Samar Yazbek is the author of “A Woman in the Crossfire” and the winner of the 2012 PEN/Pinter Prize for international writer of courage. This essay was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.
I am two women. They stand head to head, at loggerheads.
The revolutionary in me joined what started as peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian government in March 2011.
The novelist in me fled to France that July.
The revolutionary, who has several times since then furtively crossed the border back into her country, is steeped in the smell of blood. She wipes the dust off the corpses of children disfigured by violence, stops to wring out her heart, then carries on.
The novelist struggles to close her eyes to the atrocities: She can’t take any more. She begs the revolutionary to stop walking through Syria’s circles of hell.
But the other voice rebukes her: “It is up to you to step into this hell, to bear witness to it, darling novelist. It is up to you to work against all that is dark and violent, everything that is leading your country to ruin.”
The novelist, living in exile, in the world of politicians and diplomats, far removed from falling shells and sudden death, wonders whether Syria should be hesitant about welcoming military strikes from the West. She argues that no country has the right to interfere in the affairs of another, that independence and national sovereignty are sacred. And she questions whether hitting military targets without taking down President Bashar al-Assad, especially while Russia and Iran continue to support him, will bring a shift from the inhumanity that the regime has imposed.
The revolutionary, moving among guerilla fighters and civilian activists, stands by those who are living under the regime’s bombardment and dying at the hands of its military machine. She argues that sovereignty shouldn’t mean the freedom to kill one’s own people, to displace them or to force a sectarian wedge between them. She notes that the soldiers she overheard speaking Farsi when the rural town of Haish was annihilated are evidence that international intervention happened long ago. She adds that Syria is not the Assad regime. Syria is the Syrian people.
The novelist looks on with bewilderment at the religious extremism of groups supposedly representing the opposition: preventing women from going out in public, carrying out arrests, threats and killings, all in the name of Islam.
The revolutionary, who has met with leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other influential jihadist battalions, is gripped by fear at what they represent. But she believes that Assad has encouraged them, knowing that an unsavory alternative to his regime makes the international community hesitant to intervene. She has interviewed dozens of jihadists who told her they had been in Assad’s prisons until they were suddenly released at the beginning of the revolution. She believes that Assad’s violence gives them legitimacy and that only the elimination of the regime can rescue Syrians from the increasing threat of extremism.
This same woman has witnessed the presence of moderate fighters and heroic civilian activists who have not received the support they need. And she recalls long talks with Syrian families who reject the exclusion of women and with the mothers who keep walking their children to school, despite the continual shelling by Assad’s warplanes.
The novelist regrets that the opposition movement has evolved from its peaceful origin. She refuses to condone, let alone applaud, armed uprisings. “Isn’t political opposition the better alternative?” she meekly suggests.
The other woman laughs in her face and rejects her logic. “What are you waiting for, you futile scribbler, when more than 100,000 people lie dead and thousands are imprisoned or missing? When hospitals are being shelled and doctors targeted, when there are massacres in bakeries and people are deprived of water and electricity? What more do you ask of your people? What kind of justice is it that you’re after?”
These two women crash about beneath my skin, colliding at every twist and turn of this unfinished narrative. But there’s one thing they agree on: Anything that might bring a definitive end to the murderous Assad and his regime is a force for good. The question is: Does the world really want to stop these atrocities, or is it happy to stand by and watch?
Also in this week’s Outlook section: Art critic Philip Kennicott explores why images of suffering don’t galvanize public outrage, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger says sometimes being anti-war requires embracing force, Eliot Cohen debunks five myths about cruise missiles and William Dobson reviews a book on how presidents go to war. Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.