Bitter Syrian Homecoming: An Ex-Pat Returns To Damascus To Find A Nation Beyond Wounded, Already Dead

 
on September 08 2012 2:05 PM
Damascus Funeral
Residents carry the body of Anes Zouhra, whom activists say was killed by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, during his funeral in Yabroud near Damascus, in September. REUTERS / Shaam News Network

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Last week, I saw an elderly man emerge from a funeral prayer at Rawdah mosque, which overlooks the busy, ominous square in central Damascus.

The man was the father of the deceased. He was flanked by two young men, who held him up under his arms as he struggled to walk. Grief had moistened his eyes, and his cheeks bore a pinkish hue in the summer heat.

I did not know him, or his deceased son. I had traveled to Damascus, my birthplace, to visit relatives. It was my second trip there since I left Syria almost two years ago.

I did not think it prudent to visit some of the city's restive neighborhoods, where snipers reportedly target pedestrians, and soldiers at checkpoints are said to act with impunity. Instead, I stayed in relatively calm neighborhoods.

It was there that I ran into the grieving old man and his entourage, as they prepared to drive behind a flower-filled hearse.

In better times, when I lived in Damascus, perhaps such a scene would not have stayed with me so profoundly. Perhaps I would have said a silent prayer for the family, and then continued on my way.

But the changes I saw in Syria during my recent visit overwhelmed me.

Almost every day, I heard a staccato of shelling and gunfire, sometimes at odd hours of the night, startling me out of a deep sleep.

During the day, I was shocked by how people went about their business, running errands and rushing places, though with faces more stern than I had ever seen before.

Everywhere I looked, I saw footprints of the tragedy befalling the country.

Perhaps because young people in Syria are a majority, it is they who bear most of the burden.

This struck me when I first saw the young man's death notice, announced on a flyer plastered outside the mosque on its walls, and on other surfaces throughout my neighborhood. This is how Damascenes and other Syrians announce their dead.

These notices seemed greater in number than when I used to live in Damascus. Something else about them stood out. Many featured the word "young."

A typical notice today reads something like this:

With great grief we inform you that the young man / woman (so and so)

has met his / her Maker on (such day) after a tragic accident.

Over 20,000 Syrians have been killed so far in the country's ongoing conflict, now in its 17th month. While details regarding their ages are difficult to verify, the death notices serve as a testament to the tragic loss of so many young lives.

I am told that when the conflict first began, and the first few young people were killed, their bereaved families referred to them in the death announcement as martyrs.

"But now they are not allowed to say that. And they can't write that their child died of gunfire, or a mortar shell, or aerial bombardment," an activist said, on condition of anonymity. "So they all say a 'tragic accident.'"

This left me with few details about the deceased young man at the Rawdah mosque. I knew only that he was too young to have been married, as there was no mention of a wife or children in the announcement, only of surviving parents and siblings.

Young men in particular are at risk of being killed in the war, because in Syria they must comply with mandatory military service. Some activists estimate that today only half of those drafted actually show up to service.

Almost every family I met had a story to tell about young men they knew, how they got drafted and died, or survived, or how they were dodging the draft.

Those with means send their sons abroad to avoid military service. If the young man's number has already been called up, no plane ticket can get him out of the country. His name will be flagged at the airport, and the authorities will take him straight to his Army post.

Even a random stop at a checkpoint can flag a draft dodger. Indeed, it seemed to me that checkpoints focus almost exclusively on young men, who are always asked to pull over and show their ID card.

"I couldn't wait for our son to sell his car," said one mother, referring to her 20-year-old, who lives with her and her husband. Their current address is not registered, so she believes her son can keep dodging his military service for as long as he stays home.

"He's going crazy having nothing to do, but we can't take any chances. If he gets an ID check, it's over and he knows it. And for what? So he can go out and kill his own brothers? This is not our war," she said.

Perhaps as heart-wrenching is the sadness and frustration that many younger children in Syria feel today. I am not referring to those orphaned by the violence, possibly in the thousands, whose suffering I cannot even imagine. Nor am I referring to the children who lost limbs or eyes, or those who witnessed unspeakable things. Their trauma may never end.

I am talking about the everyday stuff that adults now seem to dismiss. The things that, in better times, move us to comfort a suffering child, and do what is in our power to grant their wish.

There is nothing of the sort for Huda. She is 12 years old, and she is my neighbor. I am withholding her real name to protect her against any reprisals.

I ran into Huda and her mother in the public park in our neighborhood. Up until last year, Huda attended a private school on the outskirts of Damascus. She said she never minded the 40-minute school bus ride because she always sat next to her best friend, and they chatted all the way to school.

Huda's school may not open for this academic year. The school's neighborhood has grown restive, and in recent weeks many classrooms were destroyed in clashes between rebels and government forces.

Even if the school did open, Huda's mother said she no longer wanted to send her there. She prefers the public school down the street.

"I'd feel so much safer with her near us," Huda's mother explained to me.

Of course she would, I thought. I would do the same with my child, no question about it.

For Huda, nothing about this reality seemed as absolute as her school. Her ears turned red, and her lips began to quiver at the mention of the subject.

"But my friends won't be there," she said, reproaching her mother and trying not to cry. She kept a brave face in my presence, and we parted ways as her mother told her there were things she simply could not fix.

I walked away thinking about Huda's dilemma. I spent parts of my childhood in Syria, and I often begged my parents to live permanently in Damascus. Like many Syrian expatriates who built decent lives elsewhere, the meager wages in Cold War-era Syria made it difficult for us to live there.

It was getting late, but I resisted going home. I ventured for a stroll along the Barada River, which runs past Rawdah Square, where I saw the funeral earlier that day.

I arrived at my favorite spot, the middle of an overpass that overlooks the riverbed, which at this time of year is dry all the way to the bottom. It is mud and stone. Willow trees flank it.

In the dusk sky, the willow thistles were every bit as stunning as I could remember. Sparrows fluttered in a frenzy, as if they, too, had to hurry home before dark. The chorus of their chirping and the silhouettes of their small wings mesmerized me. I lost track of time.

Some things in Damascus remained unchanged after all.

It must have been only moments before a stern voice interrupted my thoughts.

"Madam, you cannot stay here," he said.

It was an armed guard.

Rasha Elass is a Beirut-based journalist. She is working on a memoir about being raised in Syria. 

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