On any given day, a cursory glance at the international sections of the newspaper will inevitably reveal a story of Syria. It’s a familiar tale; a war-torn country in the middle east whose citizens seem powerless in deciding their own fate, or that of their homeland. To many of us, though, that’s where the familiarity ends – an acknowledgement of an ongoing tragedy, but a certain resignation to the idea that it’s just the way it is.
The words Aleppo, Palmyra, Homs and Kobane have featured regularly on our airwaves at various points in the last 5 or so years; the image conjured up by the term ‘Islamic State’ and actions carried out by IS in places like Syria have added to a culture of fear in the west. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of us, they remain just that – names and images which describe an unfathomable other in one instance, and a fear that will likely never become our reality in the other.
Dubliner Calvin Sweeney has heard these sounds, and faced this reality first hand. He has recently returned from Syria where he helped some of the many thousands who find themselves trapped in the towns and cities of the war zone. We were grateful to him for taking to time to answer our #FiveOnFriday.
INTERVIEW: MICHAEL QUINN
How long did you spend out in Syria and how long did it take to prepare yourself for the type of work you were doing out there?
I spent just over six months in northern Syria mostly in Qamishlo, Kobane and Manbij. I prepared as best I could with really knowing the full depth of what I was getting into. I knew I would need to be physically fit to be a rescue worker so I spent every day leading up to my departure in the pool and the gym. I also learned how to shoot and was practising three times a week.
You’ve said previously that you were affected by what happened to the Yazidis, and hearing about their plight was what inspired your decision to move out there to help. Without getting too deeply into the politics of it all, are there any signs of improvement over there and do you think people looking in on the situation from afar could ever truly appreciate the extent of the problems where you were?
There have been regular ceasefires put in place but they don’t include several factions involved in the war so when one was announced we rarely took any notice of it. They also usually end very quickly and in spectacular fashion like the last one when the regime and Russia destroyed the aid convoy en route to Aleppo. After incidents like that it’s hard to see any resolution in the future.
It’s difficult for people from afar to appreciate the extent of it as the media is very muddled, propaganda is rife and it’s hard to gauge the effects of, say an air strike, without standing over what’s left from one.
Like many people I have been struck by your accounts of events in Syria on Facebook; your almost colloquial tone brings the reader closer to the horror with which you are dealing on a daily basis. For our own benefit and education can you describe a moment or two of particular significance which might help people to understand better what is going on out there, and perhaps why people like us at home need to do more to help?
Firstly there’s a serious lack of resources. During the Manbij operation when Kurdish forces were recapturing the city from IS, we had to borrow civilian vehicles to use as ambulances. One night at about 3am one of our crews dropped some civilians to a military hospital in the middle of the desert. After unloading the wounded a man came over and told us that the vehicle was his and he needed to take it back. We explained that there was heavy fighting at the front and we still needed it. He didn’t care though and insisted he was taking it. An argument ensued and he pulled out a pistol so we handed him the keys. Our crew was stranded until the next morning and when they found another vehicle it broke down shortly after.
Another incident was when I was in the same hospital we took in five wounded children and an IS fighter. They had to be transported to two different hospitals but were travelling together. The dynamic was very strange to get your head around. When we got to the civilian hospital the doctors refused to take the children as they were at breaking point themselves so a fight nearly broke out between myself and the doctors. They eventually conceded and took them in. There’s very little structure or organisation when you’re faced with crisis.
If anyone from Ireland wishes to help the situation they can check our website syriasvibes.com or out Facebook page and get involved.
What’s massively important in this war is the ideological battle. The war has now gone further afield than the front lines of Iraq and Syria as recent attacks in Europe have shown us.
Two major players in creating extremism on our home front are the far right and young impressionable Muslims who turn to extremism. These groups are stronger than they’ve ever been and feed off each other. They essentially give birth to each other and with tactics of tarring everyone with the same brush, fear mongering, racism and fear; they are growing rapidly and essentially ruining it for the rest of us.
If you are angry, scared or confused with what’s going on today, don’t turn to either of these groups. They don’t have the answers and are making the situation worse. It’s easier to punch and hate something than it is to respect and understand it, so avoid the Daily Mails and the Suns and these groups who tell us that refugees are rapists and are coming for your jobs and benefits or that everyone in the west is an infidel whore, these groups base their facts on fear and nothing and as said are ruining it for everyone else.
Respect, love and education are the only weapons that will effectively dent the ideological battle.
Since you’re speaking to First Fortnight, we think it’s important to ask one question which touches on mental health…
From what I can gather, you’ve worked in the area of mental health before going to Syria, and you were obviously also at the coalface of a humanitarian disaster. One assumes that you are surrounded by mental health issues at every turn. While there is a lot spoken / written about PTSD and other issues prevalent among combatants who are engaged in or return from war, have you thought about how this might affect you? Is there much you can do/have done to protect your own mental health?
Thus far I’ve done very little regarding my mental well-being. We tried to initiate a programme in Syria for the staff but lack of structure, organisation and the language barrier finished that.
A friend who is a therapist offered her services to me when I got home so I will avail of that as soon as possible. I’m feeling good in my head right now but it would be good to get talking about it before I start to really get affected by it.
And the 5th Question…
We know it’s never easy, especially for a DJ, but it’s the standard 5th question in the #FiveOnFriday to ask for you to choose 3 songs (from any time in your life) that you would reach out for to listen to if you weren’t feeling on top form. Which tunes would you go for?
Unlimited Touch- Music in the streets.
After my first battle in April my team assembled in my apartment to relax. I went to my bedroom and my boss was in my bed. His bodyguard was in the far corner so I took the bed between them. They were still buzzing from the fighting and were watching videos from the battle on full volume. I had never been in a situation like that battle before so I just wanted it behind me. The noise of the rockets and bullets from the lads’ phones was too much so I put my headphones in. This was the first song I could think of. Immediately I started sobbing to myself but foolishly I didn’t want the lads to know so I was choking on my tears and snot. I put the song on repeat until I fell asleep. I felt surprisingly good the next morning so that became my song whenever I wanted to escape Syria.
Kerrier District – Sho U Rite ( Ceephax Acid Crew remix)
This song is amazing. Andy Jenkinson remixed one of Luke Vibert’s albums into one incredible track. It takes several twists and turns throughout. At times its nice, floaty, happy. Other times it’s heavy, angry, confusing but ploughs on into an amazing climax that leaves you feeling fuzzy after. I think it reflects life as a whole. I’m not doing it any justice here, just listen to it!
The Cure – Another Journey By Train
My favourite cure track. There’s no vocals on it but Robert Smith whistles through it. It’s a bass heavy work out tune that I used to play on bass,rather badly I will admit but for zoning out it worked wonders.