What the World Left Behind in Syria

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey there. This episode contains just the tiniest bit of salty language. OK, here’s the show.

S2: Kareem Shaheen is a journalist, lives in Montreal, but he carries around in his pocket a sort of window to a world thousands of miles away. Syria.

S3: You know, if you spend so many years covering the conflict, the information kind of comes to you. Eventually, it’s hard to it’s hard to sort of disconnect yourself from what’s going on.


S2: This window. It’s his phone.

S3: It’s somewhat upsetting, actually, because you scroll through your phone and you’re looking through pictures of you and your wife or you and your kid or your and your cats. And in between, there are pictures of dead children.

S4: Back when he was reporting in Syria what she did for five years, Karim’s phone was his Swiss Army knife. There is an app to warn him of incoming warplanes. An encrypted messaging meant he could get voice memos right from the front line towards the end of the siege.

S5: As you get messages from doctors and activists and people you’ve been in contact with on the ground, telling you that they might not be able to speak to you again because they might they might die in the next few hours.


S4: Now, the cream is so far away, having his phone buzzing around his pocket, it’s a constant retort to the world around him.

S6: You know, it always felt like what was unfolding in terms of Western politics. Was this just sort of surreal thing? And you’d sit there and ask yourself, what really is this what everybody’s concerned about? Is this what everybody’s talking about?


S2: This December, Karim’s phone got louder, more insistent.

S7: It was the latest carnage in the Assad regime’s intensified offensive against Syria’s last rebel held stronghold back in Syria.

S8: He could see people getting ready for a brutal assault. Bashar al Assad was about to launch what was meant to be a final campaign against the biggest province that’s remained out of his reach.


S7: ad-lib in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, the latest target was this school house.

S8: But in the physical world around him, Karim saw people getting ready for Christmas, saw Donald Trump about to be impeached.

S9: The whole impeachment stuff was was kind of comic relief for me. I would often read a lot in American media outlets about sort of the end of democracy and Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and all these issues, and I was thinking to myself like, you’re looking in the wrong place for the end of the international order.

S10: Today on the show, Karim is going to let us into the world. He sees. There’s a cease fire in ad-lib for now, but the people who live there are still looking to flee. The question isn’t just where will they go? It’s whether the rest of the world will care. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.


S2: There’s a video that started going around Twitter back in February as it Lib. became the focus of a renewed Syrian assault. It shows a dad and his toddler daughter like. The little girl had gotten scared hearing bombs.

S8: I saw her father taught her to make the bombing into a game to laugh as explosions detonated as easy to like. This video feels at once sweet and completely nihilistic. And if you listen to Karim talk for a little bit, you can understand where that comes from.


S11: I don’t really have faith in the idea that the universe has a moral arc that leads towards justice. And that leads towards no accountability. I don’t think it does anymore.


S8: Karim was one of the few Western journalists to report from inside ad-lib, the last rebel held province that President Bashar al Assad has failed to capture. Karim watched over the last nine years of civil war as this province’s population swelled. That’s because as the Assad regime working with Russia took back more and more of this country, it WLIB became a refuge of last resort for people who had fled their homes.

S6: Again and again, obviously, the figures pre-war are unclear, but there’s there’s three million civilians now. And, you know, a million of them have been displaced just from the beginning of December until now. So that’s a million people who have had to pick up their lives and flee and live usually in these flimsy tents if they have any sense at all in subzero temperatures near the Turkish border. They have no shelter at all. Some of these, you know, they call them IDP, internally displaced peoples. Some of these IDP camps have been bombed in the course of the war as well. And they’re sitting there with any shelter.


S12: For Karim, it Lib. is a place he clearly saw both the brutality of the Syrian regime and the beauty of this country’s terrain.

S13: In twenty seventeen, Karim was living just over the border in Turkey. When he heard reports of a chemical attack in Syria, he saw these images of children foaming at the mouth. But he knew he couldn’t report what had taken place without travelling into the war zone himself. So when you arrived in ad-lib, what do you see?


S14: So adlibs as a problem is one of the most beautiful countryside’s that I’ve ever laid eyes on to. There’s a verdant green to all the countryside. The earth is the cinnamon color. There the cherry trees and almond trees and olive groves along the roads. It sounds really beautiful. It is. It is. It’s the kind of place you’d you’d imagine if you were in an alternate universe that people would be going there for retreats to get away from it all.


S15: What are the tells that something’s not right there, though? You know, occasional abandoned tanks, you know, along the road.

S16: And once you actually get into some of the towns and cities, it’s very hard to get through a street where there isn’t a building that’s destroyed or pockmarked or, you know, there’s there’s always some smoke rising the distance, you know, from whatever ongoing battle or shelling or bombing had happened. You know, wherever there is civilization, it’s it’s devastated.

S2: While you were there, you met this young father of twins who was at their funeral. Can you tell me a little bit about him?

