Syrian writer Samar Yazbek describes Daesh as “the biggest Satan ever”, and “an occupation” created by the brutality of Assad’s regime and the international community’s failure to take action. Their Hollywood-style videos continue to make front-page news in the west; so much so that horrendous massacres by the regime have been forgotten. “Official statistics say a quarter of a million Syrians were killed but we’re probably over half a million. These were all killed by the regime… no one in the entire world is reporting or talking about what Bashar is doing,” she says.
It is comments like these that have earned Yazbek a reputation for being an outspoken critic of not only Bashar Al-Assad, but of the different forces now involved in the Syrian conflict. Yazbek’s opposition to the Assad government predates 2011 and extends further than simply the revolution, but it was her involvement in the popular uprising which sealed her current fate: exile in Paris. When she first moved to France Yazbek thought she would be there for only three months before Assad would go and she could return home. Four years later he is still holding on to power, and she is still in her flat in Paris.
Within this time, Yazbek has returned to her homeland three times, crossing the Turkish border in the north away from the Assad controlled areas. Inside Syria she met young children whose limbs have been blown off by shrapnel, doctors distressed at the lack of medical supplies and families who hide in a former storeroom when the sound of shelling gets close. She has weaved together the stories of these people and more in her latest bookThe Crossing, My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, to give readers a picture of life on the ground in a country that is now so dangerous, few journalists dare venture there.
It’s easy to get the impression Yazbek is more comfortable telling the stories of others through her writing, than she is recounting her own experiences. She was born in Jable into an Alawite family, the same sect as the Assads, which means in certain circles her decision to stand up against the regime earned her the reputation of being a traitor, because Alawites have traditionally sided with the ruling party. Discussing the effects of war on her own family is “a red line” she says, but comments that in general the Syrian conflict created huge divisions between families in “an unprecedented social divide never before seen since the start of Syria’s history.”
In fact, division is everywhere – pulling apart relationships, identities, classes and sects. In the beginning, recalls Yazbek, there was no sectarian discourse so she didn’t hide her Alawite roots, but as factional sentiment spread she concealed her identity when she crossed the border. Yazbek believes the cracks appeared in 2012 when jihadist groups arrived and labelled those who didn’t align with their ideology “kafirs” (disbelievers). Ultimately, though, she holds Assad responsible for sectarianism because under his rule he kept communities detached from each other, and at the same time uneducated and poor. The effects of this are now coming to the surface: “The Syrian people don’t know each other very well,” she says.
Early in The Crossing, Yazbek introduces the reader to Maysara and Mohammed, her two guides. Like many Syrians they started off protesting peacefully against the Assad regime but later joined the armed resistance. These civil uprisings are a thing of the past: “I can’t say there are peaceful protests now because there is no opportunity for them to take place. When you go out to protest and missiles are dropped on you, how do you protest? And how are they going to be peaceful?” asks Yazbek, in reference to Bashar’s violent crackdown on the demonstrators.
“They tried to go out and be peaceful, but they had to take up arms and when people take up arms other people begin to profit and it becomes like an arms trade. Some people want there to be a war so they can invest and become war lords and this is how the revolution was derailed from its democratic path. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t still people in Syria that aren’t still working towards a democratic path. Just because their voices aren’t heard and they’re not backed, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still Syrians who believe in a democratic, civilian Syria.”
In the past Yazbek has pointed out that Syrian women were among the first to protest against the regime. In The Crossing she points out they were the “first to pay the price in this war.” A long-time advocate of women’s rights Yazbek has founded a civil society based initiative, Women Now for Development, which helps women defy radicalisation through education and helps them start up small businesses so they can become financially independent.
On her third crossing, Yazbek helped the wife of a martyr set up a project to sell cleaning products from her home, so she could support herself rather than marrying a Yemeni fighter in exchange for money. “The women are in a bad situation but they are still operating,” she says. “I believe that we, the people who left the country – and I’m really upset that we had to leave – have to be a bridge and a voice for the people of Syria. The situation of women is bad and the areas where we operate are still being bombed. They’re using weapons and bombs and barrels and missiles and cluster bombs. They just destroy everything.”
In the areas controlled by armed, Islamist militants women have no life she says. “They are no longer a part of the public and they’re being subjected to all forms of exploitation and violation. The conditions of the Syrian women are just like the Syrian people but because they’re women it’s worse. Because they’re Islamists they think the women are awrah [should not appear in public]. They treat women inhumanely and they’ve misinterpreted Islam and made up their own rules. So the women are really suffering.”
Stories of women in Syria being raped, enslaved and burnt alive, have certainly shocked many, as have other gruesome tactics adopted over time by Islamic militants; so much so that in September last year Obama said he was launching an open-ended bombing campaign against them. But whilst Yazbek is clearly outraged at Daesh’s activities, she is sceptical of the campaign: “Have you ever asked yourself the question, why doesn’t this coalition bomb Daesh and just eliminate them?” she says. “Development, law, justice, education, a fair judiciary, jobs;” that is how you combat terrorism. “Not turning Syria into a crime scene, gathering all sorts of militants and then later forming an international coalition that is supposedly going to fight Daesh. This coalition is based on profitable weapons deals between wealthy countries that turn poor countries into blood baths.”
In addition to this, Yazbek believes the Obama administration has taken a contradictory position when it comes to intervention in Syria. In August 2013 UN weapons inspectors confirmed the nerve agent sarin was used in Damascus by the Assad regime, a massacre that killed hundreds in the suburbs just outside Damascus. Obama had previously vowed this was a “red line” that would incite US intervention in Syria, but he never acted on that promise.
“There’s Iranian intervention and American intervention but it’s all in favour of Assad… don’t you think Hezbollah’s involvement is intervention?” she asks. “When Turkey allows all the fighters to go through its borders, isn’t that intervention? When the armed groups are supported and backed whereas the Free Syrian Army’s leaders are assassinated and not given weapons isn’t that foreign intervention?”
She predicts a drawn-out conflict because she believes the international community doesn’t have any intention of stopping the bloodshed. “We’re waiting for the countries to agree to see what happens with our people and that’s the most painful part, that the matter is not in our hands, that our fate is being decided for us,” she says, adding later: “The social, familial and religious divide can only be remedied if justice is served.” That means bringing Assad and his regime before the ICC and prosecuting murderers, criminals and perpetrators of sectarian massacres.
Hopefully her book can help, after all “writers need to be part of the change” she tells me; but what does Yazbek want people to take away from it? “I don’t want a lot. I want them to know that what happened in Syria was a revolution. It was a popular, civilian, democratic revolution staged by a nation that tried to call for freedom.”