Lina Chawaf is a journalist and CEO of Radio Rozana, a media outlet run by Syrian journalists in exile.
On a recent trip back home to see my family in Montreal – far away from the Turkey/Syria border region where I spend much of my time – I joined a large march for an end to the fighting in Gaza.
I started crying.
Not for the suffering of the people in Gaza, though they deserve our support. The tears came because I thought of my fellow Syrians being bombed to this day – and no one talks about them. All the memories of my fight, our fight for dignity and freedom since the revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011 came flooding back to me.
Syria is currently divided into four parts that are under the influence of Russia, the U.S., Turkey and al-Qaeda. The part under al-Qaeda control is still bombed by the Syrian regime, which receives support from the Russian air force. The moment Israel started to bomb Gaza, they intensified the bombing in Syria. Children in Syria now are dying the same way as children in Gaza, but no one talks about them. It’s a world war inside Syria, where global powers are fighting and the Syrian population pays the price.
How easily the world forgets and turns its eyes away when another equally gut-wrenching human tragedy grabs our attention. Remember the photos of the little boy, Alan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach as his family tried to flee war and repression? Remember how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadians welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees to our country with open arms?
I can’t move on.
I was the editor-in-chief and an on-air radio host back then in Damascus, but like many Syrians, when the democratic protests began in 2011, I felt compelled to join.
I refused to broadcast pro-government propaganda. I had no choice but to quit my job and with death threats hanging over me and my children, I was forced to flee.
With other Syrian journalists in exile, I helped set up Radio Rozana, an independent news organization based in Gaziantep, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. To a wide audience inside Syria and around the world, we broadcast citizen journalism, interviews and stories about atrocities by the Assad regime and other groups, with a focus on women’s rights and their resistance.
I remember back in 2016 when the city of Aleppo in northern Syria was under siege. The world’s international media were contacting us to cover what was happening on the ground. We shared our information with journalists in Canada, Denmark, Norway, France and Sweden and we put them in touch with citizen reporters, activists, and doctors in the field.
But then came the silence.
When civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun were hit by an air strike with chemical weapons in 2017 that killed at least 89 people and injured hundreds more – many of them children – I reached out to my contacts in the international media. But only a few got back to me.
The perpetrators of human rights abuses know it is easier to act when the world’s eyes are distracted.
It is not a coincidence that just as the war in Gaza started, the Assad regime – with their backers from Russia – chose that moment to launch a bombing attack on the town of Idlib, where resistance remains strong. They knew few would be watching or care.
Syria has become the forgotten war.
It’s natural for us to turn our attention and open our hearts to the crisis that is most immediate, most pressing, most urgent.
But I am sure Ukrainians are worried support for their cause may wane as the superpowers, the media and the public focus shifts to Gaza and Israel. And how long will it be until the Palestinian people in Gaza, too, will be relegated to second place when the next attention-grabbing conflict erupts?
But this should not be a popularity contest. There is room in our hearts and minds for more than one outcry for help.
And when we reach out to support the people of Syria or Ukraine, it doesn’t diminish our concern for what is happening in Gaza. It strengthens it because human rights are human rights.
I will be back on the Syrian border soon, broadcasting stories about resistance and hope.
I hope the world will be listening.