HAY-ON-WYE, Wales (Reuters) - Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar’s daughter was just three when he was arrested in 1987 for his political activism. By the time he was released in a presidential amnesty she was at university.
As the international community continued to wrestle with efforts to stop escalating violence in Syria that a U.N. official has described as a civil war, Bayrakdar detailed the personal cost of opposing Syria’s ruling Assad family to book lovers at Britain’s top literary festival in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye.
“This was the biggest pain I have ever experienced,” Bayrakdar told an audience at the Hay Festival over the weekend. It was also the reason he reluctantly chose exile in Sweden.
He said his experience of the Syrian government, now led by President Bashar al-Assad who succeeded his father Hafez in office, made him very worried when the current unrest began.
“I was not surprised to see that the Syrian regime was so cruel and shot at the people. But I was really surprised that the population was going for it from the beginning to the end.”
He said the Syrian people were “thankful” for support from European governments.
“But I think Europe could do more... to support its civil society to support the Syrian people.”
Born in the city of Homs in 1951, Bayrakdar was held without charge for almost seven years after his arrest in 1987 on accusations he was a member of a communist party. He was eventually sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1993. From his cell, he wrote poetry which was smuggled out.
In Hay, he read from a poem called “Mirrors of Absence”, written from a prison near Damascus between 1997 and 2000. He said that in Syria, relatives of those arrested were reluctant to mention prison. Instead, his mother simply said he was “absent”, though everyone knew what that meant.
Bayrakdar was released in 2000 and in 2003 moved to the Dutch city of Leiden, where he taught Arabic, before returning to Syria. In 2005, he took up an invitation as a guest writer in the Swedish capital, where he still lives.
At the time he had a two-year-old son and feared arrest after signing a declaration calling for normalisation of relations between Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, so he decided to stay in Stockholm.
Bayrakdar was originally hosted in Stockholm by the local branch of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Each city hosts one writer for up to two years who has been exiled or otherwise silenced.
The network, headquartered in Stavanger, Norway, comprises 40 cities, mostly in Europe but including Mexico City and Miami.
“ICORN focuses on providing a placement for writers because they are among the first to be targeted,” said Shenaz Kedar, who has managed the Norwich City of Refuge programme at Writers’ Centre Norwich since it was launched in 2006 in the only UK city in the network.
Reporting by Nigel Stephenson, editing by Paul Casciato