Voices from the Battlefield: Inside the Syrian Crisis

The scariest thing I did today was risk water damage on my MacBook while I listened to music in the shower. If a single twist of fate would have kept my dad in Syria 50 years ago, the end of my last sentence could have been immensely more petrifying. 

Damascus, Syria. 1969.

At 17 years old, my father, Basam Smesme, graduated high school at the bottom of his class. Like all teenage boys in his country he patiently awaited enlistment in President Hafez al-Assad’s army. Unlike all teenage boys in his country, he was not willing to accept this fate. 

With the help of a friend with a fake passport connection, a convenient promotion to army convoy driver, and a healthy dose of street smarts, my dad created his own fate. He used his convoy truck to smuggle goods across various borders and saved up $2000 USD this way. At the earliest chance, he abandoned the army and secured a Visa to America. Thirty days later, he was at the Damascus city airport. His parents and his brother, an army colonel, stood at the gate to support the youngest boy in the family in his pursuit of a better life. He tells me he will always remember that as he walked into the hallway towards the plane his mother yelled after him, “I don’t like America! People go there and they never come home!”

He kept walking and never looked back. Little did he know he wouldn’t make it home for another 10 years. 

Damascus, Syria. 2015.  

At 17 years old, Zain Smesme is faced with a similar choice: stay in Syria and follow in his father and uncle Basam’s footsteps, join al-Assad’s army on his 18th birthday and discard what could be his only chance of a better life elsewhere. Or… leave.

Daraa, Syria.  2011.

In March, a group of schoolboys no older than 15 walk down the dusty streets and stop to paint “down with the regime” on a wall, copying a popular slogan from the square protests in Egypt and Tunisia. Days later they are each abducted, held in a prison cell under a Syrian military general—the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad—and tortured for two weeks. Meanwhile, protests in Daraa (pop. 70,000) grow from the boys' immediate families to an assemblage of 20,000 people.

The regime’s response was harsh and swift. Security forces gunned down at least 150 Syrians during the weeks surrounding the abduction. While the boys were released from prison alive, many of their family members were tragically killed in attempts to bring them home.

By July 2015, the number of Syrians who had taken to the streets rose to hundreds of thousands. President al-Assad’s early responses tended towards more security force crack-downs, rather than negotiating with dissenters.

This August, the UN reported that over 250,000 Syrians have been left dead in the wake of this five-year conflict. The same number of refugees reached Europe this year hoping to seek asylum. At least 12 million Syrians have been forced from their country.

Today, no one is safe. Terrorist, government, and rebel factions are increasingly prone to massacring innocent people. Six thousand civilians in rebel-held regions have been killed by government aircrafts, and countless have died at the hands of rebels in other areas, particularly those associated with the government.

As I sit on Facebook chatting with Sara, Zain's sister, she recounts some of the violence in the town right outside of Damascus where her (and our fathers) were raised… the same town where I last saw her and Zain ten years ago.

“It’s a bit scary but somehow we got used to it, “ she says humbly.

“Sometimes it’s good, and other times, like today, it gets worse. Like today there were a few bombshells near our place [and] unfortunately two people were killed… We get hit three times a week at least.”

 Do you know which groups are bombing?

“We call it the Free Army, it keeps targeting our suburb. If you remember, our suburb is called Al Assad, like the President’s name. So they really hate it… [We get] hit more because it is a place known for colonels and army officers.”

How is your daily life affected since the suburb has become more dangerous?

“Everything is harder now, and every day we hear about someone dying or getting hurt. Like today I was at work when I heard how bad it was near my place. I got so scared for my family and I wanted to get back as soon as possible. But at the same time I was afraid that something might happen on my way there… still when these shells hit the ground even from far you can feel the ground shaking a bit and hear the noise.”

Jihadist terrorist groups like ISIS are not the only groups fighting against the Syrian government. The Free Syrian Army, which Sara mentions, is a military revolutionary force established at the start of the civil war by a group of defected soldiers from the President's army. Opposition groups like the Free Army claim to not target civilians, although the world has witnessed them do exactly this, time and time again. 

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was formed in August 2011 to investigate civil and human rights violations. This year they revealed evidence of war crimes committed on all sides of the civil war, including murder, torture, rape, enforced disappearances, and using civilian suffering as a method of warfare.

So, does one stay or does one go? There are about 22 million Syrian citizens, and so far over half of them have decided, or been forced, to abandon their homes and loved ones in pursuit of a safer life.

