An Exile Returns to Find Syria Changed Forever

Visting his home in Latakia after years away, the author found that familiar situations masked deeper changes

An Exile Returns to Find Syria Changed Forever
Election campaign posters bearing portraits of President Bashar al-Assad hang over a street in Syria’s Mediterranean port city of Latakia on May 19, 2014. (Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images)

“Listen to me,” shouted the investigator as he slammed his old metal desk. “If I catch you in one lie, I am arresting you and you are staying here.” I nodded, taking a deep breath to calm the anxiety in my stomach. I was being interviewed by an intelligence unit in Syria, a place many have entered and never left.

I knew I had to lie, as I knew how much trouble I would be in if they learned the extent of my work in the media abroad. But I have always been very careful about my exposure, in anticipation of just such a moment as this.

Before entering the building, I called everyone I knew, trying to use any connection, making it clear I was happy to pay any bribe or sum they wanted to secure my freedom. Yet, despite my best efforts, I had no idea if I’d be returning to my home in America or waking up in one of President Bashar al-Assad’s notorious prisons.

So far, my experience had been typical enough in the Syria I knew, familiar from both word of mouth stories and the few interrogations I had to go through long before the war, when I still lived there. Ever since this regime first came to power, it has threatened and terrorized the population into submitting to authoritarian rule. Yet everyone knew where the red lines were and, as long as we didn’t cross them, we were OK.

But this routine show of control masked a deeper truth about the country I had returned to: It was no longer the police state of Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, who bequeathed to his son a frightened and submissive country upon his death in 2000. My trip home to see friends and family showed me that, on the contrary, that country has gone forever. But what lies in the future is no less bleak. The iron grip of the security services is not the only thing I saw had changed: The very fabric of society has been fundamentally altered by the long years of conflict.

I had returned with no preconceptions or expectations. It wasn’t easy to make the decision to return after many years of living abroad, but I did so with a sense of homecoming, and a desperate hope of finding positive signs for the future of the country.

I was born and raised in Syria. My family live in the coastal region of Latakia, a stronghold of support for Assad that saw almost no fighting during the war. Latakia has long been among the most liberal spots in Syria, remaining so even as violence raged elsewhere. The nightlife and beach parties never stopped, even during the worst of the conflict. My Instagram timeline is always filled with pictures of friends sipping cocktails in the sun, enjoying food in my favorite spots, or chilling in one of the mountain resorts. Yet, despite the gloss and glamor, and the lack of the overt violence that has burned the rest of the country, Latakia is still far from safe.

In the past, I have enjoyed traveling to dangerous places and putting myself in tricky situations. It gives me an adrenaline rush. But this time was different. I kept thinking of worst-case scenarios, of being trapped in the violent, abusive jails for which Assad’s Syria is renowned. Before arriving back in the country, I told myself this fear was irrational. Dozens of people from my hometown visited last summer and said it was fine. I wondered if I was creating excuses to avoid seeing the reality of the place I grew up after years of civil war. I joked that it might be a case of “home-a-phobia.”

After finally overcoming the paranoia, I flew to the Lebanese capital, Beirut. We left the airport, my taxi driving past the wreckage of the huge port explosion of 2020, before continuing on north toward the Syrian border. The driver stopped to fill up fuel containers to bring back to Syria, as fuel is much more readily available in Lebanon. When we reached the border, I realized my fear had not been that irrational after all.

“You need to visit the immigration offices before you leave again,” shouted the border officer from behind the counter. “Sit down until we finish the paperwork.”

I sat in the dark hall surrounded by cigarette butts on the ground and pictures of Assad staring down at me. It’s probably nothing, I tried to tell myself, just some routine checks. Soon I was called back to the counter. The man took my hand and put my thumb in some ink, pressing it on the bottom of a letter I was not allowed to read. There was an issue with my documentation, he told me, and I couldn’t leave the country until it was sorted.

As we were leaving, my driver noticed I was concerned and told me not to worry. “If it was serious, you would have disappeared here at the border.” Very reassuring, I thought. We traveled through numerous customs posts and checkpoints, where at least 10 people were offered bribes ranging from 500 to 10,000 Syrian Pounds (20 cents to $4) depending on their position and rank.

