Why Are Syrians Committing Suicide at Unprecedented Rates? Poverty Is Not the Sole Culprit

Friday 6 November 202012:48 pm
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1080186"We are still among the lowest worldwide." When asked about victims of suicide, this is the first phrase statement one would hear from any medical examiner in Syria. Be that as it may, this year has seen unprecedented numbers of "self-murder" victims, at a time when tough economic circumstances, especially following the Coronavirus pandemic, tampered with the spread of suicide nooses amongst Syrian provinces.

Before the year of 2018, Syria's General Commission of Forensic Medicine had not maintained a record for "self-assault" victim. At the time, the topic of suicide could not find itself the slightest room in the local newspaper or any airtime on a television or radio channel. However, following since 2019, the topic broke the surfaced in public of public interest in the nation, especially after generating much online debate on social media platforms.

Why do Syrians commit suicide? At first glance, an attempt to answer such a question invites ready cynicism. In a country plagued with tragedy and calamity, one might say why wouldn’t they. But inside the homes of the suicide victims, it is a different story. Every member of the household is undeniably shocked by the act. The victim had no apparent mental issues, symptoms, or illness, they would say.

Such mystery extends legitimacy to the aforementioned question: Why do Syrians commit suicide?

Syria Beyond Classification

There are no statistics for the number of suicide victims in Syria before the year of 2018, owing to the fact that the statistics department in the General Commission of Forensic Medicine was only founded in 2017.

In 2018, the number of suicide victims reached 107 individuals in areas under the regime's control, rising to 124 cases in 2019. The number has grown to an additional 142 cases by the beginning of October 2020, and can beis further expected to rise to about 170 suicides by the end of the year.

These numbers do not include cases in areas under the opposition's control, where there are no reliable sources to provide statistics. They also do not include Syrian refugees who have been reported every once in a while to take their own lives abroad.

According to world statistics, numbers in Syria are still relatively low. Suicide rates in any country are measured in relation to the general populace (suicide cases per 100,000 person). The world average is currently at 10.5, with some countries reaching up to 30, and Syria still stands among the lowest ranks.

Generally speaking, Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries hold the lowest averages in suicide, while Egypt heads the list of Arab countries in suicide rates, according to the latest WHO survey, which also states that high-income countries have the highest figures in suicide.

How Limited The Means of Livelihood Are!

When dealing with the families of suicide victims in Syria, a state of denial is what mostly dominates the scene. The usual first words are, "My son did not kill himself." When asked, "How did he die? Was he killed?" one is met with a tentative "no." The forensic examiner's report, later on, rules the death a suicide through irrefutable evidence.

Perhaps this state of denial is a defense mechanism that allows the griever appropriate time to come to terms with such a tragic event - especially in the countryside and rural areas, where suicide is mostly viewed as shameful or disgraceful.

When asked of the reasons that led to the suicide, most express bewilderment, almost unanimously agreeing that nothing appeared to be amiss with the deceased.

Rama Kh., 21-years-old, a former resident of the capital Damascus, committed suicide in August of this year by jumping off her balcony. Her mother, Um Ammar, 59-years-old, tells Raseef22, "We were shocked when we heard screaming nearby, and the last thing I expected was to see my daughter lifeless on the sidewalk. Rama did not suffer from any mental distress or issues, but she lived in excessive isolation, always working on her computer behind her closed bedroom door."

The mother adds, "She once spoke of suicide, asking me over its punishment in religion, but this was merely idle chat over a cup of coffee."

"That day, her father and I argued over our living expenses and monthly income. During the argument I saw Rama's eyes scrunch up in pain, but I never thought it would reach the extent of her ending her life."

When we asked Um Ammar to speak of Rama's personal life, the mother didn't have any information to give. "I do not know anything of her private life other than she is in a relationship with a young man 5 years her senior. Following the incident, he came to offer his condolences, told us he was totally shocked, as we had been. He also showed me their latest message conversations. They were completely devoid of any problems or disputes."

Um Ammar denies that Rama may have tripped and fallen, since the window cannot be reached easily. Regarding the causes that could warrant self-murder, she says, "I don't see any logical reasons except her frustration over living conditions in Syria. She saw that no job in Syria fulfills her aspirations, so she resorted to freelance work online. She attempted to travel abroad many times, but could not obtain any approvals or visas."

In The Throes Of Need

The lack of opportunity  future potential in Syria has driven the country's youth towards immigration, which in turn, came to a standstill due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This left citizens Syrians too weak to curb the blows of poverty and need.

Moteea' Atiyah, a Syrian currency trader in the city of Sarmadā of northern rural Idlib, lost his will to live with the collapse of the Syrian currency and its exchange rate against the US dollar. He consumed a large dose of the "gas pill" poison, tablets containing the highly toxic phosphine gas, causing fatal heart and liver failure.

