Yisser Bittar, a Syrian-American, tells us that since she was a little girl she used to travel to Homs every year to visit relatives. Due to the civil war and intense fighting in the city, she was unable to visit last year, but says that she and six other Syrian-Americans managed in December to travel to a town north of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army. She shares her impressions – and emotions – further below.
Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level source of information about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.
With Syrian expatriates having begun to enter areas of Syria now under rebel control, we have expanded the series to include their accounts.
Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names. Accounts may be edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.
By Yisser Bittar
She refused to even look at me. The wife of a Free Syrian Army soldier refused to look at me when I asked for her forgiveness.
We were visiting her home, just an hour after one of the Syrian government’s Sukhoi fighter jets had dropped a barrel bomb about 500 meters from where we were staying on our visit to this town. The bomb was loaded with diesel fuel, shrapnel and TNT. It killed 18 Syrian civilians in less than five seconds, wiping out two entire families.
Within that one hour, I experienced shock, fear and anger. Shock that we had witnessed what we had seen back in the States on YouTube videos hundreds of times over; fear as the plane buzzed by three more times and we held our breath as we waited to see whether or not we would survive; and anger at how unfair the world is.
If we seven Syrian-Americans had been killed by an Assad airstrike, the world would care for at least a week, but because those two families were just Syrians, they are 18 of the scores of Syrians that are killed each day in this war, now in its 23rd month.
Consumed by Syria’s revolution
I am Syrian-American, born and raised in the United States. My mother and father are both from the city of Homs, and I have spent every summer in Homs since I was born.
My life has been enveloped by this revolution as I watch my loved ones fight and die for their right to love their country. The Syrian diaspora is a vital part of the revolution but the international community has more or less abandoned the people of Syria as they face snipers, tanks, MIG and Sukhoi jets, and the threat of chemical weapons; but there is only so much we can do.
I traveled to Syria to connect directly with the people on the ground in order to find ways to strengthen and revitalize our support for the revolution. What I saw was a heartbreaking reality.
“I held back tears when young men in the refugee camps chanted, ‘You are only good at taking pictures.’” – Yisser Bittar
The Syrian people feel and know they have been abandoned. Whether it is by the diaspora, the Arab states or the West, they trust absolutely no one.
My heart was wrenched every time we were asked about our intentions during our visit. I held back tears when young men in the refugee camps chanted, “You are only good at taking pictures.”
Recitations of our false promises
I sat in silence as my people recited our false promises of aid and support. I nodded in agreement when I was told that these Syrians will refuse any humanitarian aid if they sense there is a political agenda. I had nothing to say.
For almost two years, the Syrian people have gotten nothing but lip service. As Assad has starved, raped, destroyed and murdered his people, the people of Syria have heard nothing but words of condemnation of the government from the international community.
I don’t blame them for their anger. I don’t blame them when they ask me, “What do you want from us?” I don’t blame them when they refuse to have pictures or interviews taken; two years of media coverage and the promises of aid and victory and they see that nothing has come of it. The Syrian people know that the world is aware of their tragic fate and that the world continues to turn a blind eye. They are angry and how can I blame them?
“She had every right to continue her blank stare when I asked for her forgiveness.” – Yisser Bittar
As I was walking out of the Free Syria Army fighter’s house, a sense of shame overtook me. His wife had every right to refuse to look at me. She had every right to continue her blank stare when I asked for her forgiveness. I asked for it because we were leaving. Running away.
I was a Syrian, turning my back on my fellow Syrians to run to safety.
I was not the West nor was I the Arab states. I was one of them, but I am privileged to be American. With that privilege, I can flee war and return to safety, turn my back on my people who are left to wait and see if they will live to see the next day.
And all they can do in the meantime is watch their children play soccer in the streets as women go about about taking down their laundry.
NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.