“Expat-ing Democracy: Dissidents, Technology, and Democratic Discourse in the Middle East”
Author: Nir T. Boms
Year of publication: 2016
They come in every day now, the body counts from Syria, consistent and painful: 141, 201, 152, 81 (a lucky day, that was). This past Sunday, 566 bodies were found, 483 of them in Damascus and its suburbs alone, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activist groups. Twenty-three bodies were found in Aleppo, 21 in Idlib, 15 in Homs, 12 in Daraa, seven in Deir Ezzor, five in Hama.
This is the highest number of dead discovered in a single day since the war began two years ago. But it is not the end.
March was the war’s bloodiest month to date, with more than 6,000 killed. The overall number of dead since the start of the 2011 uprising has reached 70,000, according to the United Nations. Opposition sources put the number closer to 120,000.
The task of attributing death tolls to particular days can be difficult when bodies turn up from killings that occurred days, weeks, months before. How to account, for instance, for a new stack of bodies that suddenly appeared in the Queiq River in Aleppo when its banks receded in January? All 110 had been shot in the head, their hands bound with plastic ties behind their backs. Many of them had disappeared months earlier, having been arrested for allegedly supporting the anti-Assad rebels. Since January, scores more bodies have been found in the Queiq.
Then there are the so-called “unknown men”: the 2,250 unidentified dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, believed to be fighters from abroad who joined the rebels. The breadth of the carnage is too large to grasp, which may help explain why so many of the dead remain unidentified, anonymous, unexamined. It is easier just to put another dot in a graph, representing another day of the uprising.
In the beginning, the death reports came with names and stories. Abdel Karim al-Oqda, a citizen journalist for the Shaam News Network, spent much of 2011 and 2012 posting dozens of videos from the uprising—before the Syrian army burned down his house and everyone in it last September. Twenty-four-year-old Basil Al-Sayid, dubbed the “eye of the truth” by online fans, chronicled the siege of Homs for several months with a handheld video camera. In December 2011, a sniper killed Al-Sayid as he was filming what would become his own eulogy.
Shukri Ahmed Ratib Abu Burghul, a radio presenter, was shot in the head last December after coming home from broadcasting his weekly program on Radio Damascus. Gilles Jacquier, a reporter for France 2 television, was killed along with his crew of seven while covering a pro-regime rally in Homs. Marie Colvin, an award-winning American journalist, died alongside French photographer Rémi Ochlik as they were fleeing an unofficial media building in Baba Amr that had been deliberately bombed by the Syrian army.
But by now there are too many stories, too many names to track. There were approximately 22 million people living in Syria when the revolution began. Since then, around two million have left, according to my calculations—though it is more accurate to say that they escaped. They now live in tent cities and refugee camps, or are staying with families who have opened their homes to them in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The latest report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 416,000 displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone, meaning Syrian refugees now account for roughly 10% of that country’s population. More than 130,000 Syrian refugees are currently waiting to complete applications for aid from the UNHCR, which doesn’t have the capacity to process them, let alone feed them.
The situation is even worse in Jordan, where the average daily influx of Syrian refugees rose to 4,000 in March from about 1,000 in January, according to the Jordanian foreign ministry. Jordanian authorities now estimate there are some 500,000 Syrian refugees in the country, whose population is six million. Not all refugees are documented, so the real number may be much higher. One Jordanian aid worker I spoke with recently estimated that “every fifth Jordanian is now a Syrian.” They are children, mostly. In the streets of Mafraq, where my friend works, there are no Syrian men in sight, he says. They were left behind to fight. Or they’re in jail. Or they’re dead.
Refugee women have it hardest of all. Many fled the horrific war, only to be raped on the way. “The conflict in Syria is increasingly marked by rape and sexual violence employed as a weapon of war,” senior U.N. official Erika Feller told the Human Rights Council in Geneva in February. This desperate situation is forcing some displaced Syrian parents to marry off their young daughters as child brides. Five hundred such cases have been recorded in Jordan in the past few months.
There are many stories behind the numbers, and too few are told. The Syrian catastrophe will not end on its own. The world must step in before we all become blind, before the conflict dissolves into mere death statistics.
Mr. Boms is the co-founder of CyberDissidents.org. He completed his doctoral work at the University of Haifa on the Syrian opposition.