The Crossing, by Samar Yazbek


Samar Yazbek is a Syrian journalist and activist. Since civil war broke out in her country against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad, she has lived part time in exile in Paris, and part time back in her country. Though she is Alawite like Assad, unlike the majority of that subgroup of the Syrian population she has sided with the rebels against the government.

The Crossing is her account of three of her trips back into her country as the civil war raged. Each time she has to sneak back illegally in and out of Syria. The bulk of her time in Syria is spent in the town of Saraqeb, though she ventures into other areas as well.

Her trips to Syria have two main purposes. One is the journalistic one of finding out what is happening on the ground and how people are experiencing it and then reporting that, such as by writing this book. But she’s also there to assist in building some kind of civil society in the areas that have been liberated from the government. So while the bulk of the people—especially the males—are focused on fighting the government (and other rebel factions) the bulk of the time, people still have to live, they still need other services and activities, so she tries to help as far as children’s education, women’s home-based businesses, etc. Kind of like Gandhi’s “Constructive Program” for villagers. (Any progress made in these areas turns out to be frustratingly slight and slow in a war zone.)

Yazbek’s gender is relevant to her experiences. Venturing into a civil war multiple times is going to be fraught with peril regardless, but in addition she has to deal with being female in a society that’s not exactly progressive on gender issues. The more secular rebels are OK—though well short of ideal—but the more fundamentalist Islamic types are decidedly not. More than a few of them basically regard women as breeding chattel, to be kept hidden away at home or if let out at all to be fully covered in a burqa. So she has to be sensitive to her environment and make tactful decisions about how to dress, how assertively to behave, etc.

Worse yet, she’s an Alawite woman, and so is associated with the group that many of the rebels perceive as having been oppressing them.

(By the way, I was struck by how constantly Yazbek—a self-identified feminist—describes the Syrian women and girls she encounters as “beautiful,” while much, much less often focusing on the looks of the males when praising them.)

Yazbek is solidly on the side of the rebels, but not all the rebels equally. She favors those fighting for a democratic, secular Syria (most of whom used only peaceful means when such means seemed to have any chance of success, only turning to violence after the Assad regime commenced massacring civilians). It is with great sadness and anger that she witnesses the rebels coming to be gradually dominated instead by the extremist Islamic factions, many of whom are made up of mostly non-Syrians and who basically behave toward the Syrians as particularly brutal conquerors.

Some of the rise in strength of the extremists and the drop in strength of the indigenous more democratic rebels is attributable to the brutalization caused by Assad’s tactics. Some also seems to be attributable to intentional policies of the Assad regime to alter the makeup of the rebel forces so as to make them less popular and less the sort to be sympathized with by Westerners. (For instance, the timing of the release of ISIS-types from government detention—while the democratic, secular rebels continue to be tortured and killed—seems suspicious.)

But by far the most important factor, according to her account, is that the extremists are very well supported by foreign powers and the democratic rebels are not. ISIS and their ilk are loaded with weapons, and they have access to a great deal of money to pay fighters to join them and such, whereas the non-extremists are broke and have little more than pea shooters to fire back at the army’s artillery shells and bombs.

One of the themes of the book is that the West is utterly failing to do its moral duty to level the playing field by properly supplying the democratic, secular opposition to Assad. I’m sure one of Yazbek’s main goals in writing the book is to change that.

I sympathize, but this is not exactly a no-brainer.

For one thing, who can you really trust to intervene in a situation like this with pure motives of safeguarding human rights and helping bring about a peaceful, democratic, progressive society in Syria? Americans tend to take it for granted that they are well-motivated like that, but the evidence is mixed at best.

Think of it like this: If the appeal were to Iran, Russia, Israel, China, whatever, to intervene in Syria in a selfless fashion just to bring about the most just results for the Syrian people, we’d laugh at the naiveté of it. We think of it as self-evident that other countries act out of self-interest (or to further the interests of their biggest businesses or whoever has the most clout with them) at best, and out of inexplicable evil at worst, and not out of some sincere desire to do good for others. But we’re a lot less able to see that that applies depressingly often to our own country’s international behavior as well.

Not that there’s an exact equivalence. You have a little more hope if your “Come help us out of the goodness of your hearts” plea is directed to the U.S. and certain Western nations as opposed to Hezbollah or Joseph Kony (and within the Western regimes you have a lot better shot of finding people with at least some conscience and at least some commitment to human rights if we’re talking about, say, Obama and his people rather than Cheney and his people), but it’s always problematic to some significant degree to expect moral motivations from states.

