In Assad’s Syria, Even Hope Can Kill You

Hope. I loved this word before I met my Syrian colleagues.

We are about one hour into the interview. Sitting across from us is a doctor, with whom I’ve worked closely for over two years. His organization has lost several medical facilities in airstrikes by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the last few months. He runs the last remaining children’s hospital in Aleppo. We ask about his motivations and about hope — why he persists while so many others have given up and whether any of his work might endure beyond the current horrific reality of the Syria’s civil war.

He listens patiently and sighs before answering. “Most revolutionaries died; they didn’t give up hope.” There is a pause. “Maybe I am crazy,” he says. “Maybe we all are.”

On cue, his colleague steps into the room and shows us a photo just sent from Aleppo. Another one of their facilities has been hit and is on fire. I don’t react. This is a scene I’ve seen repeated over the past four years of my time in this Turkish border city: bad news from the front lines, transmitted through the silent passing of phones, furtive eyes scanning texts and photos, a few whispered words. But the doctor’s response wipes me out of my trained state of numbness. He stands up, his mouth twisting in a brief involuntary grimace, and walks out of the room to meet his colleagues in the main hall. “It’s the children’s hospital that’s has been hit,” he calls out to us over his shoulder.

A small group of men and women gather in a circle, looking at the photo and then at one another. For a moment, there is only silence. The calm hides a slowly building collective acceptance of defeat: even after all the heartbreak of the past few years, this was a loss they were not prepared for. They know that there is nothing to be done from this border town to help their colleagues at the hospital. Then, if only to break the increasingly uncomfortable silence, they begin asking questions. “Was it a direct hit?” one asks. Yes, another responds. “Have we talked to those at the hospital?” “No, we cannot reach them. No one is answering,” a colleague replies.

Every time the Assad regime and Russia commit blatant war crimes, deliberately ending countless innocent lives, we expect a different reaction from the international community.

The same hospital had been targeted by airstrikes a few days earlier. The doctor’s organization had launched a campaign to raise awareness about the bombing campaign; the news was picked up by a number of media outlets and brought to the attention of international leaders. Now, in the circle of stunned activists and doctors, an argument begins about the wisdom of the campaign. One staff member says calling attention to the airstrikes was a mistake, as doing so may have pushed the Assad regime to target hospitals directly. Another, exasperated by what has been an ongoing debate within the organization, snaps back. “What are we supposed to do? We advocate, we get hit. We don’t, we get hit. It doesn’t matter!”

Being in the middle of this conversation suddenly felt invasive. The interview we were conducting now seemed silly, out of touch. I was embarrassed by the questions we had just been asking them, questions that sought, perhaps a bit too desperately, to find a positive side to what has been a daily disaster for these medical workers.

We quickly excused ourselves. But before we did, I felt obliged to ask questions. “Was it a direct hit?” “Have you talked to anyone in the hospital?” I don’t know why I asked the same questions to which I had just heard the answers. But I knew that more pertinent questions — “How many patients are in the hospital?” “Are there other locations they can be moved to?” “What happens if the hospital is out of service?” — would elicit unbearable replies. I value my numbness; I have become skilled at protecting myself from details. And knowing the details would not help those trapped in the rubble of the building or the newborn babies pulled from the incubators, lying on the floor suffocating from dust and smoke.

What is that old saying about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Every time the Assad regime and Russia commit blatant war crimes, deliberately ending countless innocent lives, we expect a different result, a different reaction from the international community. Some action to help those trapped by the constant bombardment of the warplanes. This insanity is addictive. It is our lifeline in many ways, giving us purpose and allowing us to have hope. 

Hope. I loved this word before I met my Syrian colleagues. More than any single atrocity in this conflict, watching this hope persist despite the odds has been heart-wrenching.

Hope. I loved this word before I met my Syrian colleagues. More than any single atrocity in this conflict, watching this hope persist despite the odds has been heart-wrenching. Despite what they say about having been abandoned, Syrians deep down still have hope that humanity will act in their favor. They hope we will not just stand by and allow for community after community to be consciously wiped away.

But hope has killed many people. By telling the world of the airstrikes, the doctors hoped Aleppo’s hospitals would be protected, only to see that hope betrayed in the days that followed. There are countless more examples of such betrayals. Syria’s activists tour the capitals of the world, put together the most moving short videos imaginable, write petitions, publish op-eds and reflect patiently on why they still have hope that a different future in Syria is coming. That future never arrives.

I want to keep hoping too. I really do. I want to not be overwhelmed by the situation. I want to stop trying to suppress the guilt of being powerless in the face of humanity’s most recent extermination campaign. I want to believe that my work matters. But today, as the 50,000 Syrians in the remaining five neighborhoods in opposition-held Aleppo city await their fate of forcible displacement or summary executions by Assad and Russia, one thought keeps circulating within my brain. Maybe we need to just admit that the doctor was right — that we really are all crazy to keep hoping.

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