“Planes are more than birds, and bombs are more than rains.”
Ahmed is a 23 year old Law student, studying in one of the premier institutes of his country, in a city which is one of the oldest in the world. The institute that I am referring to is in Aleppo, Syria and Ahmed is now a refugee in the Netherlands. So how come a student came to be living the life of a refugee? This was precisely what he elaborated on when he came to the Delft University of Technology to talk about the situation in Syria and his escape from the besieged country.
Ahmed began talking of the developments taking place starting with the Arab Spring, first in Tunisia, and later their spread to Egypt and finally Syria. In order to help us understand the ground situation better, Ahmed gave us a brief crash course on Syrian history.
The Assad family took control of Syria through a coup in 1971 and began ruling it with an iron hand. Protests were banned, and anyone speaking ill of the government was taken into custody without question. Over 40 years into the regime, people were so used to being oppressed, that no one dared to question to regime, let alone raise their voice against it.
This was the mentality of the people when the Arab Spring started. Initially a bit hesitant, the people began to be influenced by the initial successes of the movement elsewhere, and began peaceful marches on the streets. Despite opposition to protest from the elders, Ahmed and his fellow students in the university realised that this was an opportunity they all were waiting for to dispose off the Assad government for good. And so the protests started. Never used to being targeted, Assad started getting a bit paranoid and brought his army in to crush the protests. This marked the turning point in the war. Enraged by the violence, many soldiers of the Syrian Army joined the protestors and the agitation soon took a violent turn.
And the matter was not as simple as that. Kurds, a major ethnic minority group in Syria, joined the war (with independence from Syria as their main aim) after their leader was assassinated by a group of Assad loyalists. Also ISIS, having first come to the forefront in Syria in early 2014, caught the attention of the world with its control of Mosul in Iraq and finally its entry into Syria. ISIS wanted to control the whole area and impose their own version of Islam on the population.
So why is Syria of such interest to the Western powers? Located at the junction of Europe and Asia, Syria provides a conduit to those seeking a gateway to the Asian markets. Traditional powers have long had bases in Syria to keep the powers of Iran and Iraq in check. As soon as the matters started worsening, major powers intervened to protect their interests. USA, Saudi Arabia and France took the side of the opposition forces while Russia entered on the side of the Assad government. What happened next is known to all. USA and Russia are struggling to find a common solution to the conflict and fail to enter into a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. USA believes that the only way to bring peace to the region is by removing Assad, while Russia wants no solution until Assad is a part of it as well. Meanwhile, ISIS has started a war against everyone and Kurds are fighting for independence. In the midst of all this chaos, Syrians continue to die. Ahmed told the crowd that on an average, a total of 200 bombs are dropped on the city of Aleppo alone. Aleppo has since been divided into two halves. Food and aid is hard to get by. Almost all the hospitals have been bombed in Aleppo. Civilians do not have access to basic healthcare. There are only two choices left to them: to flee to other countries, or stay and die.
Thus began the mass migration of people through Turkey and through the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Ahmed in his talk particularly chastised the European powers for neglecting the situation in Syria and urged them to play a larger role in defeating Assad and taking in more Syrian refugees. He was angry about the deal brokered between Turkey and the EU which allowed Turkey to seal its borders completely with Syria. Talking about his first hand experience with the conflict, Ahmed told the audience that he was one of the few educated people in his area in Aleppo. After the bombing started, he was elected by the people to take care of their basic necessities. One day in office, a bomb struck the building he was in, resulting in him getting shrapnel injuries while around 50 people around him died. After recovery, he started taking active part in protests, got arrested and was included in Assad’s black list. Fate played a part when he received a scholarship from a US institute to visit them for a few months and study law. Returning from the US and during transit at the Amsterdam airport, he requested asylum which was granted. He now lives in a refugee camp in the Netherlands and travels the country giving talks on Syria and the conflict.
As I heard his story, I was quite moved. While many of us know about the Syrian situation, few of us really stop and think about it twice. Imagine sitting down for dinner with your family, and eating to your heart’s content with your loved ones. Next imagine the same situation in Syria: people do not know when and if their next meal will come. Many have not seen their family members for days. As a fellow human, I urge all the powers involved to stop this meaningless war and bring it to an end quickly.
The last words of Ahmed as he concluded the talk still ring in my ears: “ The Syrians now have only one choice: to die.”