Peace in Syria? It takes more than regime ceasefires

Peter Harrison

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This week the Syrian regime announced that it was prepared to enter peace talks ‘without conditions’. Almost immediately members of the opposition rejected the claim. It’s not entirely surprising – previous ceasefires that the regime has signed up to have been breached within hours of them starting.

But let’s for one minute assume that this time the peace talks ended the war – let’s pretend that the bombs stopped falling, that the guns fell silent – would it make a difference? I’m not so sure it would – I can’t see how the nation can simply return to any form of normality after the horrors so many of the people have been exposed to over the past half a decade.

A few years ago I was chatting to a sales assistant in a Dubai shop – he was clearly shaken – and then he explained why: “Sorry, but I have just found out that my two cousins were killed by a mortar in Syria,” he explained. “My mother had just walked them to the bus stop on their way to school. As the bus drove away the mortar fell – they were killed instantly in front of her.”

This man’s mother is not alone. Internally displaced people living in Syria have faced war-related violence for half a decade. There have been hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions displaced.

These people cannot be expected to simply forget these things they see. The parents who pull the lifeless bodies of their babies from the rubble of their homes, their children who look on as they do it.

If a country is to return to peace and stability, then surely it needs a peaceful and stable population.

Peter Harrison

The World Health Organization has documented that these people suffer a wide spectrum of emotional problems, from the most basic of anxiety and sadness, to loss of control and hopelessness.

They suffer physical complaints, loss of appetite, and social and behavioral problems, such as withdrawal, aggression and interpersonal difficulties are also common.

As a result, more than half of those researched have experienced mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Researchers also found that 40% of adult refugees experienced nightmares, and 50% had vivid flashbacks reliving traumatic events they had been exposed to.

Fatigue, fear and loss of control

In 2013 research carried out by UNESCO revealed that 8.1 million Syrians were displaced inside their own country - half of these people were children struggling to survive and cope with the crisis. And these children are not going to school – there’s a whole generation of children of school age currently receiving no education.

Those living within Syria in areas around places like Damascus, were confirmed as suffering high levels of fatigue, fear and loss of control, as well as family separation due to displacement and shifts in gender roles.

These figures were compiled in 2013 – I can only assume things have got much worse with the rise of ISIS and Nusra Front, as well as the intensification of bombing in built up areas.

Syria is not alone - in Afghanistan – a once wealthy and aspirational nation – which was exposed to almost two decades of war, a study of 799 adults aged 15 and above revealed 62% suffered traumatic events over the previous 10 years.

The researchers also found depression in nearly 70% of respondents, while more than 72% suffered anxiety and 42% showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

If a country is to return to peace and stability, then surely it needs a peaceful and stable population – I cannot see how the people of Syria can hope for that any time soon – irrespective of any peace agreement.

There’s an image from Syria that has stuck with me for some time – a picture of a man desperately scrambling through the rubble of a building that has just been hit by a barrel bomb. At one point he stops, the look of desperation on his face is heart breaking. He holds his head, then grabs at the debris beneath him.

Another man tries to console him and lead him away, the grief-stricken man resists, he is now sobbing uncontrollably, he sits back down and weeps. What I have watched is a man so utterly desperate and emotionally broken, he’s helpless – his emotional pain is visible.

There’s similar imagery of two children and a man sitting in a street, there’s a small boy crying, again uncontrollably. A bomb has fallen where he lives, where he was no doubt playing with friends moments before. Then the camera pans round, the boy continues to sob – a body is carried past him – again, will he ever be able to forget this? I doubt it.

I can’t even start to imagine the pain these people are going through, whatever has caused it, whatever they have seen, whatever (or whoever) they have lost, you can’t take that away. They can’t un-see these things. And so when I hear of the Syrian government talking about entering peace talks, I am left wondering if the Syrian people will ever, or indeed can return to any sense of normality.

If I saw stuff like these people are exposed to I could seek help from counsellors. I could take my hour on the couch and pour my heart out – but a nation of war-scared people aren’t going to be able to do this.

Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist who has worked for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He’s covered everything from farming in the south west of England, to the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior journalist with Al Arabiya English.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.