The Syrian tragedy grows more ferocious by the week. I was shocked to learn this weekend that at least 2,000 Afghans, the poorest of the poor from the harshest country on earth – who fled the Soviet invasion of their land and then the post-Russian civil war and then the post-civil war Taliban and then the post-9/11 Taliban – are trapped in basements in Damascus, unable to flee Syria or return to their forlorn land. Theirs must be the most hideous nightmare, for most of them are Shia Muslims, despised by the Taliban and now by the Sunni rebels trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Since Assad is an Alawite, which is a form of Shiism, these Afghans are regarded as pro-regime by the Syrian opposition and accused of siding with the government. At least 10, I’m told, have been killed by car bombs and bullets. Most live around one building and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees knows of them – but when 10 families volunteered to leave two weeks ago and return to Afghanistan, the UN told them it could not assist their passage or guarantee their safety. Now this miserable community is appealing to the generosity of Canada to help them.
“We are with neither side of the hostile parties in Syria,” one of them has written from Damascus. “We came here to solely survive the war which was going on in our native country.” Perhaps Canada can save them. Certainly the rebels will not. Nor can I see the regime, fighting its way across the ruins of Syria, caring for their lives now. The Lebanese have now taken so many hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, they are unlikely to open their borders to Afghans. Do we care about them? Will Canada?
I cannot help but be astonished at the vast population movements across the Middle East. In the 1970s and 1980s the Afghans were pouring in their millions across the Pakistani and Iranian borders. Tens of thousands of Lebanese regularly fled their civil war into Syria. Then in 1990, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis fled across their border from Saddam’s invasion – followed by a Biblical exodus of Kurds towards Turkey. Then millions of Iraqis fled their homes after America’s 2003 invasion and poured into Syria and Iran. And now the Syrians are living in the hundreds of thousands in Lebanon: a quarter of Lebanon’s population. In some mountain villages above Beirut, local authorities have even declared a curfew on the streets for Syrians.
They now beg on almost every street in the centre of the capital. Aggressive shoe-shine boys haunt the Corniche outside my home. “From Syria,” one said to me at the weekend, pointing to his filthy clothes and demanding money and pursuing me down the street, grabbing at my shirt. Of course, I gave him money. Syrian women sit now at the street corners, filthy children beside them, pleading for even a few Lebanese coins. The Lebanese economy groans under the weight of the huge camps opened along the border for the refugees. They are crossing now in vast numbers into northern Iraq and a giant city-camp exists for them in Jordan.
And I find myself wondering what catastrophic effect these mass migrations are having on the Middle East, destroying whole societies, ripping up tribal and family identities, turning the peoples of the Muslim (and Christian) world into huge armies of homeless and broken people. What effect does this have on religion, on their faith? Almost without recognizing it, we are faced with what must be the largest migration of souls across frontiers since the refugee treks which followed the end of the Second World War.
That conflict, too, was followed by misery and hunger and disease. Unsurprisingly, polio has broken out in Syria and 20 million children are to be vaccinated across the entire Middle East, from Turkey down to Gaza and Egypt. But now Egypt is giving Syrian refugees a rough time. Favoured by Mohamed Morsi – before the army chucked him out – Syrian refugees could access Egyptian healthcare and education. Morsi, of course, supported the rebels in Syria and broke off relations with Assad – one reason, perhaps, why the US smiled upon him – although the Americans may not have noticed his relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
But within days of the military coup in Cairo the so-called “interim” government now in place brought immigration restrictions back, and the Egyptian press, as lickspittle now as it was during Mubarak’s heyday, began a campaign against both Palestinians and Syrian refugees, claiming that the Syrians had supported Morsi. One media presenter, as Cairo researcher Jasmin Fritzsche has pointed out, has even demanded that Egyptians destroy the homes and shops of Syrians if they did not withdraw their support from Morsi.
What is this vast brutalisation, the streams of refugees over the past decades – and here we must remember the 750,000 Palestinians whose lands were taken by the new Israel more than 60 years ago and whose descendants live in the filth of camps to this day – going to do to the region? They wash up in the seas off Australia or die in the Mediterranean, or struggle across Turkey in the hope of reaching Europe. They are people-smuggled, reduced to starvation, raped. What new harshness of spirit will spring from all this torment? Sweden perhaps understands this with its generosity towards the Syrians. Maybe Canada will help the Afghans of Damascus. But I fear the world, scarcely blameless amid all this sorrow, will close its borders tighter and blame the victims for their own desperation and throw at them some cash – as I did last week scarcely a hundred metres from my Beirut home – in the hope they will go away.
It’s a long way to defend Tipperary
Back to the Great War again. Not to those wretched poppies – which must now be tucked away until next year’s fashion show – but to a wonderful little book on Ireland’s fine county of Tipperary during the 1914-18 conflict.
Tipperary was itself a garrison town, and the wounded from the Somme – Britons, as well as Irishmen in British uniform – arrived in their hundreds to remind the people of the island of the cost of a hecatomb for which they – and they alone in the United Kingdom – would not be conscripted.
But the British did their best to persuade them to go to war.
My favourite line in this book by John Dennehy – now a colleague on an Arab Gulf newspaper – recalls how The Nationalist newspaper claimed that “Belgium’s soldiers were modern-day Spartans fighting in Thermopylae and protecting Ireland from invasion”.
A pleasant myth for the pro-British press to foist on the Irish, perhaps – but it would surely have mystified the broken Belgian soldiery as they retreated into the beautiful but soon-to-be-destroyed city of Ypres, the only bit of Belgium to remain in Allied hands.