One day, Hollywood will make a film based on these people’s death and suffering, I thought, as I watched in horror the photos drop of crowds fleeing Aleppo in late December. And it will be sick and horrible, and, too late, the world will realise an inch of what happened. No fiction is ever more arresting than reality.
Death, displacement, maiming and a descent to cynicism for which there are few words. They seem to sum up 2016, which was an annus horribilis in ways I don’t need to describe again.
But against a devilish backdrop – maybe evil I fed off, a fact I am very aware of – 2016 offered me so much. I left a staff job at a newspaper in London, packed a rucksack, did some hostile environment training, and left for Turkey, and ultimately Lebanon. I felt determined and confident and like there was something to live for, for the first time in a while. My life was more precarious, of course – no salary, no office, no colleagues. But I wanted to feel challenged. With the network of friends and contacts I had slowly been building over the previous year, I could no longer just sit in London.
There have been many faces that I will not forget. In the town of Kilis, on the Syria-Turkey border, there was the 17-year-old boy Abdallah, who worked in a bakery. His long gaze spoke of his displacement and hopelessness. His family had fled from northern Syria, but now Isis was throwing rockets over the border, specifically onto the building next to their shop. “We fled from the explosions at home, and now they follow us here”, he said. “We feel like they will follow us wherever we go.”
The next week, I returned to Kilis. Another man’s home had been hit by a subsequent rocket. Half the roof had been smashed away, and a pigeon lay dead in the rubble. A floppy fisherman’s hat covering the man’s eyes, he looked forlorn. He had nothing but his family, and a ruined home.
The Ritsona refugee camp on mainland Greece, is one of the makeshift homes for the 50,000 people stuck in the country, after they fled violence in their homes – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond – but European countries shut their borders. I interviewed one woman the same age as me, 25, with three children, about bringing them up in the camp. She had sheltered them and their screams from the “baramils” – the barrel bombs that had destroyed their street as they fled. When we finished speaking, she whispered to me and pointed at her hip. I realised she was asking me if I could get hold of any new underwear for her. The elastic was going on her current pair. Displacement means you cannot pop to the souk for new undergarments when you need them.
In July, I met Omar. He was dazzlingly, curiously happy. He had spent three years in Syrian government prisons, and had been released thanks only to a $15,000 bribe. He had undergone the deepest, darkest torture that he recalled to me factually and openly. I am still working out how to do justice to his story.
There are other faces of other people I wish I could have met, but geography, politics, violence and fate keep us apart. Many of them I should not mention, for their own safety. I would send them WhatsApp messages – from my safe apartment in Beirut to besieged towns and cities coming under artillery fire and mortar shelling – and they would reply with emojis conveying joy or warmth. I respected that more than they will know.
In my own life in Beirut, life was filled with Arabic lessons and long afternoons curled up in my favourite cafe, occasionally arguing with people over issues where they saw a 6 where I saw a 9.
I will not forget the faces of 2016, and the people who showed resilience and how to live among the cries of “oh how terrible it all is!” They got on with things, and taught me that no fiction is more arresting, more engaging or more interesting than reality.