In August of this year, my cousin Zain packed up a single backpack and hugged his mom, dad, sisters, and brother for what could have been the very last time. Seven months of planning and convincing his parents, plus a lifetime of daydreaming had prepared him for this very moment.

“I had to do a lot of self-proving,” explains Zain. “[My parents] wanted me to stay at least for another year… So I would gain more life experience, so I would have a better chance of making it on my own. You can’t really blame them, I mean… I had a history,” Zain playfully hints at the ongoing struggle between him and his parents, as they tried to keep their most adventurous child in the nest as long as possible.

Zain’s Journey. Late August- Early September 2015. 

The coastline of the Aegean Sea in Izmir, Turkey. August 2015. (Photo: Zain Smesme) 

The coastline of the Aegean Sea in Izmir, Turkey. August 2015. (Photo: Zain Smesme) 

“That’s the distance between Izmir and Greece,” Zain clarifies. “It’s about 40 km.”

What are you doing in this photo?  

“Wishing myself luck for the next day.”

At his third stop, Zain made it to Izmir, Turkey. The day this photo was taken, he was preparing to join a fleet of rubber rafts pulled by a boat 30 miles across the Aegean Sea in order to reach Europe.

A few days earlier, Zain had left Damascus for Lebanon, the only country where Syrians can legally cross the border at the moment. From Beirut, Zain crossed to Turkey and made his way to the docks of Izmir to meet a smuggler he found on Facebook. After seven hours of waiting while the waves went down and the coast guards retreated, the smuggler arrived. He pulled Zain and fifty other refugees from Turkey to the nearest Greek island. 

Middle East Region. Based on UN Map No. 3877 Rev 7.  2008.  NOTE: Map number has been removed. 

Middle East Region. Based on UN Map No. 3877 Rev 7.  2008. 

NOTE: Map number has been removed. 

Central and Eastern Europe. Based on UN Map No. 4102 Rev 5.  2011.

NOTE: Map number has been removed.

To reach Athens, Zain had a choice of a 45 mile walk to the docks (nothing outrageous for this sort of trek) or to illegally bribe a cab driver, if he had the extra cash. There refugees can obtain exile paperwork to board a ship to Athens. From Athens, Zain passed through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary on foot, or by bus if he could arrange it. In Hungary another smuggler was required to reach Austria and beyond.

Why do you need a smuggler in Hungary?

“Hungary is in the EU,” Zain explains to me over Facebook, “so if you get caught there, they will make you print your thumbs. If you do, according to the Dublin treaty, you have to stay there… And if you get printed in Hungary and arrive in Germany, there’s a big chance you’ll get sent back. Then, Hungary sends you back to, well… point zero. A.K.A. Syria.”

“There is a whole network I can’t even begin to talk about,” Zain goes on, “Not just smugglers, but also people like me now who can give advice, etc.”

Zain’s journey lasted nearly two weeks, and finally led to him to Kiel, Germany. “I’ve had my best and my worst moments in my life in those two weeks,” he says candidly. “I did arrive without getting robbed… so I’d say it all turned out for the best.”

The northern province of Kiel has been much less impacted by the influx of Middle Eastern migrants than other places. Zain found vacancy at a refugee camp that offers dorm-like bedrooms, individual mattresses, and closets. “Luckily I’ve ended up in a good camp,” he tells me; he compares it to other camps where refugees must sleep in parking lots filled with hundreds of Red Cross cots.

Kiel, Germany. November 2015.

Last week I opened my Facebook inbox to one of the more enthused messages I’ve received from Zain. “I finally left that s**t hole!”

Zain and four (out of eight total) minors from the camp were recently relocated to live in an off-site apartment, where adult supervisors visit them daily. The Red Cross connected Zain with a job as an English-Arabic translator at a Middle Eastern café in Kiel. They pay him in meals, but Zain is just relieved to have a free ride, wifi access, and anything other than camp food. He was finally able to secure a legal guardian, and his application for asylum is now underway.

Are you still glad you left Syria?

“Of course… I’ve been wanting to leave for as long as I can remember. It’s been a running joke in the family since I was three feet tall that I was gonna be the one that got away… Everyone saw it coming.”

Zain hopes to resume his English language courses as soon as possible and enroll in university next year. He will remain under the jurisdiction of the refugee camp supervisors in Kiel until he can reunite with his family or until his 18th birthday in June 2016.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.