For two weeks over the summer, we went to Aleppo and embedded with the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad on one front and Islamic State militants on another.
Syria Is Obama’s Rwanda
Twenty-seven-year-old Qusai Zakarya woke up at about 4:30 AM on August 21, 2013. He rolled out his prayer rug inside his family’s two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Moadamiya, Syria, and started his morning prayers.
Alarms coming from nearby Damascus interrupted his daily ritual. After two years of revolution, Qusai had gotten used to the near constant shelling and bombings, but something was different this summer morning. The alarms were the kind “you usually hear in movies about World War II when there is a big air raid,” he told me.
“Within seconds, I started hearing rockets flying into the ground,” Qusai recounted. They hit the rebel-held town about 500 feet away from him.
“Before I realized what was going on, I lost my ability to breathe. I felt like my chest was set on fire. My eyes were burning like hell, and I wasn’t even able to scream to alert my friends,” he said. “So I started beating my chest over and over until I managed to get my first breath.”
As Qusai recovered inside his home, he heard people screaming on the streets. A neighbor pounded on his door and asked for help. Her two kids were suffocating and vomiting “weird white stuff,” Qusai said.
They rushed onto the street to seek help and found a “terrifying” scene. Men, women, children, elderly people were “running and falling on the ground, suffocating, without seeing a single drop of blood or knowing what was really going on,” Qusai told me.
Qusai spotted a 13-year-old boy left all alone, suffocating and vomiting. Qusai ran to him and gave him CPR. “He had big wide blue eyes and was almost staring into another dimension. He was suffocating, and he seemed to me very innocent to die this way or any other way,” Qusai said.
The Syrian War Keeps Getting Worse for the People of Aleppo
A year ago, almost to the day, I watched a graffiti artist named Khalifa paint a huge smiley face onto a wall. The wall was pretty much all that remained of the house it had been part of, and every other house on the street was in a similarly bad state. The day before, the street had been hit by a Scud missile: That was Aleppo, Syria, in 2013.
Khalifa had sprayed a slogan next to the smiley face. It read, in Arabic, “Tomorrow this will be beautiful.”
Syrian Children Are Drawing to Heal the Trauma from War
In an upscale district of Downtown Beirut, two pre-teen boys rapped in Arabic during an exhibit showcasing the artwork of Syrian refugee children. Ramzi, a 12-year-old originally from Daraa, Syria, beatboxed as his friend Ayham, who is also from Daraa, spit rhymes. Guests watched quietly, impressed, as the two boys recalled life before the uprising-turned-civil war wreaked havoc on their country.
This was part of an exhibit, called “Light Against Darkness,” the result of a three month art workshop that focused on helping children overcome the trauma of war through creative expression. Forty-three children produced about 166 works of drawings and clay sculptures, many of which depicted colorful renditions of schools, kids playing together, and families bonding.
Others, however, were not so cheery. Suha Wanous, a young girl originally from Latakia but who arrived to Lebanon from Damascus, the Syrian capital, drew a daughter holding her mother’s hand while a gun is pressed to her head point-blank. In the background of the picture, it’s raining and a helicopter is opening fire on a home while two small children lay on the grass bleeding, presumably dead. The organizers of the exhibit explained how Suha used to pass an army checkpoint daily before going to school back in Syria. She used to greet the soldiers Assalamu Alaykum (meaning “peace be upon you” in Arabic.)
Is Facebook Censoring the Syrian Opposition?
Last December, a woman from the Syrian community in Toronto reached out to me for help after a Syrian opposition Facebook page, for which she was an administrator, was expunged from the internet. She told me that Facebook had deleted the page, called Likes for Syria, in mid December, by which time it had garnered more than 80,000 “likes.” Several Syrian Canadians had organized the page shortly after the revolution in Syria began, back in 2011, and used it as a tool for posting news stories about the crisis, spreading messages of hope, and creating awareness in the Western world—something that many feel is desperately needed.
“We feel like our freedom of speech has been totally taken away,” said Faris Alshawaf, another administrator for Likes for Syria. “We have a right to talk about what is happening.” Facebook had removed the page once before but quickly republished it after administrators made an appeal. Just days later, Facebook deleted the page a second time.
The Syrian Peace Talks Look Like a Tragic Farce
Peace talks aiming to bring Syria’s bloody civil war to a conclusion finally began yesterday in Switzerland, the land of peace and harmony. The conference officially starts Friday and will see delegates getting down to the seemingly impossible task of trying to thrash out a deal, but yesterday was the initial meeting of the “Geneva II” conference, where the participants got to let off some steam in lengthy speeches.
All things considered, the occasion didn’t get off to the best start, with Syria’s foreign minister using his speech to accuse some of the nations involved of having “Syrian blood on their hands” before calling the rebels “traitors.” The US and the Syrian opposition used the opportunity to state that Bashar al-Assad had no legitimacy—which, shockingly, didn’t go down too well with the Assad camp—while Syria’s information minister argued with the UN secretary-general before shouting, “Assad will not leave! Assad will not leave!” at the assembled pack of reporters. So it doesn’t look like the negotiations—the first time the opposition and the Syrian government have formally sat down together since the conflict began in 2011—will be particularly fruitful.