I Survived the Banyas Massacre (warning: gruesome story)

Who told me this story? It doesn’t matter. When did I here this? In June this year, one month after the Banyas massacre had taken place on May 3 2013, conducted by governmental troops on civilians. In Damascus noone mentioned the massacre by name, instead we called it “unrest” or “outbreak of violence”. The result of the systematic killing of everyone in the village is easily found online, but in the heart of the government controlled capital that is nothing you can talk about.

Why did the person tell me this story, despite the danger of talking about the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria? I guess some things are just too unbearable to keep to yourself. I couldn’t share this story while I was still in Syria, but I can now. And why am I sharing it? I want the world to know. I hope all of you readers do, too.

“Do you know what happened in Banyas? They did something horrible there. They did something that no God allows, no religion allows. What they did is forbidden in all religions!What does the persons want, who are controlling our country? What do they want from God?

There was a couple here some weeks ago. They left me their number, look, here’s the note… When I heard about what happened in Banyas I tried to call them, I was worried. But the line was shut down, I didn’t even get a signal. I heard that they had shut down the lines to all the telephones in Banyas. I called and called.

First after a couple of days the man answered. He said:

They came in the night, they killed my wife and my two children‘.

His wife was pregnant when she was here, I saw it myself, she was seven or eight months pregnant. Do you know what they did to her? They cut her in the chest, like this. Then they cut open her stomach, her whole stomach, and took out the baby. Her husband cried when he said:

They killed her, they killed my unborn baby, they killed our two little children. I’m the only one left. They are all gone.

Crossing the Syrian Border

In a time of peace and normality, the border between Syria and Lebanon is like any other border: queues are busy, rules are neglected, bored military officials are stamping passports in between smoking and drinking endless cups of tea. Now everything is different. And as the road to the airport is not safe, crossing the Lebanese border by land is the only safe alternative for leaving the country, making an otherwise sheltered humanitarian aid worker like me left to mingle with the Syrians that are trying to get out.

The border on the road between Damascus and Beirut is still controlled, heavily controlled, with new checkpoints every few minutes before reaching the border office. Outside the office cars are parked everywhere and masses of people are moving with their plastic bags and children, the chaos mirroring the domestic collapse. Many internal refugees are now dirt-poor, without money for bus or shared taxi, leaving the country by foot.

I was holding on to my passport and documents, trying to make my way in through the crowd and into the office. It was steaming hot and people were pushing and shoving each other, small children were crying. The lines leading up to the cashiers where the necessary stamps were given to the lucky ones that were able to reach there, was swamped. The driver that had taken me was not allowed to do the documents for me, and without stamp you couldn’t cross the border. I was able to make my way a few meters in to the crowd before I got stuck. People were so tightly packed it was impossible for a short woman like me to advance forward, and the crowd was turning aggressive. Even if I wouldn’t be squeezed, would I be saved from being assaulted? A man that was trying to make his way back through the crowd was being squeezed and received help from his wife and another man that pulled him out. The officers behind the counters shouted out, telling people to stop, and some shouted back: “How can we do it?” “We’re stuck!” “Help us instead!”

A military man passed by and people flipped their papers to him, begging for help: “My husband is sick, please help us!”, “Ammo, we need to get out, please stamp our passports!” The man ignored them, but I took my chance and pulled out my humanitarian worker’s ID:

“I’m a foreigner, I work for the Red Cross! Or something like the Red Cross!”

He glanced at me.

“Ok, come here.”

He let me go before him through the door he was entering and shoved away the others that tried to follow. A big metal tool was placed against the door to prevent it from opening again and the desperate bangs from the outside followed immediately. In the small room aside of the counters a few other people, a man on crutches and some lone women like me, were waiting hopefully, squeezed together in the small window facing the officers. Maybe we would be able to leave the country today? But we were being ignored.

“Go stand in line!” an officer yelled.

“We can’t stand in line, they’ll squeeze us! We’ll die there!” a woman replied.

Through an open window some young men climbed in. From all ways everyone was desperately trying to reach the officers, the stamps. The room was filling up with people and was becoming unpleasantly crowded as well. A girl who was pressed next to me laid her head on my shoulder, seizing the opportunity of the closeness to rest. She was maybe 10 years old.

“Are you tired?” I asked her.

Eh.” Her voice was just a whisper.

The girl drifted off to sleep as we waited, her head staying on my shoulder, her body leaning on me. The pressure from other people kept her upright.

After maybe an hour an officer appeared and suddenly lost his temper when seeing the amount of people that had materialized in the back room:

”Get out, all of you!”

The protests made him furious, he violently pushed us out:

“Go! I said go!”

No one wants to unfold an argument with an armed military. We stumbled upon each other as we hurriedly left the room. I was being pushed to the right and lost my balance, quickly catching it before falling face down. The driver that had been waiting for me in the back of the main room saw me from a distance and shouted: “Someone help her at least, she’s small, she can’t make it there! She’s afraid of all you men!”

A man suddenly gave in, reached out for me through the forest of people, took my passport and papers and sent them through the crowd.  “A small girl” I heard him mumbling to the others protesting. A few minutes later the papers came back, sent from hand to hand, with the proper stamps, nothing missing. I advanced backwards through the masses and was able to press through the door. Before reaching the relief of the fresh air I saw the little girl that had slept on my shoulder, now slumping alone on the floor. Her mother probably had left her there while trying to make it on her own. She was also a small girl, but no one took notice of her.

