Farah Nassef writes about what the Syrian conflict personally means to her and her family
Nineteen months have now passed since the start of the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. Protests continue nationwide and with each passing day the death toll rises.
Yet, it seems people all over the world feel so removed from the situation that no one can muster anything more than a passing concern. For me, however, it still remains a weighty burden in my life. To me, Syria is home.
Damascus: where I once lived, attended school, and walked in its streets, has only recently begun to be seriously affected by the rising ferocity of the civil war. Most of the city is now controlled by the power of the Free Army. Almost every house bears battle scars. The city’s infrastructure is being destroyed from within as roads have been turned to ruin by government air attacks. And even bakeries have been specifically targeted to ensure that the people who thus far have avoided arrest or murder, will suffer a slow death of starvation.
The famous Hamadieh souk in Damascus was one of the liveliest and most unique markets in the world, selling everything from beautiful fabrics to etched shisha pipes, has since the fighting last year become a shell of its former self. The market is situated right by the famous Umayyad mosque, where people would take to the streets in protest after Friday noon prayers. When it became known for sprouting massive protests against the Assad regime the market and its sellers took a serious hit as many shops and stalls were forced to close as people became too fearful to shop there. When it is not filled with hordes of protesters, its desolation is torturous.
Similarly, an area known as Old Damascus, once famous for its bustling shops, lively restaurants, boutique hotels and narrow cobbled streets has within a year turned from a bustling hub of life into a graveyard of closed shops. I have happy memories of spending many hours in the restaurants in Old Damascus, with their open roofs and cool streaming fountains right in the middle, whiling away time before the next delectable dish is served. Memories which make it all the harder to see this cultural hub decimated by the war.
The violence has also seen tens of thousands of families flee their homes, some of whom are left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. My family are among the fleeing masses, and though they were lucky to get away with their lives, all their worldly possessions were reduced to a couple of suitcases and boxes. All my life I have watched the news, read books, and seen films about refugees and civil wars. While I always felt deep sympathy for those people, I would never have thought my family would ever be one of them, to undergo this hardship. To be labelled a ‘refugee’.
My aunt made the difficult decision to move her, her two year old daughter and my grandmother to Lebanon when their neighbourhood became a hotspot for government air strikes. They spent the entire night before they left trying to escape the explosions and gunfire all around, lying on the floor, away from the windows. Roughly translated, my aunt said “We didn’t want to leave our home, but we just wanted to sleep knowing we wouldn’t wake up to an explosion, or glass shattering.”
I recently visited Lebanon to spend Eid – a festive celebration after Ramadan – with my grandmother and aunt. Yet the ‘holiday’ was anything but festive. Their grief at moving away from Syria had not eased, and they were in a permanent state of shock.
While my family’s story is sad, it is by no means uncommon. Roughly 70,000 Syrian people have relocated to Lebanon in the past year – a statistic which came to life during my visit. Every apartment building, restaurant, and café was filled with Syrian families, all trying to adjust to their new realties.
Meanwhile, I still have some remaining family in Syria. They have had the opportunity to leave but as my other aunt, and closest relative still living in Damascus, put it, “If it came down to it, I would rather die in my own home than leave and be degraded with my family.”
The situation is escalating but it seems we are no closer to a resolution. Promises of ‘negotiation’ and settlement by the UN have been beyond pathetic. There may be hope that the new Syria UN Envoy, Ibrahimi, who once managed to reach a successful treaty for the opposing sides in the civil war in Lebanon in 1989, will work his magic again. But that remains to be seen.
The end of this war will not mean an end to the troubles of Syria and its people. They may get to return home, but the country to which they return will be a shell of what it once was. And while the physical and structural devastation is brutal, it will be nothing compared to the emotional damage the people have suffered. Death, torture and ruin has permanently scarred Syria.
My own generation will not be the ones to regain any joy after the settlement, as war scars remind us of our losses. But perhaps our children will. I’m confident that this day will come as the Syrian people have shown infinite bravery in risking everything they have to fight for what they deserve.
I long for the day I can return to a country empowered and strengthened by its people, to walk along the busy Hamadieh market streets and eat delicious food with family reunited in Old Damascus. To put it more simply, I long for the day I can go home.