Syria. Here I am,
staring out at red earth dotted with green trees, an azure sky, the sun shining
on a tiny border town. How did I get
here?, I ask myself, gazing
out at this vast expanse, mere miles from a gruesome conflict zone that has
captured world headlines for more than two years.
As a human rights
journalist, I wanted to visit the Syrian border to gain a firsthand perspective
of the revolution, the conflict, and the refugees living along the country's
borders. While I didn't originally have a single contact along the border, a
bizarre twist of circumstances led me to follow a link from Twitter to an
article on NUVO, which led me to a Facebook page for the Syrian American
Council of Indianapolis.
firsthand experience came to life thanks to the efforts of Kenan Rahmani, a law
student at Notre Dame and board member at Syrian American Council, who helped
me plan an adventure I will never forget.
A disclaimer before
I relate my experiences:
I'm telling my
story here with the full knowledge that most Americans do not support
intervention in Syria. I wasn't sure what I thought about intervention before I
went. I wanted to go there with an open mind. I wanted to learn about the
people, share in their struggle, understand in whatever ways I could.
What I saw smashed
my heart into a million pieces.
I do not know what
you will think, or feel, based on my account. But I hope you will see it as a
starting place, a beginning of dialogue. And I hope, if possible, you can find
a way to put yourself in the situation of the courageous people I met along the
What I saw on the border
I'm walking out of
Hatay Airport near Turkey's southern border with Syria. I can feel the sun
blazing through my white headscarf, and I'm fumbling with my iPhone, trying to
find the number for the contact Rahmani gave me.
In a moment, Esmat
Rastan arrives to pick me up. Rastan is a volunteer with Watan Syria,
the border-based NGO I'm here to visit. I throw my backpack in his car and jump
in beside him. Then we're off in a cloud of dust tearing down the road toward
Reyhanli, the Turkish border town where Watan Syria is located.
"So that's Syria," he says,
pointing to the right.
I'm staring out at red earth, beautiful
mountains dotted with greenery, soaring blue skies. It all seems so tranquil.
But that tranquility is an illusion. Since
Syria's peaceful revolution began in March of 2011, more than 90,000 people
have been killed as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacres, brutalizes, exterminates his own people.
An hour later, I'm sitting across from
Mulham Al-Jundi, who operates the Watan Syria office in Reyhanli. He's telling
me about the border town he now calls home.
Reyhanli used to be a town of about 50,000 people, he explains. But today, with
Syrian refugees arriving nearly every day, the town's population has doubled —
now past 100,000. There are no jobs, little infrastructure, and just the other
day, explosions could be heard only a few miles away. It's a flawed refuge,
Reyhanli, with its crumbling buildings, dusty streets, and impoverished
Early one morning I
accompany Rastan and a few others to deliver Watan Syria's aid boxes throughout
Reyhanli. We load up a van with heavy boxes containing macaroni, rice, cheese,
salt, corn, tuna, sugar, and oil —staples that thousands of refugee
families can't afford to purchase for themselves. We carry the boxes into
makeshift "homes" all over the city. Crumbling brick structures,
tarps held down with rocks, tents pitched on rooftops.
That morning I
begin to get to know some of the Syrian refugees of Reyhanli, the beautiful
children I see running through muddy streets, the women making homes out of
shacks and tents.
I visit a family of
five living in a small windowless shack. The father accepts their aid box with
gratitude. He is still wearing a suit. They fled Syria only 15 days ago —
with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Everyone I visit
talks about freedom, a future in Syria beyond this horror. I see so much
suffering, but in the suffering there is a unity that catches me by surprise.
People who come as refugees, with nothing, are doing everything they can to
help other refugees.
The next afternoon,
I join Yisser Bittar of the Syrian American Council and another Watan Syria
staffer for a visit to a hospital in Reyhanli. A wall surrounds the dilapidated
structure that is the hospital, and guards stand at the entrance gate.
Inside, it doesn't
look like a hospital. Bare wires hang from the ceiling, and paint is peeling
off the walls. The halls are eerie and silent. We wind around a corner and
enter the first room, where I'm surprised to see a set of bunk beds. On the
lower bunk, a small girl lies underneath a white blanket. She smiles, a little.
I can't use her
name or take her picture, but this is her story.
She is just turning
15 years old and comes from a suburb of Idlib in northwestern Syria. One sunny
day she took a walk to her sister's house. She couldn't have known it would be
for the last time.
One bullet from a
sniper went through her spine and her life changed forever.
