In Syria, a slow-motion genocide while diplomats chatter – by Janine di Giovanni
The International Syria Support Group, consisting of 20 countries and organizations, met in Vienna earlier this month to once again attempt to decide the fate of the Syrian people. Predictably, the diplomats left the Austrian capital with little more than promises for a “cessation of hostilities.”
“The challenge we face now is to transform these possibilities into the reality of an agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared, referring to a “basic framework” for a united, non-sectarian Syria.
Those words mean nothing to the fighters on the ground, who continue to push for more territory. In Aleppo, missiles fall and helicopters whir in the sky. In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that has been besieged by Syrian government forces since 2012, 8,000 inhabitants are starving.
The Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group, estimates that a Syrian dies every 51 minutes. On the day the diplomats gathered in Vienna, 28 civilians were killed, 94 rockets were launched and 40 barrel bombs dropped. There is a disconnect, to say the least, between the “peace process” and what is actually happening in real time.
The comfortable diplomats in grey Vienna reminded me of an incident from 1992, when I was covering the Bosnian war. It was a week before Christmas and the people in Sarajevo were cutting down trees in the city park to burn as firewood. Humanitarian deliveries had stopped arriving. There was no electricity, and the family I was living with huddled around a single candle at night listening to the relentless shelling.
Rather grudgingly, it seemed, the late United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali landed for a brief touchdown in the Bosnian capital. With profound arrogance, he told journalists that upcoming “peace talks” were the only solution, and that there were “10 places worse” than Sarajevo in the world. Then the former Egyptian politician got back on his plane and flew off. We had to explain to our Bosnian friends that yes, indeed, the world had abandoned them. The war dragged on for another three bitter years.
I always wondered how the U.N. arrived at the conclusion that Bosnia – where more than 250,000 people died – was 11th on the list of suffering. How do you judge that? Do you compile lists of children killed, of limbs lost and of schools and hospitals turned to dust?
Vienna was more of the same: a gathering of power brokers who seemed only dimly interested in ending the suffering. Just like in Bosnia, the U.N. – which is brokering the fruitless intra-Syrian talks – has been rendered impotent. That’s not entirely its fault; the will of the American administration has not been coherent or fixed and, as a result, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been allowed to take the lead. Meanwhile, Syrians starve and the country burns.
When I started working in Syria early on in the war, I was allowed access to government officials and government-controlled territories, including Damascus and its surroundings. Like many places where state terrorism is prevalent, it was not easy to do my job – I was followed by government minders and had to protect my sources by meeting them either secretly or online.
In August 2012, I defied government rules by sneaking into Daraya after what locals had called a massacre and the government called a prisoner swap gone wrong. Three hundred people were dead. One of the first witnesses I met was an injured man, a mechanic, searching for his elderly father. They had been separated during the fighting and the mechanic had lost his eye. The smell of dead bodies was overwhelming. We searched for a while, together, and the mechanic eventually found his father’s body, rotting, in a farmhouse outside of town.
“This is not my Syria,” he told me, weeping. “This is not my Syria.”
After that, I lost my “privilege” to report from the government side and could no longer obtain visas, so I began working on the opposition side. I continued to meet with witnesses – victims of torture, rape, enforced detention and the families of those who had simply disappeared.
I spent four years gathering testimonies in my notebook. I met Nada, a young activist from Latakia, who was taken from her home, placed into a tiny cell and beaten and raped for months by government police and security services. “They used my body to practice their judo moves.”
Hassan, a law student from Homs, was tortured by regime physicians who operated on him without anaesthetic. He escaped by pretending to be dead and was tossed on top of a pile of corpses. One of them was his brother’s.
But the worst was the little boy who followed me around a displaced persons camp near Azaz. He had no face, only a hole for a mouth and a hole for a nose. His father told me the story of hearing “the worse thing in the world, the screams of your own child’s pain” after his son was struck by a rocket inside his home in Hama.
Syria today is this: It is five spoiled years, an entire primary school education, gone. It is the uprooted lives of 9 million people displaced inside the country and 4 million outside. It is a hospital in Aleppo, where I had worked and reported, which was deliberately targeted and bombed on April 28. It is the only pediatrician in the city – a kind and gentle man who was doing extra shifts to help the children of Aleppo – who was killed in the attack.
It is easy to think of war as someone else’s life. It is a distant place, not your home, not your family, not your problem. But a slow-motion genocide is unwinding in Syria. And it will reach you. Even if you do not live in Hama or Aleppo or Homs, you will feel the shock waves of what this war will become if we do not act. The fall of Mosul to Islamic State in June 2014 was a wake-up call, as were the Paris and Brussels attacks.
A few months ago, a group of reporters I had come of age with in Sarajevo sent me a short film commemorating that conflict. I watched it over and over. And I cried. I had not been raped. My parents had not been murdered in front of me. I had not lost my legs or my arms in a shelling. But I felt deeply ashamed, and most of all, sorrowful, because we had failed again, collectively, to protect those who needed protection.
The war in Syria will eventually end, and the battered country will be sewn back together. But we missed many opportunities to prevent the war, or to stop it. The initial days of the uprising might have been a time for the U.S. to pressure Assad not to kill his own people. The crossing of the chemical weapon “red line” in 2013 was another chance.
But the war continued, as did the death toll. How do we explain – to the living, to the survivors, to the orphans, to those who lost homes, families and livelihoods – how we stood back and did nothing?
Janine di Giovanni is the author of “The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria” and the winner of this year’s IWMF Courage in Journalism Award