CHAPTER 1: ANISSA
~~~ Friday, February 7, 2014 ~~~
To My Dearest,
With mere words, how do I tell you about the destruction of everything in my young life – all that I loved and lived for? How can I explain to you what sustained me through unimaginable evil, when I myself don’t know the answer? And after I survived it, but with a soul that was hollowed into a nihilistic ache, how did I manage to carry on, even as unbearable memories pursued me everywhere, like a pack of wolves hounding their prey?
As much as I wish I could tell you everything, there are details that I just can’t talk about right now. They’re too overwhelming – I’ll never make it through the telling. No human being should ever have to remember, much less share, certain events. Sometimes emotional survival means deceiving everyone – including yourself. And ever since that infernal night, on January 18, 2012, I’ve been trying to lie to myself, by pretending that certain things didn’t happen – because sometimes it’s the only way for me to stay sane. So I don’t know if I’ll ever tell you those details. With God’s mercy, maybe I’ll finally believe the falsehoods that I recite to myself every night in bed, in the hope that I can, at last, sleep with some solace. And if that happens, then even you, My Dearest, will never know those details, because the lies of my imagination will be all that I can remember.
For now, I’ll begin with the last time that I saw my parents, and my escape from Syria in 2012; then I’ll skip to my first years in the United States, and the rays of hope that gradually crept back into my life. Along the way, if I still haven’t expunged from my mind the darkest night of all – the one that nearly finished me – maybe I’ll summon the strength to share more. Perhaps by trying to recount to you that night sent by Satan himself, I will better understand the hazy madness that my life became – a journey that brought me to the depths of despair and loneliness, but later to a hope and love that I never thought could enter my life after so much pain and darkness. If, one day, I am able to find the fortitude to stare January 18, 2012 directly in the face, and then hand it to you as I see it, then you will know that I somehow began to emerge from this black hole reborn, with a renewed spirit.
But before I try to tell you anything else, let me give you a little background to my story. Until the Syrian Civil War began, our family enjoyed a peaceful and affluent life. We lived in a three-story townhouse in the Al-Maljaa quarter of Homs, the third-largest city in Syria. We had a maid from the Philippines named Marisol, who lived in our home since before I was born. Besides maintaining the house, she helped to ensure that we were always speaking some English on a daily basis, even when we weren’t at school. My father worked as a doctor in the National Hospital in Homs, run by the Syrian Ministry of Health, and had a growing small business importing medical devices into Syria. He also served as the leader of the Syriac Orthodox Christian community in Homs and was considered one of the city’s most important Christian representatives. My mother ran a small pharmacy and her income combined with my father’s allowed us to live a very comfortable life, and enabled my three siblings and me to attend the most prestigious international school in our city, where we learned English at a very young age. We had a boisterously affectionate but protective German Shepherd named Daoud. He would often run around on the grass in our gated front yard, which connected – by narrow, grassy passageways along the sides of our house – to an equally large backyard.
The Syrian Civil War began in mid-March of 2011. At the time, I was fourteen years old; my older brother, Firaz, was twenty-one; my older sister, Maria, was nineteen; and my younger brother, Antoun, was eleven. We were all very close, but also very different. Firaz had recently finished his mandatory, twenty-one-month service in the Syrian army and was studying business administration. He had grown into a big, strong man, and something of a local heartthrob. But Firaz was very serious and almost the complete opposite of Antoun, who was the family jester. My younger brother was always playing pranks, telling jokes, and generally causing mischief (although that was partly due to his age and the fact that our mother coddled him to no end). Antoun was also obsessed with football, and broke more than his share of windows kicking his ball around. Maria was the family musician: a child prodigy on the violin who went on to study at the Institute of Music in Homs with a bright future as a concert performer. And I was a young scholar who loved to learn; buried herself in world literature, math, science, and Wikipedia; and skipped eighth grade because of academic excellence. I dreamed of some day attending a university in Europe or the United States. My parents often pushed me towards the future study of medicine, and I would always tell them how much I hated the sight of blood.
But there was a lot of blood from the civil war. By the end of April 2011, about 1,000 civilians and hundreds of policemen and soldiers had been killed. And it got worse as the conflict dragged on, world powers did nothing, and the violence became progressively sectarian.
