Monday, 24 September 2012

Death of an Ornithologist

(Originally on 3 September, 2012.)

Today the mailman brought me a publication of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. After I had read a great article on the avifauna of the Syrian Euphrates, a report from the Meyghan wetlands in Iran, about the breeding of Turtle Doves in Bahrain, and about a family of Great Bustard in Kars province of eastern Turkey, I was met with a sad piece of news in the section of News & Information.

The news reported quite plainly that a certain Syrian ornithologist had been killed in his hometown of Dara'a. He had contributed greatly to the research of the Yarmuk Valley and the deserts of Hawran, been a valuable advisor and local guide for many foreign naturalists and environmentalists, and participated as a valued member of the Global Owl Project, contributing greatly to the knowledge of the distribution and breeding biology of various owls in the region.

I knew this man; not as a very close friend but as a good and dedicated colleague and important correspondent in a part of Syria that few naturalists visited or influenced. I had been his guest, and many times I had discussed with him about the nature, maps and geography of southwestern and southern Syria. It was with him that I visited the Yarmuk Gorge and witnessed an unforgettable visual scene when he showed us a large colony of European Bee-eaters with a pair of European Rollers breeding in the middle of it. (For those who cannot visualize it, the bee-eaters and rollers are surely among the most colourful birds around.)

Dara'a is located in the southern boundaries of Syria, near the Jordanian border and in a terrain surrounded by deserts, conservative country where tribes still constitute an important part of the social context. In a way the Syrian uprising started from Dara'a, as it was there that the mukhabarat (secret police) arrested the thirteen-year-old boy Hamza for painting anti-regime graffiti, and tortured him to death along with several of his friends. The brutal murdering of children finally sparked the long-smoldered rage of the people into full flames, which first consumed the Dara'a station of the mukhabarat. The Syrian government responded to the demonstrations of the people of Dara'a by sending in the tanks and shelling the town into rubble. The results were for the world to see, as in a couple of weeks the entire Syria was ablaze.

As one of the key strongholds of opposition support, with also links and smuggling routes to Jordan, Dara'a became target of the regime's cruel violence and cleansing. I don't yet know the details of the circumstances in which the Ornithologist was killed. I don't know if his murderers were the secret police, the pro-regime shabiha, or if was victim of artillery shelling, bombardment or a sniper. I will know in due time. [I learned soon after that the talk in the street was he was shot in his home.]

I feel bad I hadn't been in contact with this man for a long time, although I knew he was still in Dara'a. I have consciously avoided direct contacts with those friends and contacts who are in troubled places within Syria, for their own safety, because all the communications are monitored and those in contact with foreigners are attacked by the regime unless they help to spread the regime's propaganda. I get my share of information from within Syria on a daily basis by some activist friends, who are taking the risks anyway, and who are tech-savvy enough and know the tricks.

The murdered Ornithologist was no trickster of that kind. He was an old-fashioned gentleman, probably the most academic person of his home village. By profession he was a teacher. When in the village I asked him what people there did mostly for living, he told me: "Well, people farm a little for their own use, but mostly the village earns its living by each family sending someone to work in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates." The Ornithologist had himself previously lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, and with that hard-earned money, he had built a house and a decently comfortable life for his family. Yet he never moved away from his home village, as he wanted to be close to the arid and rocky nature he loved.

The Ornithologist was in his late middle age. He had a veiled wife and children. He was a Sunni Muslim and as he lived in the countryside, he was more conservative by his behaviour and habits than most of the educated urban city-dwellers with whom I spent most of my time in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. He had a wide variety of literature on natural sciences in his home, and he was a learned man, but he still enjoyed it most out in the abode of the Bedouins and Pharaoh Eagle-owls.

Thinking about it in retrospect, I'm not amazed that the Ornithologist was murdered. He was a man of integrity and of incorruptible values. I recall once I wondered what were the ostentatious newly rich palaces erected in the middle of nowhere near the Jordanian border. He frowned and explained that they belonged to the commanders of the border troops, customs and intelligence, who controlled smuggling and organized crime at the borders.

The "One Man Association" of Dara'a was a tireless mapper of the remote frontiers. He spent nights and days in the desolate black basalt desert with his camera, which immortalized so much of the disappearing nature of the desert for the future generations. If you ever read or hear about studies concerning the occurrence and breeding of owls and nightjars in the Dara'a province, you know that with a great probability the information came from him, or alternatively from researchers who relied on him to find the right places. At least science will treasure his memory.

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