Syria 10 years on: A Chronicle of Tragedy
On the 10th anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I share selections of previous posts that I wrote from 2012 onwards, documenting and sharing thoughts and insights on what I believe to be one of the greatest human tragedies in recent history. Much of what I wrote went against my Syrian survivalist instincts, and often against the protests of concerned friends and family members. But I was, and so remain, a believer in the principle once articulated by Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.”
I still regard it to have been an honour of the highest degree to have grown up surrounded by Damascene reformers. Men and women who had mastered that impossible equation of trying to do something meaningful in a country where no change can be introduced without the prior approval of the security apparatus. Some of them were relatives, and others close family friends. Lawyers, western-educated doctors, Azhar-educated religious scholars, economists, engineers, and teachers. I have memory upon memory of listening to them, observing them and, above all, noticing over time the changes, subtle yet significant, that they were remarkably able to introduce. It has been a year since the Uprising began, and I often find myself wondering what it is like to be one of those reformers today. The fortunate have already departed, but what about their legacy? What about those who associated themselves with them, who built their lives on the basis of the changes introduced by them?
Long before the Syrian Uprising, the Ghuta home of Ahmad Kafatru, the Grand Mufti of Syria and the late master of the Naqishbandi order in Damascus, was a place where numerous ecumenical stories were written. It was also where pigeons in large numbers would gather, as though attracted by the serenity of the place. Representatives of various sects and denominations, from both Syria and other countries, would meet in Kafatru’s home and have warm and friendly conversations in the presence of the Grand Mufti. At times, I would attend some of these fascinating events, from lunch with Cardinal Martini, to a dinner with Robert Schuller, and spiritual meditation at dawn with Muhammad Ali. It was quite natural to see Alawite religious figures visit Kaftaru, often with their children, as one would visit an old friend. Attracted by the serenity of the place, pigeons, in surprising numbers, sat on the terrace and the grass outside of the house. It all seemed as though it would never change. Nine years after his death in 2004, and not too far from where his home once stood, chemical weapons were used against innocent civilians. Children died during their sleep, but the pigeons had long departed.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, it is indeed a daunting intellectual exercise to reflect on the various dynamics that were suddenly and unexpectedly suspended in March 2011. The story of this Uprising, along with its major subcategories, is largely known and documented. But underneath these main headings are fragments that are yet to be unearthed and shared. The story of how the Syrian Uprising changed, and ultimately stopped various aspects of life in Damascus is one such fragment. The first student protest at the Arab International University was held in October 2011. The response came the next day, and it was quickly repeated at other campuses whenever student protests took place. The Shabihah would suddenly arrive at these protests. Shabihah is the name for the armed thugs who would carry out security duties. The word literally means ‘ghosts’. They would walk into classrooms to the disbelief of professors and would call out the names of students who had clearly been reported by other students or security officers on campus. Then, they would disappear.
Almost every major event from March 2011 until today was initially regarded as pointing in one direction, only for an overwhelmingly different redefinition to take place. Scenes of peaceful protesters sharing flowers and water with army soldiers around Damascus are replaced with scenes of armed ‘moderate’ fighters, which are subsequently replaced by scenes of radical fighters, who are in turn eclipsed by the rise of ISIS with scenes out of a medieval horror story. Scenes of officials trying to speak to peaceful protesters are replaced by scenes of triumphant soldiers from the Syrian army, which are systematically replaced by scenes of members of Shi’ite militias proudly proclaiming victories over the ‘enemies of the Prophet’s family’. Again ‘indefinitely’ seems to be the key word with regards to how many times events in Syria can mutate into something else, something not initially expected, something invariably worse.
You might think that the Syrian regime’s talk of a cosmic conspiracy against it is a fascinating new product of a Machiavellian mind. Not in the least! The Syrian regime simply adopted an ancient tradition, one that I remember well from my teenage years in Damascus. A grand conspiracy of cosmic proportions is responsible for the break-up of the Ottoman empire, the borders dividing the Arabs, the regimes that rule above them, their scientific and economic backwardness and, last but not least, Israel and everything related to Israel. To be ignorant of this conspiracy is a sin that can be forgiven. Denying it, on the other hand, or daring to point out that even a fragment of it may not hold up to critical analysis, is a cardinal sin for which no atonement is possible. After all, what exactly would you be proposing? That we, Syrians and Arabs, are responsible for these tragic realities? Or that we are capable of changing them, yet choose otherwise?
Yesterday, a man armed with a hammer was arrested after attacking a police officer in Paris. As he carried out his attack, he shouted, “This is for Syria!” This scene, along with other similar scenes from London Bridge to Saint Petersburg, converge in my head like a surreal mosaic no scholar can succeed in interpreting.
How does killing an eight-year-old girl at a concert in Manchester help my wounded country heal? How does it help the young women and men of Syria who marched for freedom and dignity attain these objectives? How does it help the displaced, the refugees, those dying in the basements of security offices, or those living in fear of being stoned or amputated? I visualize myself interviewing some of these men and women. Perhaps the three women who attacked the nursery school worker in Hermon Hill have the answers. Perhaps they can help me understand how stabbing an innocent woman who works for Little Diamonds nursery will help the families of the hundreds of thousands who were killed in Syria; or how will it stop the regime’s barrel bombs or the indiscriminate shelling of those fighting the regime?
