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The Suffering Grasses: Remembering the Other Syria

Iara Lee’s “The Suffering Grasses” beautifully captures Syrians explaining their struggle in their own words, giving a place of privilege to nonviolent activists.

By the time you read this, we may already be at war.

Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad now stand accused of deploying chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb. Though they have long clamored for U.S. intervention in the conflict, Washington’s war hawks now insist that Assad has breached a new threshold and must be punished for his excess. They remind President Obama of his prior pledge—one he surely now regrets—to respond to any credible use of chemical weapons by the regime.

Obama reluctantly seems to agree, and Washington shifts now to an all-too-familiar footing in preparation for a new war. Secretary of State John Kerry lambasts the “moral obscenity” of Assad’s most recent crimes, as though the war up to this point were anything less. U.S. warships glide across the Mediterranean and train their cruise missiles toward Syria as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declares the troops ready for Obama’s command.

Analysts promise that the impending strike will be quick, surgical, and limited in scope—not enough to draw Washington into the quagmire, they say, only enough to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons. Never mind that the United States has no greater strategic stake in this war than it did before the most recent allegations, and set aside the unfortunate optics of the United States entering a war on the same side as al-Qaeda.

The beltway war hawks insist that, regardless of the geopolitics involved, Obama must honor his pledge and thus preserve the “credibility” of the United States, as though the judgment of Washington’s chattering classes were of equal importance to the lives of the Syrians who must live with the consequences. (Here too the optics are unfortunate, since Washington will be launching a missile strike in protest of chemical weapons even as recently declassified documents have finally confirmed that the CIA abetted Saddam Hussein’s sarin attacks on Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. If only credibility were so easily restored!)

But all this is to put Washington at the center of a drama that is ultimately not its own. And in a sense, much of the journalism devoted to the fluctuating fortunes of the war’s combatants is guilty of the same. Except for the resigned civilians occasionally quoted in newspapers or captured on video, very little is heard from the Syrians who are not fighting this war but living with it.

With this in mind I recently re-watched The Suffering Grasses, a film about the Syrian uprising by the acclaimed director and activist Iara Lee. Released late last year, well after the uprising had hardened into an armed rebellion but before it was pulled apart by sectarian bloodletting, the political context of the film is by now somewhat dated. But The Suffering Grasses—which takes its name from the African proverb, “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers”—beautifully captures Syrians explaining their struggle in their own words, giving a place of privilege to those nonviolent activists whose voices have long been buried beneath the rubble. Now is the perfect time to revisit it.

Ingesting the Poison

It’s hard to remember now that the Syria we know today—a sectarian tinderbox that’s become the plaything of every pyromaniac in the region—was not so long ago animated by the same revolutionary fervor that made it possible to imagine, however briefly, that every autocracy in the Middle East would yield peacefully to the inevitable. At the outset of The Suffering Grasses, rueful activists recall the escalating regime violence that increasingly attended their nonviolent gatherings. Their stories are accompanied by footage—some of it impossible to verify, perhaps, but similarly difficult to dismiss—of Syrian soldiers and plainclothes militiamen beating protesters, firing on crowds, executing prisoners, and firing again on funeral processions.

One actually feels a sense of relief when the first Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters (remember them?) appear on screen, rolling triumphantly into Baba Amr and vowing to protect unarmed protesters. The relief is tempered by one fighter’s explanation that almost any group of friends or cousins can call themselves the FSA, as well as by the knowledge that it will eventually be displaced by better armed and better disciplined foreign jihadists.

The activists interviewed for the film, some of whom eschewed the armed path and some of whom ultimately embraced it, debate the merits of armed revolution, with several arguing that violence plays simply into the hands of the better armed regime. Yet all seem to agree that the descent into carnage was inevitable. “Self-defense is a legitimate right,” one says simply, and amid the footage from Assad’s earliest crackdowns it’s hard to disagree.

But even at this early stage, one sees how this turn to violence has begun to poison the sentiments underpinning the initial uprising. “I am Omar, and I declare my defection from the peaceful revolution to join the Free Syrian Army,” one young sympathizer bedecked in battlefield regalia tells the camera. It’s dime-store revolutionary propaganda, except that Omar looks to be about two years old. Another child follows, firing rounds into the air with a toy gun for emphasis.

As the fighting escalates, The Suffering Grasses shifts its attention to a refugee camp across the border in Turkey. Though most of its residents are far from home, connected only by news reports forever bringing grim tidings, they manage to eke out a façade of normalcy. Women prepare meals, children play idle games, and strangers learn to treat one another as family. Yet there is an inescapable sadness to this life away from home, communicated beautifully by long shots of lonely roads and a sparse, melancholy soundtrack. “I grabbed the pen to write my misery,” reads a poem scrawled on an interior wall of a tent, “but the pen cried before my eyes did.”

Even here the poison surfaces. “I want to shoot Bashar al-Assad, cut him, and throw him away with a stick,” says an otherwise adorable young kid as he clambers around on sacks of rice. “He killed all the youth and I want to blow him away.” A man nearby muses sadly that most of the kids there—and the adults, for that matter—are probably in need of counseling. Elsewhere in the camp, one 13-year-old girl deals with the trauma of her late-night escape to Turkey after the arrest of her brothers by making art and writing poems. Depictions of Russia and China kicking Syria around like a soccer ball hang alongside sad-faced scribbles of her brothers behind bars.

Beset by homesickness and determined to begin rebuilding their country, some refugees at the camp organize a school for the children. “It is the duty of a woman to teach everything she knows to the Syrian refugees,” a veiled woman explains. “We’re trying to develop ourselves here to build a new Syria,” adds a teenage girl, “without fear or injustice and with freedom of expression.”

And here one begins to feel a sense of optimism that, somewhere within the morass, there are bright-eyed Syrians ready to rebuild their country—if only the regime, the rebels, and regional interlopers would relinquish it from their grasp. “We refuse the killing, even from the Free Syrian Army or another organization,” says Jaleel, a boy who doesn’t look much older than 12. “The most important thing is to keep the revolution peaceful.”

What’s Missing

The Suffering Grasses is, in a sense, incomplete. Although the religious affiliations of the Syrians interviewed are not mentioned, most of the people we meet appear to be Sunnis. There is no word from Alawites, Christians, or members of other communities that increasingly rely on the protection of the Assad regime from roving bands of sectarian militias. This is an unfortunate yet understandable limitation, given the difficulty for journalists of meeting actual Syrians.

The Suffering Grasses doesn’t pretend to know how to walk Syria back from the abyss. But by giving a voice to those Syrians who decry the sectarianism and violence stoked by the war’s architects, it offers a start. Outside of Syria, it highlights efforts by activists to smuggle in cameras and smart phones—the “eyes of the revolution”—as well as medical supplies to whatever nonviolent protesters are left. Elsewhere, it showcases flashmobs and other events designed to raise awareness in world cities.

I agree with my colleague Phyllis Bennis that diplomatic engagement among the international parties fueling the violence in Syria—including the United States and the European Union, the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, among others—is the only way to bring this war to a close. Armed intervention, and certainly the mystifyingly arbitrary kind currently being considered by the Obama administration, can only escalate the violence, raise the stakes, and bring new combatants to the war. No down payment on some nebulous notion of “credibilty” is worth that.

Of course, it’s hard to believe that the next chapter of this struggle will belong to the diplomats, much less to the flash mobbers, camera smugglers, or refugee home schoolers celebrated by Lee. But when the dust settles, who would want to build a new country without them?

Where are they now?

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