What can I say to make you care about Syria?

Paul Conroy, the photojournalist injured in the attack that killed Marie Colvin in Homs, says he "can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness." When will people start taking notice of Syria again?

One comment has haunted me after a debate I attended last night, hosted by Save the Children and Intelligence Squared. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photojournalist who was injured in the attack in Homs that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, had just been asked about returning to Syria. Conroy, whose leg with severely damaged with shrapnel, isn’t yet mobile enough to return to war zones, and in any case most agree Syria has become too dangerous for journalists – 36 Western journalists are known to be missing, many more may have been kidnapped and are being kept under a media blackout for their own safety. But Conroy had one more reason for not yet going back: “I can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness,” he said. 

The Syrian war is one of the gravest humanitarian crises in living memory – Conroy, who has reported from the Balkans, as well as conflicts in the Middle East, says that it is “by far and away the worst conflict I’ve ever covered”. Around 11,000 children have been killed so far, and the Oxford Research Group has found that children as young as one have been tortured and executed. Many millions more have lost their homes, are going hungry and are living through the terror of war. Polio has returned to Syria for the first time in 14 years, and with medical supplies at dangerous lows and around 60% of hospitals damaged or destroyed (according to WHO) many Syrians will die from disease, as well as from the direct effects of conflict. The UN believes 100,000 have already been killed in fighting. But is there any point in me writing this, or of journalists risking their lives to report on Syria – does anyone care anymore?

Perhaps it is simply that the full human cost of the Syrian war is too vast to comprehend. Rola Hallam, the Syrian doctor who witnessed the incendiary bomb attack on a school, which featured on a Panorama documentary earlier this year, believes this might be one of the problems. “There’s almost a level of disbelief in the public and in the government about the atrocities that are happening,” she said last night. I understand her point – I re-watched the footage of children running into a field hospital with their clothes and their skin hanging off them, covered in burns, and if I had quite been able to comprehend the full horror of what I was seeing from the comfort my chair, I would have been permanently changed.

It could also be that people don’t understand what’s happening in Syria. With so few journalists able to operate within the country, Assad’s propaganda campaign has gained strength. Many saw the chemical weapons agreement as a sign that the worst of the conflict was over, forgetting that many are still dying from conventional weapons every day. The story of the Syrian war has changed from being a simple narrative of innocent civilians against the evil Assad regime – the rebels are guilty of war crimes too, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have joined the fight against Assad, so perhaps people aren’t sure who they’re meant to be supporting any more.

Then there’s the problem that even if you feel moved to action, no one really knows what to do. Moral disgust is a pretty futile emotion if you don’t do anything with it. Politicians have fallen quiet since the chemical weapons agreement. No one in government is discussing military intervention any more, and in government circles talk of securing humanitarian corridors has gone quiet. What cause do ordinary people in Britain have to rally behind?

There are few small things you can do. You can research NGOs operating in Syria, and donate to one you feel is making a difference. You can talk and tweet about Syria, and help restart a conversation that will force politicians to moot radical action to get aid into Syria, and to work harder towards securing a peaceful resolution. You can keep yourself informed, so that activists like Rola no longer feel, in her words, that she’s “shouting into a vacuum”. You can learn to care again.
 

A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. Photo:Getty.

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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage