Yazbek to Business Day: “We consume the news and then toss it out into the rubbish. This is what the Syrians have become in four years.”

8 October 2015 86 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

A review by by Rehana Rossouw, for Business Day, published September 25, 2015rp_130913-WashtingonPost-SamarYazbek-150x1501.png
Photo credit: Muhsin Akgun

IN SYRIA millions of people’s lives, homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of abject refugees are streaming out to neighbouring countries and Europe. Since the start of the war in 2011 more than 250,000 Syrians have died — inside the country and on their way out — as Aylan Kurdi’s body on a beach will forever testify.

Samar Yazbek travels in the opposite direction, crawling under the barbed wire on the border with Turkey, lacerating her back on her way into Syria. The journalist and writer went to set up projects to help women, especially widows, earn a living and record a war with no end in sight.

She was forced into exile in July 2011 and now lives in France with her daughter. She had taken part in demonstrations at the start of the revolution and written articles exposing the intelligence service’s murder and torture, setting them onto her.

Yazbek provides no history of the country, the politics that dragged it into war, of the halting talks about talks that make no progress or of the insurgent movements burying Syria under rubble. Her chosen task is to keep a keen eye on the people suffering in decaying towns and villages and a keen ear on the shelling as the bombs rain down.

Throughout the book, she wrestles with the best way to describe the devastation she encounters during her three crossings into Syria.

She quickly discounts the possibility of a chronological account or an analysis of every event she witnesses (…)

Yazbek describes the changes inside the country in the short months between her second and third visit. She visits Raqqa in the north, where she had grown up in a tolerant town reading Virginia Woolf and wishing she was Mrs Dalloway. It is now the headquarters of Islamic State, and residents there warn of floggings and beheadings.

There are shortages of everything: bread, rice, tea, sugar, schooling, health services, clean water to wash her face.

Yet the projects Yazbek supports are on their feet: volunteers tour the country, bringing education to children who haven’t seen a classroom in years; journalists risk kidnapping and death to tell the story of Syria, and markets set up when the all-clear is given, so people can prepare meals to share with visiting strangers.

“We carried on with life, regardless. Families plodded on, eking out a living under the lethal sky, among the barbarism of the extremist battalions,” Yazbek writes of what she witnessed. “All the same, the only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else. Everything is relative and open to doubt; the only certainty is that death will triumph.”

Yazbek is pessimistic and mournful about the prospect of the world’s conscience being pricked into action on Syria.

“Other people are dying instead of them. They are the survivors and that’s enough. What’s happening is nothing new in the history of humanity, but now it’s unfurling in public view, the blood spilling before our eyes and into our hands.

“We consume the news and then toss it out into the rubbish. This is what the Syrians have become in four years.”

To support Yazbek’s NGO: Women Now

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