Time to reclaim our suffering

The exploitation of the suffering of people in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq needs to stop.

Third anniversary of the Chemical attack on Ghouta
A worker in the cemetery of Douma drops some water and put a green branch on the tomb a volunteer who died while helping people in Zamalka during the chemical attack, Douma, in August 2016 [EPA]

Back in May 2011, it took me a miracle to leave Gaza through the Rafah Crossing in order to join the Young Leaders Visitors Programme in Sweden. Among the many wonderful people I met were Dima, from Syria, and Thana, from Yemen.

One lazy afternoon, while stretching out on the shore of a serene lake out in the Swedish countryside, someone in the group asked me the infamous question, “How did you travel from Gaza to Sweden?”

I thought to myself, “How do I explain to them the agony of fighting my way out of Palestinian Rafah into Egyptian Rafah, waiting for hours on the border, obtaining a permit to enter Egypt, and then having to fly from Cairo Airport (luckily, I wasn’t deported)?” Dima, for example, had simply flown out of Damascus, and Thana from Boston, where she was studying at the time.

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I began to explain the process, although in the back of my head I realised how little sense my explanation made to simply anyone who never experienced crossing Rafah. One question led to another, and my friends then asked what life in Gaza is like, especially when the Israelis attack.

The first thought that jumped into my head was how earlier that day, as we were enjoying our breakfast in the surreal tranquillity of the countryside cottage that we were staying at, I found myself unconsciously starting at the sound of an imaginary explosion. A few weeks earlier, a sudden explosion erupted in the middle of a quiet morning, and shook our house after Israelis killed 14 people in one F-16 attack.

Sharing the destruction

In October 2016, I met Dima and Thana in London, five years after our Swedish exchange. This time, our encounter felt strikingly different; it was me asking the question now, “How did you get to London?”

Thana told us how she had to apply for a very special – and expensive – permit in order to travel to Jordan, just to apply for a British visa, which was issued just in time for her to catch the last flight from Sanaa to London before Sanaa’s airport was closed in August due to air strikes in the country.

Dima, on the other hand, has been unable to return to Bashar al-Assad-controlled Damascus in the last three years and is torn between longing for Syria and settling in her new home, Lebanon.

“Remember what you told us that one morning when we were having breakfast in the cottage? Back then, I had no idea what you were talking about. But now those startled reactions to imaginary explosions happen to me all the time,” confessed Thana.

I'm in the position of a betrayed watcher: Betrayed by the media, by the double standards that rule the world, and, worst of all, by knowledge of the fact that sympathy is prompted by hatred for a certain enemy, not genuine support for all victims.

Whereas back in Sweden, Palestine was the most intricate and emotional topic, this time in London, our conversation felt heavier, gloomier, and completely depressing. The three of us felt mentally and emotionally exhausted. The three of us had no way of returning to our home countries. We had grown older – not just in age, but the suffering and injustice we all endured had made us outgrow our age.

Watching the horrors of war unfold in Syria, Yemen, Iraq (to name a few) every day, while not being able to do anything meaningful about it made me realise what people like Dima and Thana were going through as they were watching the horrors of Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2008/9, 2012, and 2014.

Whereas the victims (in Gaza, Aleppo, or Sanaa) feel betrayed by the complicit silence of world leaders, those who watch from outside feel betrayed by their inability to do much.

Betrayed by the world

This time, instead of being a betrayed victim, I’m in the position of a betrayed watcher: Betrayed by the media, by the double standards that rule the world, and, worst of all, by knowledge of the fact that sympathy is prompted by hatred for a certain enemy, not genuine support for all victims.

During the United Nations Security Council meeting on the resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements on December 23, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, opened his presumptuous speech by accusing the Security Council from “condemning the only true democracy in the Middle East” while “thousands are being massacred in Syria.”

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Similar to Israel’s ambassador’s insidious abuse of the Syrian people’s suffering, take, for example, how Aleppo featured in most mainstream headlines, supported by – supposedly – impromptu social media campaigns led by activists from around the world.

Simultaneously, Boris Johnson expressed “profound concern” for the ongoing suffering of people in Aleppo, mainly blaming Russia and Iran, both old enemies of the West.

At the same time, the British government still refuses to stop arms sales to Riyadh, which recently admitted to using UK-made cluster bombs in Yemen, and where one child dies of hunger every 10 minutes according to a recent report by UNICEF.

Similarly, not much is being reported on the civilians caught in the crossfire in Mosul, where the United States-led coalition forces have not fulfilled the assurances they made to protect civilians, according to a report by Amnesty International. Therefore, sympathy with Aleppo is largely cultivated by the existence of a common enemy: Russia and Iran.

Exploitative sympathy

Sympathy gives rise to a class of “experts” on the cause. A video featuring “expert” Eva Bartlett’s pro-Assad analysis of the situation in Aleppo went viral, as she apparently held “the truth about Aleppo”.

According to her blog, Bartlett has “extensive experience in Syria and in the Gaza Strip”, which, like the much desired “conflict-zone” jobs sought by international NGO workers, translate to unchallenged expertise on the topic.

A documentary, This is Exile: Diaries of Children Refugees, was screened at an event in London last month, and was followed with a panel of four speakers, none of whom were Syrian.

Similarly, a film by UNICEF called, Children on the Frontline, was followed by a discussion with the film’s director, an “expert” on Syria “who has recently returned from working as the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent.”

Another fundraiser for Save the Children called, Festive Feast from the Middle East, invited people to buy $80 tickets in order to enjoy “a night of festive fun with delicious food, great wine, international DJs, xmas market and more, all for an incredible cause!” Do the organisers of this Save the Children “feast” really think that Syrian people – whom they claim to be enjoying their “festive feast” in order to help – think of their suffering as an “incredible” cause?

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Surviving the 51 days of Israeli assault on Gaza made me lose the little hope I had left in the world.

The day after the assaults ended, many people had realised that death could have been a better option than living in the uncertainty and desolation that was brought about by the smell of death that still lingers in the city to this day.

Watching the same scenario repeat itself with my friends in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq is an eerie testament to the fact that in reality, our suffering is expertly exploited by many – politicians, arms manufacturers, journalists, “experts”, NGOs, fame-seekers, to name but a few.

It is more important for us to expose and stand up to the double-faced intentions of those who claim to sympathise with us and exploit our suffering, rather than “Like” each other’s causes on Facebook.

Yasmeen Elkhoudary is a Palestinian from Gaza currently based in London. She is an independent researcher specialised in Gaza’s archaeological and cultural heritage.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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