A Poet Captures the Devastation of the Syrian War
Russian forces are bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with firepower from the sky, ground and sea in a new escalation of the bloody four-year battle in Syria. Although it is hard to imagine a war that has displaced millions of people getting much worse, this new phase only adds to the violence.
According to The New York Times, “the coordinated assault reveals the outline of a new alliance between Syria and its main allies—Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.” Their purpose is broad: to repel rebel attacks against the current government, which includes pushing back against Islamic State.
The U.S. this year launched its own war coalition against Islamic State. It includes Arab allies such Saudi Arabia and Western nations such as Britain, France and Canada. While the goal of the U.S. is narrower—to battle Islamic State alone—it is in alignment with Assad and Russia, whether it wants to admit it or not.
On the ground in Syria, a bewildering multitude of rebel groups and coalitions abound. It is no wonder that a steady stream of refugees is fleeing toward the only nations that will have them: Germany, and to a lesser extent, other European nations.
In a recent interview on “Uprising,” Syrian-American hip-hop artist and activist Omar Offendum drew a line between U.S. post-9/11 policies and the debacle in Syria, saying, “It’s impossible to not see that linkage between what many would see as the war crimes of the Bush era, and the unraveling of Iraq, and what is happening today in Syria. The direct link is ISIS, even in the name. [ISIS is the acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria].”
“It’s painfully clear now to many people over the world that people are profiteering off of war and death, and I think that is happening on all sides of the equation in Syria,” said Offendum, who uses a stage name as an artist but also for protection. He cited the money being made by weapons manufacturers, as well as by human traffickers. “It’s no longer in the interest of anyone, unfortunately to see this end,” he added, “except for, of course, the average Syrian, which is where my heart lies.”
As in any war, it’s the ordinary people in Syria who are paying the heaviest price of all. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, the latest death toll in Syria is 123,316. The majority of those who have been killed are civilians, and nearly 15,000 are children.
Despite these grim figures, political paralysis over the war exists in part because of the confusion over the large number of actors and multiple and overlapping allegiances. We crave the simple equations of “good guy vs. bad guy,” but in Syria’s case, there is no such clarity. According to Offendum, “people, especially activists, get way too comfortable in these binaries. And this conflict has turned all of that on its head.”
Yet there are clear violators of human rights in the war, and Assad is the worst of them. Appallingly, some on the left have defended the Assad regime despite his long and undemocratic hold on power, as well as his well-documented use of barrel bombs, sarin gas and other hideous instruments of mass killing. Despite the confusing number of sides in the war, Offendum agrees that the Syrian government has left little doubt about its immorality. Islamic State is also a clear violator of human rights—of that there is no doubt, simply because brutality is central to the group’s raison d’être. The targets of both Assad and Islamic State are ordinary, innocent Syrians.
Now that Syrian refugees are literally washing up on Europe’s shores, there is a greater sense of urgency to the crisis. But Offendum fears that the attention will be short-lived, saying, “There’s been all this talk of wanting to do something for so long, and red lines being drawn in the sand. But in the end, nothing is being done to help Syrians.”
As a child of immigrants, Offendum is particularly sensitive to the pressures of refugees fleeing the violence. “Although my family left many years ago, I think my father saw the writing on the wall. I think about the sacrifices that he made to get us here, to get us our passports, and I appreciate it now,” he mused. Offendum’s father was from Hama, a city that, according to Offendum, “in 1982 suffered at the hands of the father of the current dictator, where [10,000 to] 40,000 people were killed within the span of a week.” The killings were a reprisal against a popular uprising.”There were no camera phones back then, no cellphones, nobody recorded or documented it,” said Offendum. In fact, one of the only Western journalists who reported the massacre was the intrepid Robert Fisk. That massacre, little known to the outside world, embedded a fear so deep in the Syrian imagination that Offendum called it “generational,” carried by people and their children, even to far-off places as they emigrated out of Syria. He recalled “family members whispering the name of the Assad regime thousands of miles away. It’s difficult to see it happening again and again.”
Offendum stays in touch with many family members who remain in Syria. While there are differences of opinion over how to tackle the war, “At the end of the day for ordinary Syrians,” said Offendum, “they just want the violence to stop, they just want some semblance of normalcy in their lives.” Because of digital communication, Syrians are able to talk about the war from inside. “Even amidst the carnage,” said Offendum, “people are still filming and tweeting and posting. Citizen journalism became a really big thing. There are still people in Syria risking their lives every day to document the horrors of this regime, to document the horrors of ISIS, and of daily life.”
Offendum has used his art to speak of things about his homeland that are hard to express in prose or statistics. As an independent hip-hop musician and poet, he said, “I’m inspired, I’m devastated, and I channel those feelings, those emotions, through my art, my lyrics, the music, and the melodies, and the rhythms. I hope people can latch onto them emotionally, just to remind them of the basic humanity that binds us all.”
In the middle of our conversation, he recited a few lines that are a fitting lament for the victims of the Syrian war:
Another arbitrary red line Caught up in the headlines. A couple hundred thousand dead, fine. Mothers out of bread, cryin’ Something’s gotta give. Why her baby gotta suffer? Suffocating in her crib Stuff I can’t even make up I’m wondering how I’ma live Guilty just by wakin’ up I’m shaking seeing millions of my family members breakin’ up And taken hostage by a separation Six degrees of sick beliefs that cost us a generation Six feet deep below the pavement.
Find out more about Omar Offendum’s work at www.offendum.com.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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