Eyewitness Report: When War Comes…

By Janine Di Giovanni

What does it feel like when a war begins? When does life as you know it implode? How do you know when it is time to pack up your home and your family and leave your country? Or if you decide not to, why?

For ordinary people, war starts with a jolt: one day you are busy with dentist appointments or arranging ballet lessons for your daughter, and then the curtain drops. One moment the daily routine grinds on; A.T.M.’s work and cellphones function. Then, suddenly, everything stops.

Barricades go up. Soldiers are recruited and neighbors work to form their own defense. Ministers are assassinated and the country falls into chaos. Fathers disappear. The banks close and money and culture and life as people knew it vanishes. In Damascus, this moment has come.

Tangible Dread

I spent nearly two weeks in Syria earlier this month; I was privileged — and lucky — to get a visa because there is a near-total media blackout. The fear that rises with civil war was palpable. Car bombs exploded in the streets; there was a shootout in a television station. The week after I was in Damascus, the Red Cross declared the 17-month uprising a civil war, which means that international human rights law applies throughout the country. More essentially it means that Syrians can’t any longer deny, as some did, that their country is at war and that the life they’ve lived is rapidly coming to an end.

During my time in Syria, daily life unfolded as it does everywhere in the world. I attended operas at one of the best opera houses in the Middle East, Dionysian pool parties on Thursday afternoons, weddings, in which couples married in elaborate Sunni and Shia ceremonies, and, watched makeup artists do their magic on actresses’ faces for a magazine photo shoot: all of these activities are part of a life that somehow continued as war crept up Syria’s doorstep but is about to fade away, except as memory.

Not far beneath the surface of the festivities, there was a current of tension, a tangible dread that the 17-month conflict would soon spill onto the streets of Damascus.

People had begun to leave Damascus when I arrived. There were going-away parties, and embassies were shutting down. The neighborhoods of Barzah and al-Midan, where I walked the streets two weeks ago after Friday Prayer, are now no-go areas, opposition strongholds. Then it was tense to talk in the street after Friday Prayer, or to try to talk to rebel supporters. Now it will be bloodier. And I wonder how many of the people I saw two weeks ago are now fleeing Syria, crossing over the border to Lebanon.

I know about the velocity of war. In all of the wars I have covered — including in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Kosovo — the moments in which everything changes from normal to extremely abnormal share a similar quality. One evening in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2002, for example, I went to bed after dinner at a lavish French restaurant. When I woke up, there was no telephone service and no radio broadcast in the capital; “rebels” occupied the television station and flares shot through the sky. In my garden I could smell both the scent of mango trees and the smell of burning homes. My neighborhood was on fire. The 24-hour gap between peace and wartime gave me enough time to gather my passport, computer and favorite photos and flee to a hotel in the center of the city. I never returned to my beloved house with the mango trees.

Cease Fire: Buying Time to Kill Civilians

In early April of 1992, a friend in Sarajevo was walking, in a miniskirt and heels, to her job in a bank when she saw a tank rolling down the street. Shots were fired. My friend crouched, trembling, behind a garbage can, her life forever altered. In a few weeks, she was sending her baby to safety on a bus in the arms of a stranger to another country. She would not see him for years.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, the chief United Nations monitor in Damascus, told me there is no template for war. But reading dispatches from the village of Tremseh and seeing the refugees fleeing Homs with mattresses strapped to their car rooftops, the tiny faces of children pressed against the window, it is hard not to remember the mistakes of the past two decades.

As Russia continues to veto Security Council efforts to sanction and reproach President Bashar al-Assad, friends in Syria e-mail and tweet about assassinations, brutal killings, doctors torturing victims. It is hard not see another Bosnia looming. Syrians who called themselves Syrians a few months ago now say they are Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze.

Diplomacy is failing. Kofi Annan, who has a godlike demeanor, stood on the sidelines and watched as genocide unfolded in Bosnia and Rwanda while he was in charge of peacekeeping operation. Now he is pleading with the Assad regime to agree to a cease-fire. In every war I have covered, cease-fire is a synonym for buying time to kill more civilians.

Thirteen years ago, Mr. Annan issued a report to the General Assembly on the failure of the international community to prevent the massacre of Bosnians at Srebrenica. He called it “a horror without parallel in the history of Europe since the Second World War.”

Yet once again the member states lack the will or impetus to stop the slaughter of women, children and innocents. As they bicker and squabble over reports and sit in hotel rooms unable to be the eyes and ears on the ground and report what is happening, more people die.

This is what the beginning of civil war looks like.

Terrible Feeling

In the time I spent in Syria earlier this month, I talked to as many people from as many denominations and backgrounds as possible. I wanted to see how Assad supporters told the story of what was happening to their country. And I wanted testimonies from those who suffered under the regime.

On the two-hour drive from Damascus to Homs, I went through eight government checkpoints. Inside, the half of the city that was not leveled by tanks and fighting was semi-functioning: the shrubbery in the center of the road had been left to grow wildly, but a bus passed through to collect a few people lingering. It was a strange sign of normalcy.

