Syria Diary: In limbo

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Damascus from a well-to-do family belonging to a Syrian minority. For security reasons, he prefers to stay anonymous. In this fourth diary entry, he describes feelings of disappointment as the August chemical attack, the proposed US military action and the current diplomatic initiative have left Syrians in limbo.

Several hours before the chemical attack in Syria that provoked world-wide debate about possible military action against my country, I was at home in one of the few remaining peaceful parts of Eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

It was 2am and shelling had just begun. It was more excessive than usual. In fact, I can’t remember it ever being so bad. I could hear every shell and could locate where it was coming from. I tried to count the number of bombs per minute, but they were too frequent. I switched to seconds. It was three bombs per second.

I tried contacting friends living in the targeted towns: Douma, Erbin, Harasta, Zamalka, Mleha, Jobar and others. The cellular network was down, as it often is. On such nights, it’s normal to lose a friend or two. I was worried about each and every one of them. Unlike the news outlets, which tally casualty numbers, for us, these numbers are memories, parts of life and cells of the heart. I only managed to reach two of them within the next three days; I don’t know the fate of the others.

It was impossible to sleep that night, not because of the sounds but because of a deep-seated impulse saying: “Too many people are dying tonight”.

At 8am, the shelling was still going. The news started coming out. “Massacre in Douma,” the TV said. “Three hundred fifty people dead,” Shaam News Network reported.

Then came the bombshell (excuse the pun): “Chemical weapons used in the attacks… Eight hundred seventy confirmed dead.”

As the morning went on, the death toll rose. I called a friend at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent who was on the scene, and she said she believed sarin gas had been used. She had already witnessed previous chemical attacks and had enough experience to diagnose such cases. I was speechless. Chemical weapons had been used before in Syria, but never this violently and never with such disrespect for human life.

By 3pm, the shelling had slowed to once every 10 minutes, but the death toll had reached 1,300, according to reports on Facebook. I felt anger and hatred towards everything. I didn’t know for certain who had launched the attack; the motives of the various players are so complicated. But one thing was sure: Many people paid the price, and paid dearly. Humanity was murdered that day.

Then the US said it was considering military action against Syria. The massacre with chemical weapons was undoubtedly huge, but what of the other 100,000 deaths (with many others likely unrecorded) over the past two years? Were they not victims of a slow massacre? Why hadn’t the US intervened long ago? It could have prevented the mass destruction Syria suffered during the past two years.

Damascenes joked that the Americans would just be the “new bombers”. Shells and rockets have long been falling on civilian areas, both for and against the President Bashar al-Assad; cities have burned to the ground; countless atrocities have been committed. What more could this strike do? How much worse could the situation get? Civilian casualties have become a part of daily life.

So accustomed have we become to violence that, recently, as I was walking down a Damascus street, I heard gunshots exchanged for about 10 minutes just 100m away. I looked around me to find a surreal scene: people didn’t change speed or even look in the direction of the noise to see if they were in danger; they just kept walking.

Daily life has not changed all that much. Life in Syria appears very normal, since the definition of “normal” long ago changed. Bread lines have become normal. Self-imposed curfews are normal. Joking about war is normal.

Immediately after President Barack Obama announced the US was considering a strike, we Syrians started joking. One joke had an army officer addressing the Syrian people: “You want foreign armies to destroy your country? Isn’t your national army good enough for the job?” Another had Syriatel, the mobile company, offering a special SMS service - via a catchy tune as advertisement - in which you could sign up to be the first to find out about any strike.

Comedy and apathy have extended to real life, too. A friend of mine collected all the chairs from his house, placed them on his terrace, and announced he would charge onlookers 100 Syrian pounds (less than US$1) per hour to watch the strike from this vantage point with a good view of Damascus. Another stocked up on 2kg of flavoured tobacco so that he could smoke a water pipe during the show. A third came back from Dubai, where he was working, so as not to “miss any action”, as he put it.

Now, after many pitiful delays, the strike appears to be on hold as world powers try their hand at diplomacy. But cancelling military action hasn’t provoked more reaction here than declaring it had. Just like the proposed military action, the diplomatic efforts don’t take the Syrian people’s interests into consideration.

The agreement between the West and Russia has proved that getting an international intervention to end this struggle is too much for the Syrian people to ask. The chemical weapons were condemned and sentenced to demolition, but the killers - as always - have not been held accountable for their actions. The 1,300 victims of the chemical massacre can be added to the 100,000 victims of the war - to be treated all as numbers once again.

And so the terrace lost its charm; my friend went back to Dubai; and as expected, the Syrian people are left alone again to deal with the war, which goes on despite all the international developments. But there is one silver lining: I have learned my lesson. As a Syrian, I can now stop feeling disappointed and abandoned. I had no allies in the first place, nor did I have any rights: no right to express my opinion in my country, no right for a visa to do master’s studies abroad, and no right to get help ending the ongoing war in my country.

Previous entries:
Syria Diary: Leaving Damascus
Syria Diary: Life in exile
Syria Diary: Going home

Next entry:
Syria Diary: Beggar at the door