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How can we help the Syrians?

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria
Forfatter: Rania Abouzeid
Forlag: W.W. Norton & Company (USA)
War reporter Rania Abouzeid secretly went into Syria and stayed there for several years. No Turning Back is the story of four Syrians and three cities, and the story of a defeat.


In war, the dead are just numbers, in Syria they are not even there: the air strikes are too merciless, too dangerous, the UN explained in 2013. Verifying sources became an overly complicated task, so instead of stopping the war, the organization stopped counting the dead.

Analysts have tracked down 500 000 dead. Others say the figure is more than double that. Others say nothing, like Assad. Some say that the dead are exhibition docks.

Australian journalist Rania Abouzeid has reported from Syria for all the major newspapers. With her Arab descent, she has been able to move around relatively unnoticed, thus being able to penetrate deeper into the country than us Western reporters. And like many of us, she is now trying to highlight the Syrians who have impressed her most and weave their lives together in a book; No Turning Back.

It is a little strange to read her works; it evokes memories of other Syrians, who told with the same words – recurring remarks, recurring details – or even others we never wrote about. Others who disappeared instead. That's what remains after a war, when it comes down to it: the feeling that everything is random. Get killed or not. Get your story told, or be forgotten. The feeling that the story goes on – without you. That you are actually insignificant. You think you have friends, relatives, safe things. Occasionally everything crashes, sometimes not – it's random. But there is only one illusion, anyway: The reality of life is that you are simply alone. And it's a fact you can never get away with.

Give it to me

Since the conflict began, the world has been asking the Syrians, "How can we help you?" one of the strongest rebel groups in the Free Army) – it will prove to be a fateful question. The question will be asked by a mediator on the payroll of Saad Hariri, who thirsts for revenge; he is the son of Rafik, the former Lebanese Prime Minister who was murdered for challenging the Syrian power in his country.

What remains after a war is the feeling that everything is random.

That would prove to be a fatal question for men like Mohammad, who is 32 years old, an engineer, and wants something completely different from democracy: He wants sharia laws. He is a child of give me – the "events," which Syrians call the massacre during the Hama uprising – and are alive to talk of revolts in a country where Mukhabarat (the secret police) had, and still has, criminal immunity.

Give it to me happened in 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood, which largely consisted of the Sunni Muslim middle class, opposed a socialism that – through expropriations and nationalization – was intended to benefit the regime's comrades, not the poor. During the Hama massacre, 20 people were killed. Some say the figure is twice as high. Others say nothing – there is not one written line to be found in today's news, nor in today's history books. Instead, there is much to hear from men like Mohammad, who are fighting in the name of fallen fathers. Fallen, or humiliated for life.

But also Mohammad gets the question "How can we help you?" from jihadists scattered all over the world. People who want to take over Syria, city by city, while Syrians like Suleiman – 26 years old, from a powerful and loyalist family, have it all but feel it is not enough because everyone around him has nothing – will be imprisoned and tortured , and finally forced to flee to Europe. Like nine-year-old Ruha, who was also forced to flee, to Turkey, and later to return to Syria, to the war. Where she still is. Or where she may no longer be.

No rules

As the Syrians strive to organize, to unite, everyone from outside asks: "How can we help you?" The foreigners, also financially, support the group that can benefit them even later. And on the ground, all rules, all boundaries are broken. In Homs, the city where it all began, where Syrians fought as brothers and protected their homes and streets, conditions gradually become like in Aleppo – anti-Homs: the city where the rebels are strangers instead; they support from the countryside. They do not liberate, they conquer. And looting. “Every man with a weapon becomes an authority. Each city is an independent republic, ”writes Rania Abouzeid.

The foreigners support the group that can come in handy later.

So the Nusa Front jihadists restore a certain order, a certain discipline, a certain welfare, but they do so by withdrawing the jihadists from neighboring Iraq. They are hardliners – far more bloody and, above all, focused on the caliphate rather than Assad. They take Raqqa from the rebels. And the stadium, where the new, local city council used to gather, has become a stadium for executions. Raqqa is anti-Aleppo: a battle not for Syria but for Syria. A fight where everyone fights for their own agenda, their own goals.

No Turning Back is the story of four Syrians and three cities, and is the story of a defeat. After 500 deaths, Assad still has extensive support, especially in Europe. Assad, we are told, is the least evil. But in this book there is at least a complete story. Most books on Syria are about half of Syria, about half the rebel. For a long time, the other half has been totally inaccessible to journalists. So it is, whether or not you agree to be monitored for every step you take. It is inaccessible to Syrians too, for all refugees who are ready to return but no longer accept that they will not be allowed to criticize the government. Rania Abouzeid's book is the story of defeat, because it is the story of those who dared to speak. Who dared to try. The war in Syria did not start in 000. It was a war in Syria before that, it was called give me - the events.

In Syria there is no war or peace: it is war or silence, war or fear. And it's also impossible to get away.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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