S17: Yeah. So so his name is Abdul Hamid al Yusef. And his picture had gone viral the night of the attack while I was waiting to cross the border. It was a picture of him holding his two infant sons. His daughter and son were still infants. He was preparing to bury them because they had suffocated to death. I later found out that that his wife had also died, along with a total of about 18 to 20 members of his family.


S2: This is after the chemical attack.

S17: That’s right. They all they all perished in the chemical attack. His wife and his two kids apparently had gone into the basement because they thought that it was a conventional bombing. But the gas seeped in. And while he was helping ferry people to the nearby hospital, they had suffocated to death.

S18: When I when I went in, one of the locals there asked if I wanted to meet him. And I immediately said yes. And so I went to visit him. There was a memorial service that was being held for his family members. And I sat next to them and I didn’t conduct an interview in the traditional sense. He was completely out of it. You know, he was sort of like drifting in and out of consciousness, sort of in this dream state where he was in shock and didn’t really know what was going on around him. I do remember, though, I was sitting next to him and there was there was another person who was sitting on the other side and he was telling him this this religious parable that we have been Aslan. So in Islam, there is this concept that, you know, on Judgment Day, everybody has to cross this bridge called unsterile. And if you manage to cross it, you enter into paradise. And if you stumble and you fall, you fall into hell according to the story. But there’s there’s a story about if your children die at a really young age and you endure that loss with with humility and patience and forbearance, then God is going to reward you on judgment day by resurrecting your children as as these winget angels. And they will fly you across the bridge. So you’ll never stumble and fall. So you’re essentially guaranteed to go into paradise if you endure this extremely difficult test. And, you know, when when he told him when this friend was sitting next and told them that story of having to use of sort of woke up from his stupor and and he started asking, you know, if if his wife will also be there and if his cousins will also be there, if his nephews also be there. And it was just this this incredible moment that I think is etched in my mind forever.


S19: They insisted after we’re done, we’re told that we can’t stay in the town for very long because there were reconnaissance drones that were flying over the town. But I insisted on going and visiting their graveyard and paying my respects there. And it was quite a sight to stand there and see almost two dozen graves that had just been freshly, freshly dug and just sort of standing there and realizing just the scale of the horror that had befallen this this family and being at a loss as to how he endured it and survived.

S2: Can I ask you a question? Yeah. When you tell this story, I can tell it means a lot to you and I want to talk to you a little bit more about that, because you also. You tell it so quickly, and to me it feels like. You’re like ripping a Band-Aid off like it’s almost too traumatic. To slow down and and tell at a slower pace.


S19: I’m sorry, it’s difficult to talk about it with the knowledge that that he had children who were about my son’s age now.

S20: And I can’t I can’t dwell on it for too long because I started getting in my head all these horrible images of what it would be like to lose a child, you know, and particularly in such a horrific manner. Yeah.

S21: Do you know what happened to that man? From what I from what I found out afterwards, he was he was allowed to leave.

S22: So I think that’s that’s the kept making some noise like, come on. And that was a tough story day in here, because it is like you need some cuddles. You know that.


S23: Yeah. From what I understood afterwards, he was allowed to leave Syria and settle in Turkey. There was a I think there is a picture of him with the Turkish president after his story was was publicized. He was given refuge in Turkey. But I don’t know if he’s if he’s gone further afield by now.

S24: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that this man who went through this terrible trauma, you know, later he was in Turkey and with Urdu on, because it really shows how there are these awful tragedies for individuals. And then maybe those individuals have something happen that seems good. But then those actors, those larger country actors, are continuing the chaos for the vast majority of people.

S25: Yeah. You know, you mentioned that the start of the conversation, the case of the man and his and his toddler daughter who were playing this game with the bombardments, you know, so that she doesn’t get scared of the bombings. You know, he was he was allowed into Turkey with his daughter. He got special dispensation to go in.

S12: But there’s also a million other people sitting on, you know, by the border, freezing to death who aren’t, you know, hesitate to use the word so lucky as Karim sees it, the human lives in and around Idlib have been forgotten both by the international community and the Syrian government.

S6: It’s like it’s a piece of territory right then. Assad, you know, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, wants to end the war decisively. You know, he’s he’s militarily been able to reclaim all these parts of the country with Russian help and with Iranian help. But this is the largest piece of territory that they want to reclaim. They don’t want to leave an area that could potentially be a refuge for rebels to rebuild and relaunch their insurgency against the regime. They want to end the war decisively because part of ending the war means that the international community begins to accept that Assad is staying, you know, begins to deal with him as the legitimate head of the Syrian state. That could eventually lead to reconstruction funds kind of coming in the lifting of sanctions. You know, once once all these Western countries and the European Union and so on realize that the war is decisively over, then he can begin to reclaim that status as a member of the international community and try to seek funds and support to rebuild the country and to, you know, enriches his government.


S8: So this is about closing the book.

