Abu Mohammed says he wept when he saw what the soldiers had done. He’d had to wait two days for the troops to pull back before he dared to venture home. That’s when he saw the still smouldering remnants of what had been his life.His apartment had been deliberately set on fire. Every wall, floor and ceiling was blackened and cracked, and all of his possesions had been reduced to ash.
I first met Abu Mohammed in February. He lives in Idlib province in Northern Syria. I won’t say exactly where to protect his identity. And Abu Mohammed is not his real name either. But he’s an English literature graduate who’s an unlikely recruit to the rebel Free Syrian Army.A young, thoughtful man, who’ more at ease discussing William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett rather than military tactics. The last time I met him he told me “I want people in Syria to carry a pen, not a sword”.
But conflict hardens the soul and forces people to make choices based on necessity, not want. In the time since I last visited, the full force of President Assad’s military has been unleashed on this part of Syria. Towns and villages have been shelled, hundreds have been killed, people have been detained and homes have been burned.
“I had 500 books, English novels and plays, American poetry and all of them are gone”, Abu Mohammed said. He gave me a guided tour of the charred shell of his home. I could just about make out a series of black rectangular marks on the floor of what had been his library.
“If they burned all my home it’s ok”, he said, “but not my books. I cried when I saw my books”. he’s lost faith that the international community will help. “Can Kofi Annan come and see my library?”, he shouts, adding that the former UN secretary-general’s six point plan lay in the ashes of his home. He’s angry and he’s not alone. Those we met feel that they’ve been abandoned by the outside world. Many ask why the West refuses to help, why Syria is different from Lybia, where the international community did intervene.
I tried to explain that the Europeans and Americans thought they were helping, but that Syria was a far more complex country in the heart of a very difficult region. But it’s hard to make a convincing case for nuanced foreign policy to people who’ve been on the losing side of a life-and-death struggle for more than a year.
In fact, for many people in Idlib, the fight with the Assad government isn’t just more than a year old, it’s more than three decades old. A protest movement erupted in this region in the early 1980s. It had an Islamist bent and called for and end to what the Sunni majority here still see as the routine discrimination at the hands of the ruling family, who are from the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam. It was eventually crushed in a ferocious government offensive that left perhaps tens of thousands dead and many in prison.
This goes some way to understanding that what is happening in Syria today isn’t just another offshoot of the Arab Spring. It’s a generations-old movement for change. It also explains why it hasn’t yielded to the pressure it’s been put under.
In a grubby tent that offered little shelter from the elements we met a group of fighters squatting around a solitary, pear-shaped paraffin lamp. They were dirty, tired and beaten. The government offensive has had an effect and, for now at least, it seems the armed insurgency is over. But the popular uprising is far from being bowed.
Abu Mohammed and I talked a bit about the authors whose works had filled the shelves of his library. He mobed through the ages, from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Samuel Beckett, declaring that Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was his favourite play. He wanted my interpretation. What did I think the enigmatic, absurdist drama really meant. It’s about two men waiting for someone who never arrives. And feeling rather gloomy about what I’d witnessed over the last few months I waffled a bit about inaction and fate.
What does it mean to you, I asked. Abu Mohammed smiled. Hope, he said. I believe Godot is hope.
Death and destruction have been wrought upon his home town and we were standing in the ruins of what had been his beloved library. Yet his faith was undiminished. You know, we are waiting for Godot, he laughed.
The people I’ve been talking to here share an absolute conviction that this time will be different. That what their fathers began will be finished by today’s generation. And after decades of what they see as state-sanctioned oppresion, the spirit of rebellion burns bright, as they wait for Godot.
NOTE: I guess this is BBC copyright, so will have to remove it if they ask me!