It’s midnight and the temperature is close to zero in Presevo, a small town on the border between Serbia and Macedonia. A thousand people are standing in the snow, waiting patiently and silently to go through a security check. Many of them are holding small children in their arms, trying desperately to keep them warm. Others are supporting older relatives who can hardly stay awake, as the line slowly moves forward. Some are pushing a family member in a wheelchair. The most unfortunate of them have to do all three things at once. There are no photographers or television crews around—the people in this line are not “newsworthy,” so long as they don’t make any trouble. A thousand just like them arrived here yesterday. A thousand more will arrive tomorrow.
Yet these people are the beating heart of what policymakers these days bluntly refer to as “the European refugee crisis.” They are running—oftentimes literally—out of Syria and Iraq, two countries that no longer exist, except in outdated maps and lousy diplomatic negotiations. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with more than 70 of them at a transit camp, located halfway into their journey from the collapsing Middle East to Western Europe. It takes almost a month to complete their exodus—walking into Turkey from Syria, taking vans and broken buses across the Anatolian Plateau, sailing on small boats into Greece, and finally riding overcrowded night trains through central Europe until reaching Almania, the Arabic name for Germany.
On the surface, it’s very easy to explain what these people are running away from: They are escaping a brutal regime that just last week was accused by an official U.N. investigation of conducting “mass extermination” inside its overstocked prisons. Most people you know would probably make a run for it if they found themselves living under such a regime. But in my conversations with these refugees, I discovered something much more disturbing. It’s not just the “mass extermination” they are running away from; it’s also how the world has lately come to accept it, depriving them of any hope that there will ever be an end to this slaughter.
The transit camp where I met these refugees is located approximately 1,150 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border but still almost a thousand miles away from Berlin. Most people arrive there after more than 20 days on the road, with at least five more days of travel ahead of them. Many told me some variation of the sentence “I haven’t slept for more than a week.” And yet, even though the Serbian authorities offer them the chance to stay for a few nights in the large, white U.N. tents at the center of the camp, very few choose to do so. Most of them stop for registration, take some tea and biscuits offered by a local aid organization, and move on. Rumors about a possible decision by the German government to close its borders because of immigrants’ involvement in crime and terrorism are a constant source of paranoia. Such a decision, if taken, would put these people in limbo—can’t go back, yet not allowed to move forward. So it’s best to keep moving.
“Many people don’t want us in Germany,” said Majdi, a 22-year-old student from Damascus, who is on the road together with his parents and two siblings. “I know there are big protests in the streets there against Merkel, because she’s letting us come. That’s why no one stops along the way, even if they are sick, even if they have a sick baby. The most important thing is to make it to a safe place as soon as possible. All the other problems will wait.”
This wasn’t my first encounter with victims of the civil war in Syria. I met Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2011, when the war had just started. In 2012, I smuggled my way into northwestern Syria, to a rebel-controlled area that was completely bombarded by Bashar al-Assad’s military. A year later I returned to Jordan’s border with Syria, which by then was hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees in “camps” the size of a city. In 2014, I traveled across the border triangle of Turkey-Syria-Iraq, just as ISIS was making its debut on the world stage. The one rule that applied to all these past visits was still relevant during my reporting trip in Serbia last month: What you hear on any given day is always worse than what you heard last time.
During my first Syria reporting trip, back in 2011, I heard gut-wrenching stories of mass shootings and cruel torture techniques used against children. In late 2012, people were already telling me about entire neighborhoods being razed to the ground, and there were also the first rumors that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. When ISIS took over large parts of the country a year and a half later, I heard about institutionalized human slavery and about 10-year-olds being taught how to behead living people.
All of that was before Russia joined Assad in bombing Syrian civilians in the fall of 2015. By the time I reached the camp in Serbia last month, you could see and taste depression, like nothing I’ve seen or felt before. “The people getting out of Syria right now are those who had the nerves to stay there for the last five years,” one Syrian man from Aleppo, aged 66, told me as he was waiting for his wife to receive medical treatment in the transit camp. What makes a person run away now, after surviving everything these people have already gone through? What makes tens of thousands do so? “We stayed there for five years because we thought things will eventually change,” he says. “People kept saying—at some point, it will get better. It has to. The world will intervene. But today, nobody believes it anymore. So everyone is running away now. Everyone! This is only the beginning.”
