WAR REPORTER: Rania Abouzeid gained unprecedented access to the heart of the Syrian conflict by clandestinely entering Syria over a number of years. No Turning Back tells the Syrians stories.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Italian journalist and writer. She contributes regularly to Modern Times Review.
Published date: October 1, 2018

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria

Rania Abouzeid

Norton & Co. 2018

In war the dead are just numbers. In Syria they are not even that. Airstrikes are too relentless, too dangerous, the UN explained in 2013. Verifying sources is too complex a task and so rather than stopping the war it stopped counting the dead.

Analysts tracked 500,000 casualties. Others say there were more than double. Others say nothing, like Assad. They say the dead are mannequins.

«That’s what remains of war, in the end and forever: this feeling that it’s all random.»

Getting lost in the conflict

Australian journalist Rania Abouzeid has been reporting from Syria for all major newspapers. Being of Arab descent, she has blended in more and been able to go deeper than the rest of us. And like many of us, she has now tried to save from oblivion the Syrians she was impressed by the most, weaving their lives together into a book.

It’s quite strange to read each other’s works. To remember other Syrians who told us the same words – recurrent remarks, recurrent details – or even others we never wrote of. Others who vanished instead. That’s what remains of war, in the end and forever: this feeling that it’s all random. Getting killed or not. Getting your story told or being forgotten. This feeling that history keeps going either way, without you.

That you are actually insignificant.

You think you have friends, relatives. Certainties. Sometimes it all crumbles, sometimes it doesn’t – it’s random. But it’s just an illusion anyway. The reality of life is that you are simply alone. And actually that is what there’s no turning back from. Ever.

How can we help you?

‘No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria’ By Rania Abouzeid

Since the beginning of the conflict the world asks Syrians, «How can we help you?» For young men like Abu Azzam – 28 years old, a student of literature of Homs who has never fired a gun before but will turn into a commander of the Farouq Battalions (one of the strongest of the rebel groups of the Free Army) – it will prove to be a fatal question. The question will be asked by a middleman on the payroll of Saad Hariri who is thirsty for revenge, being the son of Rafik, the former prime minister of Lebanon who was murdered for challenging the Syrian rule over his country.

It will prove to be a fatal question also for young men like Mohammad, who is 32 years old, an engineer, and wants something quite different from democracy: he wants Sharia law. He is a child of the «adhass» – «the events» as Syrians refer to the crackdown on the Hama uprising – terrified of even speaking about an uprising in a country where the mukhabarat (the secret police) had, and still have, legal immunity.

«Every man with a gun is becoming an authority. Every city an independent republic» – Rania Abouzeid

The adhass happened in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood, who were basically the Sunni middle class, opposed a socialism that – through expropriation and nationalisation – was actually meant to benefit, not the poor, but the regime’s cronies. From the massacre in Hama, there were 20,000 dead. Others say there were more than double. Others say nothing – there isn’t a line in the news of the time, nor today in history books. There is a lot to be heard, instead, from those like Mohammad, who fight in the name of slain fathers. Slain, or humiliated for the rest of their life.

But Mohammad, too, will be asked, «How can we help you?» by jihadists from all over the world. People who will take over Syria town by town, while Syrians like Suleiman – 26 years old, a scion of a powerful loyalist family who has everything but feels it’s not enough because all others around him have nothing – will be jailed and tortured and finally forced to flee to Europe. Like Ruha, too, 9 years old, forced to flee to Turkey and later on, to return to Syria. To war, where she still is now.

Or perhaps where she is no more.

All rules are abandoned

While Syrians strive to get organised, to get united, everybody from outside asks, «How can we help you?» Everybody backs and bankrolls the group that might come in handy later. And on the ground, all rules get broken, all limits. In Homs, the city where it all began, where Syrians have been fighting like brothers, protecting their homes, their streets, it gradually becomes like Aleppo – the anti-Homs: the city where rebels, instead, are strangers; the outcasts of rural areas. They don’t liberate, they conquer. And plunder. «Every man with a gun is becoming an authority. Every city an independent republic», writes Rania Abouzeid.

Then the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra restore some order, some discipline, some welfare, but they do it by drawing in the jihadists of neighbouring Iraq who are hardliners – much more bloody and, above all, focused on the caliphate rather than Assad. They seize Raqqa from the rebels. And the stadium where the new local council used to convene is turned into the stadium of executions. Raqqa is the anti-Aleppo: a battle not for Syria, but simply in Syria.

A battle 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 500,000 dead, Assad still enjoys widespread support, especially in Europe. Assad, we are told, is the lesser evil.

But in this book, at least, there is a whole story. Most books on Syria are actually books on half of Syria, on the rebel half, because for a long time the other half has been completely off-limits to journalists. It still is if you don’t accept being monitored step by step. It is off-limits to Syrians too, to all refugees who are ready to return but will not accept not being allowed to criticise the government anymore. Rania Abouzeid’s book is the story of a defeat only because it is the story of those who dared to speak out. Who dared to try. In Syria the war didn’t start in 2011. There was a war in Syria before that time, only it was called the adhass – the events.

In Syria it’s not war or peace. It’s war or silence. War or fear.

And that is also what there is no turning back from.

Modern Times Review