The Price of Life

Excerpt from An Inside Story of Modern Syria: The Unauthorised Biography of a Damascene Reformer by Omar Imady

Case: Colvin et al. v. Syrian Arab Republic

Civil Action No: 2016–1423

Decision: February 1, 2019

Judge: Amy Berman Jackson

Funeral expenses: $11,836

Solatium Damages: $2.5 million

Punitive Damages: $300,000 million

Total: $302,511,836

Marie Catherine Colvin was born in Astoria, in the New York borough of Queens. She died in Baba ‘Amr, Homs. On the 1st February 2019, Amy Berman Jackson, a District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that “… the Syrian Arab Republic engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national by planning and executing an attack on the Baba ‘Amr Media Center, and is liable to plaintiffs for the resulting injuries.”[i] Marie Colvin’s family were awarded a total of $302,511,836.[ii]

I read carefully document number 59, constituting “the redacted public second amended memorandum opinion” by Judge Jackson. Thirty-six pages that cover everything from the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria to whether or not Marie had planned on retiring by age 65. Thirty-six pages that aimed at calculating the price of the most precious of all human experiences: life.

How does one go about calculating the price of life? How much would it take, for example, to compensate for the loss of Ghiath Matar? Ghiath, only twenty-six and a father-to-be, was known for giving out flowers and water to soldiers who were attacking peaceful protesters in early 2011. Do we have a figure for Mohamed Abyad, the Syrian doctor working for Doctors Without Borders who was only twenty-eight when he was abducted and killed? Or perhaps we have one for Razan Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer and civil society activist and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award, who was abducted in 2013 and has not been seen since. Do we have special figures for children? Like Rua Ismail, an eleven-year-old girl who was killed by an explosion in Salamiyyah; or Hamza Al-Khateeb, the thirteen-year old who was tortured to death. Do we have figures for mass killings? Families killed in Zara’a, Houla, Aqrab, and Darayya? All of those killed had names, though we may only be able to document the identity of some. But all, like Marie, had family, friends, and loved ones. Some died reciting a prayer, others died suddenly and unexpectedly. Some died while being tortured, others drowned as they attempted to escape a country that had become a factory of death.

The attempt to document Syria’s economic damage has become quite popular in recent months, but neither this approach nor its conclusions capture what I am after. It almost seems cold and out of touch to attempt to place a price tag on reconstructing a country which is yet to determine what exactly it has lost in terms of human life. Over 500,000 people have been killed since March 2011. How does one attempt to capture the price of these lives? How does one begin to reconstruct the lives of their families and loved ones? To follow the logic of Judge Jackson’s decision is to award $302,511,836 to each of those killed in Syria since 2011. This would amount to approximately $151 trillion, or over three hundred times as much as the highest estimate for the cost to reconstruct Syria’s economy.[iii] But even this fails to fully capture the price we have paid; the price Syria has paid. Even $151 trillion does not seem sufficient to heal the wounds that have evolved over the last ten years into deep faults, time bombs buried deep within Syria’s earth, waiting for the right, or wrong, moment to explode all over again.

And who exactly would be found liable for the killing of over 500,000 Syrians? Perhaps the most tragic aspect of all of this is the fact that in the vast majority of cases, those killed in Syria since 2011, were killed by Syrians. Loyalist fighters, opposition fighters, secularists, jihadists — they believed in different visions, and fought for different Syrias, but in the end, they killed Syrians. We have the tendency to use abstractions when it comes to identifying those responsible. Judge Jackson identified the ‘Syrian government’, and at times even ‘Syria’ as liable for the killing of Marie Colvin. We often speak of the Syrian regime as liable for most of the killing. Jihadist organizations are described as having had the will, but not the capacity, to kill as many as those killed by the regime, a regime with a long history of actual and alleged acts of violence against civilians.

But all of this is far too intangible. In the final analysis, Syrians were killed by Syrians. Barrel bombs were not dropped by abstract entities. They were dropped by Syrians. Mortar shells were not fired by organizations, they were fired by Syrians.

No doubt, thousands of foreign fighters contributed to Syria’s tragedy and, needless to say, the role and actions of regional and international players were often destructive and at times even tantamount to war crimes. Yet, despite the strong tendency of my Syrian friends and family members to attribute responsibility to various conspiracy theories, it is clear, in my mind at least, that the primary authors of Syria’s tragedy were Syrians.

At the heart of the logic of Judge Jackson’s decision is the idea that significant financial penalties act as deterrents. Fine a company that sold harmful products millions of dollars, and you deter other companies from acting in a similar manner. Syria, however, seems immune to this logic. Severe economic sanctions, even 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, have made little, if any difference. This is not a geography that has shown itself open to the logic of deterrence.