A relative of the victim assured Raseef22 that Atiyah had suffered a major financial loss of nearly 400 thousand dollars. Within mere hours of selling large quantities of foreign currency while the value of 1 US dollar equated 2,200 Syrian pounds, the value skyrocketed to 3,800 Syrian pounds to match 1 US dollar. The relative also said, "Atiyah lost it and turned hysterical, later on killing himself on the 10th of June."

In rural Hama, financial hardships at the forefront of the economic scene did not spare the family of Karam Hafez. Karam, 17-years-old, hung himself to death in his home on September 22nd, after losing his father to the Beirut Port explosion on August 4th.

Karam was residing in the village of Taldara (Tall ad Dirrah) of Salamiyah District in rural Hama and studying Literature during his second year of high school.  Without waiting for confirmation of the death of his household's only source of income, he killed himself at the earliest inklings of the tragic financial situation sure to follow.

Never in her wildest dreams did the mother expect the gunshot that emanated from her own back garden to be the one that would take her son’s life. Nor could she fathom, upon coming across his body, that it would be he who had pulled the trigger on himself... The soldier took his own life because of the burden of dealing with the town’s hearsay, rumors of him selling his firearm, and fear of state retribution.

Karam's death shocked those surrounding him. Sources from the village assured Raseef22 that he was a young man known for his good nature and high moral character, as well as his diligence in acquiring a quality education and good grades, but a bleak prognosis of the economic difficulties expected to plague him and his mother caused him to take his own life.

Sohaila A. tells the story of her daughter's suicide Rama Serhan, 17-years-old, on the 4th of September in rural Damascus, saying, "I woke up around midnight to find her lying in a pool of her own blood on the kitchen floor. She used a razor to cut the vein of her left arm. My screams woke the entire household and we tried to call for help since she was still conscious, but it was all in vain. She died after whispering to me her last words: Mom, I love you all so much."

Regarding the family's situation prior to the incident, the mother comments, "That day, her father and I argued over our living expenses and monthly income. During the argument I saw Rama's eyes scrunch up in pain, but I never thought it would reach the extent of her ending her life."

Her parents' argument sparked a flame Rama believed could only be doused with her own blood. However, this mental state stemmed from deeper roots. Her mother says, "She was in a bad psychological state, due to tough economic circumstances and a constant haunting feeling of not being pretty. She would regularly talk of this and say: If we had enough money I would be prettier and took care of my appearance better."

When Money Kills Too

Money, which in its shortage took Rama's life, yet in its abundance, ended Alaeddine's. Alaeddine F., 19-years-old, lived a life of luxury and extravagance but was tired of it all.

His mother tells Raseef22, "I was not at home, but my husband was in the living room, and Alaa in his room as usual. I came home at 9 o'clock and entered his bedroom to find him on the floor, part of a cloth rope around his neck and the other part still hanging from the closet. Alaa was already dead."

Due to lack of any other reasons, investigations into Alaa’s death theorized addiction to violent video games as the root cause of suicide, according to his family.

“When I came to, my first conclusion was the irony that Syrian drugs are ineffective. Later, I gathered my thoughts… That day was a turning point for me, and I understood that I was able to live more happily, and that I was able to help others. My existential crisis and my problems with belonging could be redirected in a more fruitful way to help others.”

The mother adds, "He was extremely addicted to computer games, and always tried to bar me from entering the room while he played. When I would try to involve myself in his private life, he would enter a state of hysteria."

Alaa's mother did not think that this mystery and secrecy would end in a noose, and it never occurred to her that her son would take his own life. She says, "Days ago he asked us for new clothes, a faster internet speed, and to join a gym. All his demands were met. Everything he needed was available, and there were no problems at home - neither with him nor between his father and I."

"Culprit" Loved Ones

Relatives and close ones often have a role to play in many of these incidents. Fear of confronting a father or a brother and the stress of dealing with extortion from a former partner are all driving forces that have sometimes compelled people in Syria to commit suicide. Girls, particularly, have been prone to suicidal tendencies when faced with emotional blackmail from a past lover or the aftermath of a sexual ‘scandal’ gone public.

Maya (alias) was an 18-year-old Tartus native studying agricultural engineering. Speaking to Raseef22, her friend, Batoul, 19-years-old, explains, “we used to live in the university city in Homs. A few days before her suicide, [Maya’s] mental health sharply deteriorated because her boyfriend had begun extorting her with images and texts the two had previously exchanged.”

When dealing with the families of suicide victims in Syria, denial dominates the scene. The usual first words are, "My son did not kill himself." When asked, "How did he die? Was he killed?" one is met with a tentative "no."

