, knowing I was doomed if I was found out. I would be arrested and tortured physically, psychologically and sexually. When they were done with me, society itself would also treat me as an outcast.
On voting day, all the local government TV channels were broadcasting coverage of what they called this “democratic election”. My parents were glued to the screen, scrutinising the faces of voters in Idlib. They recognised some people, all of whom had gone down to the polling stations out of fear.
“Look, that’s so and so,” they’d say, mentioning names. I watched through falling tears. I felt helpless, and prayed for a miracle to change the reality of what was happening.
At around ten in the morning, my family started to put pressure on me. They were worried about my future and my job and wanted me to go out and vote.
“Bashar is going to be re-elected. Your vote won’t change the course of things. You’re only harming yourself,” someone said.
“They are taking note of who votes and who doesn’t. You’ll be arrested. Just put a blank paper in the ballot box – no one will know,” said another.
But I couldn’t make myself go. How could I? I would be betraying the martyrs. What self-respect would I have left then?
A short while later, I heard a demonstration going on out in the street. I ran out and found a group of young men and women marching down the streets. They were wearing t-shirts with Bashar’s photo printed on them, and were cheering and chanting slogans in his support:
“We will remain shabiha [pro-regime paramilitaries] till the end”
“Even with a bullet in my head, I will choose no one but Assad.”
I was furious. I wanted to spit on them.
Many other demonstrations followed with people waving flags and holding up pictures of the president.
I was following the news online at the same time as watching it happen through my window. I visited a number of opposition social media pages. Post after post was being published. Some people urged the opposition fighters to attack Idlib, saying the city had been overrun by shabiha. Others disagreed, arguing that civilians were suffering enough at the hands of the government.
Meanwhile, government military aircraft carried out a series of air raids on the countryside around Idlib where opposition fighters were stationed. Pro-government social media pages hailed the attacks and called for the death of Idlib terrorists.
A number of opposition units responded to the attacks, and for the first time in my life, the sound of shells showering the city was music to my ears.
Sadly, many of them hit polling stations, taking the lives of innocent civilians who had been summoned to vote for someone they hated. Those lucky enough to survive found themselves trapped between friendly and enemy fire.
The one thing they all had in common was a smudge of black ink on their thumbs – proof of their humiliation, and of the vote they had cast.
Day turned to evening, and my family became more persistent, urging me to go out and vote. But my mind was made up. I had lost my soul living in a government-controlled city. I was not about to lose my self-respect by going against my values.
As the day drew to an end, I reflected on the violence and humiliation the people of Idlib had suffered while casting their coerced votes. At that moment the meaning of my actions that day dawned on me – tyranny no longer scared me.
Ghalia Eid is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor living in Idlib, Syria.
This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight