I had never heard of this tiny speck of an island dropped in the Aegean Sea. It is one of the several thousand islands scattered around Greece.
According to Homer‘s Iliad, however, Lesbos was part of the kingdom of Priam in what is now Turkey. In the Middle Ages, it was under Byzantine and then Genoese rule. Lesbos was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1462. The Ottomans then ruled the island until the First Balkan War in 1912, when it became part of the Kingdom of Greece.
The Greek Islands comprise more than 6,000 islands and islets covering much of the eastern Mediterranean. Only about 230 Greek islands are inhabited and, of these, just 80 or so have more than 100 permanent inhabitants.
Crete, or Santorin, I had heard, read, seen in movies and travel brochures, but Lesbos, was never in my conscience knowledge until the war came to Syria.
War crept slowly into the land of plenty. A land on which the US had placed a moratorium, the political reasons for which I am unaware. Two important things happened because of the moratorium: one, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides could be imported into Syria and two; no medicinal drugs could be imported into Syria. If Bashar Assad’s henchmen imported medicines illegally they never made it to the market for the common man.
This moratorium had a remarkably healthy effect on the general population as they were not exposed to genetically modified (GMO) food of any category. If they got sick, medicines were cheap and locally made. The mountains and valleys were green when I visited and the cows and sheep were healthy and grazed on open land. The Laban was delicious and the olives were sweet and plentiful.
The ignorant, heedless and wasteful habits of Americans and Europeans and other well to do countries soon created rapid change in the climate with noxious gases being pumped into the air. This dried up the fertile valleys, in Syria and in other countries in Africa. Rain ceased where it had been abundant and the valleys became arid.
The young men and women moved to the cities to make a living. The cities were already full to the gills with people. Adding the entire rural population of Syria did not help the financial condition of the people in the cities nor the ones who had migrated from the farms.
Bashar Assad is an expert at keeping the lid on. He comes by it honestly. His father and uncle had exterminated three generations of intellectuals and scholars and razed the entire city of Homs in one month in 1983. No one in the world had batted an eyelash; By the time the world became aware of this extermination, it was all over. Those were pre iPhone and pre Internet days.
As the people bulged at the seams of the city, the young became restless and dissatisfied with Assad. This was nothing new but the terror of Assad’s prison and his torture squad had kept the older generation silent.
The Internet is an amazing equalizer. As the Arab spring sprouted and spread, hope bloomed in the chests of the young Syrians. One day in the south of Damascus an outspoken middle schooler expressed in graffiti what was in the heart of every Syrian with the exception of Assad’s elite forces and torture squads.
On the wall of his middle school he wrote “Assad you are next” meaning that the Arab spring is on its way to Syria and Assad would be the next casualty of spring trimming.
That very evening Bashar Assad an ophthalmologist by training, innocent faced to look at but ruthlessly cruel at heart sent his death squads to the school.
I have been to that town. It is a very small town in the south of Damascus, extreme poverty reeks in the neighborhood. People were primarily nomads, illiterate with little to their name, but hospitable and kind even in their state of poverty.
The torture police took not only the boy who was the graffiti maker but also few of his comrades. I cannot imagine what the parent’s thought of this as Assad’s well-known cruelty runs through three generations of his family.
They waited with bated breath hoping that the immaturity and middle school age of these boys might spare them after some reprimand.
The next day the soldiers returned with bloody body parts of the children, they were recognizable but terribly tortured and maimed and they threw the bodies or what was left of them in the school courtyard.
As in the past they were confident that this would be enough to silence all dissent; however hunger and poverty has no eyes, desperation has no caution. Seeing the children maimed and tortured broke the camels back.
Bahira the monk has a monastery in the town of Busra located south of Damascus, where he told Prophet Muhammad pbuh uncle that “this boy should be protected as he is going to be a messenger” (his knowledge came from the texts of the Bible)
The town where Prophet Muhammad’s pbuh camel had sat and left a mark now part of a mosque, the town where the gladiators had been thrown to the lions, where thousands of tourists came leaving not even a penny for the locals, the town where clean water to drink was a luxury but the mosques were still full of men and women, this town stood up on its feet and its people came out in droves to protest the horror wrecked on these young boys for their innocent act of writing a graffiti. Assad’s soldiers gunned down the unarmed protesters mercilessly.
It is then that something happened and the tide changed. Someone posted the graffiti on the Internet, someone posted the before and after picture of a 21-year-old boy who had been taken to prison tortured and released and was a walking zombie. The entire filth and horror of the Assad’s torture chambers began to leak out and onto the world’s screen.
Assad’s soldiers refused to kill their kith and kin and turned on him. In response to the photos of the tortured children and the torture chamber of Assad, thousands of men came to fight against Assad from Europe and Afghanistan, mixing and mulling with the locals and Syria became a pot of unknown mixtures of warriors of all sorts and kinds.
What stood out was the fact that Assad’s days were measured and he recognizing this, sent his wife and children down from his palace on the mountain of Cassouine to Europe. His wife wore provocative clothes and bared her long well shaped legs to convince the Europeans that she and her husband now dubbed “Assad the Butcher II” were cultured people of Syria and had been invaded by foreigner fighters.
I cannot keep up with what happened since, and despite turning off the TV avoiding gory pictures of mutilated children or dying refugees; grief seeped into me from the edges of Syria’s devastated mosques that Assad deliberately pinpointed and bombed to smithereens.
I remember visiting a talk by a Sheikh from Syria where someone asked him why a Syrian Muslim president was killing his own Muslim people. He had replied very succinctly and clearly with scholarly evidence that the faith that Assad believed in (Alawite) had nothing to do with Islam. Thus his methodical massacre of Muslims was premeditated and executed with the cold-blooded intention of genocide.
As Assad started to falter, other countries, old allies were summoned under different pretenses and one by one each major city of Syria was bombed till not only the infrastructure was turned into rubble but no human being could breathe there due to the noxious gases of the bombs. and their fallout poisons.
People: rich and poor, men and women, teenagers and babies set out on foot, after crossing over two countries they were met by the lapping waters of the Aegean Sea.
This is where one speck of an island in the idyllic crystal waters of the Aegean Sea beckoned to the brave and the desperate………
There is life beyond those shores that you stand on, it said, come to me, come to me! I am Lesbos and I wait for you with open arms.
They went wading in the water to their flimsy rubber boats, their eye on the small speck of land calling them promising them sanctuary, safety and release from their tortured past………