The world’s failure to stop the massacre in Syria is based on a string of lies. In my conversations with the refugees last month, I asked them about some of these lies as if they were well-established truths. Not because I believe them—but rather, because so many people, all over the world, hear and read these lies every day that it’s impossible to ignore them.
It felt dumb, for instance, to ask a family—father, mother, three children aged 12 to 3—who had just escaped from the burning city of Aleppo, what they thought about “Russia’s bombing campaign against ISIS.” Of course, there is no such thing. Russia isn’t focusing its effort on bombing ISIS, but rather on trying to kill the people I was talking to, who are Syrian civilians. Yet conducting the interview without treating this big lie as if it is simply an alternate explanation of events would be considered “biased reporting.” So, I ask the question and get looks of disbelief, and worse.
Nadia, the mother of this family, told me that “the Russians are the worst thing that happened to us. We survived everything before them, but when they came in to help Bashar, we said—enough. They bomb schools, hospitals, refugee camps, buses carrying people to the border.” What specifically did their involvement mean, I asked her. Her reply: “I would ask myself every morning—how are the Russians going to try to kill my children today?”
Her husband, Yasser, a merchant who owned two stores in the city, disagrees with this analysis—he thinks Shiite militias supported by Iran are an even greater danger than Putin’s air force. “We ran away from the city because we know that after the Russians will finish it, the Iranians will come in. The Iranians are sending people to kill us for Assad.”
These militias, which are entering Syria from neighboring Iraq, have quite a reputation when it comes to killing. “They are just like ISIS, only difference is they are Shi’a and they talk Farsi,” says Yasser. “Tell me—why isn’t anyone bombing them? Why is the entire world only talking about ISIS? The Iranians in Syria burn people alive, burn children and women. Where is the world?” The couple then apologized, explaining they had much more to say, but their youngest daughter started crying, and anyway, they had to leave for the bus. They have six more days on the road ahead of them before reaching Germany.
The biggest lie of them all is that Bashar al-Assad, even more than Vladimir Putin, wants to defeat ISIS. The civil war in Syria, we are told more and more as of late, is actually a choice between Assad and ISIS. Framing the conflict in such terms makes it legitimate and acceptable to cooperate with Assad, a man who is responsible for the deaths of over a quarter of a million people. I tried to ask each and every Syrian I talked to one simple and “neutral” question that has to do with this falsehood. The question was—“Who are you running away from?” The vast majority of people didn’t choose Assad or ISIS—they said they are running away from both.
“The world needs to understand that Assad and ISIS are not enemies—they are partners in destroying our lives,” explained Muhammad, 24, from Aleppo, who stayed in the bombarded city for the last five years because he wanted to complete his university studies before getting out. “It’s like a coin that has two bad sides to it. Doesn’t matter which way you flip it, you’ll end up dead. As long as there is Assad, there will be ISIS. His violence against the Sunni people in Syria is what created ISIS in the first place.”
One man in his 50s, who presented himself in perfect English as a university professor from Aleppo, added: “I’m running away from Da’esh (the Arabic name for ISIS), but there are many different kinds of Da’esh operating in Syria today. There is Da’esh-Da’esh, the people who cut off heads and burn prisoners in cages. There is also Da’esh-Assad, which is actually much worse, and Da’esh-Iran, the Iranian militias who rape and murder women in front of their children’s eyes. They have much more money and capabilities, and they don’t film themselves while doing their atrocities. They are smart enough to hide it from the world. In addition to all these, there is also Da’esh-Putin. I’m coming from Aleppo; I’ve seen the results of his bombings. It’s a massacre. People are killed like cockroaches under a shoe. And then there is Da’esh-the West, which I think is the worst! I mean the civilized world, doing nothing to stop all of this.”
