Today's gruesome car bomb attack in Damascus only adds to the worries of Syrians agonizing over whether to stay or flee.
ZABADANI, Syria – Mahmoud, a gangly young man in his 20s, has just been let out of prison. His legs are stained by dark stripes of electric shock burns. It was the third time he had been locked up by President Bashar al-Assad’s security services, and each time he gets taken in for protesting, the torture gets worse. It doesn’t cow him, however — the day he was let out, he went to a protest. Now, smiling and laughing, he busies himself by taking pictures of the torture marks.
Over a crackling Skype line, Mahmoud’s mother talks to an activist in Lebanon, just a stone’s throw away from this mountain town that was once a popular summer resort for Gulf tourists. "We are looking at places he could go to. He should leave Syria," says the activist.
"No," his defiant mother says. "No."
As the school year ends and the uprising grinds on into its 15th month, many middle- and upper-class Syrians are agonizing over whether to leave the country. Now, another atrocity will weigh on their minds: Two explosions ripped through the capital, Damascus, on the morning of May 10, killing at least 55 people near a military intelligence building and wounding 170 more. A Syrian filming the smoke plume from the first explosion caught the earth-shaking sound of the second blast on camera. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on "terrorists," while the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, blamed the regime for orchestrating the attacks. Syria’s state news agency published gruesome images of those killed in the attacks.
This bloody escalation in the battle between Assad and his opponents — and possibly others, such as the self-styled jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for some recent bombings — seems certain to hasten the departure of both activists and regular Syrians. They will join a growing flood of their fellow compatriots: Since the uprising started in March 2011, over 54,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey — and that’s just the official number of those who have registered with the United Nations’ refugee agency. Roughly 300,000 more Syrians have been displaced from their homes and are still living within the country.
Back in Zabadani, a small city of roughly 40,000 people about 30 miles north of Damascus, not far from the Lebanese border, Mahmoud’s mother worries. She’s scared that the next time her son is taken by the security forces, he might not come out alive. But she doesn’t want him to leave — if all the men like him departed, she reasons, the revolution would falter.
"It will be like the 1980s again if everyone leaves," says Mahmoud’s mother, referring to a black period in Syria’s history when the regime of Hafez al-Assad battled a Muslim Brotherhood-led armed revolt through arrests, disappearances, and ultimately the flattening of Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city, in 1982. While there are no exact figures for how many Syrians departed in the 1980s, even the Syrian government estimates today that some 18 million Syrians live abroad. The large Syrian diaspora is not entirely a product of the violence, but it testifies to the drain of intellectuals, writers, artists, dissidents, and even businessmen.
Mahmoud sits in the corner of the room, checking Facebook and ignoring his mother’s Skype conversation. Of course there is a part of him that wants to leave, he says. Before the uprising began, he had dreams: He boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of English music from the 1960s and had hoped to go to Britain — not to study English, but to see the cities that gave birth to rock-and-roll, as well as the medieval castles.
But now that the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown has claimed the lives of over 11,000 Syrians, Mahmoud — and his compatriots in the protest movement — have made the choice that the uprising is worth dying for. Seeing England now would be a betrayal, not a realization of a dream. For them, the new dream is seeing a free Syria.
For older Syrians and those less active on the streets, however, that reconciliation with death has not been made. Businessmen and many of the Damascus elite support the protesters financially, but are unwilling to risk speaking out in public. And as an attempted cease-fire plan brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan crumbles, they are no longer shielded from the worsening security situation. In today’s Syria, trouble finds you: The central districts of Damascus are now riddled by gunfire at night, while checkpoints ring the capital on Friday, the traditional day of protest.
Not all the violence is political; some of it is for profit. Syrians speak of children from wealthy families who have been kidnapped for ransom money. Two children were recently kidnapped and held for $2 million, a fee that was eventually negotiated down to $400,000, says a local source. Theft, previously a rarity in Syria, is also on the rise.
"We hoped this would be over quickly, but it won’t be," worries a 45-year-old father of two, a prosperous member of Syria’s business elite. "I want to stay, but what does this do to my children? I don’t let them out in the evening. They can’t talk freely. Seeing horrible images has become normal to them."
For months, he has been agonizing over whether to leave the country, increasingly traveling across the border with Lebanon, where many families escape for the weekend. His wife wouldn’t discuss leaving at first, but in the last month that changed as the realization dawned that bloody conflict had become the new normal in Syria. Now, like many other wealthy parents, he has enrolled his children in a school abroad for the upcoming school year.
For Alia, a young mother of three in a restless neighborhood of Damascus, it is economic necessity that is pushing her to pack up and leave. Syria’s economy has been decimated by the last 15 months of unrest, as well as international sanctions applied by the United States and the European Union. Farming and industry have ground to a halt in many areas, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted, and tourism — a growing industry before the uprising that accounted for some 10 percent of the country’s economy — has all but disappeared. For a year, Alia’s husband managed to get by without earning anything from his travel agency. But a fortnight ago, he packed his bags and set off to find them a home elsewhere in the region. "We hope to go to Saudi Arabia," she says, eyeing her ornate living room, filled with plastic flowers and books from her Islamic studies, as if for the last time. "This is home, but what can we do? What can we do?"
Meanwhile, Syrians who have left already are no less conflicted by their decision. It’s not only the pain of missing home that vexes them, but the feeling of growing ever more disconnected from those on the ground. "I thought I could do more outside because seeing the Syrian National Council [whose leaders are mostly in exile] from inside was so depressing," says Fawaz Tello, a veteran dissident who left the country after coming under threat at the end of last year. "But sometimes I wish I hadn’t left because being close to the revolution’s activists is purer than being outside."
This sort of mass exodus is, of course, exactly what Syria’s regime wants: If it can’t kill all its opponents inside the country, at least it can force the rest to flee. Despite a recent regulation that young men under 42 couldn’t travel without government permission — a measure that was revoked 24 hours after it was applied — the departures benefit the regime, even though they may be fatal for Syria itself.
The loss has simultaneously hollowed out the cultural, economic, and political heart of the country. And however the uprising plays out, this drain of expertise — in tandem with economic sanctions that have pushed up prices and resulted in shortages of fuel and gas for cooking and heating — could set Syria back years.
In Damascus, an artist sits in his house cradling a glass of wine. "I didn’t think it would come to this," he says. "This beautiful revolution has changed. All my friends have left. The regime is happy to send the country back by 100 years, more. I can’t live like this."