The war in Syria is in its fifth year and it is estimated that 230,000 people have died in the conflict. This book is an eloquent, gripping and harrowing account of the country's decline into barbarism by an incredibly brave Syrian.
Samar Yazbek, a Syrian exile living in Paris, crossed into Syria from Turkey three times over 12 months – on the final crossing an audience was secured with Abu Ahmed, an emir of Ahrar al-Sham, a rebel jihadist group based in the northern part of the country.
There were machine guns propped up behind the emir’s desk.
Samar asked Abu Ahmed what he expected after the revolution.
“There will be laws to protect the non-Muslims, the Nasara – the Christians. It will be unlawful for women to go out without a hijab. Appearing unveiled will be prohibited; that’s the most important thing. The Alawites can’t stay in Syria…. If the [Druze and Ismailites] return to Islam then they are welcome, and if they don’t, they’ll be judged as infidels, but the Alawites are apostates and must be killed.”
“But the women and children…. the women, what’s their sin?” Samar asked.
“The women give birth to children. The children become men and then they kill us!” answered the emir.
The exchange is remarkable on many levels. Samar is both female and, although a supporter of the revolution, an Alawite like Assad. It was brave of her to enter Syria in the first place but, as an Alawite woman, to seek to meet and directly challenge jihadist leaders is almost suicidal.
It is also remarkable as it underlines the dangers of a sudden collapse of Assad’s regime as against a negotiated transition. Shia and Alawite minorities have every reason to fear such an outcome.
Like many Syrians, she despairs at the paradox of the liberation of great parts of Syria from Assad only for them to fall under the suzerainty of jihadis – the replacement of one authoritarian regime with another.
After her close shave with al-Sham she seeks out the leader of the local al-Qaeda affiliate for a further interview. A less than enlightened view of women is to be expected:
“But it’s brave of you to come here to us,” says the leader.
“And what about you, aren’t you brave?”
He laughed. “I’m a man and this is natural.”
“And I’m a woman and this is natural,” I replied, and he stopped laughing.
The veil of secrecy is rarely lifted on the putrefying remains of the once beautiful Syria. Such reporting on the war in Syria is all too rare – it has taken two years for this “dispatch” to emerge, mostly because the author says that she felt it was pointless and frivolous to write on her return. Arguably, war reporting was more impactful and immediate during the Crimean War than is the case in Syria today.
For the most part, the war in Syria is seen as a foreign war among violent peoples who cannot be helped. There is a ho-hum shrug of shoulders and people move on with their cat-in-a-tree news diet. As was said in a completely different context, “shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder”.
During the Bosnian war it was said that the world had taken “a sabbatical from historical seriousness”. In Yazbek’s own withering assessment, “the suffering [in Syria] is the overwhelming proof of humanity’s fall from moral grace”.
Of course, there are terrible complexities and a policy conceived a year ago would be hopelessly out of date today. ISIS is effectively a country now that all the drone strikes in the world will not destroy. But her plea is that people would separate the humanitarian from the political.
On her first crossing in August 2012 into rebel-held parts of Syria, “the number of Islamist battalions was still low” and the rebels spoke in terms of a civil secular state rather than an Islamic one. But they struggled to obtain effective weapons and couldn’t defend their towns, often resorting to criminality and corruption.
By the time of her second trip into rebel strongholds in February 2013 “the Islamic extremists were edging their way in and starting to control people’s lives and interfere in their businesses”. For many, the religious certainties (not to mention the top-of-the-range anti-aircraft weapons) provided a semblance of order.
The final crossing in the late summer of 2013 features her confrontations with the leaders of al-Sham and Jabat al-Nusra. By then, the early revolutionaries and their secular aims were hanging by a thread and her book reminds us that there is a significant part of Syria which is horrified at being caught between Assad and Jihad and their respective foreign sponsors.
The book carries endless accounts of bombing raids (the dreaded barrel bombs), the desecration of antiquities and the constant presence of death. Death is triumphant, victorious and glorified and “drifts among them with the lightness of a feather”.
This book might awaken some consciences. The final word is a heart-breaking account of cave dwellers, bombed back to the stone age in the land that gave us civilization thousands of years ago:
“A girl aged about sixteen, wearing a hijab, a headscarf covering the head and chest, was sitting at the entrance to one of the caves. She had lost both her legs when she had been hit by a shell. One had been cut off at the thigh, the other at the knee. Her eyes were nevertheless serene. She said she was teaching her sisters and brothers to draw but they had hardly anything to draw with. The girl explained she would need several operations because her wounds had become infected and she was likely to succumb to blood poisoning. Yet she appeared indifferent watching us descend into the cave where her mother and siblings lived. She tilted her head and went back to drawing lines in the soil.”