Without Tombstones: Voices from the civil war in Syria


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“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
— Rumi

I wake up every morning, peeling myself out of bed and washing the past off my face. I try to get ready for another day, while grieving who I was. Everything looks different in the post-war environment. The inner personal conflict is wedded to that of the Syrian War. Neither will end in peace. The aftermath of the war will not only be about the traumatised 23 million Syrians. It will not end with the day “victory” is declared. It will be over when we figure out a just way to end the violent cycles, segmentation, and refugee crisis.

I gaze into what is left of me in the mirror, it is neither the new wrinkles nor the white hairs. Rather, it is the unrecognisable restless soul that sleeps holding its knees like a fetus inside me. Drizzling some drops of perfume mixed with denial behind my ears so I may face another day. I have learned how to take my pain and turn it into hopeful future. Through my new morning routine of taking deep breaths, trying to convince myself that I am still more alive than dead, I cannot help but be haunted by the faces of hundreds of heroines that I have met during the past eight years of the Syrian War. Women with their throats exposed to the wolves in power.

I honestly owe it to war. If it was not for Assad’s war, I would have never had the honor of meeting all of the strong women from all over the country. Persistently and tirelessly, they demand rights and justice in their own communities, relying on us, human rights defenders, to amplify their voices and their quest for justice. I vividly recall one of them telling me once: “Men! They make the mess at the house, we clean it. Then they make mess in the country, we also clean it.” A few years ago, I shared my story in a meeting held at NYT offices. and I was asked to write what I went through. It took me two years to realise what made me who I am today. They were the lessons I have learned from the Syrian women who I met, worked with during the conflict and wanted to share with the world some of their stories.   


Hiba


“In my closet, an eight years old beautiful blue dress is still waiting. I have bought it for my brother’s wedding eight years ago,” said Hiba. It is silky with cut out flowers around the neck and sleeves. He lost his life the week before his wedding to an air strike, so did my cousins and then some of our neighbors.

“We have lost more than forty family members in the horror of this war. I have been wearing black for eight years Safaa!,” Hiba said. “Mourning our loved ones. I never thought of throwing my dress away. It still fits you know! I am waiting for the day that I can wear it.”

That was what Hiba had told me during one of our long chats on WhatsApp. I have never met her in my life since I cannot enter Syria. Hiba also has no wings to fly away. The freedom of movement, or the luxury of travelling between villages in a besieged area, is too risky and sometimes impossible.

Hiba had told me many times that she does not want to leave brother’s blood behind her. She felt that she would be betraying him if she did. Today, we all need to understand war and peace from a blue dress’s perspective.


Hala


Hala was journalist from Damascus. She was detained for three months in Assad’s dungeons and kept in a rotten dark cell, unable to recognize day from night. Of course, she had been detained without facing charges or being convicted. Worrying about her family and three kids exhausted her. When I met Hala for the first time, she had escaped her personal anguish and the bigger jail of “Syria”

On the ground which smelt of death, she used to lay on her back, gazing at the ceiling in the darkness in the cell. She would convince herself that she was watching a movie. A black and white Egyptian film featuring the Egyptian actress Souad Housny singing and dancing and being in love. One day, her mind managed to display a whole movie she memorised in her childhood.

Three years later, her family successfully bribed her way out of the detention center sparing her death under torture. She made it to Europe and kept on watching the same movie weekly as a reminder of her survival.


Waad


While volunteering with children refugees, I tried to entertain them and teach them how to care for themselves. I started drawing on their faces what they wanted to be when they grow up. It was then when I met Waad, who was a very energetic young girl.

She told me that when she turns thirty, she would like to be a “doctor clown” to cheer children with cancer. She would put on funny makeup, just like her aunt used to do, to cheer her up whenever terrified after airstrikes on their village. After fleeing to Lebanon with her parents, they learned that her aunt passed away after one of the airstrikes.

I started drawing on her dreaming face, looking into her eyes, powerful and piercing, ones that only wanted to honor her aunt’s memory. The coloring pen did not leave marks on her half-burned face though. The skin on that part was very silky. All my attempts to color were to no avail. Not wanting to say anything that might hurt her feelings, I told her that I have an idea. “I will draw only on the right half of her face,” I said. This way she could help me entertain her friends by doing a play between two characters, one as a doctor and another as a clown. Luckily enough, she loved the idea.

By the time we were done, she went to play Ms. Doctor/Clown and left me with the ruins of my burnt heart and soul. Perhaps, the only hopeful part of this awful war is children. They still have dreams, while ours have been demolished under the unrecognisable towns and cities we called once home.


Zahraa


Just like Waad, Zahraa occupies my thoughts every day. The passionate banker could not help herself but become involved in nonviolent demonstrations. She was captured, detained for two weeks, and then released. Her brothers killed her, assuming that she had been raped in prison. ‘It was an honor crime; they said. Still, in an Awe, Zahra left us all honored in a shameful society, where there was no grave found for her. Every time I see wildflowers, I know that her soul had passed the wet-grass barefooted.


Um Saoud


Older than Zahraa, Um Saoud was in her early fifties when we met. Um Saoud is a Palestinian Syrian and a mother of a twin boy and a girl. Having been married for twenty years without being able to have children, the miracle happened against all odds.

