«[And your new movie] will be judgemental? »
«No. Not really.»
«And so what’s your aim?»
«I was just thinking that… Now that the winner won…»
«As long as you ask: Why?, you are criticizing.»
«And is that a problem?»
«Criticize is not rational.»
«What do you mean?»
«We don’t have the right to criticize.»
This is the voice of the filmmaker and main character on the phone with his father. It could also be the voice of any Syrian on the phone with anyone. He says, «the winner» for even just saying «Assad» may get you in trouble. That is what peace looks like in Syria.
Sometimes while walking, you mistake unknown passers by for friends killed years ago
After more than 500,000 dead, 6 million refugees, 7 million IDPs, reconstruction costs estimated up to $300 billion, you still cannot even write, «The Assad regime». In Rome, London, New York, and other western media centres, editors replace it with: «The Assad government». For the world, he is the legitimate president of Syria, but for sure not for Syrians. They are either dead, away, or keeping silent.
First, they denied the dead
For those of us who have experienced the war, and still do today, sometimes while walking, you mistake unknown passers by for friends killed years ago. Speaking of Syria is not easy. It never has been, honestly. Because the left wing – that left wing that was supposed to support the Arab Spring, the Syrian revolution, and beyond – sided instead, more or less openly, with Assad; an enemy of Israel and the United States, and so a friend. For years, it totally overlooked the war, until Russia stepped in with relentless airstrikes and, on the ground, the infantry of propaganda. Whoever stood against Assad was accused of being al-Qaeda. Even the White Helmets, the rescue teams who recovered wounded from the rubble with bare hands, under the light of lighters. Even 6-year-old Bana al-Abed, who tweeted from Aleppo with her mother, was accused of actually being in Turkey. For any photo, any corpse, we were told: It’s a doll. It’s all staged. First, they denied the dead, then, their very existence.
While we were getting bombed, and bombed, and bombed by Assad and the jihadists, for the world, Syria was nothing else. Yet, it has countless Yaser Kassabs – engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, filmmakers – ordinary Syrians. Syrians like us. Who, for years, have been saying to each other: now we have really seen it all. Then, when mortar fire was replaced by missiles, missiles by jets, jets by gas, gas by siege, by death from hunger: No. We had seen nothing. Every time. For years, there was no end. And there still is not.
The present sinks into memory
Today Yaser Kassab, 31, a former student of Economics at the University of Aleppo, lives in Sweden. He lives «on the edge of life», to put it as the title of his first film, about his escape from Syria to Lebanon, and then to Turkey – all while on the phone with his family left behind in Syria, as still, years later, he remains. In this short film, the only difference is that he is not in Turkey anymore, but in Stockholm. Still, the Skype connection is always the same – slow and shaky. On and off. It makes you feel lonely, lonely and pointless, and lost outside everything. Most of all, lost outside time, as if you were stuck. Stuck waiting for you-don’t-know-what behind the windows of grey suburban Sweden. Its brick homes in the dull autumn, with no light and no leaves, turns into Syria. The present sinks into memory. Yet, he can’t go back. Like all young men, he would be enlisted for two years of military service. Before going through a border, he would be required to go through a reconciliation commission – only those who commit not to oppose the government anymore, in any way, are allowed to return.
Only those who commit not to oppose the government anymore, in any way, are allowed to return.
Even this might not be enough. Several senior commanders have pointed out that, regardless of what the government decides, the army will not forget, nor forgive. Assad also does not fear anything or anyone and has already started the reconstruction with all the world queuing for contracts, for business opportunities. And so, while in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, more than 2 million Syrians are still under barrel bombs. Elsewhere, time has come to move away the dead who are buried everywhere. This is what Yaser Kassab talks about with his father who reminds him of World War II, saying: It was nothing, by comparison. There were sirens, he says. You could run into basements; once airstrikes were over, you could get out, but here, no. Here, airstrikes were relentless, he says. Ruthless. We weren’t just collateral damage; we were the true and primary targets.
In Syria, not even dead do you get peace
With their brutality and beheadings, jihadists have drawn all attention but of the 350,000 victims of the war Assad’s forces have killed 92%. (See http://whoiskillingciviliansinsyria.org) Now, he is even displacing the dead. Relatives have to dig them out and take them away. Quite often, bones get lost, or mixed up.
In Syria, not even once dead do you get peace. You may have thought you had seen all. Instead, you had yet seen nothing.