War has its own cadence

Rania Abouzeid writes: The three little girls crouched in their starting positions, each placing one leg in front of the other, ready to pounce on the count of three: “One, two, three!” their aunt said as the sisters, all under 10, raced some 20 meters to the top of their narrow lane, giggling, before turning around and sprinting back toward their aunt, seated outside their front door. It was a stiflingly warm night, near pitch black. The electricity was out and the family had moved outside, the pleasant breeze providing a little respite from the heat.

Two nights earlier, another family — the Breks — had done the same thing. They lived in another neighborhood in this town of some 40,000 in central Idlib province. The young children were playing outside. Their mother Sakina had just finished boiling tea and was bringing it outside when the rocket landed in their street. She was killed along with three other women from their family. Her young son, no more than eight or nine, was already dead when he reached the Hassan Hospital. His bright red t-shirt was stained a deeper shade by his blood. His baby sister Suheila, dressed in a blue t-shirt and white shorts, her pudgy toddler legs covered in patches of blood, no longer had a face. Her head was an indiscernible mashed up pink blob of flesh and blood.

The Brek family tragedy wasn’t lost on the aunt as she watched her young nieces playing, but faith and fatalism were like soothing balms. “They were sitting here just like us,” she said. “It’s frightening what we have gotten used to. Death will find us if it wants to, if God wills it, but we are changing, becoming harder as human beings.”

The once-peaceful 17-month Syrian conflict quickly morphed into a vastly asymmetrical war, fueled by the iron-fisted response of a regime that tolerates no dissent. War has its own cadence, its own logic. It’s a mix of the mundane, the everyday, experienced through heightened, sometimes supercharged emotions. It’s the thrill and fear of a fighter approaching the frontline, or a person heading out to demonstrate, the prayers of their family, the concerns of a mother, the tears of a child. “Normal” becomes relative. The daily rhythm of life goes on seemingly unaffected, but there is always an undercurrent of tension, the knowledge that a single, sudden event can upend everything. Even death and its rituals have changed. Mourning periods, usually weeks and even months long, are abbreviated — otherwise, as one woman said, the town and others like it would perpetually be in mourning.

Families have been physically divided. Some men have ferried their wives and children to Turkey and returned to fight or protect their homes from looting. In other cases, it’s the rebel fighters who have traversed the border, to organize supplies and support for their men.

“Why have you come back?” a fighter’s mother, a heavyset woman in a beige scarf asked her 40-year-old son as he knelt before her and kissed her cheeks. An FSA commander, the man had fled to Turkey two months ago after an assassination attempt, a hail of bullets that targeted his vehicle, wounding him and killing one of his best friends.

“Is that any way to greet your son?” he asked.

“I”m happy to see you, but I’m afraid for you,” his mother said. “You should leave.”

The commander, like so many other rebels, keeps a grenade with him at all times — even during dinner or when he’s playing with his children. It’s a last resort to avoid capture. “I’d rather die a thousand deaths,” he said, “than be captured by them.” It’s a phrase often repeated by other rebels, here and elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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