Nicholas D. Kristof / A Syrian grandma at war
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BAB AL-SALAM, Syria
A stout woman named Warda al-Haji was struggling to construct a mud dike in hopes of stopping rainwater from seeping into the tent that is her family's fifth home this year. It was futile, but Ms. Haji kept busy to stave off the paralyzing question: Who in my family will be next to die?
Ms. Haji, 54, a strong and outspoken bundle of energy in a black hijab, has already lost her husband, son and daughter-in-law to the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
When you cross from Turkey into rebel-held Syrian territory, the geopolitical construct of "Syria" disappears. Instead, Syrians come into focus: aching, frightened moms and dads just trying to keep their kids alive.
Or, in Ms. Haji's case, her grandchildren. Several months ago, one of her sons, Abbas, a barber, was riding his motorcycle with his wife, Leila, as she held their 10-day-old daughter in her arms. A government plane dropped a bomb nearby. Miraculously, Abbas and the baby were unhurt, but Leila was hit by shrapnel in the leg and bled to death.
Abbas gave the baby, renamed Leila in honor of her mother, to Ms. Haji to care for, and he crossed into Turkey with his four older children. A few weeks later, another of Ms. Haji's sons, Muhammad, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, was killed in an air strike. Muhammad's wife was emotionally shattered, and Ms. Haji inherited their seven children, the youngest just four months old.
So Ms. Haji now has eight children, two of them sickly infants, to look after in a leaking tent.
"There's no food and the children get sick," she said. "We just want to sleep without hearing bombs."
I accompanied her as she took a sick granddaughter, 10-year-old Rokia, to a clinic. The doctor, Mustafa Hassano, is a reminder that Syrians are distinguished these days not just by their suffering, but also by their heroism.
Syrian doctors routinely treat the war injured, knowing that if they are caught doing this they may be tortured to death by the Assad regime's security services. Dr. Hassano is wearied by a parade of children like Rokia who are sick as a consequence of war. Rokia has hepatitis A -- along with 60 percent of the children in the camp for displaced people here -- because of a lack of clean water and sanitation.
Ms. Haji's life captures the torment of modern Syria. Her husband, Mahmood, an army officer, was arrested in 1982 on suspicion of sympathizing with a legendary uprising in the city of Hama. He was tortured for months and finally executed, leaving Ms. Haji to raise their five children.
This time, she says, it's worse, because -- like 2.5 million Syrians -- she's homeless as well. People like her feel abandoned by the world.
"We see people in Gaza and cry for them; well, we need people to cry about us," she said. "We ask for God's help in ending this, and for Obama's."
Look, I know that the world has its own problems and isn't much interested in Syria's. There's compassion fatigue, even when victims are 12-year-old kids like Muhammad al-Hares. He left his village one day to check on his aunt in the city of Aleppo, but found that her home had been destroyed. He tried to return to his own house, but fighting made that impossible.
Muhammad hid in a park in Aleppo as his parents fled their home and had no way to contact him. It took six weeks for him to find his family again. "I was afraid," Muhammad said. "There were snipers and shelling."
Syrians are exceptionally warm and welcoming to Western visitors these days. When I say I'm American, Syrians beam and sometimes even try to serve me tea. Yet there's also a shadow of disappointment that the United States has been so passive as the humanitarian crisis has worsened.
"The U.S. is a great nation, and we hear Americans talking," said Hussam Shamo, a Syrian relief official looking after 6,000 homeless people here. "But they're not here."
Mr. Shamo said that aside from a Turkish aid group, international aid organizations are providing no help in the camp he runs here in Bab al-Salam. "It's a scandal," he said, adding that as winter comes people desperately need blankets and mattresses -- and also a no-fly zone so that those who still have homes can return to them without fear of bombings.
Some Syrians are starting to grumble, he said, that the United States must secretly want Assad to stay in power, because it isn't doing anything significant to oust him.
The problem with Western dithering is not only that it allows the humanitarian crisis to grow, but that it's also contrary to our own interests. I'm generally a fan of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, but, on Syria, he has been behind the curve from the beginning. It's true that there are no good options here, but that's a poor excuse for paralysis.
NATO should create a no-fly zone in northern Syria and provide weapons (short of anti-aircraft missiles) and intelligence and training for the rebels, to break the stalemate. Otherwise, as the war drags on endlessly, more people are killed and injured, neighboring countries are destabilized and Muslim extremists gain credibility because they do confront the regime. Worst of all, sectarian tensions are growing and could turn Syria into a Somalia.
Most of the displaced here are Sunni Muslims, and leaders of the Assad regime are members of the minority Alawite sect. That conflict is internalized even among children.
A 14-year-old boy, Muhammad Abbas, showed me scars on his stomach where a bomb had gravely injured him (and killed his best friend). He now must use a colostomy bag to collect his wastes.
"I blame the Alawites," he said venomously. "They should all be killed."
First Published November 20, 2012 12:00 am