For Syrians, military strategies of food deprivation, siege, and starvation are both present and past.
In a Cairo newspaper, under the headline “News from Syria,” a journalist relayed a harrowing account of one family’s exodus from their war-torn home:
A Moslem family arrived in Egypt from Tripoli, Syria, about a couple of weeks ago. The account of their escape reads more like fiction than reality. During many a long night, patiently and secretly, the work of building a small skiff was carried on inside the house; and, as soon as it was completed, the frail boat was launched on a rather rough sea. Even the old mother was dumped down in the boat under the cover of darkness, and the journey to a place of safety—the name of which is withheld for obvious reasons—was a long drawn agony; the occupants of the boat were almost all the time waist deep in water, and it was only through tireless and desperate baling that the constant danger of sinking was averted. To have thus braved such a voyage the situation left behind must have been as bad indeed as death.
Today, this story of escape, of war-hardened migrants braving the waters of the Mediterranean, does not sound like fiction at all. The reality of the twenty-first century is that such perilous journeys in unsafe vessels remain one of the few options left for those fleeing wars and violence, and those seeking to escape economic hardships—conditions, in other words, “as bad indeed as death.” The sea, an unforgiving mediator on which many refugees have staked their lives, has taken its toll: The United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees reports that in 2015 over a million migrants (the daily average reaching 2,700), most escaping the ongoing conflict in Syria, arrived in Europe by sea. But this story of a desperate Syrian family fleeing their home by makeshift boat is not one of those stories: It is the account of a journey undertaken nearly a hundred years ago by a family whose trek was one among thousands in its own time, though few such journeys were remembered. And while it bears striking resemblance to what we see in the daily headlines of 2017, this article was documenting the trauma of another war, the First World War, that much like the chaos taking place today, made home front conditions unlivable.
Given conditions on the ground, it is little wonder that Syrians today are following the same path trod by thousands of Syrians a century go, escaping their homes by any means necessary.
The year was 1917, and it was, of course, a desperate year for many. In Europe, the Great War was nothing but carnage, as more than 1.5 million men were killed on the battlefields that year alone. The lack of relief and military setbacks caused French troops to mutiny, while German Gotha airplanes bombed civilian targets in England. After German U-boats sank an American steamer, President Wilson declared that the United States would enter what until then had been referred to as the “European War,” and the first American troops landed on European shores that year—the same year that the Bolsheviks seized power over the Russian government and exited the war. In the Ottoman theater, the year meant territorial losses, as the British entered Baghdad and captured Jerusalem. International news offices buzzed then, as they do today, with reports on troop movements, politicians’ wisdom and folly, and mortality statistics.
Military and diplomatic stunts were the daily headlines no one could escape. But often forgotten in such accounts were the harrowing tales from the Great War’s home fronts. These were the stories that I sought to unearth in my book, The Charity of War. The book tells the story of a hundred-year-old calamity, a man-made wartime famine so devastating that a news story of a mother selling her child for a pound of flour surfaced in the Cairo press in 1916 just a year prior to the story detailing the escape of the Syrian family on their make-shift skiff. The accounts over which I poured in the course of my research seemed like macabre harbingers of the modern-day headlines I would read throughout the days of writing. I felt as if the voices of those who suffered then had become so much louder, and I heard their agony just a bit clearer. And writing became ever more urgent.
The ongoing war in Syria and the humanitarian crisis generated a different sensitivity toward my historical actors. Century-old tales of famine and starvation prefigured 2016’s headlines: Alarmed gasps resounded when reports emerged that the starving residents of the Syrian town of Madaya were subsisting under siege on soup made of grass. Speculation around the accuracy of the reports soon emerged as the press was unsure who or what to believe. The portrait of life in Madaya, with starving mothers waiting anxiously for the smallest of handouts from the anti-government forces to feed their families, was bleak. The New York Times struggled to “independently verify the reports,” though international aid workers who had “visited the town or been in direct contact with groups on the ground provided accounts that echoed the residents’.”
In response to the reports of starvation, Médicins Sans Frontières operations director Brice de le Vingne exclaimed: “This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy.” Despite these cries, starvation continues to surface as a feature of the Syrian conflict. Only a few weeks ago the haunting images of 34-day-old Samar Dofdaa reminded the world that the war in Syria is far from over, even if our own political crisis in the United Sates has distracted us from what is going on beyond our borders. Like the famine on the home front of World War I, starvation in the Syrian conflict highlights yet again that war is not simply bombs and bullets. It is the suffering of civilians—intentionally imposed food and supply shortages in this case as in so many others. It is a clear breach of the Geneva Convention, and where are we to begin with Human Rights violations?
Like the famine on the home front of World War I, starvation in the Syrian conflict highlights yet again that war is not simply bombs and bullets.
Given conditions on the ground, it is little wonder that Syrians today are following the same path trod by thousands of Syrians a century go, escaping their homes by any means necessary. While preparing my book for publication, I revisited sources detailing civilian suffering and flight during World War I, and I read them differently. Treacherous waters, tireless baling, and astonishing endurance now read like another account published by one of the many contemporary international journalists who took the time to hear “small” stories of escape, like that of Alan Kurdi, who drowned with his older brother Ghalib and his mother Rehanna in 2015. The image of Kurdi’s small body, lifeless and washed ashore, shocked the world,reminding everyone that at the other end of the “migrant crisis” was a human story of unspeakable loss.
Refugee children are still struggling to escape violence. What has changed since Alan Kurdi's death? https://t.co/9MkGFVaNZA— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 3, 2016
The Kurdi family’s story was an instance that defied the anonymity and anomic character of a modern society of strangers. We learned the details of their journey and family members’ names echoed in news stories around the globe. The visual evidence, emotive interviews with the surviving father, framed by human rights organization’s statistics formulated a humanitarian narrative par excellence and evoked (as Thomas Laqueur wrote in 1989 in The New Cultural History) “a moral concern engendered [...] by the pain of a stranger crying out.” Readers were drawn in, their morbid voyeurism generating (to quote Walter Benjamin) a “hope of warming [our] shivering lives with the deaths we read about.” It was a fleeting story, as is so often the case. The image of the blue-jeaned child was soon forgotten; the cries of his guilt-ridden father were soon replaced by bigoted and xenophobic tirades from some in migrant-receiving countries. And the international stream of news returned to subsuming individual stories into abstractions, even as the Mediterranean continues to consume one precious life after another.
The account of ordinary Syrians remains largely untold.
These stories, the firsthand experiences of Syrians living with the consequences of war, too infrequently told in our own time, were also underappreciated during the tumult of the early twentieth century. It is not that no one wrote or that the stories were deemed too personal or too insignificant. After all, soldiers had kept diaries, nurses wrote their memoirs, and journalists, like today, eagerly recorded the human story. Their accounts remind us that beneath the story of nations going to war lie not only the uncountable experiences of those who carried out the task, but also of those who desperately sought to survive the next day, the next week, and perhaps even—if they could manage it—the entire war. Historians of the Great War long have taken on the task of listening to these stories and have strung together the individual pieces into narratives that recount four years of carnage from the perspective of those who felt the war’s effects on their homes, their families, their everyday. The account of ordinary Syrians however remains largely untold.
It only seems fitting that as streams of Syrian refugees continue to leave their homeland—as a result of what has no doubt been the largest humanitarian disaster of the twenty-first century—that we remind ourselves that this is not the first time that Syrians left behind what must surely “be as bad at death.” For Syrians, military strategies of food deprivation, siege, and starvation are both present and history. The past and present suffering is a reality that deserves our full attention. The Charity of War tells a small piece of that story.