At the beginning of the war in Syria, the mother of two (aged two and three years old) faced all kinds of challenges alone. She came to me once and said: “I wish I never had them, my husband is gone, I cannot afford anything, I wish I can take them away from here. Sometimes when they cry at night, hungry and scared, I pray for us all to die at the same time. Maybe then God will take care of us so I do not have to feel this way again.”

After she was given the opportunity to work, she is thinking that her daughter, Khadeja, should be a lawyer and her son a mechanic. Her thinking was the boy would help with the bills while Khadeja would attend law school. “I want her to be stronger than me, Safaa,” she told me. “I want her to be strong like you.”


SAFAA


Strong? I pondered. I thought of that morning when they had stopped the bus on its way from Damascus to Homs. I had a bag full of medical supplies with me. They called my name. I felt the blood in my veins turning into jelly. I had known that I was in danger the minute they opened my luggage. I panicked, I was terrified. I struggled to remember the names of my friends who had died in detention. The beating up started the minute I entered their car, and it did not end till today. I still feel it when it’s very silent. I’m always sleepless, anxious and alert. The sound of any door slamming can shake me to my core.

The fear lasts for hours. I have learned to face my fears in detention by singing upbeat songs that could help to lift my spirits. I try to look and act normal in an everlasting nightmare that started in February, 2012. Blindfolded, I was led in a very long corridor. It felt like I was dragged forever.

Then there I was, in an acid-smelled room. It was so hard to take a deep breath, the smell made me throw up. I was repeatedly tortured, with old school games of bad cop/good cop. The burn of cigarettes’ buds still feels fresh. My swollen face helped lifting my blindfold a bit, which enabled me to see. It took what felt like a millennium in hell to understand what I was looking at. The shiny button of that officer's shirt became my lifebuoy. It helped to bring me back from the darkness to life and gain my consciousness.

They made me sign an empty piece of paper. They told me that my charges as a U.S spy would be ready if I continue smuggling aid and medicine to those in need. They said that they would not even spare my girls. They might get kidnapped and disappear, I was told. The only closure I had was sending my daughters away from Syria. I called their father. He came to pick them up and took them to safety. Upon my release, I was then banned from traveling, and it took me months to lift the ban.

Ever since I started collecting buttons I find on the streets. It is amazing how small random things become as big as Noah’s Ark. A few months later I was able to travel again, and I left the country. Crossing the Syrian borders into Lebanon, however, proved to be so painful. I took off my jacket in the car, and I took off my soul to hang it by the borders like a flapping torn flag. I have lost all that means the world to me.

Since then, I could never look at girls the same ages as my daughters. I was unable to feel love towards my own home country. I feel angry and betrayed. It was not the humiliation, torture, or harassment. Rather, it was the injustice, deprivation, inequity, and the everlasting sense of homelessness. It was also the unrecognisable me. The loss was greater than any language. My feelings cannot be put into words and I can no longer express the endless deep pain.

Here I am! I sit listening every day to what have become old news and to the people analysing why a complex war like Syria is occurring. In other words, the countless conflicts within one conflict; the interventions that started as aid and humanitarian work and ended up as corruption cases; the nonviolent movement that lost its glory to the severely violent one; the honest desire of change into convenient selfish individual interest. Then come, the shouts for “democracy” and “freedom” that were led by thousands of hidden agendas. The breathless call for no-fly zone that was miscarried with the non-support from the international community.

Starting with President Obama, or who the Syrians used to count on, look up to, and called President Obama “Abu Husain”, which read as a savior or a “Messiah”, his hesitation and uncertainty caused major confusion and increased the divide between Syrians. It brought disappointment to those who had hope and faith in him. 

Now left with open wounds and unbridgeable chasms, Syria is the biggest mass graveyard in the 21st century. However, its graveyard is of another kind. It is without tombstones to our fellow citizens and our vanquished dreams. This war is personal to me, to Hala, Hiba, Waad, Um Saoud, Zahra, and every other women with a deceased hope. This conflict is a woman’s battle. The economy of war that impacts their daily life is a woman’s battle. The lack of education, siege, cultural change, and humans’ rights are a woman’s battle. National security, with the increasing rate of radicalism and extremism that endangers their lives and the lives of their loved ones, is a woman’s issue. Injustice to women, their destroyed properties, their forced displacement, their detained or missing family members is a woman’s issue.

International Women’s Day, this day, and every day is for those who seek equality and justice. It is for those who take up the labor of love. It is for the names and stories, the losses and the hope. It is for all the names referred to as numbers. It is for the dead, who have become headlines and urgent news, indifferent and heartless. I have survived to tell what it feels like being in purgatory. A purgatory with an ongoing echo, my heart’s pounding in my ears through breathless days of fear, trying to live a normal life in the United States.

Although this war has shattered my inner peace, underneath it all remains a smile. A hope for love to win, and peace to take over to help us healing the scars we still bear. The hope today lies in our ability to build bridges between all the ones that claim they love their country dearly and bring those voices together to stop the cycle of violence. This can be achieved by recognising their hopes and pains and uniting them under the wing of justice to assure sustainable peace and teaching them to accept one another. This is how we can invest in love rather than hate. 


Safaa Shahin - Syrian American Activist


Founder and director of Tiama initiative; a women empowerment initiative that provides support for women affected by the war in central Syria, Safaa has been implementing income-generating activities since 2012, through start-up training and mitigating the war effect by conducting training on conflict resolution, as well as reduction of oppression by legal and financial literacy and providing grants for women’s education and well-being.