Praying for Syria
Twenty years ago, I was traveling around the world, and my rule was to cross borders by land only. I experienced various troubles while traveling across Africa and arrived in Jordan. But I could not move further, as Syria had no diplomatic ties with Korea. I went to the Korean Embassy in Jordan and asked for help, and I was referred to a Korean immigrant familiar with the local situation. Thanks to his help, I was issued a travel document for a business trip to Syria. I was very nervous to cross the border with a fabricated document instead of an official visa. But the border control was rather lax. The officers asked personal questions and gave me an entry stamp, as I must have been the first Korean woman traveling alone that they had ever seen.
I was most eager to visit the ancient ruins of Palmyra. It took two hours from the border to Damascus, and from the capital, I had to travel about three hours out to the desert. There, palm trees caught my eyes. Palmyra was once the wealthiest oasis city and the center of desert trade routes. Zenobia was a beautiful queen of Palmyra. Blinded by power, she killed her husband and became the queen herself. She attacked Rome and led the city to its fall. Palmyra was taken over by the Roman Empire and then the Byzantines, and the site has beautiful architectural structures representing each period. From the temple of Zenobia to the Roman theaters, marketplaces and the Temple of Bel, a Mesopotamian god, I felt like I was in a time machine traveling back in history while visiting Palmyra.
The ancient ruins survived the earthquake of 1089, but they were destroyed by the Islamic State in August 2015. You can only imagine how cruel the jihadist militant group is to people if they are so harsh toward cultural heritage. Not just the Islamic State but also government forces and rebels conduct air strikes, burn villages, spray sarin gas, plunder, arrest, torture and rape civilians. According to UN statistics, the civil war in Syria has resulted in more than 250,000 deaths. The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates 270,000 were killed as of February. Major cities are in complete devastation. More than 11 million people, half of the population, have become refugees in Syria and other countries. Five million of them have escaped to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In just five years, the country has been torn apart.
Those who have visited the region know how dignified, kind and warmhearted Syrians are. When I was carrying big backpacks, people would always offer to help. When I was lost, I was soon surrounded by people giving me directions. When I fell sick from a severe cold in the strange country, the owners of the guesthouse in Aleppo and their young daughter Miriam cared for me for more than a week. How can I forget them? How are they holding up? Are they still alive in the middle of this devastating war?
Aleppo, where Miriam’s family lived, has become a fierce battlefield, and dozens are killed every day. Fighting intensified after the United States and Russia agreed on a cease-fire on Feb. 22. The government forces and rebels are fighting to take over this strategic city before calling a truce. It is strange. Why are the United States and Russia, not the government and rebels, negotiating truce? After hundreds of thousands of people died in the last five years, two heads of state reached an agreement over the telephone. Could this civil war come to an end so easily? Then what have the international community and United Nations been doing all along?
I, too, understand solutions to the war in Syria are not simple. The civil war started when 15 students led antigovernment protests, and the government suppressed them excessively. Soon, government forces gained support from Russia and Iran, a Shiite power, and the United States and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, assisted the rebels. Then, it turned into an international conflict. The rebels became divided, and the Islamic State joined to make the situation even more complicated.
Last summer, I worked at refugee camps in southern Turkey, and the nongovernmental international relief organizations were skeptical of the truce’s effects. As the truce agreement excludes the Islamic State, the Syrian chapter of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, they will continue to fight. To eradicate them, those affected by the truce will also use force.
However, I would like to put my hopes on this agreement. It would help to save one more life and end the war one day earlier. The truce came into effect on Feb. 27, and I am watching and praying.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 27, Page 25
*The author is an international relief worker.
by Han Bi-ya