In and out of Syria – the cradle of civilization
Since October 10th 2013: 144 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
The heart is just an organ that pumps blood
Sometimes I think that I might have seen and heard enough. I mean that both positively and negatively. There is no way I can share my experiences without channeling them through myself. I’m no recording device, which simply contains information until it is released. Sometimes I feel very, very full…
Arguably we have at least five senses: feeling, hearing, sight, smell and taste. I have felt the grip of a thousand hands, I have heard the voices of people from 144 countries, I have seen where countries meet, I could smell Canada’s trees hours before we could see land and I’ve tasted the salt of waves crashing in over my face. That is all fine and well. Would that be enough to prepare me for Syria?
This warning is from WikiTravel.
I applied for a tourism visa for Syria on December 15th and began to wait. After waiting long enough I began to draw on my connections and develop new ones. There’s a theory that there are only six degrees of separation (or less) between you and any living organism in the world. The idea links the chain of a friend, of a friend, of a friend and so on. The concept was originally formed in 1929 but all I want to say is that I know that there are only six or fewer steps between me and anyone I need to reach. You would be surprised how many influential people I managed to reach while waiting for the tourism visa! I know you would because I’m surprised myself. However a few weeks ago the Danish Red Cross (DRC) stepped in and offered to facilitate my visa application from Damascus. It may come as a surprise to you that even humanitarian workers sometimes struggle with bureaucracy, which they wouldn’t in an ideal world. I remember seeing a Red Cross ambulance in a port, where it had arrived after being donated by the Japanese Red Cross. The ambulance had been sitting in the port for six months when I arrived as the particular situation demanded that high taxes were to be paid before it could be released to the Red Cross. Let’s hope that the person who made that decision does not suddenly find himself in urgent need of an ambulance? Well as a goodwill ambassador of the DRC I’m not essential in the same way as humanitarian workers are. My role lies within positive publicity. For that reason it was unknown if I would get a visa through the Red Cross; if it would take weeks, several months or if it would ever be approved at all?
The Danish Red Cross has been present in Syria from even before the civil war.
I continued on making connections while we waited for the outcome of the Red Cross application. I do not know how close I got to achieving the tourism visa as it is well understood that we know what we have but not what we will get. And after only a two week visa process the DRC informed me that my visa had been approved. The overall situation of Syria is very delicate and I was asked not to inform anyone about going to Syria prior or during my visit. I was told that I would be heavily restricted during my visit and that the outmost caution had to be applied to anything I would say afterwards. While we act with our best intentions in mind we cannot always foresee the outcome of our actions here in life. In Syria that might be especially true.
As such I was collected in Beirut and brought to the Lebanese Syrian border which is a short two hour drive (69 km / 43 mi). I received my Syrian visa at the border, which was just a humble little stamp in the corner of my passport. Then we continued into Syria. What could I expect? Destroyed cities, burning tanks, dark craters… Nothing could be further from the truth. The one hour drive to Damascus (46 km / 29 mi) was as ordinary as in any other part of the world. The landscape was magnificent as we drove through green mountain passes, small towns and fields. It didn’t take long before we approached Damascus and what a magnificent city that is! Beirut is 5,000 years old and Damascus is at least 10,000. Where else in the world can you drive between two such ancient capitals? How many people throughout history have already done so in the past? The main road into the center of Damascus was wide and aligned with large building blocks full of life. We reached a large roundabout with a spectacular water fountain in its center and a large colorful sign reading: “I Love Damascus”. We had reached the Umayyid Square with its mighty “Damascus Sword’. There were still no obvious signs of any conflict. Just the magnificence of a city which could potentially rival Paris. Then we continued into a very specific neighborhood and I got to meet the DRC which were hard at work.
Life in the neighborhood was ridiculously normal to observe. There were no damaged buildings, the roads were in good condition, the shops were open and stocked, people played cards, smoked water pipe, took selfies, a policeman directed traffic, children on their way home from school, people waiting their turn to buy a sandwich, a blue sky above me, very clean city, green parks, colonial architecture…in fact you would need to have a very good eye to detect that something was not normal. Sure enough we had encountered several checkpoints on our way to Damascus and a great deal of NGO and Red Crescent vehicles were mixed with traffic but life appeared to continue startlingly normal. Startling as airstrikes and fighting was only taking place some 20 minutes away. How could life be so normal and yet so close to a completely different reality? It poses an interesting question: does the distance even matter? How far are you from Ghouta? How affected is your life from those who live amidst armed conflict? How close would you be able to go and still be relatively unaffected?