S6: Yeah. I mean, the reality of the situation right now is that the Syrian regime is actually really vulnerable because various parts of the country are, you know, that are under his control, are impoverished. You know, people are people don’t have enough to buy food. The currency has collapsed because of the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon. There is no access to hard currency. They’re still under sanctions. You know, there are unable to provide basic staples like fuel and other types of food to ordinary people. And there are some you know, there are some rumblings of discontent in parts of the country that have been pacified by US forces. So, you know, there’s all this unhappiness and all this destitution and poverty that they have to contend with, and they’re going to be unable to contend with it in the long term. If there is no reconstruction aid and there isn’t a lifting of sanctions and sort of a return to the normal state of affairs with the international community.

S2: Well, so it sounds kind of desperate. I mean, we’re we’re talking on Friday, March 6th, a cease fire was just announced in Idlib. How long do you think it will last?

S6: Well, it’s a no. Ceasefires in Idlib have held for very long because they preserve a status quo that is just untenable. You know, if you preserve the status quo right now, the regime wants to reclaim the country, the entire country. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to do so. They and Russia, which is supposed to be a guarantor of the ceasefires. Jointly violate these cease fires and bomb civilian areas and try to reclaim the militarily from the rebels know whenever the situation suits them. So I don’t think that a cease fire is something that will hold in the long term because it’s it’s in nobody’s interest to maintain the status quo. Civilians don’t feel safe in it. You know, at all times because the regime keeps violating the cease fire. So they don’t want to return back to their homes. And so they’re stuck in the in this area near the Turkish border. And and their situation becomes more desperate by the day.


S12: It’s this desperation that resonates so deeply with Karim because he feels stuck to watching the war play out from thousands of miles away in his new home, collecting atrocity after atrocity without any relief.

S26: You know, we had spent so many, so many years in the international community talking about our responsibility to protect civilians. Our responsibility to it to ensure that mass atrocities like, you know, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, you know, even in the Holocaust, you know, that we would not allow these mass atrocities to go unpunished or to or to proceed with with all this impunity. And what I realized was that, you know, all this talk of never again and have no respect for international law and for the international order, were it own use an expletive here. But, you know, we’re meaningless. They were not worth the paper. They’re written. They’re written on.

S2: What’s the excellent if you would have used to push that.

S26: You know, these these these ideas of the international community and the international rules-based order were just meaningless.

S24: Yeah. I mean, you’ve expressed his frustration as a journalist that you spent years telling these stories, these heartbreaking stories in the years since that you’ve been away from the conflict.

S8: I wonder if you think about what would matter, what would cause some kind of action and what you’ve thought about that.

S27: I don’t know if anything will cause any kind of action. This is suppose that the sad truth is that I don’t think there is a limit to what we will tolerate.

S28: We’re so I think inwardly focused now feels like concepts like human rights and fundamental rights and freedoms of ordinary human beings and the right to know even just live somewhere where they’re not being bombed to death all the time are outmoded, outdated concepts. So after nine years of war in Syria, it’s become normal to bomb hospitals. It’s become normal to besiege civilians. All of these are even chemical weapons attacks.


S29: The regime got away with them without any real punishment. And so, you know, this this slow erosion of the international order and international law that’s been happening for nine years is something that should really give us all pause. You know, as we kind of contemplate the far reaching implications of the conflict and of our choice and decision not to act to to stop it from continuing to unfold.

S2: Do you feel like you’re OK now? What you mean by OK? I don’t know. You’ve seen a lot. I mean, do you feel safe?

S30: Yeah, I mean, I do feel safe. I suppose it’s a tough question to answer.

S11: I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a right answer to that question. I suppose I. I am okay. Because, you know, I have a son now and the he occupies a lot of my time and and spending time with him makes me incredibly happy.

S27: I remember a conversation I had, you know, during that trip to Idlib to cover the chemical attack. And one of the fighters was with us, joked that they should kidnap me and ask for a ransom. And I said I was an Egyptian, so they weren’t going to get any money out of it. Holly said it was it was it was meant as a funny joke. And everybody laughed and I did, too. It’s just that the thinking back to it. It’s it was it was true.

S11: And yeah, I don’t know if I don’t know what. Okay. Means really in this context. And I don’t know how that’s going to affect, you know, who I am in the long term. I think it’s made me more cynical. But but it’s really hard for a lot of journalists to treat their mental health seriously because they think of, you know, the actual people they’re covering and what they went through and what they continue to go through.


S31: And and it somehow feels a bit frivolous to think about, you know, our own mental health and taking care of ourselves, because the people we’re writing about are going through so much more.

S32: Creem, I’m really grateful to you for telling me these stories today.

S33: It’s really kind of you to say I’m grateful to you for listening and for asking me to talk to you. Hug that baby.

S34: Kareem Shaheen is a journalist covering the Syrian war. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason de Leon Morris Silvers and Danielle Hewitt. Tell us what you thought of this show by tweeting at us. You can find me at Mary’s desk. I’m Mary Harris. I will be back tomorrow with more. What next?