x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'Nothing but memories of Syria and my mother's face'

Columnist Jasmine Roman is forced to watch from afar as her home in Damascus turns into a war zone after being stranded outside the country.

'I am not a refugee and will never be." This is what I told myself, forcefully, every time I left Syria for a short trip during the last 16 months. But life is always uncertain. You never know what will happen next.

On the recent day that I was supposed to return to Syria after a few days in Cairo, I heard the news: violence and shelling had reached even neighbourhoods in the heart of Damascus that had been thought impenetrably safe.

Heavy fire from mortars and helicopters was reported near my family's house. There was fighting on the roads from the airport to the centre of Damascus. Syrians are dying wholesale. And the victims are forgotten as new ones are created in their hundreds every day.

It was not auspicious to return: in a few hours, with the help of a friend, I booked a flight to another part of the world.

I travelled in a storm of perplexity, bitterness and heartache. How could I not return to Damascus? I had to be there with my family.

What a ruthless decision I had made. My heart was hardly beating and my throat was dry. I wanted to fly back to Cairo and then on to Damascus. Living "inside" had always made me feel proud and privileged; now I was ashamed, a betrayer, guilty.

A few days later, my parents told me by phone: "Don't come back for now. We should not all be in one place. If anything happens, someone needs to survive."

One friend wrote asking me to return: "There is nothing happening in Damascus, it is all just exaggeration by the media."

Another warned me not to come back "until the situation gets calmer - it's risky for now". At the end of the conversation, she suddenly choked and cried: "They burnt el-sabbara, they removed them with bulldozers." I hung up and found my own lamentation for that night.

She was referring to the cactus fields in Mezzeh in Damascus, fields that had been protected to stop "infringements on green spaces". Those beautiful cactus fields had become like the fallen orange trees of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Our memories are being raped; one by one, day by day. Anyone who has been in Syria knows what it means to visit the Krak des Chevaliers, the Saladin citadel, the Roman amphitheatre in Bosra, the Aleppo citadel, Palmyra, and all the historical treasures from every era. What it means to visit the magnificent mountains and forests and lakes. What the striking churches and mosques mean to believers and non-believers alike. What it means for the people of Damascus to sit on those plastic chairs in the summer enjoying fresh-peeled cactus from street sellers, to eat shawarma or felafel in Midan, and to listen to a Hakawati performer in the Nawfara coffee shop and to walk in the narrow alleys - the joint Christian and Muslim ones - in the old town of Damascus. What it means to enjoy the fabulous view from Qassyoun mountain over Damascus.

Once upon a time, Qassyoun was a hiding place for lovers and a dining place for families and friends. But wait. Qassyoun is now being used as a base to fire missiles, killing lovers and families.

Every Syrian, in every city and town, has beautiful reminiscences and images but now our memories, souls and lives have been uprooted like the cactus trees. Memories have become a luxury; life and death are what matter now.

Now I am not in harm's way, but my fears have grown. I was not prepared to leave with nothing but memories of Syria and the face of my mother.

Every day now I decide to return, but the violence is bloodier and the whole country is becoming rubble. My family, like so many others, lives with checkpoints, explosions, clashes, shelling. My family now hides every night in one room in the middle of the house.

What if I never see them again? I am stranded outside and they are stranded inside.

I want to be there, despite the war. Having left now, will I have the nerve or merit to go back even when, as in my wishful thoughts, the violence stops?

I want to return. But there is horrendous new carnage every day, new victims.

Syrians don't belong to our hometowns any more; we belong to every metre of blood-soaked Syrian soil. We don't belong to our families any more, but to every suffering family.

The pressure to return is tearing me apart. I am terrified of being in a coffin or in prison. Above all, I fear not recognising my own neighbourhood and street. I fear smelling death and blood. I fear being too late to see my family again.

I was reluctant to write this piece. I have heard a few times that we Syrians are overdramatic. But the tragedy in Syria does not permit us detachment or objective analysis.

When I am asked what I am doing "here", I insist that I am only on a short visit. Asked if I am a refugee, I become more determined and say: "I am not a refugee. I have a home and a beautiful country that I will go back to very soon."


The author writes under the pseudonym Jasmine Roman

On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01