As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I am reminded of a story I once heard from my late Damascene Sufi teacher, Shaikh Bashir al-Bani (1911–2008). The story is about a man who was trying to concentrate on his tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) during the Hajj pilgrimage. As is required from men during this ritual, he wore only two white towels, one around his waist, another around his shoulders, and a special leather belt with a pouch attached in which he kept his valuables. As he walked around this ancient monument of Islam, a child suddenly shoved him from his right side. Mindful that he should control his anger during Hajj, the man continued his tawaf in silence. Yet, with each time he circulated the Ka’ba this rude and abrupt act was repeated, filling him with anger and totally distracting him from his spiritual experience. His eyes were fixated on his right side in the hope that he could somehow avoid the child when he made his next sudden move. After a while, the exhausted man decided to take a rest. When his hand reached for his belt, he realized that the pouch, situated on his left side, had been cleverly cut off by another accomplice as he was being shoved from the right by the child. Al-Bani would end the story with this line:
“When you are shoved from the right, look to the left … the real story isn’t where the noise is, and dramatic events are rarely what they initially seem to be …”
The way in which the Syrian Uprising is interacted with today is far more about ISIS, the PYD, and Turkish or Iranian geopolitical concerns than it is about Syrians suffering. This ultimate distraction, the intrusive child of al-Bani’s story, has successfully distracted all the major players, and most interested observers, from the daily killing, from those still imprisoned and tortured, from the homeless and the refugees and, perhaps most importantly, from the maimed and psychologically traumatized new generation of Syrians being constantly manufactured amidst the rubble and refugee camps.
Case: Colvin et al v. Syrian Arab Republic
Civil Action №: 2016–1423
Judge: Amy Berman Jackson
Decision: February 1, 2019
Funeral expenses: $11,836
Solatium Damages: $2.5 million
Punitive Damages: 300,000 million
Marie Catherine Colvin was born in Astoria, Queens. She died in Baba Amr, Homs.
On the 1st of February 2019, Amy Berman Jackson, a District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that “… the Syrian Arab Republic engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national by planning and executing an attack on the Baba Amr Media Center, and is liable to plaintiffs for the resulting injuries.” Marie Colvin’s family were awarded a total of $302,511,836.
I read carefully document number 59, constituting “the redacted public second amended memorandum opinion” by Judge Jackson. Thirty-six pages that cover everything from the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria to whether or not Marie planned on retiring by age 65. Thirty-six pages that aimed at calculating the price of the most precious of all human experiences: life.
How does one go about calculating the price of life? How much would it take, for example, to compensate for the loss of Ghiath Matar? Ghiath, only 26 and a father-to-be, was known for giving out flowers and water to soldiers who were attacking peaceful protesters in early 2011. Do we have a figure for Mohamed Abyad, the Syrian doctor working for Doctors Without Borders who was only 28 when he was abducted and killed? Or perhaps we have one for Razan Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer and civil society activist and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award who was abducted in 2013 and has not been seen since. Do we have special figures for children? Like Rua Ismail, an 11-year-old girl who was killed by an explosion in Salamiyeh; or Hamza Al-Khateeb, the 13-year old who was tortured to death. Do we have figures for mass killings? Families killed in Zara’a, Houla, Aqrab, and Darayya? All of those killed had names, though we may only be able to document the identity of some. But all, like Marie, had family, friends, and loved ones. Some died reciting a prayer, others died suddenly and unexpectedly. Some died while being tortured, others drowned as they attempted to escape a country that had become a factory of death.
A March 2020 update by WFP reminds us that 11.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.1 million people are internally displaced; 7.9 million people are food insecure; and 1.9 million people are at risk of food insecurity. A 2019 WHO report confirms outbreaks “of measles, acute bloody diarrhoea, typhoid fever and leishmaniasis … in various areas of the country throughout the year.” The report also states that 10.2 million Syrians live in areas effected by explosive hazards. Perhaps most striking is the fact that attacks on health facilities “have rendered 46 per cent of hospitals and primary health facilities in Syria as either partially functional or not functional, while in some areas humanitarian partners have been unable to secure sustained and predictable access to populations in need.”
Notwithstanding these critical indicators, all one really has to do to capture the gravity of the current situation is reflect on the contrast: If Western officials can be seriously concerned about the collapse of their healthcare systems as a result of this COVID-19 crisis, how does one expect a country like Syria, where so many hospitals were destroyed, and where medical equipment and supplies were not able to address the medical needs of its citizens long before the coronavirus was even heard of, to have even a remote chance of protecting vulnerable citizens from the effects of this pandemic? In my mind at least, the lesson here is profoundly simple: Syria’s tragedy should never have been ignored or normalised by the international community. Tragedies on this scale only get worse, and the arrival of the coronavirus in Syria provides ample proof of this reality. There is, now more than ever, a moral responsibility to protect Syria’s already vulnerable population, who are now likely to be the victims of a vicious virus unless adequate medical assistance is urgently provided. Failing to do so is to only add material to the syllabus of The Nonsense and the Absurd.
Of all accounts I have read about forgiveness, my favourite story is that of Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, set up by Bosnian Serb forces. Kemal eloquently summarizes the essential foundation of forgiveness when he states:
I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully.
Kemal had reached the conclusion that as long as we act in a manner consistent with the pain we suffered, we empower the narrative of those who have committed acts of violence against us. And yet, even Kemal could not have forgiven a person who stubbornly and arrogantly continues to degrade, wound and kill. Even Kemal required a genuine apology before his forgiveness could be extended.
In Syria, ten years after this tragedy began, no one is willing, or ready, to apologize.