March 23, 2021
PARIS — "It's worse than a crime, it's a mistake." As we mark the sad, 10th anniversary this month of the start of the civil war in Syria, the quote attributed to French politician Boulay de la Meurthe comes straight to mind.
It's not a question of comparing the facts of Napoleon Bonaparte's 1804 execution of the Duke of Enghien, a possible heir to the throne of France, with the Western world abandoning the Syrian people at the beginning of the 21st century. But in both cases, the error that was committed is not only ethical, but above all political. It is not just about values, but also interests.
By killing an innocent prince, Napoleon made the Duke a martyr and turned European opinion against him, or at least the French nobility, which he had started to "tame."
By abandoning to its fate a country and a people whose only crime was, at the time of the Arab Spring, not to accept the brutality, inefficiency and corruption of a despotic regime, Western democracies accelerated their own process of historical decline.
Denouncing the blindness of the British political class on the eve of World War II, Winston Churchill told them: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." In the same way for Syria, we were blind and faced "dishonor, then chaos," as we were unable to understand that maintaining the regime was perpetuating the chaos.
The French city of Saint-Lô, which had been almost entirely destroyed by U.S. bombs on the night of June 5, 1944, was described as the "capital of ruins." Today, Bashar al-Assad deserves the nickname "despot of ruins." After 10 years of deadly fighting that has left nearly 400,000 dead and displaced more than half of the Syrian population, he managed to stay in power thanks to the spinelessness and lack of strategic vision of some and the determination and absolute cynicism of others.
Syrians feel completely abandoned.
But Assad reigns over a destroyed, fragmented and desperate country that feels like it became, for the world of the 21st century, what Poland was for Europe of the 18th century: "God's playground," if not a test field for new weapons.
Syrians no longer expect anything from the international community. They have accepted the fact that no hope could come from the outside. They feel completely abandoned. The only question they are still asking themselves is: Why? Why such a lack of empathy and concern for their suffering, even with the power of the information revolution? No one, in other words, can claim they didn't know what was going on in Syria.
A mural in Idlib to commemorate 10 years since the start of the Syrian civil war — Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa via ZUMA Press
The answer to this question lies in three words: ignorance, prejudice and, most probably, fear.
In the shadow of a regime that silenced all forms of opposition and secession with chemical weapons and targeted attacks, the Syrian civil society had become "invisible" for so long, since the Assad family seized power in 1970. On the one hand, there was an exceptionally brutal regime, and on the other, a people, a bit mysterious, whom we chose not to differentiate from its regime — all in order to avoid facing complicated dilemmas.
The only feature of this people that we retained was of course its most familiar element, their Christian minority. It was an understandable choice, but questionable on the ethical level, and even more so on a political level, if it led to turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by the regime against its citizens. As if all the dead were not equal. But above all, there was the fear of ISIS and Islamists.
Lack of empathy is one thing, lack of strategic vision is another. In Syria's case, one led directly to the other. When French President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, he said that "the regime of Assad, unlike ISIS, was not an enemy of France." As if France, the country of freedom and human rights, could not be the enemy of a president who gassed his citizens?
It only takes a moment of negligence or distraction to lose the legitimacy.
Alongside the Syrian people, who are of course the main victims of the conflict, there are multiple losers and very few winners. It is not easy to rank the errors that were committed, but President Barack Obama's is very high on this list. By refusing to enforce the red line that he himself had set, by not sanctioning (or only very little) the use of chemical weapons against Syrians by Assad's regime, the president of the United States became an accomplice of these crimes. As he inherited excesses in the other direction from his predecessor George W. Bush, it was certainly difficult for him to take the risk of a large-scale military intervention.
But by not taking a stand, with punitive airstrikes, he gave the impression of giving up — an irresponsible act, even more so as it followed years of empty statements. From Washington to Paris via Jerusalem, didn't the leaders of the Western world take turns announcing the imminent and inevitable end of Bashar al-Assad's regime? It only takes one moment of negligence or distraction to lose the legitimacy and credibility that we took years to build.
On the winning side are Russia and the three non-Arab regional powers of the Middle East: Iran, Turkey and, somewhat paradoxically, Israel, which has benefited doubly from the growing regional fragmentation and the unifying fear against Iran. On the "losing" side, the lack of strategic vision only reflected an absence of moral clarity.
By abandoning Syrians to their tragic fate, Western democracies have not only betrayed their values but also their interests. The Syrian tragedy will remain an accelerator of the loss of confidence in the democratic West.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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