Today, March 15 2019, marks eight years since the war in Syria began. The war was cataclysmic not only for the small, ancient Levantine country, but for the world surrounding it: People who’d never heard of Syria would learn of its whereabouts, and a refugee crisis would ensue. The Syrian crisis would become a talking point for presidential nominees in American elections. The war became so turbulent and complex, human-rights groups would find it impossible to keep count of the number of Syrians who’d been killed. ISIS would destroy Syria’s most beloved historical relics in Palmyra, or sell them for money to fund their terrorism.
The war is extremely convoluted and difficult for Syrians themselves to even delineate. Even the language we use to describe the actors in the war is complicated. Who are the bad guys, and who are the good? Who do we refer to as “moderate,” and who do we refer to as “terrorists”? ISIS and al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) were the only groups that received unanimous condemnation from civilians. As Syria slowly improves, Syrians are returning to their old homes or finding new ones in their hometowns — my family’s village on the outskirts of Homs was evacuated in 2012 when ISIS raided it, but my family returned to their village about two years ago when conditions boded a return to normalcy (as normal as a place can be following street warfare and regular car bombings).
Syrians and those who have followed the war don’t even agree on how to describe the war itself — The Syrian War, or The Syrian Civil War?
In the last two years, Syrians have begun returning to their cities from wherever they sought refuge, often from Australia or Germany. When I visited in October 2017, life hadn’t changed much in my father’s west-coast village near the Lebanese border, besides the increased security at the borders. Other locations, of course, weren’t as fortunate — in July 2018, 200 Syrians were killed by ISIS in home raids and suicide bombings in Sweida, a city in the southwest. The fear of air strikes always looms, and those living in the West and planning to visit their family have to follow the news extremely closely to make sure they won’t be caught in the middle of warfare.
Many Syrians are hopeful, though. Rumors are spreading that Palmyra will be opening for tourism this summer, and a recent report from Aleppo describes the efforts of Syrian architects to rebuild Aleppo, erasing the scars of the war as much as they can in an effort to reclaim one of Syria’s many jewels. Architect Bassel al-Daher describes covering charred building surfaces with white paint to rehabilitate the Saqatiya market, which dates back to the Ottoman period.
There’s a desire, I’ve gathered, from Syrians to reclaim their identity; to communicate Damascus as the oldest inhabited city in the world, rich with culture, rather than the capital of a devastated country; to both accept the baggage of the calamity while not allowing it to color the universal perception of their people as broken or resigned; to honor the innocents killed at the hands of several different belligerents on the soil their forebears lived on for centuries.