Magazine article The Christian Century

Witnesses to War

Magazine article The Christian Century

Witnesses to War

Article excerpt

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

By Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

Pluto Press, 280 pp., $24.00 paperback

Libya's Displacement Crisis: Uprooted by Revolution and Civil War

By Megan Bradley, Ibrahim Fraihat, and Houda Mzioudet

Georgetown University Press, 88 pp., $12.95 paperback

Traces of Survival: Drawings of Refugees in Iraq Selected by Ai Weiwei

Edited by Tamara Chalabi and Philippe Van Cauteren

Mercatorfonds, 152 pp., $30.00

Fire is catching. And if we burn, then you burn with us." Katniss Everdeen brandishes this impassioned and defiant threat in the 2014 film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1. Revolutions exact costs from all parties involved. The fire of war consumes winners and losers alike; this is the price invariably extracted by systems of violence.

An inordinate proportion of the costs are borne by the less powerful parties within a conflict. This silent majority, people on the street, bear the brunt of war and its aftermath. These three books illuminate the lives of everyday folks who are traumatized or displaced by violence and war. They reveal the lives behind the statistics.

"When revolution blows the lid off, all kinds of steam rush out." With this admonition, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami in Burning Country draw us into the throes of the more than decade-long civil war in Syria. This war has left over a million people dead or wounded, four out of five Syrians living in poverty, over half of all children not attending school, and more than half of the country's hospitals no longer functioning. The broad-scale collapse of Syrian infrastructure, the decimation of political economy, and the erasure of civil society have rendered Syria and its citizenry fractured beyond recognition. In this context, "radicalization is better named traumatization."

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami trace the rise of Bashar al-Assad's "vampire state" with its slow and incisive strangulation of its inhabitants. An orgy of Assadist-fueled sectarian violence has included overt and covert warfare as well as genocidal massacres of thousands using Sarin gas and other chemical warfare attacks. While state-manipulated regional militias and sectarian violence run rampant, external interference by Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and the United States (not to mention Hezbollah, al-Nusra, and ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) exacerbates nationalist, revolutionary, and jihadist fires.

Having lived through three wars in the Middle East, I appreciate the nuance and complexity of identity politics represented in this book. I also respect the authors' criticism of post-colonial excesses that entrench capitalist elites, militarized states, and coopted ideologies. But the book's vilification of Assad's regime is too limited. Like Katniss's nemesis, the Syrian state is cast as a monolithic structure. Seeing a regime through this lens is rarely advantageous to postconflict reconstruction. In juxtaposition with this starkness, the authors prioritize the nuancing of religious expressions. They boldly state: "Islamism can be liberation theology, bourgeois democracy, dictatorship, or apocalyptic nihilism." This nuancing is critically important in countering the Western propensity toward a monolithic Islamophobia.

The book concludes with hopeful vignettes from Syrians who have sacrificially chosen to lead a change movement. The authors' passion for the courage and language of everyday people emboldens their narrative of Syria's "Arab Spring." One Syrian survivor explains:

   The revolution . … 
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