Today she spends
her days in this bed, her body paralyzed but her spirit somehow unbroken. She
is convinced there is a surgery that will help her, if she can only find the
right doctor. Her family has no money and no resources. So for now, they are
As long as they are
waiting they still have hope. They don't know, and in the unknown lies their last fragment of comfort.
"I think you're
very brave," I say to her, leaning in to kiss her cheek, feeling with
every second the stark inadequacy of my words. "I'm so sorry."
Bittar and I walk
down the hallway. A heavy silence hangs in the air.
In the next room, a
woman, 25 years old, lies in a bed. Her father is there with her, and as she
relates her story, he interjects, explaining more about the one horrific day that
changed their lives forever.
They were living as
IDPs, internally displaced people, in a small village.
One day she was
inside the house where they were staying when she heard the sound of a
helicopter overhead. The next moment, shrapnel was flying in all directions as
a TNT barrel packed with metal scraps fell from the sky, exploding in the
village. She felt a sharp pain as a piece of metal sliced through her leg.
There were screams,
flames. Smoke billowed into the clear sky overhead.
When she woke up,
she stumbled, blood flowing from both of her legs. Around her, pieces of the
bodies of her mother, her sister, and her five nephews lay on the ground.
were killed that day, mostly children.
The next day, her
father explains, Assad's regime announced that they had defeated the terrorists
in that village, that the 24 people they had killed were terrorists.
But they were all
women and children, almost his entire family.
He tried to bury
the bodies. There wasn't time. Helicopters kept returning, swooping low and
dropping more barrels. He knew his daughter would die if she didn't receive
help. They fled.
So here they are.
They arrived five days ago.
Her father is
describing those last hours they spent in the village. "The regime does
not differentiate between civilians and the Free Syria Army," he's saying.
After a few minutes
he quiets, tears coming to his eyes.
"I want the
world to come and see what's going on. I want everyone to know."
I'm sitting near
his daughter's bedside, and she pulls up the blanket to show me what happened
to her that day. One leg is gone, the other one has a series of gashes, huge
chunks of her leg are missing, carved out by the flying shrapnel of the TNT
She reaches for a
piece of cardboard beside her. It's covered in school photos, held together
with children's stickers. "My nephews," she says, pointing to each one.
"This one was
cut in half. This one was beheaded ... ."
I feel hot tears
streaming down my face. I'm feeling something different now, something beyond
the sadness, something that clutches the pit of my stomach with a wrenching,
Rage at this
inhuman monster that is Assad and his regime.
But it does not
take very long, sitting here in this hospital, staring into the eyes of this
woman who has lost so much, to begin to grapple with something else, something
beyond the rage: responsibility.
The time to act is now
have gone on for more than two years amid a hesitant U.S. response, largely
consisting of a lot of discussion and little action. And today, while children
run for their lives as TNT barrels explode in their neighborhoods, sending
shrapnel through tiny bodies — wrecking, breaking, destroying, shattering
lives — we're still debating.
Everything I have
seen on the Syrian border culminates in a realization at that moment: There is
not going to be another time to act. The time to act is now.
We have to stop
Assad from murdering his own people. We have to intervene.
I'm grateful for
the administration's recent decision to aid Syrian rebel forces, and I'm thankful
that the U.S. has authorized another $100 million in humanitarian aid. It's so
important, with millions displaced and thousands horrifically injured.
But at this point,
two years into a brutal regime ravaging Syria's civilian population, it's not
enough. Assad must be stopped from waging his campaign of terror against the
people of Syria. Instead of attempting to put a Band-Aid on the problem, we need
to stop him in his tracks.
A no-fly zone —
now gaining increasing bipartisan support — would prevent Assad's regime
from dropping his weapons of terror from the skies, limiting his ability to
ruthlessly slaughter Syrian civilians. No more families terrorized by the sound
of a helicopter nearing their home. No more TNT barrels falling into neighborhoods
where children are playing.
practical action will save lives by taking one murderous tactic out of Assad's
We can stop Assad
from murdering his own people. We can and we must.
I left Hatay
Airport on another sunny day much like the one on which I arrived. I felt the
warmth of the sun through my headscarf, scanned through my iPhone to upload
another image of the border, prepared for my return trip to Indianapolis.
But in my mind all
I could see were images of the people I met, the long-suffering people of Syria
who dream of a chance not just at life, but at freedom.
I hope we can find
a way to help them make that beautiful dream a reality.
Kristin Wright is
the director of development at Exodus Refugee Immigration, and a writer
covering human rights issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.