But even assuming the purest of motives, it’s really not easy to assist all and only the “good guys” in a complicated, chaotic, civil war. There is always a plethora of deception, uncertainty, and unintended consequences in such a situation.

I mean, haven’t we been down this road multiple times before? Each time we think we can help a situation by getting involved in a war we’re told we’re only going to do what’s necessary to help one side (or at least the “good guy” portion of that one side), and that it’ll then be on those folks to do their own fighting. I’m sure you can cite instances where that has more or less worked—where the side we assisted did indeed prevail, and went on to govern in a way at least somewhat close to what they had promised—but I’ll bet there have been at least as many instances where it has failed.

So I’m not saying Yazbek is just dead wrong in calling for people outside Syria to supply her preferred rebels with arms and such, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of getting the word out about how the Syrians are suffering and rousing us out of our laziness or apathy to get us to do the right thing. I think there are legitimate reasons to doubt that the American government, say, genuinely favors a democratic, secular, human rights-respecting Syria, and that it would know how to bring one about if it did.

The Crossing is a harsh, depressing book. It’s another one of those books I read due to some vague sense of obligation to remain informed about what’s going on in the world and to keep my eyes open to the ugliest aspects of human behavior, or probably at least as much due to the same morbid curiosity that causes us to slow down and rubberneck at the site of a bloody accident. And as always there’s a part of me saying, “But unless you’re actually willing and able to do something constructive to help such a horrible situation, and reading this book is going to facilitate your doing so, why keep subjecting yourself to such depressing material?”

The book is page after page of injustice, death, children missing limbs, people living in squalor, destruction, religious primitivism, and just constant human suffering. There was no way I could keep track of all the characters and all the events. It quickly becomes a succession of horrific images.

Yazbek is certainly well aware of that nature of this material. She admits that when she left Syria after her third return trip with the intention of writing about her experiences, she found that for a long time she was too overwhelmed to do so. “The enormity of the injustice and the daily massacres had left me speechless.” Eventually she found the strength to say what she felt she needed to say, but this is a painful book to read, and I’m sure was a considerably more painful book to write.

She’s also well aware how her account just lays one brutality on top of another. “Perhaps my descriptions of these images of destruction are getting repetitive.” Well, yes, they are, though that’s not necessarily to your discredit. These are ugly truths that need to be told. Even if all one does is give a comparative handful of people in a struggle like this the opportunity for their suffering and death to not be completely anonymous and forgotten, that’s of some value in itself.

The Crossing is written from the heart, skillfully and effectively. To highlight this, I’ll close with one of the most moving passages:

Finding yourself on the ground in a revolution doesn’t require any observation or analysis; you don’t need to know how each day will end. All you need are calm nerves and the ability to stay on top of things minute by minute, quickly pinpointing the safest exits, staying as far away as possible from the bombing—which is actually impossible—and ensuring there are doctors and paramedics on hand, as well as activists to document the latest casualties of Assad’s warplanes and missiles. You have to keep an eye on the Internet in the hope that it won’t be cut off, leaving this small patch of land isolated from the rest of the world as it faces utter annihilation. You also need to be aware of the most minute details and, most importantly, you must hold yourself together and stand strong when confronted by mutilated human body parts and the colossal destruction of homes, never forgetting, even for a moment, that your own collapse makes life harder for everyone around you.

You simply have to walk up to tiny fingers and gather them up from under the rubble. Just pull out the body of another child, her clothes still warm from her urine. And then move on to the next site and carry on searching for more victims. You must forget the faces of the victims so that you can write about them later, so you can tell their stories and narrate to the outside world how their eyes shine as they watch the sky that showers us with barrel bombs and deadly gifts. It makes no difference if you are capable of analyzing what is happening; you don’t have time to wonder why civilian houses are bombed to smithereens—is it to undermine the popular support for the rebels?—or why the humanitarian projects that activists come back to work on in areas liberated from the regime’s control are also targeted. Is it because the regime is targeting military supply lines? None of this matters on the ground. What matters is that you stand up proud and strong as the sky hails down barrel and cluster bombs, nailing you to the spot in fear. This is what I was thinking when the sky lit up again.


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