The New Red Line in Syria: One American’s Perspective
“What if this woman were your neighbor? Would you take notice then? Can you imagine living in such an environment? You might want to try. It might be time to tune in.”
Humans are very good at creating false boundaries. We have carved up our continents into approximately 196 nations (we still squabble about some of these) and so divided we stand. We have frontiers for expanding (or seizing), margins for pushing, precincts to cast our vote, confines and limitations to overcome, fences to keep in or out, and of course the red line one must not cross, the proverbial line in the sand. This language of limitation is the formal language of nations, of diplomacy, of separation, of there is us and there is you, and you had better damn well stay on your side. These boundaries lead us to believe that we are strangers at best, different for certain, and at worst likely enemies.
Syria is a country far away to most Americans, like Iraq and Afghanistan were more than a decade ago, distant places with no relation to us. We read the headlines unemotionally – Dozens dead as Assad’s forces storm coastal village, Assad’s forces push to retake Damascus suburb. As with all wars, especially those that are civil wars – a term odd enough for its clear misnomer – we tend to turn our attention away. The carnage and disruption is none of our business. It is soldiers’ business; it is the mess of far-off governments gone awry. We are distracted. Our favorite show is on television tonight and our daughter needs help with her homework.
But did you notice the very familiar words that sound just like our own places? Village, suburb: Can you imagine a war right in your own suburban neighborhood?
So what does a modern civil war really look like? Is it counting soldier casualties, counting the battles, noting the pushing of boundaries this way one day and back the next? This is how they are reported after all, as mere counting and noting of facts, as if simply the facts of life, perfectly to be expected. The impersonal statistics become meaningless. We tune out.
But what does civil war really look like on the ground? Increasingly, those on the front line of these wars are the women and children and other civilians caught in this glowing Hades of death and annihilation. These women and children and civilians are trapped within these artificial confines, these precincts of fear and terror, of severe discomfort and agony – both physical and mental.
How often as Americans do we shuffle past these “war stories” on the news? Have you ever actually heard, however, from a woman who is not so different from yourself within this turmoil? Would this make you look twice? Tune in, perhaps pay attention? What if she were a women who wants only to provide for and protect her children, and who unlike us, cannot take her family’s safety for granted? Her security is highly precarious. What if this woman were your neighbor? Would you take notice then? Can you imagine living in such an environment? You might want to try. It might be time to tune in.
The number of Syrians who have had to seek asylum abroad has reached at least 1 million. But according to the organization Women in the World, there is another, less-discussed displacement crisis unfolding within Syria. “Syria’s internally displaced population passed the 2 million mark months ago—by some estimates, there are more than 3 million Syrians uprooted within their country, most out of reach of international aid and media attention. The consequences of this crisis have been catastrophic for all displaced persons, but particularly for women and girls.”
Among the horrific chaos that characterizes the Syrian conflict and other well-known intrastate conflicts in recent history, such as those in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape has once again emerged as a defining element of the displacement crisis. The International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency, reports that among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, rape was a primary motive for their flight. Inside Syria, increasing incidents of sexual violence suggest that the Assad regime is indeed using rape as a systemic weapon of war. As the assistant U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported recently to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the displacement crisis is “accompanied by gender-based crimes, deliberate victimization of women and children, and a frightening array of assaults on human dignity.” Attacks are often carried out in public. The goal of such inhuman attacks is to compound the humiliation and stigma endured by those who survive.
Reporter Micheal Weiss tells the horrific tale of Salma, a young girl in Baba Amr whose house was raided early in the now two-year-long conflict by the shabbiha – the pro-Assad mercenary militias. Weiss reports, “Salma told them, ‘Please, please – don’t you have sisters? Don’t you have mothers? Just leave me, please not in front of my dad.’ ” The shabbiha did not listen. Instead, they strapped Salma’s father to a chair in his own home as multiple men raped his daughter. “They made him keep his eyes open and watch.”
As a result of this and other direct violence, many families have been displaced multiple times. Few have been able to find secure shelter or adequate assistance. According to Mariam, a Syrian women now living in the Unites States and able to communicate intermittently by phone with her family remaining in Damascus, “resources have become so limited, sometimes no food or drinking water is available, basic fuel for heat and cooking is not available. Several members of my family lost their homes and they live in tents and their basic needs are not met. There is not enough help from the United Nations and the world is watching the real catastrophe in Syria.”
Limited aid and growing impoverishment have led to a desperate cycle in which women and girls who flee sexual and gender-based violence are then exposed to exploitation as they struggle to survive and find food and fuel.
And we know from an unfortunate historical string of such situations that domestic violence rates also increase in such circumstances, and many desperate families even marry off their young daughters earlier than usual to gain some meager security for them and reduce the number of mouths that must be fed within a household.
This is what war is really like; close-up and personal. It is a war in the streets, a war that involves women, children, and civilians – not just soldiers and military leaders. When will humanity cease to use the excuse of far-away boundaries holding in a people who are ‘different’ as an impediment to standing up for freedom and liberty for all of humanity? We are not as different as we imagine. It is time to tune in.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.