What else is left to say about the war that, over the last eight years, has crushed Syria’s soul? At first blush, a whole lot of nothing — till we pay attention to the devastating news reports issuing from Idlib, in the northwestern region of the country, and we recoil, yet again, at the horror.
And we all thought that the unbelievably ruinous war in Syria was winding down and the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people was, if not over — it will take a generation or longer for the collective consciousness to blot out that kind of suffering — then certainly diminished in intensity. Surely, you and I find ourselves saying, the terminus of that suffering was reached after half a million civilians had been killed and 12 million others — half of them children — were uprooted from their homes. How worse could it have gotten? Enough, after all, means enough.
But, no, sadly, the Syrian people, it seems, have yet a long way to go before their ordeal ends on a note of grace.
When a nation is torn asunder — as Syria was over the last eight years in order to gratify the raw ambitions of its leaders — civilians find themselves compelled to wander the faith of the earth as pitiful refugees, seeking asylum wherever they find it, or to dwell in the open fields in partial return to the ways of primitive men.
More than 250,000 people have fled Idlib, the last piece of territory held by rebels opposed to the regime, in just the last two weeks, a figure comprising tens of thousands of families, many displaced numerous times before, heading north along roads leading, really, nowhere — given the fact that Turkey, which already holds 4 million refugees, has nailed shut its borders — all in need of humanitarian aid, shelter, food and health care.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, backed by Russian forces raining down missiles on the region, often indiscriminately, continues to push forward with an all-out ground and air assault on this last rebel-held stronghold in the country.
Washington Post correspondent Miriam Berger, in a news report filed last Sunday, quoted a local doctor as saying simply: “People, I swear by God, are sleeping in open air under trees. I am shocked at the size of the tragedy”.
What do you call a regime that massacres or, at times, starves into submission, its very own citizens, a regime that chases six million of its own population into exile, evincing joy, as the regime in Damascus has done, at the prospect that they may never return to their homeland again, and effectively declaring to the world, “Good riddance! We don’t want them back, we don’t need them”?
The term needed to describe that regime is in no sane man’s lexicon, since surely it is one confined to explicating the attributes of Dante’s inferno, not the habitat of human beings imbued with a sense of human communion.
When a nation is torn asunder — as Syria was over the last eight years in order to gratify the raw ambitions of its leaders — civilians find themselves compelled to wander the face of the earth as pitiful refugees, seeking asylum wherever they find it, or to dwell in the open fields in partial return to the ways of primitive men.
Meanwhile, Kelly Razzouk, the UN director of the International Research Committee, said last Thursday, in another Washington Post news report: “An additional half a million people [along with the 250,000 already on the move] could be displaced over the coming weeks if the violence continues to escalate. This would be the largest displacement seen since the war started eight years ago”. It bogles the mind, does it not?
Look, as a diaspora Palestinian, I’ve been around the block a few times in the refugee world. I was part of a refugee exodus as a child. I grew up in a refugee camp. I endured hunger, destitution and, above all, the existential anguish of otherness that daily dogs a refugee. That and more, but I can tell you that nothing equals the suffering being endured in our time by Syrian refugees. By comparison to their Syrian counterparts — who, as we speak, suffer tragedy upon tragedy — Palestinians have it cushy, as it were.
At the end of the day, you cannot really quantify suffering, experienced by refugees or anyone else, for different peoples internalise collective suffering differently. But one thing is plain: When the definitive book on modern Arab history is written, it will list the saga of dispersal of the Syrian people as the most poignant, the most painful in its annals.
“Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero…” we read in Khalil Gibran’s 1933 posthumously published poem about the travails of what was then called Greater Syria. “Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream … Pity the nation divided into fragments... each fragment dreaming itself a nation”.
Throughout Arab history, the poet has always been the arbiter of our objective reality — for obvious reasons. Our poets, very simply, were prescient folks who could see the future in their mind’s eye.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.