Confession: the images of the carnage in Houla did not move me like they seem to have moved the rest of the world. Yes, they were tragic, horrific acts of violence against the most innocent of victims. But they didn’t break anything inside of me that was not already broken, nor did they raise the level of outrage or sorrow I feel everyday over what is happening in Syria.
Maybe it was because in the twenty-fours hours before hearing about the Houla massacre, I had heard that a friend’s relative had been killed, I had heard that another friend’s elderly relative had been kidnapped by gangs for ransom, I had received desperate Skype messages from an activist in Homs, crying, “my precious ones are gone, my precious ones are gone,” referring to three Shaam News Network media activists who had been shot dead by Assad forces, and I had spoken with the brother of a martyr in Aleppo, who told me that since his older brother was killed one week ago, he was trying to act normally but the truth was, his “heart was burning.” By late afternoon, when I watched the first video of the children of Houla, with their tiny throats slit open below their ashen, angelic faces, all I could feel was yet another heavy thud of dread. One we had felt many times before.
The days after Houla brought the news of the death of Basel Shehade, the brilliant young filmmaker who was killed by the shells falling over Homs. (Will the shells ever stop falling over Homs?) The days after Houla brought news of continued shelling, the burning of Aleppo’s and Idleb’s countryside, and the deaths of another dozen men — their eyes blindfolded and hands bound — executed in Deir al-Zor. The days after Houla brought news of thousands of Syrian refugees in Egypt who found themselves stranded with empty homes, empty pockets, and a bleak, uncertain future.
The days after Houla continued as all the days had before. But the world’s eyes halted on the massacre.
Houla’s images instigated the world’s outrage in its predictable forms: in heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of children watching their families being murdered; in sectarian-tainted op-eds that cynically questioned who had perpetrated the crimes; in dry-eyed, canned statements by regime mouthpieces complaining about the media’s “tsunami of lies,” which painted the regime as criminal when in fact it was a “victim.” There was outrage over the images themselves and outrage over the decision to expose the international public to the violent images (as not to upset an innocent British boy or girl).
And the outrage moved from analysis and narrative to questions: Is the UN plan working? Is a regime-led investigation a fair way to proceed? Who committed the crimes? Is killing by shelling (by the regime) as bad as killing by close-range (by unknown “monsters” according to Bashar al-Assad)? Is it pronounced Houla or Huli? Were the slaughtered people Sunni or Shite (or Sunnis who had converted to Shiism)? Are we with or against foreign intervention? Who will replace Assad? Who will arm the rebels? Who are the rebels? Why is the Syrian opposition still fragmented?
And of course the debate: Will Houla be Syria’s Sabra and Shatila, Syria’s Srebrenica, Syria’s game changer?
What exactly is the “world” responding to? The graphic images? The sheer brutality? The number of dead? The gruesome stories?
Over the last fifteen months, we have seen Houla and variations of Houla happen over and over. We witnessed slaughtered bodies in February in the Karm al-Zeitoun massacre. We have seen men and boys dripping with blood, with half of their faces blown off, still struggling to breathe. We watched while an entire city was destroyed, missile by missile. We watched a man flattened by an Assad tank, over and over, into human road kill. We have seen dead children, not only slaughtered, but bombed, burned, and mutilated. We know that in addition to Houla’s fifty-two dead children, there are hundreds of others; in addition to Houla’s murdered men and women, there are thousands of others. Our dead have been left to rot on the streets of Homs. Our dead have been buried in the public parks of Hama. Houla’s mass grave is just one more to add to the others, in Homs, Hama, Rastan, and Jisr al-Shoughour. And let’s not forget the unknown thousands of Syrians buried under the concrete foundations of a luxury hotel in Hama, by Assad the elder.
Houla was a tragedy. But it was not a game changer. It was not even close—not to us, at least. Maybe it was to those who have been hedging bets on Syria’s future. Or to those who keep a secret, magic “number” of how many Syrians are allowed to die before it’s too much.
How many more gruesome, violent videos can we watch before we really can’t stomach it any more? How many people have to die before the world either says enough is enough, or turns away from their screens? How long before the daily death toll in Syria is no longer on the front pages and becomes an invisible battlefield, like Iraq, like Afghanistan, and like Libya?
How long before you are desensitized?
How long before you forget?
The cynics still claim that the majority of the Syrian people still back the murderous regime (although by this time the regime and its “silent majority” should be irrelevant, like it would be anywhere else in the world in face of such violence, including Bahrain). When a regime decides to kill thousands of its own, its supporters have become accomplices, not neutral citizens.
Why the empty debates? Because the cautiously-watching (yet horrified) world has not decided yet on our “so-called” revolution. They claim it has changed from its romantic (and just) beginnings and has become armed, violent, and sectarian. While the world doubts, we watched the “sectarian” Abd al-Basset Sarout and his “bloodthirsty Salafi” FSA brothers sing in a room to a gleaming wooden coffin with a cross, that held their friend Basel Shehade’s shrapnel-ridden body. We witnessed the regime shut down Basel’s memorial service last Thursday in Damascus to the peaceful thousands who wanted to join the church service and light a candle in his honor. We watched last Friday in mosques across Syria, as Muslim men performed an “absentee” prayer for their martyr, Syria’s martyr, Basel. These are the Syrian people too, whether the world wishes to see them or not. Or perhaps they only tolerate seeing them as shrouded corpses.
Those who still argue, searching for game changers in Syria, should stop exerting themselves. To those who wait for Assad to change his ways and stop the killing, don’t hold your breath. For those who have been waiting for their magic “number,” it’s too late. The number is too high and has passed the threshold of forgiveness.
The game changed months ago while you were turned away.
Whether your eyes decide to confront or slide away from the images of our slain children makes no difference. Because we have already moved on, to face tomorrow, which holds only one Syrian certainty: there will be blood.
I, along with thousands of Syrians, made a decision from the moment the first fingernails were torn from the innocent hands of Bashir Abazid and his schoolmates in Daraa. After decades of our own silence, we had two words for the Assad regime: Game Over.
As for the world, across the spectrum, from the ones fretting anxiously. to the ones claiming Houla was a “hoax,” and everyone else in between: we have one question: What’s your number?