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Opinion | ‘He Didn’t Want to Lie in a Grave That Couldn’t Be Visited’


The Syrian government bet on and abetted such outcomes. The civilized frown when a government shoots unarmed protesters. But Mr. al-Assad knew that the moral murkiness of an armed uprising, combined with a ready-made “war on terror” discourse that flattens nuance, delegitimizes dissent, dehumanizes people and taps into a global psyche that so fears violence committed by Islamists that all sense of proportionality and history is lost, would provide much desired cover to its brutality.

The regime wanted both domestic audiences and the international community to take its side, to stick with the clean-shaven, designer-suited devil it already knew well. Or at the very least, to look away. The world obliged. The global conscience was eased by the supporters of Mr. al-Assad, weary journalists and observers reminding anyone — especially lecturing Syrians — that the opposition had been at best incompetent and at worst really bad. As if the responsibilities of objectivity stop at describing the trees and need not account for the forest.

By the time my father’s illness was diagnosed, he had stage-four metastatic cancer. It had started in one organ and had already spread to two others. By the time he died, it was everywhere but the originating organ. Yet in medical terms, his cause of death was the original cancer. Under a microscope, the pathologist sees the tissue of the initially infiltrated organ — whether it was the lung or breast or liver — in all the other places it is metastasized.

Syria is not a tragedy of unknowable causes or equitable blame. It is intellectually dishonest to say so. It is pathologically untrue.

After my father outlived his prognosis and the West its patience, and transporting a body to Damascus began to seem like folly, he thought about going to Syria while still alive, to die there. But with no clarity on when that day would be, he chose not to be separated from us, a family that included his grandchildren. So again he asked that when the end did come we bury him back in Syria, next to his parents who he had spent a lifetime away from, in the cemetery beside the Chapel of St. Paul in Damascus.

Syria continued to collapse, never quite bottoming out. In what would be his last year, my father renounced the desire completely. He didn’t want to lie in a grave that couldn’t be visited. Looking at me with blame and admiration, he said: “You won’t be able to come. And there, who is left to visit me?” That mix of blame and admiration I imagine is familiar to other Syrians who also believed in possibility and hope when it all began, who never fathomed what Mr. al-Assad and his military would unleash on a place we all supposedly loved, rather than relinquish even a modicum of power.

Many such people are wanted by the regime. They were writers or attended protests or gathered humanitarian supplies for Syrians in need or simply said something on social media. Now they find themselves unable to return to their country and separated from their loved ones, including those they would want to call on at their graves. Even as our relatives admire the courage to have acted or just hoped, spoken or unspoken, the question hangs between us: Was the personal cost worth it?

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