Syria’s refugees: ‘Our generation got used to blood’
Today the UN high commissioner for refugees announced that the number of people who have fled Syria has reached two million.
Add to that the 4.25 million who have been displaced within the country, and that amounts to three quarters of London’s entire population being forced from their homes, out of the city, to stay with relatives or ramshackle camps abroad.
The extraordinary thing about the figure is that most of this has happened in the last year – there were fewer than 300,000 refugees in August 2012.
Each one, of course, is an individual story, usually a desperate one. Today I went to Arsal, a stony, bleak, mountainous area on the Lebanon/Syria border, where people fled after the Syrian government retook the cities of Homs and Qusayr.
Mariam, a svelte, middle-aged woman in a pink headscarf, used to have five children and a husband. One of her sons was killed, two others have been injured, and she has no idea where her husband is. At the moment, she and the remaining kids are living in a thin tent in a small camp. “What will we do when the snow comes?” she asks. “We have no blankets, no mattresses.”
An old man butted in to our conversation when I asked about the prospect of American bombing. “We don’t want promises any more,” he said. “We hope it happens today and we want to go back.
“Even if Bashar doesn’t want it, we will return to our country.”
‘Will they bomb?’
A crowd gathered round me, full of questions: Will they bomb? Why is the UK hesitating to attack Syria when they didn’t hesitate on Libya? Where will we stay in the winter?
How soon do you think we’ll be able to go home? Will you help us?
They were questions I found it increasingly difficult to answer. “All I can do is tell your story,” I said. It seemed like a particularly inadequate response.
At a clinic down the road, Ahmed was practising raising his leg with a weight on. He’s been in intensive treatment and physiotherapy since being bombed in Quasyr 18 months ago.
He was in a coma for weeks and for a long time could move neither his arms or legs. But today, he was keen to show me how he has learnt to walk again. It’s only a few steps, but he hopes that one day he’ll be able to work as a carpenter, as he did before, when he gets back home.
He is luckier than three-year-old Shadshamy who was carried in the arms of her aunt. I couldn’t see anything wrong with her, until they pulled up her dress to show the bullet wounds in her back. It went straight through her spinal column. Then I noticed how her legs were dangling. She will never walk.
‘Our generation got used to blood’
A young man with dark hair, in a turquoise T-shirt, came up to me. He didn’t want to give me his name – I assume he had been a fighter.
Before the war, he was studying to be an electrician. But now, he says he wants to study political science and war strategy.
“We have missed two years of education,” he said.
“Our generation got used to blood. What do you think will stop us now?”
I’ve been wondering what he meant by that. I think he meant that his generation knows no restraint, suffused as they are in suffering and violence.
Two million refugees isn’t just two million individual stories – it’s an entire nation traumatised by war, for whom the word “normal” may never mean anything again.
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