At a crowded refugee center, I met a woman named Sopia who last saw her 23-year-old son, Muhammad, in a Homs hospital bed in December. She told me that shrapnel hit him during a mortar attack and a piece had lodged in his brain.

Sopia said she arrived at his bed one morning and found it empty. Doctors explained to her that they had moved him to a military hospital. Sopia said she had a “terrible feeling” as she began to search desperately for her son.

She found Muhammad’s body — 10 days later — in the military hospital. It bore clear signs of torture: there were two bullets lodged in his head, electrocution marks on the soles of his feet and around his ankles and cigarette burns on his back.

For Sopia, the morning she saw her son’s body was the moment she realized she was in a country at war. She told me her son was a simple man, a construction worker, and had no links to the rebels. But Sopia and her family lived in Baba Amr — an area of Homs that had been an opposition stronghold — and men of a certain age are assumed to be fighters or supporters of the Free Syrian Army.

I asked Sopia over and over whether her son was a fighter. No, she said, he wasn’t. Sopia’s grief was not unlike that of the mothers of government fighters, about the same age as Muhammad, who had been killed in Damascus by improvised explosive devices or flying shrapnel. To them and to Sopia, politics seems to matter less than raw pain, inconsolable loss. Armed soldiers at roadblocks throughout the country check passing cars for guns and soldiers. Suspicious passengers are detained for questioning. On my way to Homs, polite but menacing pro-Assad gunmen detained me, my translator and her mother at one checkpoint for several hours. (We were released only after the translator’s mother, an elderly Syrian woman, begged them to release us so she could take needed heart medication.)

Sniper at the End of the Street

In Homs, I met a little boy who sat on a parquet floor playing Go Fish. For him, the war started when Syria’s Arab Spring began in March of 2011. Then, his parents forbade him to leave the house. Now there is a sniper at the end of his street, and in the evening mortar rounds thunder in the dark, and get louder as night wears on.

The little boy lives near the ghostly ruins of Baba Amr where the air outside his balcony is still rich with the scent of jasmine, olive trees and orange blossoms. If he went inside and closed his eyes, it would be possible for him to believe no war was going on outside.

The boy’s family does not support Mr. Assad; in fact, the boy’s grandmother vehemently loathes him. But they are not leaving. Why? The boy’s mother told me they are staying because this is their home. Life here is already like life in a prison, a sense that will only worsen. The boy has one DVD, a pirated version of “Home Alone” that he watches over and over when the electricity is on. He misses his friends, most of whom have fled.

Back in Damascus, I sat on another jasmine-scented roof terrace chatting with an elegant Syrian architect. Her two children played inside as we sipped tea on the terrace and I wondered how much longer she would remain in the country.

I went to a Children’s Orchestra of Syria rehearsal and heard a scratchy version of Evening Prayer from the opera “Hansel and Gretel.” Watching the children and their young, earnest faces as they played their oboes and flutes, I wondered how many would die, how many would flee, how many would stay and fight in the days ahead.

I visited a military hospital in Barzah where I watched the mangled, broken bodies of 50 government soldiers roll off bloody stretchers and into coffins in preparation for a mass funeral.

Hospital workers — outfitted with masks that probably offered little protection against the stench of death — covered each coffin with a Syrian flag; a band played the death march. The hospital director told me that 15 government soldiers die each day. But there is no way to check those figures, or to tabulate the number of civilian deaths. The United Nations says 10,000 have been killed, but humanitarian activists say the total is closer to 17,000.

Truth Dies First

In war, it’s said, truth dies first. As war proceeds in Syria, people search for truth. In Homs, Sopia looks for an answer to the question of why her wounded son was tortured so brutally.

In Damascus a young activist tells me over a tiny cup of coffee that she is not afraid to go to jail again for protesting peacefully. She uses a false name and moves often. She can’t communicate openly on her cellphone or by Skype. “I believe in what I am doing,” she said. “I am not afraid.” She wants to live in a country that is truthful and free from dictatorial rule.

In a government office near the Mezze Highway, a Christian official with a Muslim name says he grew up in a country that, like Bosnia, was a melting pot for ethnic groups, for refugees from Armenia, for Christians, Shias, Sunnis and Greek Orthodox. He says the uprising will change all of this. “Everyone who believed in the Syrian model is betrayed,” he said.

In the old town of Damascus, a famous artist sat in his studio — a room in the former home of a Jewish family who used it to keep their sacred Torah — and said the war was edging closer.

Two years ago, before the Arab Spring, he expressed his vision of the future of the Middle East in a sculptural exhibition called “Guillotine,” in downtown Damascus. Now if he paints a picture, he says, “A lot of people are in pieces.”   Φ

Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning author and journalist who has been covering global conflict since the 1980’s, and is considered one of Europe’s most respected journalists. Her most recent book is Ghosts by Daylight.

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