One roadblock was different. They did not take bribes and seemed more professional. These were soldiers of the 4th Armored Division, or, as the locals called them, “the 4th.” This is the strongest division of the Syrian armed forces, and the one that truly controls security. It is directly under the command of the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. However, I soon discovered their primary interest here was not to root out opposition, but to look for alcohol and shisha tobacco, as Maher is keen to ensure his import businesses are not undermined by smugglers.

Once inside Syria, the highway to Latakia was in surprisingly good condition. As we passed by familiar towns — Tartus, Banias, then Jableh — I became excited at the thought of coming home after so long away.

Soon, I saw a huge Batman-style light darting quickly across the sky. We were passing by the Hmeimim airport, the main Russian military airbase in the country. I looked at Ali, my driver, and asked if the flash had been Russian air defence. He nodded and added, “I am not sure if it is useful at all to be honest. Israel bombed the port twice recently, then they bombed Damascus airport. And nothing happened.”

As we entered the city of Latakia, we stopped at the final checkpoint and handed over our papers, along with another bribe, before heading in. The darkness in the city was shocking. There was almost no light. On a good day, Latakia has only four hours of electricity.

The next day, I went straight to the immigration offices to resolve the issue with my documents. That was where I discovered I needed to visit the intelligence unit. My heart sank. This is a place every Syrian dreads. I left my belongings in the car and walked down the street, my knees shaking and heart thumping. As I approached, the notorious ugly building slowly emerged into my sight. I was taken up some steps to a small room with a sign outside reading “Investigation room.”

There were two men sitting at old metal desks, and dirty walls decorated with more Assad pictures. Without a word, one of them pointed at a chair and I sat down. He came around and stared directly at me for at least a minute before returning to his desk and shouting his first threats.

Three hours of interrogation, insults and threats followed. He asked me about anything and everything, every member of my extended family, where I lived, what jobs I had done and what relations I have with the opposition. I had to write four pages explaining everything and affirming I was not engaged in politics.

After two hours, the two interrogators left the room. The one who was playing “good cop” came back first, and told me not to worry, and that “someone had spoken to them about me.” This meant the bribe I had given to a connection had reached them.

I might have been a free man, but they still took the opportunity to toy with me for the next hour, needlessly continuing the interrogation to scare me, or perhaps catch me in a lie so they could extract a bigger bribe. When I left the building, I sat in the car next to my father, weeping like a child. There was some relief, but mainly devastation at the humiliation I’d endured.

The investigator was just having fun at my expense. He sensed my fear and anxiety and decided to enjoy himself. He knew I had done nothing wrong, but wanted to have a laugh and make sure he got his bribe. I also believe it’s a tactic they use to terrorize people and make sure they engage in no political work when they return to their country of residence. And, believe me, it works. I was too scared to even take pictures during my trip. The investigator told me they would need a month to complete the investigation, though I’d planned to leave in a week.

I knew I was in the clear, because I’d paid a bribe and used old connections who really helped me and confirmed everything and promised to speed up the process. In all honesty, I was surprised, but if Syrians still have anything left it is a willingness to help.

When we got home, I saw my father on the balcony on his own, also devastated by what had happened. “It is all my fault,” he said, “I should have never let you come visit us.” For an Arab parent to reach this point is incomprehensible. When a son or a daughter used to leave the country, the parents were heartbroken. Today they celebrate.

Young people leaving Syria is nothing new. Even before the war, all the way back to the 1980s, there was huge emigration among skilled or highly educated young people, particularly men. Corruption, the declining economy and unfairness in work and education were all big factors. Military service is mandatory in Syria once you reach 18, though men with no brothers are exempt in a bid to protect older parents and the bloodline. Other young men can postpone their service as long as they are studying. But when your studies are complete, there is only a short window to leave, so many study and leave young, emigrating to the West and Gulf countries. This applies not just to the highly educated but also the highly skilled. The ones who stay are mainly those with no male siblings, who have no chance to leave, who have businesses and families or have decided to take a chance on the army. Of those who do stay, most regret it.

