Mohammed Aly Sergie is a Syrian-American journalist. He launched the Saudi Arabia bureau for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal in 2008, and reported extensively from rebel-controlled Syria for Syria Deeply in 2012-2013.
As Syria’s war enters its fourth year, much will be written about US policy options, the stalled peace talks in Geneva, and the humanitarian crisis. Activists are gathering to commemorate the dead and call for an end to the bloodshed, while Bashar al-Assad continues to wage war on the majority of the population as he readies a dubious “re-election” campaign.
March 15th marks the beginning three years ago of an uprising that has fractured an otherwise peaceful society and brought unimaginable suffering to Syrians. My hometown, Aleppo — once known for its ancient souks, towering citadel, and multicultural cuisine inspired by its history as a trading post — is now a wasteland. Dozens of other cities and towns, from Daraa in the south to Deir Azzor in the east, have suffered similar fates. The refugee crisis is unimaginably grave: some 2.5 million Syrians have fled the country, and several million more have been displaced.
More than a hundred people are killed each day, and US intelligence officials expect the conflict to continue at this pace for at least another year before a settlement is reached. At that point, if Syria remains unified, it will take as much as a decade to revive the economy and achieve stability. With over a million homes destroyed, and cultural heritage sites facing irreversible damage, the cost of demolition and the removal of rubble alone could exceed a billion dollars.
On the occasion of the war’s third anniversary, I have revisited my reporting and personal experiences in Syria to share some stories that illustrate the tragedy, using Aleppo as a focal point.
The Fear Campaign
Before it occurred to Syrians to arm themselves against Assad’s brutal security forces, his regime began spreading rumors of “armed terrorist groups” to discourage middle class Syrians and minorities from joining the country’s growing protest movement. In April 2011, just weeks after protests first erupted in Daraa, members of the mukhabarat, Syria’s feared secret police, told wealthy young men in my neighborhood in Aleppo that poor men from surrounding areas planned to use protests as a cover to break into homes and rape women. They conveyed a similar message to Christians in the city, emphasizing that the protesters were Islamic.
Though the dirty work of actually crushing the protests fell to security forces, violent criminals released from prison, and local gangs, men in my neighborhood and elsewhere welcomed the regime’s offer of guns.
Most of my friends didn’t participate in the crackdown, but one childhood friend, a Sunni Muslim, was deeply loyal to the Assad regime. He had dropped out of school and smuggled goods in and out of Iraq during Saddam’s rule, and by 2011 was earning income through Assad’s patronage network. He joined a government-sponsored militia known as the popular committees (often described as shabiha), to confront what he regarded as foreign conspirators bent on toppling the world’s greatest leader. He drank the Kool-Aid.
That summer, his first assignment was to stand outside a mosque in Seif al-Dawla where peaceful anti-government demonstrations were held. Hundreds of protesters were beaten and detained there by shabiha and police. The imam of the mosque aided security forces in the crackdown, and a year later, when rebels took over the neighborhood, he was killed. My friend still lives in Aleppo and remains loyal to Assad, but he left the militia as the violence escalated.
Cemeteries have expanded across Syria,and gravediggers prepare plots by the dozen. I took this photo in Hreitan, Aleppo, on April 3, 2013.
An Extortion Racket
Months of crackdowns and killings precipitated armed conflict, as rebel groups organized to fight Assad. The small groups of army defectors and civilian volunteers weren’t a match for Syria’s military, but they provided a pretext for Assad to escalate his repression. Armed villagers terrified many residents of Aleppo, especially its sizable Christian population. The growing prominence of rebel groups also helped corrupt officials extort wealthy residents.
A prominent Christian merchant received phone calls in the winter of 2011 from a man who claimed he was a commander with the Free Syrian Army, demanding $100,000 to protect a factory. The businessman had paid his fair share of bribes to the state over the years, and consulted with a trusted police sergeant about the man. To his surprise, he was identified as a mukhabarat agent. The sergeant advised the businessman to pay, which he did. The extortion went on for months, until the agent was apparently killed in combat.
Looting Rebel Brigades
When rebels entered Aleppo in July 2012, splitting the city into government and opposition enclaves, most of my friends and relatives fled. A stalemate set in, and many of the government’s tales of the criminal nature of the uprising came true. Homes, shops, and factories were looted. The Christian businessman who was swindled by the mukhabarat paid ransoms to rebels to free relatives and lost millions in stolen inventory and factory equipment.
Many residents in Aleppo supported the rebels and turned a blind eye to their abuses, hoping that they’d eventually succeed and that the city would become a viable example of post-Assad governance. But frustration mounted as rebels enriched themselves and civilians suffered bombardment. Residents murmured darkly about tacit agreements between rebels and the government. An Armenian priest told me he was shocked to see rebels and government soldiers drinking tea at a checkpoint in December 2012.
Waiting for Death
All wars are ugly. But there are true heroes amid the savagery: doctors who risk their lives to save people, fighters who die protecting the vulnerable, government employees who do their jobs and keep utilities and basic services going, as well as teachers, farmers, and journalists who are working under grueling circumstances.
Three years ago I was awed by the bravery of Syrians who stood up and refused to be ruled by a narrow and oppressive elite. But years of war have scarred and angered me, diminishing my hope for a better future. I can’t forget the terror in the eyes of the victims of a chemical weapons attack in Aleppo whom I interviewed in a hospital in Afrin last year. I can’t forgive the pilot who almost killed me in Hreitan while I was reporting the aftermath of a ballistic missile strike, or those behind the death of a beautiful young woman from Maaret al-Numan in Idlib. And if the terror group ISIS kills my friend, the Spanish photographer Ricardo Garcia-Vilanova, I imagine taking a sabbatical from journalism to hunt down those responsible.
Then I come to my senses, and realize that someday the war will end and Syrians will reconcile. Many of the combatants won’t be punished; war criminals backed by the government and terrorists in rebel ranks will go free. Such is the price of peace. It would be a divine gift if Syria becomes a stable, free, and prosperous democracy within a decade, and that’s a goal that all responsible Syrians must share.
Meanwhile, many of us are grieving over dead friends and relatives. I’m fortunate because I’m alive and have a US passport, yet the sorrow is often overwhelming. To cheer myself up, I daydream about two events: the moment of victory over the enemies of humanity, and my own death.
I hope my dreams happen in that order, victory then death, so that if there is an afterlife, I will search for my friends and heroes to deliver my final dispatch: We are free.
Follow Mohammed Aly Sergie on Twitter: @msergie
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