Damascus, the Four Seasons Hotel.
Damascus, Franciescan Church.
Ghouta is a countryside region and suburban area in southwestern Syria. It surrounds Damascus along its eastern and southern rim. It has historically been an oasis formed by the Barada river around the area where Damascus was founded. In the 1980s urban growth from Damascus began to replace agricultural use with housing and industry. 20 minutes away from where I was, life would be completely unrecognizable from what I was looking at. How surreal is that? Someone told me that what I was looking at wasn’t real “it is a bubble”. Don’t we all live in bubbles? How many bubbles does Syria have? Is Syria a bubble among the remaining countries of our world? I don’t know…but I do know that armed conflict is a losing game. I have seen far more hardship from the Sagas first 144 countries than what my heart can carry. And after all the heart is just an organ that pumps blood. I have seen so much more good in the world than evil, however the evil weighs in heavy. Syria is by far one of the historically most interesting countries I have ever been to! I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to research it well.
The Tikayya Mosque is not very old all things considered. It is buildt in Ottoman style and was completed in 1559 CE.
Amazing woodwork at Tikayya market.
Everything began here. Countless battles with countless kings have been fought across the soil of Syria. Nearly every famous traveler, king, emperor or historical figure throughout history came this way at some point. The national museum of Damascus contains relics and artifacts from every age, starting with the Prehistoric Age and extending to the modern Classical Age. The Al-Madina Souq was an important link in the ancient silk route and even today it is filled with exotic goods and stunning architecture. The very idea of civilization started in ancient Syria as the Mesopotamian civilization! The world truly owes this part of the globe so much. So how is it now? I really don’t know. I spent three nights highly restricted in a small part of a large capital. The people I spoke to were very civilized, well educated, very gentle and very polite. I do not speak much Arabic but I do speak many of the polite words that go with starting a conversation. In Damascus people would commonly greet me with ‘ahlan wasahlan’ which generally means ‘welcome’. However it is derived from its original meaning which is loosely: ‘may you arrive as a part of the family, and tread an easy path (as you enter)’. That beats a western ‘hey’ with lengths.
Mixed grill with hummus, tabouli and baba ganoush - Syrian style :)
Damascus, Al rawda Mosque with Mount Qasioun in the background. According to legend it was on Mount Qasioun that Cain killed his brother Abel.
Fatigue. There is a donors fatigue with Syria. Some call it a war while others call it a conflict. No matter what you call it, it began in 2011 and is now seven years of unrest in a magnificent country. Donations do not flow as easily towards Syria as they used to. People have seen and heard about the worst from Syria over the past seven years and the fatigue amongst donors is felt. I wonder how people would feel about donating more if they related more to Syrians? I have many Syrian friends by now and some are refugees. In Beirut I meet with Mohammed several times every week. Mohammed is a refugee but he does not live in a tent. He shares a small apartment and works hard at a café to pay rent. He is gentle, well-educated and polite. Every day he dreams of going back to Syria and continuing his life. What if the armed conflict in Syria is now coming to an end? If people knew that a few extra coins out of their pocket could make a significant difference to bringing families back on their feet, would they then reach for their pockets? You can only show me the horror so many times before I will turn away and find refuge in my bubble. But if you reach me by showing actual progress then I am easier to persuade. I don’t know about you but for me that difference could be the difference between reaching for $10 dollars or $50 dollars. There’s another fatigue which doesn’t come from the donors. This fatigue comes from the Syrians. Most Syrians are not involved with the conflict. They just found a way of living with it and they want it to be over. Can you imagine “finding a way to live with it”?
Nearly all the vehicles I saw were modern. However I chose to take a photo of this odd one out :)
Just a cafe like any other cafe anywhere else in the world.
On my first evening I found a café and ordered tea and arghile (water pipe). The café was full of young people and the flat screens were showing premier league. The music shifted between western and Arabic and on and off a Pepsi commercial would roll over the flat screens between the matches. I logged on to the available wifi and observed how ridiculously normal everything seemed compared to all the warnings visiting Syria came with and the horrible images from TV. Around midnight I walked back to the apartment I had been given and observed people sitting in the parks or quietly walking in the streets. I went up the stairs of the apartment as high as I could go. Then I stuck my head out of the window and listened. It was a quiet and cool night. I could hear thunder in the distance but I knew it was not thunder. I wish it was thunder but I know better. A cat silently moved about in the night. Then I heard a single distant shot. I heard the footsteps of a man walking home and saw him crossing the street below me. It was almost midnight. A few cars turned around a corner of the residential area. I listened to the “thunder” and thought to myself: some girl probably took a last selfie out of boredom which will never be posted. I heard no children screaming and no mothers crying. I only heard the sound of a television set from where I stood…
My view as I listened to the night.