Military service normally lasts two years, but the young men who started when the war broke out were forced to serve for almost a decade. Most of those who finished their service before the war were also recalled as reserves and forced to fight in the war. I met one in the street, an old friend. He told me he’d been taken as a reserve and spent seven and half years on the front in Daraa in the South. Of the experience, he could only say, “I have seen hell.”

For the first time since I arrived, my crippling fears subsided and I began to see the city with open eyes. There was almost no traffic. You can cross the city in 15 minutes at midday. There is so little fuel that people don’t go anywhere unless they really have to.

Due to electricity shortages, noisy generators are always filling the air with the smell of diesel. At night, you cannot walk around without a light. The streets are incredibly dirty and damaged. Down the road from where I stayed, there was a broken sewage pipe that had not been fixed in months.

Cholera is a growing worry for everyone across the country. I had to avoid eating salads or anything else that could be washed with contaminated water during my visit. The doctors I spoke to were unsure if the disease was coming from the water people were buying on the black market, due to shortages, or from the use of sewage water in irrigation.

Everything is aggressively rationed; not just electricity and water, but fuel, cooking gas, diesel, rice, sugar and even bread. People get texts on their phones to tell them when it’s their turn to go and buy the little they can get.

Strangely, most men carried handbags, not exactly a typical style for the usually macho Latakians. Due to the currency collapse, it is necessary to carry large amounts of cash, which can’t be done with pockets alone. All shops and restaurants have counting machines at the counter.

For the wealthy, the outlook is, of course, far less bleak. With money, you can buy anything on the black market, including the newest iPhone, albeit at three times the official price. Assad’s thugs control this business and do anything they want to earn their millions. Though I understand the necessity of Western sanctions, they are only causing more misery for normal people while creating more wealth for the thugs. What should the international community do then, you ask? I wish this were a question I could answer.

Syria was never a rich country, but neither was it in poverty as dire as this. Now, the streets are full of malnourished children digging in garbage containers, people with skin diseases and lost teeth wandering the streets, and old people with makeshift walking aids carrying shopping bags.

According to the United Nations, more than 90% of people live under the poverty line, and at least 60% are food insecure.

The destitution contrasts painfully with the SUVs complete with tinted windows which rove the streets, filled with “shabbiha” (pro-Assad thugs). People tell horror stories of extreme crime and violence. It feels like the Syrian version of a Mexican cartel series on Netflix.

At the same time, cafes, restaurants and bars are full, one of the few reminders of the good old days. There are clearly some people who still have money, who are filling them up. But it’s not exactly the same as before. I don’t remember female waitresses in Latakia, for example, yet now most of the people working in restaurants, cafes and shops are women, even in the most conservative areas. I did not meet one woman who did not work, regardless of social class.

“Where are the young men?” I asked my friends in the cafe bar we were drinking in. “They are dead, in the army or they left like I should have done,” one replied. “I am an idiot, I kept convincing myself things were going to get better, but this is where we are.”

“It is a great time if you are looking for a bride,” another friend tried to joke, but it fell flat. Even the brilliant Syrian dark comedy is not funny anymore. On the roads, the only posters which are not of Assad are of the “martyrs” who died in this war, showing the extent of the loss, one image at a time.

As in many conflicts in history, women are by necessity filling the roles left by this huge gap in Syrian society. The taboos against women working in certain specific jobs have definitely been broken. Government buildings are packed with older women trying to get the family business done — something previously handled exclusively by men. You see women in food markets, not just shopping but also selling.

A friend of mine who also traveled to Latakia recently to see her father spoke to me about the lady who looks after her father. “I saw how much Susan [her name has been changed to protect her identity] has changed. She was a girly girl, expecting her husband to provide for her. Now she is studying in uni, has three jobs, including looking after my dad. She is a single mom and has a boyfriend that she does not have to keep secret. I don’t think the male figures in her family have any control over her any more. She probably earns more than them.”

“I don’t know any women who don’t work today,” she added. The number of working women in Syria was always comparatively high for the region, but the jobs they did were limited to certain sectors (education, health and other government departments). Today, they work a lot of jobs previously reserved for men alone. “I am not saying all taboos have been completely shattered and male dominance is over. We are far from that, but things have definitely shifted. Now women can work in most jobs, stay out late, and be a little bit more independent.”

