Abdelbasset al-Sarout and Inspiration

Inspiration can be still be found in the depths of war. And for me, inspiration of a kind has been found in the Syrian conflict. This is not the inspiration of a happy warrior, a ghoulish spectator to events, but rather the genuine sense of fellow feeling which can be found in observing others doing good and hoping for better.

For many people, including a great number of friends, the bravery of Syria’s ‘White Helmets’, who have been newly recognised by a series of films and nominated for major international peace prizes, is nothing short of inspiring. These volunteer rescuers, who work in the most horrific scenes of this war, pulling children from bombed out rubble, exhibit both a heroism and dignity which are almost beyond belief.

Inspiration can be more than a worthy respect for those who are morally above reproach; it can even be more active, and take the form of a kind of empathy – even in an incomplete way. It can also be derived from rather obvious sources – in my case in particular, a documentary film. This film, entitled Return to Homs, is one of the most affecting I have seen.

As might be expected from this title, the film concerns itself with the Syrian city of Homs, once a haven of the revolution and now a ruin, effectively abandoned under the pressures and exigencies of enemy action. The scars of artillery fire still pit and crack the streets, the collapsed and crumbling tower blocks, the disintegrating dwellings – all of the things which made a city work, which made it habitable and worthwhile.

All of these have been destroyed; the peace has been shattered; and now Homs resembles a mere shell of a place. Its people are gone, or starving, or undergoing a state of continual siege. Its defenders, local men who fought together – well, they died together. The place is a ruin. Return to Homs has long, unbroken, arcing shots of fighters climbing through the holes in walls and houses, the gaps between dwellings erased by war and necessity; they scamper through ripped up streets and destroyed neighbourhoods. The threat is omnipresent: snipers populate the ruins, and the bursting of artillery shells even interrupts the burial of the dead.

The city’s defenders, many or all of whom have now fled, put up a brave resistance against the coming columns, the rain of steel and lead. But they were not a professional army; they were, in the partly pitying, partly contemptuous phrase of President Obama, ‘former farmers or teachers or pharmacists’. When he said it, he implied weakness. But in the film, there was great moral strength, and they all exhibited it.

One man in particular gave the film its tremendous moral force, its aching hope for the future; he was once a goalkeeper in the Syrian national football team. But he is more than that – far more, much greater, of infinitely higher magnitude. He is the revolution in human form; in wilder moments, one could almost say that he is history personified, a human face which bears in its way the brute force of events. His name is Abdelbasset al-Sarout; despite the narrative at hand in Return to Homs, the fate of a benighted nation, it is, in many ways, his story.

It is also a story of the city, of the revolution; and also, in a sense – in a diffuse but nevertheless definably present sense – the story of how something so many miles away can affect and captivate and traumatise and influence profoundly people all over the world; and that includes people like me, who were only children when the revolution broke out, but on whom its shadow falls, representing the nature of modern war, and serving as a measure of international morality in the present age. This is not the place for personal history and it would be crude to suggest it should or could be; but I cannot be the only one whose personal connection with this man and identification – in my own small way – with his efforts and hopes and dreams is a little more than logical. I cannot be the only one for whom he has had an important formative effect.

This story is heavily saturated with the personal, in a way. I have written pieces for publication – either for myself or for other outlets – which reference the much derided ‘good guys’ of Syria. Sarout is always, either on the page or in the ether, counted among their number. There is something to be said for trying to link these vague statements and to attempt to place them within some kind of intellectual framework.

It is difficult to be balanced when talking about Syria; no doubt this is made harder because so few people pretend to aspire to impartiality. And those who do pretend to take up this mantle, perhaps more than others, contribute to an immense cloud of duplicity which covers the conflict and creates such difficulty.

In a way, everyone is a partisan; everyone is a partisan for something.

I am a partisan in this war, despite the fact I would rather possess the skill of remaining arduously objective. I suppose if one cares for freedom and liberty, and for the rights of individuals not to be trampled by dictatorships, one is something of a partisan by default. This is all tied up with the fate of the ‘good guys’, like Sarout. This is what I call them, and this is what I think they deserve to be called.

That name was initially invoked as a pejorative, with heavy sarcasm giving the phrase something of a sinister topspin. Where are the good guys? Who are they? What do they want?

They do exist; and, one can only hope, they will continue to exist. Their stories are worth telling and they are worth memorialising. They deserve that much, at any rate. This is or can be a kind of inspiration, I suppose, even though it is a grim and tragic one.