I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution
The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.
Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.
The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.
Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.
So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.
I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.
But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.
To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.
The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.
The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.
Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.
Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.
I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.
See also, Bombs and Babies
On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.