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War-torn country - a literary journey through Syria

War-torn Syria

The town of the dead – a fictional journey

Abu Muhannad is a project leader with Welthungerhilfe in Syria. He is taking us on a literary journey through the town he knows so well. As a teacher he taught English language and literature. Just four years ago everything seemed well with the world. Today the ancient cultural town is a rebel stronghold and most of his students have fled. 

Omar was away for 18 months. During that time he held on, waiting only for the day of his return. He imagined how he would see his mother again, hug her and breathe in her scent. She was the only member of his family left and he missed her greatly. Now he wants to surprise her.

Children have forgotten how to laugh and play – shooting and fighting has been part of daily life for the last three years. © Zimova/PIN
Children have forgotten how to laugh and play – shooting and fighting has been part of daily life for the last three years. © Zimova/PIN
Some shops in the Syrian town are open. Every hour of electricity is a gift. © Zimova/PIN
Some shops in the Syrian town are open. Every hour of electricity is a gift. © Zimova/PIN
The town mosque lies in ruins. © Zimova/PIN
The town mosque lies in ruins. © Zimova/PIN
Fire and debris: at the rubbish dump the air is full of smoke. © Zimova/PIN
Fire and debris: at the rubbish dump the air is full of smoke. © Zimova/PIN

Omar stands at her door, takes a deep breath and knocks. No answer. As he knocks again a neighbour passes by. At first, he doesn’t recognise Omar, as he has changed a great deal. He has become very thin, as though for a long time he’d had nothing to eat. His clothes are torn, as though he’d had a fight behind him. The neighbour looks closer, then in astonishment he calls out, “Omar!”.

“He who has no history has no future.”

Omar was detained at a checkpoint and spent 18 months in prison before being brought before a judge. He was tortured in numerous ways and is lucky to be alive. He asks the neighbour about his mother and the neighbour tells him she is not at home. She moved away. The neighbour gives Omar the address. Omar says nothing and remains still. For a few minutes a deathly silence prevails, then he lifts up a stone lying by the door and finds the key where his mother had always hidden it. He steps inside. As he enters, he remembers one of his mother’s proverbs: “He who has no history has no future.”

Omar puts on a change of clothes. He picks out dark colours. He finds some dried roses to take for his mother. Then he heads off to her new address. He passes his old school. It was always full of life, around 1,000 pupils studied here. These days it is no longer a school, it is a holding camp for internal refugees. Then he passes by the house of his teacher and asks after him. He is told that he left for Aleppo this morning in order to collect his wages. A trip that used to take an hour now takes seven hours and you never know if you will return home safely to your family. “He who has no history has no future”, thinks Omar.

He arrives at the main town square. Before the war, festivals and celebrations took place here, now the square holds executions. He walks on and comes to an old, small fountain where people used to drink the water. The fountain is abandoned as there is no longer a regular water supply. Omar contemplates the phrase: “He who has no history has no future.”

Happy with an hour of electricity

Finally, he finds a shop and goes inside to buy something to drink. The shop owner tells him that he has no drinks, because the electricity supply does not work anymore. People used to complain when the power went off for an hour. Now they would be happy to have an hour of electricity. Again, Omar thinks about the words, “he who has no history has no future.” Then he comes to a small square where he always parked his car. Now it is just a rubbish dump; the air is full of smoke, almost impossible to see through. He looks over to the small park where he met his fiancée. He wants to go in, have a rest and watch the children playing. There are children in the park, but they are not playing. They are crying, they live in tents that have been erected throughout the park. “He who has no history has no future.” For a few moments he stands silently and grieves for his fiancée who died in an air strike.

He notices a group of young people carrying bags. He approaches them and discovers that they are carrying out a vaccination programme. He doesn’t understand why, the town was home to one of the best hospitals in the area, with state-of-the-art medical facilities. They explain to him that the hospital is now just a ruin. Finally, he arrives at the address where his mother should be. The door is open. He goes to her and finds her asleep. He says to her, “my dear mother, you always told me that without history there is no future. We have a rich history, but what is our future?” She does not answer, she is sleeping the long sleep of the dead, in the graveyard. Omar doesn’t cry. He knows that if his mother and her new neighbours had the choice, they wouldn’t want to come back, to live in this place.

A fictional tale by Abu Muhannad, project leader with Welthungerhilfe in Syria. Find out here how we are helping Syrian refugees in their own country.

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