Syrians turn to black humor amid misery

December 21, 2012

The letter from a Syrian child offers Santa Claus some advice for his visit this year. He should not come in his sleigh, because “not even a fly” can now survive the fight for the skies going on between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel opponents. But most important of all, Santa must not wear his traditional outfit.

“Blood is everywhere, and we hate all shades of the color red,” the child writes.

The letter, circulated by a resident of the battleground’s biggest city, Aleppo, is one of several poignant pieces of Christmas satire springing up as Syrians contemplate their desperate year-end situation.

Stuck between a murderous regime and a rebel movement whose own abuses and failure to deliver basic services are causing growing public anger, it is becoming ever harder for many civilians to see how a good outcome is possible, let alone attainable. The lethal five-month stalemate in Aleppo encapsulates a spreading sense of Syria’s abandonment to unending war, the government’s brutality becoming ever more heinous while the armed opposition squanders the moral legitimacy of its initially peaceful struggle against dictatorship.

“It is a terrible situation in Aleppo. Nobody knows when it will end or where it will go to,” said one Aleppine whose business has been destroyed by the fighting. “It seems like the world is enjoying this tragedy movie.”

Once a stable trading center of an estimated 2 million people who watched as the rebellion spread elsewhere, the ancient city has been consumed by conflict since rebels occupied large parts of it in late July. It is now the site of the most acute humanitarian crisis in a country overflowing with them. Its population is suffering critical shortages of bread, as bakeries have been destroyed by government shelling and wheat from silos in opposition-controlled areas has not reached those bakers who remain.

Prices of many basic goods in the city have risen a hundredfold, while essential products ranging from medicine to fuel are — as in other opposition-held areas — extremely scarce. Another of the dark and resonant spoofs in circulation among Syrians features a picture of a gas canister of the kind used by many people for cooking, with a poem beneath it written as if by a desperate lover.

“My lady, love for you has ruined me,” it reads. “To get closer to you, I had to appease and kiss the hands of the most corrupt, and I had to chase speeding trucks.”

Many independent analysts and some opposition supporters say the rebel decision to push into Aleppo before they could capture it was a serious mistake that bodes ill for populations elsewhere as the conflict spreads, particularly in the capital, Damascus. Unable to administer a city they don’t fully control, the Aleppo rebels have been condemned for failing to relieve civilian hardship and for overseeing the kind of payoffs and profiteering every conflict brings.

“Aleppo was a major rebel screw-up at a political level, a military level and in the lack of supplies,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Some fear that this error could be repeated in Damascus, where opposition fighters have been steadily extending their control of crucial suburbs. This week they battled for control of the Yarmouk refu­gee camp, just south of the city center.

It is this slowly ruinous yet apparently unstoppable creep of Syria’s long war that makes the parodies of daily life that people are now sharing via e-mail and social media so heartbreaking. While Christians are a small minority in Syria, there is nothing sectarian about these Christmas messages that speak for the suffering of many millions in this heterodox country at the heart of the Middle East.

As the Syrian child concludes in his letter to Santa, “The most important thing is to be considerate to the feelings of the hungry people here — so please hide your big belly.”

— Financial Times

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