So: Syria. I first started following the story of the Syrian revolution, which began as a peaceful uprising, early last year. I started by reading the Twitter accounts of @edwardedark, @wissamtarif (who later received significant criticism, and so whom I set aside), and a few others. Through them, I learned of protests brutally suppressed by the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad; through them, I learned of unrest that evolved into the ugliest of armed conflicts, with the stories of cruelty that emerged often overwhelming. As it stands, the death toll has now exceeded an official total of 60,000, and with the variety of armed actors now operating within the country’s borders that doesn’t look set to stop climbing anytime soon.
So here we are a few months later. I’m now relying mostly on @jenanmoussa, @edwardedark, and @NMSyria for my updates on what’s happening there. And I think I have learned a lesson. As someone with a background in (and a passion for) communications, I had always assumed that raising awareness of a social issue was the primary path to its solution. But now I’m not so sure. For the best part of a year I have been forwarding links about Syria, and during that time I have seen many people switch off from this conflict. Including, at times, myself.
One YouTube video will stay with me: a boy, looking blankly at the camera, with his jaw blown clean away. The damage looked beyond reconstruction. Watching it at the time I was fine. Later that night, though, it hit me. I was brushing my teeth, and as I looked in the mirror I remembered that boy’s image. Before I knew it, I was in tears. I feel foolish to relate it now, but in my mind I found myself apologising to the boy for a world in which such a vicious fate could befall him. Instead of being spurred to action by the tales of new atrocities from Syria, maybe endless stream of horror has actually had a numbing effect. The slaughter itself has served to perpetuate the slaughter.
I wonder why this is. I suspect it is because, thousands of miles away with no direct recourse to a remedy, the easiest available option is to switch off. Extreme violence carries a taboo all of its own, which is perhaps why the media will readily display a starving child on our TV screens but will not so often show bodies torn apart by explosions. Maybe it’s one thing to see a human being suffering on TV, but it’s quite another to see a person reduced by weaponry to a form that is no longer recognisably human.
I wonder if this is the lie behind why so many of us must switch off: that those 60,000 Syrians dead didn’t die peacefully with their eyes shut but, instead, in paralysing fear, or in unimaginable agony. I don’t think that many people are looking away out of apathy. I think they are looking away out of a sense of helplessness, and perhaps a sense of their own good fortune, that they were not born into such a struggle at such a time. Many of my family fled from Uganda when Idi Amin was gearing up towards his worst, and perhaps I have inherited some of their desire for the quiet life, their gratefulness for a calmer climate abroad. Looking out of my window, into a suburban garden that could not be a more peaceful scene, I am readily reminded that my own connection with what is happening in Syria may only ever be an exercise in sympathy.
Sympathy is probably no use to anyone, but perhaps it is a start. In the end, I think I have written this only to commemorate the unending procession of the dead, as every day I read of a new batch of casualties, always in double figures and very often in triple figures, in Aleppo, Damascus, Houla, Hama or Homs. If attention is as much as I feel that I can pay right now, then I must at least pay that.