BEIRUT: In the 16 months since the first public demonstrations against the Syrian regime, the state’s violent response and the armed insurrection that has sparked in its wake, conventional media still bears remarkably few reliable Syrian narratives of events in that country.
With many details patchy and restricted to online media’s shards of image and sound, one of the most interesting sources to emerge from the country so far is “A Woman in the Crossfire, Diaries of the Syrian Revolution.” Compiled and written by Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek, this nonfiction work is far more than a diary. It is replete with heartbreaking series of testimonies by protesters, activists and political prisoners.
Thanks to her skills as a fiction writer, her book is infused with a hauntingly poetic narrative style. Chilling, disturbing, but irresistibly compelling, “A Woman in the Crossfire” paints a picture of how, in four months, a peaceful uprising turned into a bloodbath.
Yazbek’s book makes no pretense of being an impartial account of events on the ground. Rather than providing a clinical assessment of events, Yazbek injects her sadness, disbelief and horror into every sentence.
An early description of the pro-regime fighters known as “shabbiha,” (thugs) – their “puffed-up muscles, tattoos, broad chests, an arrogant gaze, death” – anticipates her evocative description of their driving: “their screeching tires, like a scream … their car speeds away like a shot.”
Even in those passages where violence is averted, dread hangs heavy in every word.
In what is perhaps the book’s most harrowing scene, Yazbek is taken on a grisly tour of the regime’s underground torture chambers to witness the horrors in store for her if she fails to cooperate with the regime.
Like a documentary-maker using beautiful framing, she employs the language of art as a grotesque counterpoint to the devastation and destruction she describes.
In one cell she sees three young demonstrators hanging from the ceiling, blood covering their bodies, “deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter … an exhibition of the art of murder and torture.”
A prominent intellectual in Syria before the uprisings began, Yazbek comes from a well-to-do Alawite family. Over the years her novels had garnered attention for their treatment of such taboo topics as lesbianism. When the uprising began, she was still expected to unquestioningly support the Alawite-dominated Baath regime.
When the Syrian demonstrators took to the streets in March 2011, Yazbek turned out to publicly align herself with the anti-regime movement. Her family and many of her friends disowned her, branding her a traitor to the Alawite community and the regime. She reports that shabbiha distributed leaflets inciting the people to kill her.
Abandoned and threatened by her former support network, Yazbek continued to support the uprising, collecting testimonies from demonstrators and secretly recording them when her channels of public expression – the press, opposition websites and Facebook – were blocked by security forces.
These testimonies cast light onto how events began in cities such as Deraa and Baniyas, which were besieged and cut off by the regime, making media coverage almost impossible.
They reveal a movement clouded in confusion and chaos, made up of people risking their lives to fight an enemy that was impossible to pin down. In the early days of the uprising protesters repeatedly report their confusion – Who are the snipers killing demonstrators from the rooftops? Where are all the thugs coming from? Whose side is the army on?
There is also an overarching sense of surprise and betrayal at the extent of the brutality with which peaceful protests are met. One man reports how during one march a line of riot police herded the unarmed protesters, then dropped to the ground so a row of gunman could open fire, indiscriminately killing men, women and children.
Some tales are unexpectedly heartening, the stories of unsung heroes who display incredible courage in the face of violence. There are also several accounts of soldiers, told they would be fighting “armed gangs,” who defected – risking their own execution – rather than kill unarmed civilians.
Alongside these first-person accounts, which provide a glimpse into the experiences of the demonstrators, readers also observe the cumulative psychological effects of the violence on Yazbek herself.
Though she remains largely unharmed physically, the torment she suffers from the threats she’s faced and the strain of recording others’ horrific experiences begins to assume physical symptoms. Yazbek reports she’s unable to sleep without the aid of Xanax, shakes constantly and can barely keep from weeping while recording testimonies.
After repeated kidnappings by the security forces – who forced her to tour their hidden torture chambers week after week, helplessly witnessing the agony of those within – she continued her efforts. In the end it is her fear for her 17-year-old daughter that persuaded her to do what everyone has been advising and flee the country in July 2011, four months after the start of demonstrations.
“A Woman in the Crossfire” provides an as yet unmatched insight into the early months of Syria’s civil conflict, revealing how violence escalated within a matter of days.
It is a disturbing read and not for the faint hearted. That said it is a must for those with more than a passing interest in Syria. Within its pages are the words of the ordinary individuals who together form the backbone of the Syrian opposition. Their testimonies express the humanity of those struggling, in all its fragile nobility.
Samar Yazbek’s “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution,” 269 pages, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss, is published by Haus Publishing London and is available from Librairie Antoine.