Monday, July 18, 2011

Benefits of Dangerous Travel, Revisited

In a previous blog I described a recent trip to three countries in the Middle East, including Syria.  I titled the blog "Dangerous Travel" to highlight the demonstrations that were occurring in Syria at the time and the brutal crackdowns by the government.  Despite the depictions of these events in the media as widespread chaos throughout the country, my wife and I felt quite safe and were very glad we continued the trip.  At that time (April and early May of this year) the violence was in very specific areas at very specific times, posing little threat to tourists.  And most important, the target of these demonstrations was the current regime, not the governments of other countries.

Since then the internal situation in Syria has gotten steadily worse.  Larger and larger demonstrations have occurred, and they have taken place in some cities that were previously thought to be strongholds of support for the Assad regime, like Aleppo. Since we stayed in Aleppo for a few days, this caught our attention.  When we were there things were very calm, and as usual the people welcomed us warmly as they had elsewhere in Syria.  We were struck by the modern sophistication of the city and the charm of its old town area, a noteworthy feature of which was a huge Orthodox Christian cathedral next to an equally huge mosque, and a neighborhood where Burkas and knee-length dresses were evenly mixed on the streets.  The city had prospered over the years from the Assad regime's strong-arm enforcement of stability and had been rewarded for its support of the government's policies.  For demonstrations to occur here was a striking sign of the erosion of Assad's power. 

A second place we visited that is currently in the news is the smaller city of Hama, a picturesque place known for its ancient waterwheels throughout town that are used to draw water from the town river.  We enjoyed it very much, and again we are startled by the contrast between the quiet, seemingly calm place we saw and the images of it as the center of demonstrations by 100,000 anti-government protestors and violent reprisals by Assad's armed forces.  This is the town where Assad's father killed an estimated 10,000 or more in earlier uprisings about 30 years ago.  As detailed in an informative article by Al Jazeera, the recent events began to take place just days after we were there.

Finally, there are the demonstrations in Damascus and the storming of the French and American Embassies there.  These events are chillingly different because they seem to have been sponsored or at least encouraged by the government in response to the visit to Hama by the French and American Ambassadors.  The claim -- without foundation from everything we saw -- is that the anti-Assad demonstrations that have been going on for months now have been instigated by these foreign governments.  Our interpretation is that this is a very desperate attempt by Assad to legitimize his brutal crackdowns in the eyes of his dwindling supporters.

Is it now too dangerous to travel to Syria?

Prior to our trip my answer to this question would have been a quick "Yes."  After traveling there, meeting the people who are the targets of their government's brutal retaliation, and seeing firsthand the disconnect between filtered media versions of events and the reality we experienced, I'm not so sure.  But I think what would now keep me from going is the change in the government's attitude toward foreigners from being objects of  economic exploitation to scapegoats for justifying brutality.  If a government is willing to use tanks and machine guns to quell peaceful demonstrations and kill thousands in the process, it might not care about a protecting a few tourists.

1 comment:

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