Destitute: a Syrian refugee family from Aleppo in a shelter in Istanbul. (Photo: Getty)
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Three years since war began in Syria, ordinary people remain the real victims

If there was a time when military action could have protected civilian lives, it has long passed.

It was more of a childish prank than an act of sedition but the 15 young boys caught painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school in Deraa, southern Syria, in March 2011 were arrested and tortured all the same. Their detention set in motion the familiar pattern of escalating popular protests and increasingly violent police crackdowns. Three years later, as many as 140,000 Syrians are dead and the 15 schoolboys are long forgotten. First, the dead become martyrs: not just sons and daughters, but political symbols. Then they become statistics.

If there was a time when military action – the bombing of strategic targets and the imposition of a no-fly zone – could have protected civilian lives, it has long passed. Yet on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war and after the failure of the peace talks in February, it is worth reflecting on the stories of human struggle and suffering.

“The politics of Syria are everywhere – but the people are not,” the UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, observed after visiting Damascus in 2013. This is so often the case. A few weeks have passed since the men and women in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv toppled their thuggish president and already they have lost control of their revolution.

I returned to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, a few months after it was liberated. I remember, even more clearly than the new Libyan flag fluttering from the rooftops, the posters of the martyrs hung on every street corner. Today, however, most Libyans are so wrapped up in the everyday terror of gun battles and kidnappings that they don’t want to recall those first deaths or how they ended up where they are now.

In Syria this collective amnesia is all the more tragic and harmful. This is a “war on Syrian civilians”, according to Human Rights Watch, but we don’t like to think of it that way. Hospitals and schools have been targeted by all groups; once-lively neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble; whole towns have found themselves under medieval-style sieges, their inhabitants forced to eat stray cats or dogs to survive. Yet the international charities are struggling to attract private donors. “There’s no clear sense of who the ‘good guys’ are,” Michael Klosson, a Save the Children executive, told the Washington Post last year.

The problem isn’t just financial. Even the UK government, which has pledged £500m in aid, can be accused of humanitarian neglect. Rather than making periodic demands for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and backing the “friendly” opposition, it should have kept its diplomatic focus on protecting the rights of civilians.

The international flow of arms and money to Syria’s armed groups hasn’t ended the impasse; it has made it bloodier. Assad can see no reason to back down; nor are various groups that want to kill each other likely to agree to a power-sharing deal. The one area where there have been breakthroughs in negotiations is in limited humanitarian deals: the temporary, imperfect ceasefire in Homs, which allowed aid to trickle in and civilians to be evacuated out of the besieged city in February, and the prisoner exchange achieved between the government in Damascus and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front on 10 March.

On 22 February, the UN Security Council passed a resolution requiring all sides in the conflict to permit the passage of humanitarian aid and warned of “further steps” if they did not comply. This was small but not insignificant progress: Russia might have baulked at an earlier version threatening sanctions but at least it signed, together with China. The greater challenge will be implementation and the focus should be on achieving the co-operation of key influencers, such as Russia (the Crimea crisis won’t help with that), Iran, China and the Gulf states. Even piecemeal local agreements alleviate some suffering and there is a chance that tiny victories could open the way for bigger ones: extended ceasefires that could be a possible precursor to peace talks.

I spoke recently to Rola Hallam, a British-Syrian doctor who volunteers for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria. She told me about Dr Amr, one of the last physician-anaesthetists left in Aleppo. He refuses to leave his besieged home town and has worked 18-hour days for many months on end. Amid the cruelty and chaos, there are Syrians such as Amr who refuse to give up and who are finding their own peaceful means of resistance. For every hate-filled fighter, there’s a volunteer offering to retrain as a medical worker, or a teacher who crosses battlefields daily to get to work, or a young man or woman prepared to smuggle food and medicine into cities under siege, knowing that every trip they make could be their last. Their stories are important, because it will be these Syrians, not the armed rebels, who will one day rebuild their society.

Occasionally when I watch footage of bombed-out Syrian cities on the news, I try to picture the country I visited in 2010. Syria today is an alien, distant landscape but I remember the solemn beauty of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the bustling Old City nearby, the courtyard restaurants that smelled of grilled meat and sickly shisha smoke and were popular with tourists, as well as the poky shopfronts crammed full of Iznik pottery, silver bangles and factory-made pashminas.

“You live in Libya? Muammar al-Gaddafi is crazy,” one shopkeeper said to me with a laugh as his friend did a cheerful impression of a madman. That Syria is hard to reconcile with what exists today.

Almost three years ago, 15 schoolboys were tortured for scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls and ordinary Syrians risked their lives to express their anger. That story still matters now. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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