Why I Love Syrian Girls

In a time when Syria is associated mostly with conflict, I’d like to take the opportunity to tell about something that I like with this country: my girlfriends. Now I’m not usually prone to generalizations, but I have found that my Syrian friends have quite a few characteristics in common, so why not share them? (And hey, who is a woman without her girlfriends anyways?)

Girls, I love you cause you are…

  • Openminded and curious
  • Trustworthy, if you say you will pick me up at 7 you’re at my door 7 sharp, no flaking out
  • Stylish and cool, always dressed up, willing to lend out your clothes or braid my hair
  • Complimenting on my looks in a way that makes me feel good. No “Did you gain weight?”-rudeness here
  • Fun-loving in a carefree way, when going out with you anything can happen

Ladies, this one’s for you! Keep staying cool no matter where your country is heading.

A Cup of Water in the Conflict Zone

The other day I had spilled food on my hand when eating outside and needed to wash it. In a street corner a man sold candy and chewing gums from cardboard boxes. I had seen him before as I passed the corner every day, it was close to my work place in Damascus. In the morning I saw him coming and loading the boxes with the unsold items from the day before – overnight he covered the boxes and the wobbly tables the boxes were placed on with different pieces of fabric tucked together. The man was sitting on the side of the street, I approached him and asked for a “small bottle of water”.

“I don’t sell water.”

Of course, the little stall didn’t have a fridge, how could he sell any drinks? It had been a stupid question to ask.

“Aha, ok. Sorry.”

I turned to leave.

“But, wait…”

He remembered something, got up and went over to the tables, started rummaging around among the fabric. He picked up a box of clean paper cups and a big bottle of water, his own water, then poured me a cup. I fetched my wallet with my other not-so-greasy-hand and picked up some coins.

“Thank you, how much is it?”

“Nothing.”

Some weeks before I had been ripped off in a grocery store, paying twice as much as I should, and when I realized I couldn’t be particularly mad. Most people would rip anyone off if they were on the brink of poverty, especially a foreigner who had much more, in a time when the country’s currency was falling dramatically until the previously big-bills turned small-bills turned nothing. I wanted to pay and insisted, offering the coins. Suddenly the man looked sad. Just sad.

“I don’t want any money. Please take it, my daughter.”

That made me quiet. I mumbled a thank you. In that little moment, kindness won over war. It’s not a small power, not a sign of weakness. I believe it can sometimes be very strong.

The Syrian Children Sleeping in the Park

In the park outside our house in Damascus, Syria, new families regularly come to sleep for a couple nights before being escorted away. The few belongings they keep themselves with; blankets, clothes and plastic cups, are being hauled away at the same time. Where do they go? To the temporary camps in schools or mosques? Will they be one of the families living in unfinished buildings, without electricity or water, with no protection from strangers?

One afternoon when I was meeting up with a friend, a teenage girl saw us walking on the street. She came up, asking for money.

”No, habibti.”

After a couple of weeks here I have improved my skills in saying no. And if I gave to someone living close to me, I might be harassed every day.

“Ahmed!” the girl called out and a little boy, maybe 5 years old, ran between us. He didn’t look like the kids I usually saw sleeping in the parks, he was different: even though being barefoot he easily crossed the pebbly street, and no adults were to be seen around. When being approached by kids in other cities, I sometimes ask: “Why are you on the street like this? Why are you not with your mom?” That usually makes them back off, feeling a bit ashamed of their parents sending them out to beg. But I had a feeling that wouldn’t take effect here.

“Please khala, we’re hungry.”

No.

The girl was dressed like an adult even though she recently must have entered her teens. Her long dress was ripped, her black scarf hung loosely around her head, displaying her hair, as if she didn’t care anymore.

“They have been in our house too, banging the doors, screaming for money,” my friend told me.

The little boy pulled my blouse, aggressively: “Please!”

I freed myself from his grip and turned around. We tried to speed up the pace to get away. After a few steps, stones and other small things started falling down on us.

Khallas!” (Stop it!) I yelled to the one closest to me, it was the girl that had ran up behind us.

“No, I won’t stop!”

More stones came swirling through the air, the boy had catched up with my friend and suddenly struck her in the back.

Hey!” she turned around and raised her hand, appearing a bit stronger than I had.

First then the kids slowed down, but they didn’t stop. It wasn’t until then that I realized they were not afraid of being hit. The girl already had traces of a black eye and scratches in her face. After a while the children seemed to lose the energy to harass us. They stopped, only throwing some small sticks at us as we left the park.

Later that day I saw them again, this time accompanied by two other children. The little group followed people on the street, pulled their clothes, pulled an old woman’s long robe. They received nothing from no one. In a state of conflict, no one is willing to give up whatever little they could spare. One of the boys was now being dragged along the sideway by an older girl, she half carried him. He was beyond tired; exhausted. Another boy, maybe 11 or 12, carried a long stick, violently swinging it back and forth. One man yelled at them, others got scared by the boy and his stick, and crossed the street.

I caught myself thinking, as if I wanted to tell them: “We can’t blame you, you’re just ordinary children. It’s not your fault that you had to become like this.”