The “Assad vs. ISIS” lie is supported by another falsehood, which is just as important—“The Syria Peace Talks in Geneva.” This lie was recently exposed for what it really is, but it will probably return in a new disguise sooner than you think. The participants in these “peace talks,” which so far have only intensified the scale of the killing, include Russia, the United States, Iran, the Syrian regime, and some representatives of the scattered “Syrian opposition.” When I asked—doing my very best to keep a straight face—those who are running away from the consequences of these peace talks, if they expect a diplomatic solution to come out of Geneva, the reactions I got were a combination of apathy and eye-rolling. Many people weren’t even sure what my question was about.
“I’m sorry, we don’t follow these things,” responded a 64-year-old woman from Deir-a-Zor, a city in Eastern Syria where ISIS and the Syrian military have been clashing for over a year now. She and her husband fled the city, she says, by bribing Syrian military officers who were retreating from the area on helicopters, and took “all the money we had” in exchange for an hourlong flight away from ISIS. They have two sons who already live in Europe. One of them, she says, is teaching Arabic literature at a British university. “My son writes about the Arab world. But the Arab world is dead. Tell me, where is the Arab world?” she asks, and answers: “Syria is dead. Iraq is dead. Lebanon is going to die. Everything is destroyed.”
The Syria Peace Talks are presented to us as an attempt to reach a peace deal between the Syrian regime and the “moderate opposition,” who will then join forces to defeat ISIS. The United States, we have been told repeatedly, will insist that Assad himself resign and leave Syria before any such arrangement can take place. But that policy seems to be no longer relevant. Because while John Kerry and his aides are talking to Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at ballrooms in Europe, it is Assad—supported by Russia and Iran—who is gaining victory after victory on the ground in Syria. Many of the refugees I talked to believe this, in fact, is what America wanted the whole time.
“America wants Assad to win,” said Hassan, a 30-year-old teacher from Aleppo, who talked to me while waiting in line to receive painkillers at a clinic in the camp. Why do you think that, I asked him. After all, they have been saying “Assad has to go” for a long time, before recently starting to broadly hint otherwise. “I don’t care what they say,” he replied. “I lost my brother. He was killed by the regime three years ago, when he went to buy bread in the street. Many of my friends have also been killed. What did Obama do? Even when Assad used gas against us, they did nothing. Now we know why.”
The conversation brought up painful memories from my first two reporting trips covering Syria, in 2011 and 2012. Those trips took place before the 2013 “red line” debacle, in which America retreated from its promise to punish Assad if he ever used chemical weapons against his own people. Of course, he eventually did, but punishment never came. The world was a different place before that episode, because people still believed America would, at some point, stop the horrendous massacre taking place in Syria. That’s why people from Syria were eager to talk with the “international media,” to make their voices heard. “Please write this down,” complete strangers would tell me upon seeing a notebook and a pen in my hands. On a number of occasions, when I was walking around with a camera, I suddenly felt a touch on my shoulder, turned around, and saw a person who had something urgent to say (“Tell your people we are not terrorists;” “See what Assad did to my baby girl;” “Obama! Help us!”)
My 2012 visit to Syria took place shortly after Obama had won re-election. One fighter for the (real) moderate Syrian opposition asked me, after we filmed a short interview, “Now that Obama doesn’t need to win another election, he is going to stop this, right?” I said I have no idea what will happen, but the man was convinced he had the answer to his own question. “Yes, he will have to do something now. There are no more excuses,” he said, adding, “I want his aides to watch your movie. If they watch your interview with me, they will understand.”
Hoping that the world will do something was the main reason people from Syria were so glad to talk with journalists like myself during the first two years of the war. Very few Syrians I met in 2012 refused to talk with me back then. But last month, in the freezing-cold camp in Serbia, dozens of people I approached said no: Men and women, young and old, Arabs and Kurds, well-dressed and wearing rags. I didn’t try to change their minds. What could I possibly tell them? That talking to me would make a difference? That public opinion could create a sense of urgency? That the world needs to know what they’re going through?
The world knows.
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Amir Tibon is the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news website Walla.