The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
QAMISHLI, SYRIA—Two long tents straddle the street in this Kurdish neighborhood near the home of Amer Mohamed Said Berlan, a 25-year-old business owner killed in a car bombing on Nov. 11. The mourners have been coming all day and from across the city to pay their respects. The women sit in clusters on the floor of one tent, children in their laps and talking low. In another, the men sit in chairs in rigid lines, smoking and talking. A boy weaves in and out, serving cups of water.
I am the only American to come, and I am met by Amer’s uncle, Raenas Selo, who takes my hand and thanks me.
Amer was an uncomplicated man, he says, who loved his family and Syria and was willing to work hard for both. “He is one of millions of innocents made to pay for the conflict in our country.”
Like many in this, the largest city in northeast Syria, Selo believes, “This bomb is the work of Erdogan. Our area was returning to peace, we were working and able to be with our families, in our houses. And now we have war again.”
‘This bomb is the work of Erdogan.’—Raenas Selo, uncle of Syrian bombing victim Amer Mohamed Said Berlan
Qamishli and this region have been roiled with ISIS sleeper cells and Turkish-backed militias since October’s U.S. pullout from key border points, which precipitated an invasion by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An unprecedented number of U.S. generals express open disagreement with Trump policy, and the senior American diplomat on the ground warns Turkey’s military offensive “represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.” Locals, who already have endured nearly nine years of war, are paying the price.
Selo said: “We want our pain to reach your government.”
Amer worked in his mobile phone shop that Monday when his mother called. There were protests as Turkey advanced and Russian forces had just rolled into town. Already the city sits divided between the Syrian army and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “Would you please come home?” she asked. “It’s dangerous.”
Amer was helping a group with internet access, and he would come home later, he said. Besides his shop, Amer volunteered with NGOs helping Syrians displaced by the Turkey action, including U.S.-based Partners Relief and Development.
I sat across the street from Amer’s shop when the car bomb exploded at about 3 p.m. I was alone at a second-floor hotel conference room table, talking by phone and taking notes. Like thunder underground, it was followed by a sucking thwoosh of air as an inferno rose from the street. In slow seconds I moved away from the window, aware of glass washing over me and pooling at my feet. A ceiling tile fell and ductwork above me dropped down as the building shook. Hotel maids screamed, and we all crowded into the hotel stairway.
Secondary explosions rang out (the car bomb had exploded another car), and suddenly two armies were in the street below, summoning fire trucks. The wall of fire was 40 paces away but its heat poured through the open window. We retreated to a downstairs lobby. Later I discovered the entire window I sat by had blown out, and also a glass partition behind me, yet I emerged with not one scratch.
Amer died instantly. He was one of seven killed, with dozens wounded.
In America we absorb this news from a studied distance. In Qamishli, I didn’t have that option. I watched as shopkeepers moved toward the flames. They jumped atop fire trucks, carried out dead and wounded, and later joined workers who spent hours upon hours sweeping glass and debris from the streets. The next day much of the street reopened for business, and men sat brazenly on the sidewalk.
Seeing their determination moved me to carry on my own reporting trip. And to visit Amer’s family in their grief.
Four days after the bombing, I found Amer’s mother in her home near the tents, surrounded by women on mats, alternately crying and wailing. Like them, I sat on the floor beside her and held her as she held me.
“He was the groom of tomorrow,” she said through sobs, “and I had bought his wedding clothes. But he has gone and left me, taking our future with him.”