Why Syria matters to me by James Longman
By James Longman, ABC News Foreign Correspondent
I became a journalist because of Syria. There is no other country for which I feel more strongly, or which has changed my life in more profound a way.
I first went when I was 19 for three months, a year into my degree in Arabic at SOAS. I went back every year after that – living there for a time between 2008-10 – and then eventually started reporting as the protest movement began in 2011. My last trip was in December of that year until it became too dangerous to continue.
I’m not going to go into all the clichés about life in Syria. About the beauty of Damascus’ old city. About night time shisha on roof tops, and ancient hamams. About glorious meals in ottoman courtyards and olive groves. About the smell of coffee and cardamom, jasmine and rose water.
You have no doubt heard about Syria’s history – its mind-blowing, awe inspiring and extraordinarily consequential history, marked by some of the world’s most important civilisations.
So as much as I’d love to, I’m not going to indulge in reminiscing about the Syria I knew.
What I am going to tell you about are its people. I’m fortunate to be able to travel a lot in my job to all sorts of places. And I’m fortunate to have met all sorts of wonderful and kind people along the way.
But Syria took me in because of its people. Syria matters to me because of its people.
From the friends I made when I lived there, to the refugees I meet in Lebanon and around the region, in camps across Europe or those who’ve made it to the UK – it’s their dignity which never ceases to amaze me. It’s a dignity born of the pride Syrians have in their country – and they have an awful lot to be proud about. I tend to avoid making broad, sweeping generalisations about anything. But in my experience, Syrians are some of the most dignified, proud and generous people I have ever met.
One of the first stories I ever wrote about as a journalist was from just outside Homs. Protests had broken out across the country, and security services had cracked down hard. I asked the group of activists I was with if I could meet someone who’d been hurt.
That night, we went to a small house, lit up with what seemed like a hundred people. On the floor of the living room was a man, probably in his forties. He was crying. I turned to the activist who brought me slightly confused, but he ushered me down to sit with him.
I did so, and he looked at me. “They killed my son,” he said. “Today.” He’d been in the street protest with his six year old boy, when gunfire broke out. He picked up his son, but as he did so, a bullet struck him in the shoulder. It passed through him, and hit his son in the head, killing him instantly. He died in his arms.
By now, we are all crying. I said to the activist that we should stop – that this man was obviously too distraught to speak. But the man stopped me. “Who else do I tell?” he asked.
I was 24, with next to no experience of journalism, listening to a story I was ill-equipped to hear. There was a lot I didn’t – and still don’t – understand about Syria. But I will never forget this man’s dignity and courage in that horrific situation.
Henry Kissinger said of the peace process “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.”
I’ll leave a debate about Kissinger to someone else, but the second part of that statement seems so true – and relevant to wider Middle East peace.
Syria’s conflict has had an impact on the politics of Europe and beyond.
Millions in Syria are still displaced, living in freezing camps, miles from home. Over half are children.
The fate of Syria and its people – who have dealt with 5 years of conflict with immense dignity – is an important story to tell.
A note on photos: James Longman with friends outside a place called Beit Sissi in Aleppo – which has now been destroyed and James in the hills outside Damascus. James decided not to submit photos including his Syrian friends so that they were not placed in any danger as a result.