“They also have so much energy; you feel that most young men are sitting around feeling down waiting for their chance to leave, while women have taken over running around and getting things done.”

There is a feeling, despite the bombs still falling in Idlib province, that the war is by and large over, leaving Assad in charge, as before. But this perceived ending does not bring any sense of relief, even in an Assad stronghold like Latakia.

“It was easier during the war, psychologically,” my friend in the cafe explained. “We were in survival mode. We knew we had to sacrifice. Now, it is over, but there is nothing to look forward to. There is no hope.”

“And the same idiots are still in charge,” another added from the next table. I was shocked, as this area is known to be very loyal to Assad. But today everyone mocks and blames him. The Alawites — the religious minority community from which the Assad family hails — are among the angriest.

“If you go to their [the Alawites’] villages, there are no men. They all died fighting for him [Assad] and what did they get in return? They live in extreme poverty. The first lady visits the families for a photo opportunity. She promises them the world and leaves, and they get nothing,” the man on the table next to us explained.

I have always felt the Alawites who did not benefit directly from the regime — that is, the majority of Alawites — were among the biggest victims of this war. They had no option but to fight for Assad once the situation changed from a revolution to a sectarian war, but that doesn’t mean they believed in the fight.

They had to support Assad, even when he sent most of their men to their deaths. Otherwise, they had to face the Islamists who committed massacres, slaughtering everyone in the Alawite areas they managed to reach.

Despite these social occasions in the bars of Latakia, familiar to me from my youth, I still felt stressed and trapped, needing the ongoing investigation into me to be over so I could leave. But then news came that put everything in perspective.

A boat carrying between 120 and 150 people bound for Europe sank off the Syrian coast. The death toll, according to officials, was 94. The boat left from north Lebanon and was carrying Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians, many of them from Latakia.

Bodies started to wash up on the shore. Red Cross ambulances brought them back to their family homes. Pictures of the victims spread across social media. People started to recognise them. More anger and sadness were added to this city’s misery.

I spoke to a waiter who had told me the day before that he wanted to take a boat to Europe. He was in the cafe on the day of the news. “What now?” I asked. “I am going through Libya, it is much less likely the boat will sink,” he replied.

I found myself grateful that I would be on a plane to go back to my new home abroad, yet powerless to help the people I was leaving behind. The next day I was cleared to leave.

As we drove past the university by the entrance of the city, I noticed a block of about 10 or 15 new high-rise buildings. The development was named, ironically enough, the “Youth Residences.” In all, the buildings were supposed to house thousands of young people. They look new and colorful but are completely empty and unfurnished on the inside — a stark metaphor for the state of the country.

Driving back towards Beirut, we passed Russian military vehicles with flags on top and the now-infamous “Z” sign painted on the side.

There was one last uncomfortable moment, a parting gift from the system. An immigration officer told me my name had not been removed from the list, which meant I couldn’t leave. I was instantly anxious, but the driver gave him a bribe and he miraculously found the instructions to remove it. I crossed into Lebanon and headed to my comfortable life. I had hoped to feel relief, but instead a sense of survivor’s guilt took over my soul.

I reached into my bag to continue reading George Orwell’s “1984.” I don’t recall when I read it the first time, but I do remember how terrifyingly similar it was to my childhood. I wanted to read it again to try to draw comparisons for this piece, comparisons with what I had left and was leaving again.

There were many echoes. The building where I was interrogated is like one of the ministries described in the book. The pictures of Assad staring down at you wherever you go remind you of the famous phrase, “Big Brother is watching you.” Of course, the unbelievable levels of propaganda that dominated my youth are also well-caught in the novel.

Yet I learned on my trip home that Syria is less similar today to Orwell’s grim classic than it had been under Assad’s father, or in the days before the conflict began. It is no longer an organized dystopia where everything seems to be under control, but more of a wasteland with very little hope and a lot of desperation. People hate “Big Brother” and say it out loud, which is new. But they are helpless and cannot see any alternative.

I really wanted to end on a positive note. I would love to write that the kindness and sheer will of the Syrian people will get them through this period of their history. I did really look for the positives, but, beside the fact this tragedy has empowered women, even if only in limited ways, there is nothing to say.

One day Syria will recover, but I have very little hope it will be during my lifetime.

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