Violent clashes between government security forces and protestors intensified, as demonstrators increasingly armed themselves. By mid-May, the military had asserted total control over our city, but the unrest continued and religious bloodshed only mounted, as Syrian army soldiers defected in greater numbers to join an increasingly Sunni-dominated insurgency. My happy childhood memories became more and more polluted by images of prolonged street fighting between security forces and rebels, who gained control of several quarters of the city.
The so-called “Arab Spring” had brought a wave of popular protests for greater freedoms across the Middle East, including in Syria. The country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafez Assad, had always ruled Syria with an iron fist. In the Middle East, the weak perish quickly and autocratic rule seems to be the most effective governing system to combat extremism and overcome so many tribal, religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Indeed, the Arab Middle East has no history of successful democracies – Lebanon and Iraq came closest, but both also suffered from chronic instability and bloody civil wars.
Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father’s rule in June 2000 with some hint that he would introduce reforms to soften his father’s brutal dictatorial rule. But the political realities greatly limited what he could actually do. The Assads hailed from the Alawite sect of Shia Islam and, like Christians, were religious minorities in a country of 18 million people who were mostly Sunni Arabs.
Four decades of Assad rule meant that the Alawite sect had become the de facto political elite. Syria’s 1.5 million Christians were among the religious minorities that supported (and benefited from) the ruling elite, and this made them a natural target for those fighting to topple Assad’s regime. Thus, Assad and his allies feared not only losing their decades-long hold on power, but also the bloodbath that would likely follow, in a region where major transitions of power are never peaceful.
Our Christian community – and other religious minorities in Syria – also feared vicious persecution by the religious majority. We saw what happened to the Christians of Iraq when the secular regime there ended. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, sectarian killings, persecution of Christians, and an increasingly Islamist political culture, prompted more than half of the Iraqi Christian population to flee an area where Christians had lived for thousands of years. And the same thing could easily happen to us next door in Syria if the secular regime were to collapse. Sunni Muslim mobs or terrorist groups could brutalize us with impunity or even tacit government support. Christians had lived in the land of Syria for millennia – many hundreds of years before Arab Muslim conquerors arrived in the seventh century – but our future there was anything but certain.
In the weeks before Christmas of 2011, about fifty Christians in my city had been killed in the anti-government unrest, by both rebels and government forces, while many more were struggling to feed their families as the bloodletting brought normal life in the city to a halt. In one incident, a young Christian boy was killed by the rebels, who filmed the murder and then claimed that Assad’s forces had killed him. Another Christian was seized by the rebels, taken to a house, and asked, “How do you want to die?” The man was eventually released, but reportedly continued to suffer from severe psychological distress. Hearing about such callous brutality and cruelty would ominously chip away at whatever sense of security I had felt before the civil war began.
As the conflict ground on, there were more and more guns on the street. The regime’s forces increased their presence, but so did other groups of armed men patrolling the streets. Some of these gunmen were army deserters who refused orders to fire on protesters, but many were radical Islamists who wanted to plunge Syria into sectarian chaos. These violent extremists had no interest in the democratic aspirations that motivated the first anti-government protests; they wanted to bring down the secular Syrian state.
By Christmas 2011, the violence between rebels and government troops had claimed over 5,000 lives in Syria, and almost one-third of those deaths had happened in my city. Not surprisingly, many Christian families fled Homs, leaving behind their possessions, jobs, and homes. Some of those who chose to stay were too afraid to step outside to go to work, and so were suffering tremendous financial hardship. Few dared to be out after 3 p.m. or on Fridays, when the streets were most dangerous. The Christian areas of our city were surrounded by rebels. Insurgents would sometimes try to escape into those neighborhoods, and then would be hunted down there by the army, leaving horrible violence, death, and destruction in their wake.
These were the dark clouds casting a pall over the last Christmas that I spent with my family, as we met for our annual holiday reunion. We tried to pretend that life was normal when coming together with our cousins from Raqqa (in northern Syria), but Christmas of 2011 felt hauntingly different – like it might very well be the last time that we would all be together.
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