"Around 3 months ago,” Batoul continues, “we were sitting in our seventh-floor dorm room when [Maya’s] phone rang. She stepped out to answer it, and moments later, we could hear screaming and yelling echoing from the street and balconies below. We rushed out only to find that Maya had thrown herself off the balcony"

Maya acted upon the suicidal threats her friends thought were insincere. Her astounded friend explains, “[Maya] always used to say she’d kill herself if the photos were leaked, but we never really believed she would. She’s gone now, and the law couldn’t do her justice. There was nothing incriminating on her boyfriend.”

A Deadly Fear of Death

Most of the aforementioned can, in some way or another, be lumped in the category of ‘ramifications of war’, for they can all be traced back to the repercussions of having to live in an afflicted society and a collapsed economy. At Abdullateef’s home, however, ‘war’ was a more direct culprit.

Abdullateef M. was a 20-year-old man serving his mandatory military service in rural Aleppo. After having lost his army-sanctioned firearm, Abdullateef decided to end his life while on leave in his hometown. The details of his suicide come from his 59-year-old mother, Um Mohammad, who says, “I found him shot dead in the garden for fear of the consequences of losing his firearm.”

She explains, “Abdullateef’s mental health suffered a great deal over the course of the investigation for the lost weapon. Stories kept circulating in the village, and he was repeatedly bullied and accused of treason. He was under a lot of stress because of the interrogations and was overwhelmed with despair and frustration.”

Never in her wildest dreams did the mother expect the gunshot that emanated from her own back garden to be the one that would take her son’s life. Nor could she fathom, upon coming across his body, that it would be he who had pulled the trigger on himself. It wasn’t until the coroner’s inspection confirmed the suicide that the details of the tragedy began unfolding. According to Um Mohammad, Abdullateef took his own life because of the burden of dealing with the town’s hearsay, rumors of him selling his firearm, and fear of state retribution.

Life Does Not Take Hope for Granted

The will to live has a weird way of triumphing over misery - no matter how difficult it may be. That was the case with Bashar. The 26-year-old, who now lives in Lebanon after having exhausted every possible avenue for a dignified life in Syria, spoke to Raseef22 about his suicide attempt. He says, “I became suicidal after facing a number of difficult situations and unfortunate events: I lost my job after the pandemic hit, and I was dealing with a lot of personal issues with my friends, in addition to the heartbreak of a failed romantic relationship.”

 “I looked at myself and saw a useless, unproductive individual, who has had nothing to eat but stale bread for four months,” he explains. “Right then, I ingested all the different pills I could find in my room and my friend’s. I ended up at the hospital, and I survived.”

Bashar had to have his stomach pumped. He was placed on health monitoring and suicide watch for a few days before getting discharged. However, he recalls his final moments of lucidity before being rushed to the hospital. “My life flashed before my eyes. One by one, I began reliving all my painful memories, then some of my better ones... That was when I felt I’d made the wrong decision. Alas, I had realized it too late. If my friend had not come back early that day, I would have died.”

Looking back at his old problems, Bashar now tells Raseef22, “I laugh when I remember those days. I now know what it means to lose everything and what that does to a person. Though they’re not easy, persevering and sticking things through are still a much better option than taking your own life.”

At Aysar M.’s house, another unique brush with death could be attributed to the repercussions of the war in Syria. Aysar, 30, had relocated to Damascus 16 years ago but could not acclimate to it. The details of his hometown of Deir Ez Zor still occupied his every waking moment. As a physician working with international organizations operating in Syria, he was in a very comfortable position, financially at least. But Aysar’s problem was of a different nature altogether: he was experiencing a crisis in belonging.

Speaking to Raseef22, Aysar says, “I’d go to Deir Ez Zor and feel estranged. I’d come back to Damascus and still feel like a stranger, an outcast.”

“I decided to kill myself,” he says. “I brought the heart medication and took the appropriate dosage to do it. I sat there awaiting death.” Hours passed, and the only side effects that developed were the ones that ended up sending him to a hospital, where he had his stomach pumped.

“When I came to, my first conclusion was the irony that Syrian drugs are ineffective,” he smiles. “Later that day, I gathered my thoughts and realized that life is a gift, entrusted to us by God. My time in this world hadn’t been spent, and so, God refused my act. That day was a turning point for me, and I understood that I was able to live more happily, and that I was able to help others. My existential crisis and my problems with belonging could be redirected in a more fruitful way to help others.”

The Nation's Heavy Burden

It is not feasible to state that a rise in suicides is unrelated to a 10-year war that frayed the country in every way imaginable. According to cases and testimonies chronicled by Raseef22, it has become apparent that most cases of suicide were pre-meditated, rather than reactionary to a piece of news, incident, or trauma. Such acts are often the result of a series of tragic events and the build-up of precarious living conditions owing to a bloody war, followed by a pandemic that dealt the final blow to a nation already on its dying breath.

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