“I never felt represented in the news stories about Syria. There is no human sense in those reports. They talk about a ‘war’ and people think armies, front lines, tanks — but it’s not like that. This is not two equal sides fighting each other. It’s about people fighting for a better life, for freedom, and armies that want to destroy them.”
The civil war in Syria is not an easy story to tell. There are numbers and facts, of course. But, as Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab is quoted as saying above, they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the human suffering that the people of Syria have endured for the past 11 years. This is not a war with a clear front line; it’s a fractured and complex conflict with multiple parties.
When peaceful protests in March 2011 were met with military violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands wounded, a chain of violent events rapidly escalated, eventually giving way to a brutal war that continues to this day.
Since then, Syria has experienced a crippling economic crisis, continued violations of human rights, a water crisis, a cholera outbreak, food shortages, and poverty affecting 90% of the population. And this was before the two devastating earthquakes that hit Syria and Turkey this month, decimating buildings, schools, and hospitals, killing tens of thousands and trapping tens of thousands more.
As one volunteer with the White Helmets rescue group in Syria said following the earthquakes: “We are used to digging people out of the rubble but this is different… There is nothing left, nothing at all.”
The situation in Syria can’t be summed up by one article, film, or podcast. Understanding the war, its background, and its impacts is not a one-time event, it’s a journey. But if you want to find out more, this list is a good place to start.
Films, Videos & Documentaries to Watch
1. 'The White Helmets' (Documentary)
As daily airstrikes pound civilian targets in Syria, a group of indomitable first responders — the White Helmets — risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble. Watch the documentary on Netflix.
2. 'For Sama' (Documentary)
For Sama is an epic and intimate journey filmed through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria. Filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab, tells the story of how she fell in love, married, and gave birth to her daughter Sama. “Sama, I’ve made this film for you,” says al-Kateab in a voiceover. “I need you to understand what we were fighting for.” Watch the documentary on Channel 4.
3. 'Refuge'(20-min Documentary)
“I don’t think the human mind is able to understand the suffering we’ve experienced,” says a man in Matthew K. Firpo’s short documentary, Refuge. Filmed on location in 2016 in four different refugee camps across Greece, the film allows victims of the Syrian Civil War to share their own experiences and tell their own stories. While news coverage focused on the problem, it often forgot about the human being. These harrowing personal stories in their own words go some way to redress that balance. Watch it on The Atlantic’s YouTube page.
4. 'Born in Syria' (Documentary)
“I left everything in Aleppo, my clothes, my toys, my bed," says Yara, a Syrian child refugee. “Now we sleep on stones. It’s been a month since I washed.”
With a soundtrack composed by Gabriel Yared, Born in Syria follows seven young children who have escaped unimaginable horror. We witness everything through their eyes, from their escape from Syria, through refugee camps in the Middle East, to their arrival in the promised land: Europe. Watch it now on Netflix.
Podcasts to Listen to
5. Understanding How Syria’s Peaceful Uprising Became a Civil War
This BBC World Service episode charts the Arab Spring, the peaceful protests in Syria in early 2011, and the evolution of a complex civil war which has lasted over a decade and involved many other countries. Lina Sinjab, a BBC Middle East correspondent, explains how the conflict in her native country began from the arrest and torture of protesting teenagers in Daraa to the rise of the Islamic State. Listen now.
6. Syria, Conflicted
Hosts, Thomas and Aimen, both know Syria well and walk through the war’s actors and their motives. They also explain how Syria became such a killing field as a result of the Arab Spring and President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the failure of the American post-war project, as he released Syria’s jihadists from prison and facilitated their migration to Iraq. Listen now.
7. The Worldwide Tribe Podcast
If you’re after empowering stories of refugees who fled the war, this is it. The Worldwide Tribe podcast features the human stories of displaced people from Syrian filmmaker, activist, and author, Hassan Akkad, to Nujeen Mustafa who escaped Syria by wheelchair. Find it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Novels, Non-Fiction & Articles to Read
8. 'The Beekeeper of Aleppo' by Christy Lefteri (Fiction, Book)
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. On their terrifying journey, they must face the pain of their own unbearable loss alongside incredible danger. Above all, they must journey to find each other again. This compassionate and beautiful novel is a story of connection – between friends, families, and strangers. Buy the book.
9. 'Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War' by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami (Non-fiction, Book)
Burning Country meshes first-hand testimonies with lucid analysis to chronicle the 2011 Syrian revolution from the grassroots up. It is a people’s history, giving voice to the ordinary citizens who defied the Assad “realm of fear.” Buy the book.
10. 'In Praise of Hatred' by Khaled Khalifa (Fiction, Book)
If you’re interested in what happened before the Syrian civil war, this one's for you. Khaled Khalifa’s multi-layered novel explores the rise of religious extremism in Syria from a female perspective. It is set in the early 1980s, during the bloody struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ostensibly secular regime of Hafez al-Assad (President Bashar’s father), in which thousands died. Find this one at your local bookstore.
11. 'A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea' by Melissa Fleming (Non-fiction, Book)
Written by Melissa Fleming, the chief spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is the true story of an ordinary girl from Syria, who in 2015 became one of 500 people crammed onto a fishing boat destined for Europe. That boat was deliberately capsized, and of those 500 people, just 11 survived. Doaa was one of them — her fiancé Bassem, with whom she had fled, had drowned in front of her. It’s a harrowing but triumphant read. Buy the book.