My search for the price of life in Syria usually ends with reaching out to The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age, a book by Marina Cantacuzino, with a forward by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The book is, in essence, a compilation of stories, stories that provide a very different take on the price of life. Here ‘life’ is not something that can be numerically quantified. Life, rather, is measured by the extent to which the living are willing to protect it, to create a conducive climate for its sustainability; and, indeed, to act in a manner that is not consistent with the violence inflicted upon them. Cantacuzino draws our attention to the fact that, in the context of violence, no ingredient is more critical for the preservation of life than the capacity to forgive. Forgiveness is not an irrational act of kindness. Rather, it is a calculated act that aims at ending a cycle of violence that is immune to deterrence and only thrives when confronted with more violence.

My favourite story is that of Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, set up by Bosnian Serb forces. Kemal eloquently summarizes the price of life when he states:

I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully.[iv]

Kemal had reached the conclusion that as long as we act in a manner consistent with the pain we suffered, we empower the narrative of those who have committed acts of violence against us. And yet, even Kemal could not have forgiven a person who stubbornly and arrogantly continues to degrade, wound and kill. Even Kemal required a genuine apology before his forgiveness could be extended.

In Syria, more than ten years after this tragedy began, no one is willing, or ready, to apologize.

                  [i] Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No. CV 16-1423 (ABJ) (D.D.C. Feb. 1, 2019).

                  [ii] Ibid.

                  [iii] Lucas, S. (2018, December 16). Syria Daily: Assad – Give Me $400 Billion for Reconstruction. EA Worldview.

                  [iv] The Forgiveness Project. (n.d.) Kemal Pervanic.

History as Identity

An excerpt from An Inside Story of Modern Syria: The Unauthorised Biography of a Damascene Reformer [published 30 Jan 2023]

History, as Mahmoud el-Kati, my professor at Macalester College, once taught me, is primarily concerned with the manufacturing of an identity [i]. In his mind, all the talk one hears and reads about history being useful for learning lessons from the past—for avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and identifying how and why things turned out the way they did—is essentially rubbish! History is a factory of identity; the art of using past events to legitimize a specific narrative. The Nation of Islam, for example, as el-Kati would explain, succeeded in attracting followers not because it provided them with a factual history. It succeeded, rather, because it provided African Americans with a historical narrative that empowered them with an alternate identity; an identity they could be proud of, an identity that made the experience of slavery a catalyst rather than a burden.

To grow up in the family of al-‘Imadi (henceforth Imady) was to know that it had its own version of history, and, in turn, a distinct sense of identity. Stories upon stories of who my ancestors were and all the values they allegedly upheld were shared with me throughout my childhood, often for no apparent reason. And whether it was my elderly aunt who was sharing these stories in her organic, fluid manner, or my father who had a far more sophisticated and formal way of articulating them, the impact on me was the same: because of all this, I was different, my father was different, in fact, all Imadys were different. We carried this distinct sense of identity with us everywhere.

Our Friday trips to Zabadani, a summer resort town around forty kilometres from Damascus, could not take place without pointing out pieces of land or even an entire village that the Imady family allegedly once owned; a gift from an Ottoman sultan to one of the Imady religious scholars or part of a trust that had found its way through marriages and inheritance into our family. A visit to a mosque could easily unleash stories of Imady grand muftis, all forty of them (I would later learn they were, in actuality, only seven). And a random encounter with a Damascene woman could remind my aunt of the fact that this woman’s family were once recipients of the Imady family’s charitable gift to Damascus: Waqf al-Qadi Muhibb al-Din al-‘Imadi, the charitable trust of Judge Muhibb al-Din Imady. And while some of these stories had no basis in actual history, there was, in fact, a solid historical foundation for the Imady sense of identity; a foundation which was as old as the Ottoman conquest of Damascus.

The main outline of the Imady family history is not difficult to identify. Who were the main players? When were they primarily active? When and why did they become less prominent? All these questions are fairly easy to answer. What is difficult is trying to go beyond what was obvious, and, later, trying to solve the ‘glitches’, or historical anomalies, that even now remain resistant to my extensive attempts to unravel them. But as el-Kati would remind me, what you know and what you don’t know about your past are both equally important when it comes to how your sense of identity is ultimately shaped.

[i] Mahmoud El-Kati is Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In recognition of his scholarly and community work, Macalester College has established the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies. For his biography, see the entry on his official website.