Wednesday, 4 November 2015
The Syrians Who Refused to Give Up
'Samar Yazbek’s shocking, searing, and beautiful new book, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, describes three visits to Idlib province in northern Syria, an area liberated from the Assad dictatorship “on the ground but betrayed by the sky.” Bashar al-Assad’s forces had been driven from the rural border zones. From a distance, however, via warplanes and long-range artillery, they implemented a policy of scorched earth and collective punishment.
Through self-organized committees and councils, Yazbek is told, “each region now has its own administration, and every village looks after itself.” This—Syrians’ willed self-determination, Syrian creativity amid destruction—is the positive story so often missed in the news cycle, and it represents a hope for the future, faint though it is. The activists know they are working against insurmountable odds, but continue anyway. They document atrocities and reach out to international media, an endeavor that has so far failed to bear tangible fruit. When they can, they laugh—it’s “as though they inhaled laughter like an antidote to death.”
Her constant companions, protectors, and fixers are men of the Free Syrian Army, “an extremely diverse set of groups, with varying characteristics and attitudes—from the cruel to the compassionate.” They ought to be called “armed people’s resistance brigades,” she opines, given that they are “really just ordinary people such as one might meet in the street.” These locals, trying to defend their communities, are starved for funds, weapons and ammunition. “If we had anti-aircraft guns,” one complains, “Assad would have fallen long ago.”
It’s an extra mark of Yazbek’s courage that she chose to travel in this difficult territory even though she’s an Alawite, a member of the Shia-offshoot sect to which Assad and most of his security chiefs belong. “The Alawites can’t stay in Syria,” she is told by a militia leader, one of the hundreds of extremists released from regime prisons in 2011 even as non-violent democrats were being rounded up en masse. Between regime violence and Islamist reaction, the space for dissident Syrians like her is shrinking. But it’s in part awareness of this tragedy that makes her hosts so eager to accomodate her. “They didn’t want to believe what was happening was a sectarian war,” she writes, “and their proof was my presence.” '