The trauma of Aleppo: ‘Why do we expect them to care about us?’

“Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone, with the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran,” President Obama said last week of the barbarity in Aleppo, Syria, “and this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.”

My journalism students and I here in Dubai follow the news together closely to talk about stories and how they’re reported. We followed this one with some disappointment, however, because the president would not acknowledge the consequences of his own lack of action in Syria. And when his U.N. envoy, Samantha Power, talked about shame, my class could only wonder whether she had looked in the mirror recently.

For them, it’s no longer any wonder that neither the U.S. president nor any other American representative will be attending the next conference on Syria. Reportedly there’s a meeting in Moscow later this month to determine Syria’s fate: It involves only the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians. No Syrians. One student recalled a report that at an international conference on Syria held in Vienna last year, the only Syrian present was a waiter who was serving the diplomats.

The images of the destruction in Aleppo have haunted us all for days, and we all feel helpless. My colleagues include men and women from throughout the Middle East, and they have raised an angry chorus of blame. “Turkey is behaving in a wicked way because ISIS would not have done what it did in Syria without help from Turkey.” And, “Iran wants what it wants in the Middle East.”

A boy is evacuated by bus from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)
A boy is evacuated by bus from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

A couple of colleagues angrily accused Obama of backing Bashar al-Assad. “It’s obvious,” said a Jordanian. “If he made a nuclear deal with Iran, it means he’s on the same side as Russia and Assad.” As for his elected successor, another colleague predicted, that, “Trump will not do anything different.” Why? “Because there are two countries that decide everything: Israel and the United States.” For some, the horror in Aleppo is only the latest act in a plan to destroy the Middle East.

But while other Arabs are frustrated and angry, many of the Syrians I know seem stunned, understandably depressed and traumatized by what they have been witnessing. I spoke with a Syrian professor here in Dubai, and she said her Aleppo relatives had fled to Germany. They’re all safe. But is she following the news? “To be honest, I stopped reading about it,” she confided. “I just can’t,” she said, her voice trailing off.

I tell my students we’re supposed to learn from our past mistakes to avoid repeating them. We spoke, for example, of Dresden, Germany, a city that was reduced to rubble in a matter of days in 1945, killing tens of thousands of civilians. But after Dresden, we saw destruction and murder in the former Yugoslavia. In Rwanda. In South Sudan. And now Aleppo.

I have students from Aleppo. They said that when they visited their families last summer, they found their neighborhoods to be safe; there are parts of the city that have not been targeted. Still, they’re obviously shocked, and each has sought a way to deal with the anguish. One young man — a television production student — said he can no longer watch TV reports on the war: They’re “too graphic.” He still reads about the war, but he had to stop watching the TV footage when the airstrikes began.
Another journalism student had a more dispassionate reaction. She asked why Syrians expect anyone to sympathize with them when they did nothing for other people in crisis. “We didn’t react when there was suffering in Somalia or when the floods hit the Philippines,” she said. “Why do we expect them to care about us when we didn’t care about them?” She said she and her parents watch the news on television and continue to read about it. “We got used to it,” she said, sadly adding that it’s not the first time Aleppo has been ruined. “It’s been destroyed three or four times in history.”

One Syrian man told me how sad he is to lose the homeland he warmly recalled. I expected him to speak of Syria’s rich culture or the kindness of its people or even the damage to so much of its irreplaceable heritage. But I was moved when instead he focused on a tiny detail of his remembered life there, because it suggested how utterly the Syria of his memory was being erased. Many big things of memory — a city, stability, comity — were gone, and he was cherishing ever smaller, personal things. “The water was so good,” he said wistfully. “You could drink it straight from the tap, and it was cold and delicious.”

Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai.

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