Browsing in a branch of Waterstones out at Fort Kinnaird some weeks ago, I noticed a paperback called The Stray Cats of Homs
I hadn't come across before. The author's name, Eva Nour, is a pseudonym. The book purports to be a novel, but it's more of a novelised memoir, not of the author herself, who is Swedish, but of her partner, Sami, a Syrian refugee she met in Paris where she was working as a journalist. The pseudonym is to protect her partner's identity more than her own. Technically free, fear is ever present in the nightmares he continues to suffer.
The story begins with two young children, a boy and his sister – Sami and Hiba – on the rooftop of their family home in the city of Homs, north of Damascus. They've found a bird caught in glue on cardboard boxes intended to catch stray mice and are trying to release it. They cut its claws from the cardboard and wash the glue from its feathers, but it seems unable to fly. Perhaps its wings are too wet? But even when dry it's still reluctant to move. Hiba tells Sami how to raise it up and throw it into the air so it can spread its wings and take flight. But when he does so it plummets to the ground three storeys below and breaks its neck. An evocative metaphor for those caught up in the terrible times ahead.
At the time, the children are happy enough. They've friends, go to school and play in the neighbourhood. Life is pleasant. The family isn't wealthy but comfortable. However, the adults are wary about whom they know and what they say and do. At school, the children wear military style uniforms. Military studies is on the curriculum. Each morning they have to chant, 'With our soul, with our blood, we submit to Al-Assad' and vow to fight for 'unity, freedom and socialism'. In the school yard, speakers play martial songs, identifying Israel as their principal enemy.
When Sami grows up, his father wants him to study medicine or join the army, the latter because of the perks it would bring, but Sami opts to study IT instead. In his spare time, he does the accounts for a local restaurant owner. When he goes to the bank, a teller asks for a bribe. Sami complains to the bank manager who laughs and tells him he can pay the bribe to him. Corruption abounds.
In order to defer military service he escapes to Lebanon, but on his return he is arrested and sent to prison for a spell of degrading punishment. Despite the privations, he is spared the extremes of violence meted out to selected inmates and survives. Many do not. Once he starts his military service proper, he has six months of basic training, then is assigned to a cartography unit far from the front line. He's tasked to produce maps for the army on manoeuvres.
Resentment at the oppressions of the regime has been simmering for years and suddenly erupts at the punishments meted out to youngsters in Deraa who post graffiti extolling the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Protests escalate. Regime soldiers break away and set up the Free Syrian Army (FSA). When Sami's contract is up, he returns to Homs, then in the grip of a siege by the regime forces aided by Russian fighter jets. His family leave for the countryside. He stays, along with his younger brother, a mere teenager, enduring the bombing, the rocket attacks, the sniping, the senseless destruction, the lack of food and water. Everything we have become horrifyingly familiar with over the years from news bulletins.
Sami refuses to join either the FSA or the regime army, nor an offshoot of Al Qaeda who come calling. Instead, he gets work providing photographs for Western media outlets. Of those who stay, thousands are killed or die of starvation. Houses are pulverised and crumble into rubble, including his home. His brother is killed. So are several of his friends. He wanders the ruins like the last man on earth.
Finally, having had enough, he negotiates his way to freedom, a journey full of risk and expense, which begins with crossing a six-lane motorway, a political red line that cuts through the city, littered with corpses, victims of sniper fire, until, over the border in Lebanon at last, the French embassy in Beirut grants him a visa. It's a grim irony to consider him one of the lucky ones.
A vividly written book and a heart-rending story. For a week in late February 2010, my husband and I visited Syria. A guided tour that started in Damascus, took us south to the Roman ruins of Bosra, east to Palmyra, north to Aleppo and west to the Crusader castles like Krak de Chevaliers. It was a memorable trip. I was fascinated by the history of the region, but my husband, who speaks Arabic, talked to local Syrians, in the bazaars, hotels and cafés we visited. He picked up an atmosphere of discontent and unease. We also noticed every so often uniform beige jeeps with plainclothes men, clearly state surveillance. We saw them in Palmyra, dispersing pedlars as a procession of visiting dignitaries arrived, and on the way to Krak tailing our bus.
The Syrian civil war continues, although no longer dominating the headlines, displaced by more recent preoccupations, but its fateful consequences are still playing out all over Europe, far worse than we could ever have imagined when it started. 'Do not come to Europe', Donald Tusk warned. But come they still do, at great danger and expense, not knowing what awaits them.
There may be opportunists and undesirables among those setting up camp on Europe's western coast, but they're not criminals simply by virtue of being there. What they're trying to escape is not their fault. What they had has been taken from them. Someone somewhere needs to take responsibility for their welfare. Something, absolutely, must be done.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh