The Jewish Report Editorial

The Syrian road

What has Syria got to do with us? The dreadful brutality comes immediately into our homes via computer screens and cellphones, writes SAJR editor GEOFF SIFRIN
by SAJR editor Geoff Sifrin | Oct 01, 2013

What has Syria got to do with us? As Jews go through their Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah and others, the dreadful images from that country permeate the news. War is always heartless. But with Facebook and Twitter, its brutality comes immediately into our homes via computer screens and cellphones.

 It doesn’t stop with the 100 000 killed, millions of refugees, or nerve-gas attacks in which some 1 400 civilians, including children, reportedly died. News channels have now published a photojournalist’s pictures of four barbaric executions by rebels in a Syrian town which shocked even the most war-hardened. Websites warned viewers about their “graphic, disturbing” material.

Amidst a cheering crowd, men had their throats cut and their severed heads held aloft. In one scene a line of young boys sits on a wall a few feet away, watching a dead man’s head being dumped on his body. Then a child is led by the hand past the corpse. An eyewitness told Time that the killers belonged to ISIS - an Al-Qaida faction fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The photographer, whose identity has been concealed to protect him, said: “That scene in Syria, that moment, was like a scene from the Middle Ages, the kind of thing you read about in history books.

“The war in Syria has reached the point where a person can be mercilessly killed in front of hundreds of people who enjoy the spectacle. As a human being I would never have wished to see what I saw. But as a journalist, I have a camera and a responsibility.

“I have a responsibility to share what I saw that day. That’s why I am making this statement and that’s why I took the photographs. I will close this chapter soon and try never to remember it.”

Instinctively, our sympathies are for the men executed. But then we are told they belong to the cruel Shabiha gangs - Assad loyalists who stalk rebel areas, slaughtering women and children. Who to feel sorry for?

Wars are embedded in most peoples’ history and psyche. For Jews, Yom Kippur evokes a particular trauma, recalling the frantic period in 1973 when Israeli soldiers were desperately rushing to their units after being summoned from synagogues on the Holy Day, as Egypt and Syria launched massive surprise attacks in the Sinai and Golan.

Jewish South Africans and other Diaspora Jews went to Israel as volunteers, as they did in 1967 for the Six Day War.

Those battles between Israel and the Arab countries were fought between formal armies with tanks, artillery, aircraft and chains of command operating according to international rules of combat. Not that it makes them less frightening, but at least some kind of structure regulated how soldiers behaved. Civil wars like the Syrian one are more chaotic, allowing a free-for-all to the most barbaric human depravities, like the ones described above.

What can we do about Syria from here at the bottom of Africa? Nothing, really. Just trying to understand who the villains and victims are, is almost impossible.  

South Africans are not incapable of such things. Remember the necklacing in the 1990s, when mobs watched as petrol-filled tyres were placed around the necks of suspected “collaborators” and set alight?

We had another taste during the xenophobic attacks on Somalis, Mozambicans and others in 2007. But fortunately, the broad mass of South Africans was horrified, and put an end to it.

Other countries - like Rwanda - which have gone through massacres of their own citizens, have tried to expiate the horrors through tribunals and truth commissions. Justice is not achievable, but it can provide a catharsis and a possible road forward.

One wonders, though, whether Syria is capable of taking this route. Whichever the case, Syrian children like those who witnessed the slaughter and beheadings, will be traumatised and brutalised forever.

This will be the legacy of the present atrocities.


  • Geoff Sifrin is the editor of the SA Jewish Report. This leader appeared in the print edition of the newspaper on 16 September 2013.


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