The next day I was invited to visit a response point of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). I was accompanied by two SARC volunteers to the premises where I was introduced to Mohammed El Khalili who was the Manager on duty at the response point Mezzeh. He greeted me ahlan wasahlan and showed me around. He explained that they have two ambulances in connection to the response point and that they were both out responding to calls at the moment. There was an office. There was a room where they could rest, play games and watch tv. There was a room with beds for the nightshift. There was a room for small medical tasks but Mohammed explained that most often patients were brought to nearby hospitals. Finally there was a storage room and a garden. When I asked which items from the storage room they use most frequently he immediately replied: rubber gloves. Mohammed explained that the government used to manage most of the ambulance service before 2011 but now SARC manages at least 80%. Then the door opened and the team of one of the ambulances arrived. They were all dressed in their uniform and they were all very young. In their 20s if I were to guess. The spirit was high and so was the energy. SARC has lost a lot of good people over the years but it has not deterred these heroes at all. They are like brothers and sisters and they are often first responders. They set their feet on the ground as quickly as possible. It’s hard to wrap your mind around such dedication. We all went out to take a look at the ambulance which wasn’t new but it was still roadworthy. It had some scratched paint and a few dents. Apparently they use a lot of oxygen apart from rubber gloves. Unfortunately the oxygen is getting harder and harder to come by. Their last call before returning to the response point was an upper class man who had a heart attack in his home. So there’s a fatigue amongst donors? I know for sure that these amazing people will find a way to keep that ambulance moving even as the funds grow smaller and smaller. Horrifically I suspect that their passion is so strong that they would still be out there even when there are no more rubber gloves left. What are 20 year old Danes doing today? Or Americans or Germans? How remarkable these people are.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent are amazing!
As I mentioned I was heavily restricted during my visit in Damascus. The city has been divided into zones and only a few months ago more zones were open and classified as safe. However daily mortar attacks on the “safe part of Damascus” have restricted access even more. And even the area I could move about in was at risk. Mortars are like relatively small bombs which are projected into the air in order to land and cause damage. If a mortar hits a strong roof then it might only create some small damage to a few roof tiles as the energy is released into open air. However if it goes through the roof then the energy is released in a confined space such as a living room or apartment. In that case the damage is severe. There were several mortar attacks every day I was there. Usually in the afternoon and seemingly random as opposed to having a target other than the city. On and off rockets are fired upon the “safe zone” as well. And somehow it just becomes a part of normal life and people cope with it. On my last night we were sitting outside in front of a restaurant speaking about probability and how unlucky you would need to be to be struck by a random mortar in such a large city. How does that even compare to normal life in any other city? Anyone could fall sick from cancer…anyone could be near a gang war shootout? I really don’t know how it works but I know that I accepted the same risk as long as I was there.
I had this phone for a few days to stay updated and in contact.
On my first day one mortar landed in a nearby neighborhood. On my second day five mortars. On my third day several mortars. I left in the morning on my fourth day so I frankly don’t know how many landed that day but you get the picture. I was watching a little bit of television on my last night. It was around midnight and suddenly I heard a nearby explosion and the building shook a little. 10 minutes later it happened again.
Watching The Kings Speech in Damascus.
Cafe behind Hejaz Station.
Damascus, Al Hassan Mosque.
Have I been to Syria? Yes I have. Have I seen Syria? No I have not. I have seen a tiny part of Syria’s capital city. Perhaps some 15-20 streets in total. The day before I left I spoke to a local man who lives in Ghouta. Every morning he gets on the bus and comes to work in “my part of Damascus”. Every night he goes back home to Ghouta. It is incredible what people learn to live with in life. It just shouldn’t be like that! On that same day the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) was able to negotiate an open corridor and delivered food parcels for 27,500 people, flour bags and medical supplies to eastern Ghouta. The convoy consisted of 46 trucks. Meanwhile someone is taking a selfie… After all, the heart is only an organ that pumps blood…
Now minimum one dane loves Syria.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - heavy hearted.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga