By Erika Solomon
Today I sat on the steps of the grand mosque in downtown Beirut and tightly embraced my friend, Oula, before we said goodbye. Her brief trip from Syria marked our first visit with one another in two years, since “the events,” as she calls them, had begun to unfold. The 24 hours we spent together flew by too quickly, but it was all she could spare before returning home.
We didn’t want to let each other go. But we finally stood up without saying a word. We looked out at the sea and watched the ships slowly sailing into the port below. We reminisced about the time last time we stood there, when we took pictures with one of our friends, now in exile in Turkey.
During that last visit, we had posed in front of the bullet-pocked statue commemorating Lebanon’s war martyrs and we had debated the politics of the brutal civil war this country is still healing from. How academic those arguments seem, in comparison to our discussions now.
In those pictures, the three of us in big sunglasses and small hats, I remember feeling that we were carefree, joyfully exploring Beirut. We were glad to have time out of Damascus.
Syria is a place close to my heart, especially Damascus. Some of my very best friends in life I found there in the year I spent, from 2008-2009,living and studying Arabic in Syria’s capital. Before the violent uprising, circumstances seemed good – at least on the surface.
Inevitably, though, you would feel this weight that settles inside your chest, an ever-present pang of suspicion. You wonder who is watching, who is following. What can you say, who can you trust? In some ways, that is the evil of a police state, more than the threat of brutality: The way it subtly changes how you think, so that you barely notice it until you go some place where that weight seems like a silly, unnecessary burden.
As Arabic students, my friends and I used to laugh at each other when we went back home for visits and caught ourselves leaning in to whisper about our political opinions, forgetting that was no longer necessary.
This is something that we, as foreigners, learned in a matter of months. How does it affect people who lived with it for most of their lives?
The thing I’ve been most curious about, covering Syria’s revolt as a journalist, is how thousands of people who seemed so silent, so passive that I barely noticed any dissent or sectarianism could be transformed into some of the most violent participants of the “Arab Spring.”
Surely, much of what I overlooked was a function of my own ignorance. But also I believe it was often something they were quietly taught with hardly a word said. You know someone’s sect by asking what town they are from—if that doesn’t work, then what neighborhood, what street? This, too, is something I learned subtly without even realizing it. I now have to force myself not to ask such questions when I meet a Syrian, though it’s likely the first thing on both of our minds.
Time after time, the children of parents who were longtime opponents of the Assad regime tell me that somehow they just always knew that nothing said inside the walls of their home could be repeated outside. No one had to tell them that. They made up excuses for not joining the Baath Party youth groups at school, despite pressure from teachers.
My friend, Roshak, would tell her teacher she was planning to join and would keep “forgetting.” Her father never told her outright that he was once an anti-Assad activist. She knew from a young age, though, that he had been in jail. And she knew what that meant, the same way she knew never to say anything about it to her friends.
Two months ago, Roshak came to see me here in Beirut, too. She has a round, cheerful face, bright eyes and curly hair. Normally, just seeing her makes me smile. This time there were shadows under her eyes, evidence of the strain from living for a month with rebels near Damascus, under daily air strikes and sniper fire. To experience such danger and helplessness for a few days at a time while on assignment I’ve found harrowing enough. I have no idea how Roshak endured it for weeks on end.
For me, the most terrifying words ever uttered about the Syrian conflict came from her mouth: “After days of thinking every minute I would die, I wanted them to kill Assad’s fighters. And I wanted the rebels to torture them. To watch them suffer. I felt they deserved it, and the fact that I still feel that way – so strongly- it keeps me up at night.”
One of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, Roshak realizes that such impulses are wrong. She just can’t stop feeling them.
Oula lives just a few districts away from where Roshak was then, but her life is completely different. She sits inside her apartment, counting the falling mortars with her father, who is slowly withering away from a cancer they are struggling to find the medicine to treat.
That is the silent killer for many in Syria now. There are plenty of dressings and painkillers coming in to treat bullet and shrapnel wounds. But those succumbing to more chronic medical conditions, because there is no longer a monthly supply of diabetes or cancer medication, watch their deaths approach in slow motion, unable to stir the world’s sympathies.
Oula appears at times determined to shrug off the gravity of her own circumstances. She once inadvertently caused a friend who was transporting some of her bags to be detained at an army checkpoint. The soldiers needed to inspect the locked bags, and Oula’s friend spent an hour on the phone with her, trying to help her remember the code for the lock. Oula dismissively kept asking why the bags needed to be inspected.
She’s still never personally witnessed blood, or body parts, or anything other than the gory images that flash up on state television, though she’s only a few miles away from them.
“I don’t think I could survive the sight of actually seeing it,” she says. I try to tell her she needs to contemplate how she will react, what she will do, should the conflict fully invade her existence. Because the time when she will see such things, I fear, is inevitably creeping closer.
She is no different, no worse off than a lot of other Syrians. Unlike many, in fact, she has a potential way out, though it comes with an agonizing, impossible choice. That is, she must decide whether to stay in a war zone, take care of her father and pray that they can survive. Or, she can use a relative’s help to get herself a visa to America, and leave her father to die alone.
When I left Syria four years ago, in 2009, Oula walked me to the taxi that would drive me over the border. It was stuffed with people’s suitcases, chocolates and presents. But she crammed inside to give me one last hug. And we both cried, as if it was such a tragedy, to not know when we would have our next visit.
Today, I helped Oula pack some fresh salmon into a cooler filled with ice—a treat she hoped might bring her father a little joy, assuming it kept during the five, maybe 10 hours it would take her to cross the border from Lebanon and all the checkpoints to get back home.
We held each other, dry-eyed. This time, we knew, the question was not when, but if we might see each other again. We have to believe that’s not the reality. So we made plans for her next visit, after Ramadan. The shopping we would do, the beaches we wanted to swim at.
Then I watched her, carrying her cooler of fish and walking slowly over to the taxi, as images of my 2009 departure from Syria flooded my mind.
I didn’t know back then that it would be our last shared moment in Damascus, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet saying goodbye then seemed so hard.
Now, I just hope that it’s not the last time we see each other ever.
Erika Solomon is a Reuters reporter based in Beirut, and a contributor to BendingBorders.org, a radio production house.