By Gabrielle Chefitz
Editor’s note: CNN’s Gabrielle Chefitz speaks with CNN Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon about the situation in Syria.
Paint a picture for us. What is it like in Syria right now?
It’s tense. There’s widespread fear. The kind of war that is happening now is something that most only saw on television. They would have seen it happening in Lebanon, or would have watched it more recently happening in Iraq. Now everything they’ve seen on their TV screens has become their reality. And that’s a terrifying concept for anyone to deal with. Right now, there’s a lot of people questioning the level of military involvement the U.S. is willing to commit to. From their perspective, the United States is doing this less out of concern for the Syrian population and more out of U.S. policy and a belief that America needs to protect itself.
What would U.S. military involvement mean for ordinary Syrian citizens?
These military strikes are going to signal a new chapter of the war. There is no way to end the war. It’s going to happen and it is happening and is going to take a very long time no matter what. The debate needs to be about mitigating the consequences of it. From dealing with the refugee population, to educating children, to inoculating them against diseases, to making sure women aren’t being exploited, to making sure generations are not lost, all the way to mitigating the consequences of having groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda become even more powerful.
What’s happening in the region right now is potentially going to change the very way that countries define themselves. We’re talking colossal, potentially border changing events. The region, in its recent history, has existed along artificial borders that were created by colonial powers. And a lot of analysts will tell you that this is to a certain degree the region rebalancing the dynamics. And that may be inevitable, but it does not have to be as bloody as it has been or as bloody as its going to get. But I think when we look back on what’s happening now, in 20 years, this is going to be one of those chapters in history that redefines the way an entire region identifies itself, the way countries identify themselves.
One of the most serious consequences of the current civil war is the refugee crisis. Can we mitigate this?
UNHCR is already saying they don’t even have 50 percent of the money they need to provide the most basic of refugee needs. That means that 50 percent of the people that are registering with them, they cannot adequately provide for. Two million people plus are now registered with the United Nations, and that’s probably not a reflection of what the refugee population really is, because the unofficial numbers are probably much higher, a lot of people end up not registering. And these are people who have lost their homes, their personal belongings, their personal memorabilia, their loved ones. And they have to go and live as refugees under these circumstances that forces them to lose their dignity as well. We cannot underestimate the psychological toll this takes on people.
Is there still a spirit of resilience or are people worn down at this point?
It’s definitely taking its toll. It’s taking a phenomenal, unimaginable toll. But at the same, there is resilience, there is determination. I’m speaking mostly about the opposition and the people living in opposition strongholds. They’ve come this far, there is the knowledge that they can’t go back. But there are also a lot of questions being asked. A lot of people will tell you that if they had known that this was how it was going to end up, if only they could have known this was how it was going to end up. And then you ask them, well would you not have participated? And they’ll say no. We still would have. But there’s a lot of feeling that they were abandoned by the international community. That this did not have to have taken the toll on the people that it has already taken.
Have people been able to maintain any semblance of daily life?
Daily life has redefined itself, obviously, but people are phenomenal in times like this. Daily life looks nothing like it used to before. But depending on which part of the country you’re in and what’s happening around you, there’s a shadow of it. People learn to live with war. People learn to redefine their normal to what they are willing to accept on a daily basis – living with the risk, living with the danger, living with the fact that each time you say goodbye to someone you don’t know when you’re going to see them again. Because you don’t have a choice. You have to get up every single morning and breathe and live somehow.
How can you tell this story of ordinary life and ordinary citizens? How do we move beyond the political to the personal?
It’s like people have lost their humanity. They’ve lost their compassion. And lost the realization that every day that goes by a mother is losing her child. A woman is losing her husband. Families are being torn apart. People’s reality is just being ripped away from them, a lot of the time by violence that they cannot possibly understand. And if you think what is happening in the region is not somehow going to impact the United States, well it is. And if you can’t think about it in terms of the human lives that are being lost or the suffering that a parent goes through when their dead child is in their arms, then maybe America needs to start thinking about how what’s happening here has a very real potential of threatening the U.S. and of hurting their standing that is already on shaky grounds in the region.
How can journalists help achieve this?
We who have been covering this from the beginning, we have this conversation all the time. Did we fail? Where did we fail? What should we have done differently? What greater risks should we have taken to somehow bring about the human story of all of this? We talk about that all the time. A lot of feeling guilty, like we also somehow failed Syria and we’ve also failed the Syrian people. Because how could we be reporting a story for more than 2 years, giving it our best and have the world, by and large, be so desensitized to what’s happening? Americans are war weary, they are exhausted from Iraq. But you don’t do a story because your audience is exhausted, you do a story because it’s the right thing to do.