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Frozen life in wartime Syria

Children born during these five years of war do not know the taste of fruit, says one Syrian

Five years is a long time to be frozen in the grip of war. Five years is a primary-school education. Five years is hundreds of thousands of memories in a single human life.

"I have not seen or eaten a tomato in a year," Mr Ahmed Mujahid, 23, recently told me by Skype. His home in Darayya, Syria, has been bombed several times; now he stays with friends, or wherever he can.

"I think it was last summer when I last tasted a tomato, and that was uneatable, because it was green. There are children who have been born in these five years who don't know the taste of fruit."

 

Syria has now endured five years of war. We know the figures that illustrate that time passing: as many as 470,000 dead; nearly five million refugees; some six million displaced inside the battered country. The opposition walked out of peace talks in Geneva last week. No one seemed surprised. Those in Syria have little hope. When you live through war for that long, you become accustomed to the misery, the drudgery, to not having water, electricity or medical care.

After a while, you forget the book you were reading when the war started, or the love affair you had just ended. Your life is put on hold. With a terrible nonchalance, you get used to the sound of bombs falling.

"This is the background music in which we live our lives," a friend told me in Aleppo in 2012 as a rocket crashed nearby.


A rubbish-strewn street in Aleppo's al-Jazmati neighbourhood last week. Syria has now endured five years of war, with as many as 470,000 people dead, nearly five million refugees and some six million displaced inside the battered country. Those in Syria have little hope, becoming accustomed to the misery and drudgery of war.  PHOTO: REUTERS

Four years later, my friend is dead, so I can't ask him what background music he hears now.

Something else happens, as well, when wars continue for too long. The rest of the world grows tired of the photographs of the dead, the smashed hospitals and destroyed schools, tired of the statistics on hunger and rape and how many shells have landed in civilian areas. Five years deadens compassion.

In August 2012, while reporting for this newspaper, I went to Darayya, a Sunni suburb of Damascus, with a friend, Maryam, and her elderly mother. It was a steaming hot morning, soon after Darayya - known for its dogged resistance to President Bashar al-Assad's regime - had been allegedly "cleansed" for several days by government forces. (The massacre is disputed, naturally; the regime blamed "armed terrorist groups" for the violence.) The bodies of the dead had been cleared away, but I could still smell them - pungent and unmistakable.

My Syrian friends trapped inside don't ask if anyone is coming to save them. That moment passed in August 2013, after the chemical attacks in Ghouta, when President Barack Obama ignored his own "red line". Instead, I ask them what they have eaten, how many hours they have had electricity and if the water is running.

I wanted to talk to witnesses of the attack, but most people, terrified by days of helicopter bombardment and machine gun assaults, were hiding in their houses. Then, in the town square, we came across a few people whose houses had been bombed. They were covered in dust and soot, but they had survived.

One man, a mechanic who had been blinded in one eye by shrapnel, said he had searched for three days for his father. He found him eventually, lying inside a farmhouse near the edge of town with three other bodies - young men between the ages of 16 and 20, the mechanic reckoned.

How could anyone kill an old man, a weak old man, who was clearly not a fighter? he asked.

"This is not my Syria," he said. "When I see the sorrow that passes through these towns, I know - this is not my Syria."

A few hours later, we ran into the security services, and they escorted us out of town. They did not want us asking people questions about the shelling, about the weapons and accents of the soldiers who had attacked them - trying to determine if they were paramilitary or government forces. They did not want us seeing the ruin.

That was the beginning of the war. It's worse today. Darayya is isolated from the world. It is one of the 50 or so "besieged" areas of Syria in which, according to a recent report, more than a million people have been trapped.

These are areas where you are literally encircled by government forces or, in a few cases, by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or armed opposition groups. Trucks carrying food and medical supplies cannot get in. These are desperate places, where starvation is used as a tool of war, where if you have a chronic disease, you suffer or die, because you can't get insulin for your diabetes, or chemotherapy, or even enough pain medication if you were wounded in the attacks.

In Darayya, the siege has lasted more than three years. The United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva were meant to be raising this issue as well as the governance of a future Syria. But even if they do resume, for people in Darayya, Geneva is as distant as Pluto.

Last week, a UN official based in Damascus finally reached the town, but she was unable to get an aid convoy through the blockade. She apologised, telling the miserable population that the world has not forgotten them. It is difficult to believe her words.

In January, during a single day, the town was hit by some 75 bombs from the air. It is estimated that the Assad regime dropped nearly 7,000 barrel bombs on Darayya from January 2014 to last February.

My contacts inside tell me they think there are only 12,000 people remaining, of the original 170,000 inhabitants - 12,000 unable or unwilling to leave, surviving on lentils and grain. Others put the number as low as 6,000.

There are hardly any vegetables, or flour to make bread. Some people make a thin, tasteless soup from parsley, watercress and lettuce. "Now it is the season of the beans," one tells me. "And if I am lucky, I might find some old pickles, and some salt." There is no formula for babies. A kilo of sugar - if you can find it - costs US$30 (S$41). But there is no money. Water comes and goes, depending on whether the regime wants to cut it off that day. If that happens, people boil water from the well.

Now the weather is warmer, but all winter, the cold seeped into the homes, which only sporadically have electricity. That means no radio, no television. The sense is that no one cares, and that everyone has forgotten you.

Wars do eventually end: when players become exhausted, when fighters are so tired that they can no longer move forward on the battlefield, or when the international community finally decides that enough is enough. I have seen this happen many times, all over the world. It will happen in Syria, too.

In Bosnia, it took nearly four years before the worst of the war ended. I try not to use Bosnia as a template for determining the outcome of Syria, but in many ways, I see parallels. Not politically, but in terms of the human suffering, the human cost.

During the worst days of the siege - one of those days when a woman was killed by a sniper while washing dishes in her kitchen - my friends in Sarajevo would play a game: What will you do when the war ends?

"I will go to Paris and go to the Louvre, and eat an omelette in Cafe de Flore." "I will fall in love again." "I will smoke an entire packet of Marlboros and never again buy a packet of Drina", a Bosnian-made cigarette.

My friends asked when "the West" would come and save them. They would hang - tragically, I thought - American flags out of their shattered windows, and dream of a time when their frozen state would finally melt.

My Syrian friends trapped inside don't ask if anyone is coming to save them. That moment passed in August 2013, after the chemical attacks in Ghouta, when President Barack Obama ignored his own "red line". Instead, I ask them what they have eaten, how many hours they have had electricity and if the water is running. One journalist in Aleppo described the gatherings "my family used to have - me, my sister, uncles, aunts, cousins", how they used to "talk and watch football matches together. That's what I miss the most". On bad days, when Skype or WhatsApp gets cut every minute, I'll get a text message: "No electricity. I am so sorry." Apologising for the war.

But this suspended life cannot last forever.

"When will you know when the war ends?" I asked my friend Dragan, in Bosnia, and he said: "When we hear the ringing of the tram bells again." The trams, once pulled by horses, had been all but destroyed by the shelling.

And then one day, leaning out my window onto Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, I heard it: the ringing of the tram bells. The war would drag on for more than a year but, at this point, we knew the end was near. Slowly, slowly, life came back. People began to move down the empty streets, walking without fear of getting shot in the head or the knees.

Peace will return to Syria, too. Then, Darayya - and all the other cities and towns and villages that have been frozen in time - will painfully live again.

NEW YORK TIMES


  • The writer is the author of the forthcoming book, The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Frozen life in wartime Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe