It has been 10 years since the Syrian uprising, when hundreds of protesters took to the streets in major cities across Syria calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal. Government forces, fearing an expansion of the Arab Spring into the country, pushed back brutally. Dissent grew, giving way to militarized opposition groups. By 2012, Syria descended into one of the most devastating conflicts of the twenty-first century.
In the past decade, Syrians suffered the demoralizing atrocities of the civil war, including pervasive bombings, chemical weapons attacks, starvation, besiegement, detention, torture, and kidnapping. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and more than half the pre-war population has been displaced. There are nearly 5.5 million Syrian refugees worldwide, and 6.7 million more people displaced internally.
Refugees International interviewed five Syrians who were forced to flee their homes over the course of the last decade. Their testimonies are snapshots of war and displacement. And their stories also raise grim questions for the world as the Syrian war rages on.
Fatmeh from Maarat al-Naaman, Idlib, now living in Turkey
Nine months before the revolution started, my uncle was tortured and killed in detention. Everyone in the village was afraid to talk about it. During his funeral, I remember relatives silencing me so that I didn’t express my anger. The revolution meant that I did not have to be silenced anymore.
The war took many things from me. It took my husband and my brother. My dad also died during the war. They are all buried in our hometown, and I cannot even visit their graves. But the revolution also gave me a purpose. I used to be an Arabic teacher, but after the revolution, I became an activist.
I now see women from a different lens, not as being victims and helpless. Standing up to the regime gave me the strength to stand in the face of social oppression too. I became an activist, even defying some relatives who expected me, as a woman and a widow, to stay home.
For years, I refused to move from my hometown, even to nearby towns. I did not want to become displaced or a refugee. But the encroaching battles left me with no choice but to flee. I moved to several areas in northeast and northwest Syria, then fled to Turkey.
I feel alien to the society in Turkey. I do not belong. My stay in the new country began tragically. The day I arrived, my younger brother, who had been kidnapped by the [Islamist faction] Jabhat al-Nusra and fled Syria, accidentally drowned in Turkey. I know that my presence here is temporary. My only hope is to go back to my hometown. But now, it is under regime control, and this dream is unrealistic.
Dr. Khaled*, from East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, now living in Turkey
In 2011, I had just graduated from medical school and started my private practice. My career had just begun, and the future lay ahead of me. Overnight, I had become a surgeon treating all kinds of war injuries. My memories from the chemical attacks in Ghouta [on August 21, 2013 when the regime struck an opposition stronghold with sarin gas, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring many more] remain very vivid. I remember the patients I treated and those who died in my arms.
For years afterward, I remained in Ghouta. I felt a responsibility to stay, as I was one of only two doctors in my hometown, where nearly 35,000 people were besieged. I felt a professional, moral, and even religious obligation to stay. I could not leave my people behind. At the time, my sense of civic duty was prevailing over my personal interests.
But as the regime advanced into the area, on March 31, 2018, the danger became imminent, and I was left with no other option but to flee. I still remember the feelings of shock and surrender to my fate. I moved to Idlib [in northwest Syria] and then to Turkey.
Thinking about Syria keeps me awake at night. I wonder if we will ever be able to return, if we will ever be able to rebuild the country. Where would we start? The war has ripped apart the social fabric of the Syrian society. I think about multiple generations of Syrians living in abhorrent conditions in Syria and outside the country. I wonder what will become of the children of the war; will they turn into a time bomb?
Despite all the pain and suffering that I witnessed in Ghouta, I still had hope at the time. I hoped for change, for a better future. But I no longer have any hope now. Whether I stay in Turkey, migrate to Europe, find a job in the Gulf, nothing makes much sense anymore.
Oussama from Saraqeb, Idlib, now living in Turkey
It is a sore memory. As much as I feel, as an activist, that the uprising was necessary, I keep asking myself: what went wrong? Why after decades of oppression, could we not realize the dream of freedom and dignity we were calling for? I think of the armed factions that took over the peaceful movement and robbed us of our dream. We [peaceful activists] had no place anymore. I think of the regime’s persecution, and I ask myself: would it have been possible to pursue a peaceful movement?
For three years, I kept thinking about whether I should leave my hometown or stay. I felt a responsibility to stay and prevent further collapse. It was an unbearable dilemma. The choice became clear after I was detained by the regime, then kidnapped by one of the factions, and after finding out that my wife needed treatment that was not available in Syria. I was left with no option but to leave.
Saraqeb, my hometown, meant everything to me. When it fell under regime control, I had nothing left. The hope to go back one day was no longer in sight, and I have become hardened. I feel helpless. All I want is to preserve the history of this town, preserve its memory.
I have been living in Turkey for four years now. But I am unable to make a life here. My mind and heart are always in Syria. I spend my days on the phone with people still inside the country. This has become my purpose: helping our people who once had a decent life and have now lost everything.
Sana from Damascus, now living in Los Angeles, California
When the revolution started, I was in fourth grade, a little girl who did not understand much. I remember watching the news of the Arab Uprising especially in Egypt and Libya and worrying about what could happen in Syria. When the protests finally reached my country, I felt scared. I was afraid for our house, for my family and friends.
The war began when I was in fifth grade. Once, as I came back home, I did not find my younger sister and brother. As the oldest sister, I felt responsible and went looking for them. But when I reached their school, there was a lockdown nearby and protestors were being tear gassed. I was finally able to retrieve my siblings thanks to the help of a shopkeeper near the school.
One day, the army cut off access to the neighborhood where we lived and surrounded our area with tanks and soldiers, and my mom and dad were unable to get home. So, for three days, I was stuck there with my siblings, scared and worried, only able to go back and forth between our neighbor’s house and ours. After this incident, my mom was adamant about getting us out of the country. We drove to Lebanon and then flew to Jordan. I was relieved to leave Syria. I remember thinking that finally, there was calm, no more random bombings or protesters’ shouts in the middle of the night. I could finally sleep through the night.
We lived in Jordan for three years, then moved to the United States. First, we settled in Brooklyn, then in Hastings-On-Hudson in New York, then in Arlington, Virginia. Two years ago, we moved again to Los Angeles, California. My mum often jokes about it. “After leaving Damascus, it seems that I cannot settle in one place anymore,” she told her friend.
Abdel Wahab, from Homs city, now living in Lebanon
I was eighteen when the revolution started. I had just graduated from high school and started my first year of college, majoring in chemistry in Homs. Soon after, I was arrested at an army checkpoint and almost forced into conscription despite my student’s exemption. I remember the officer telling me: “You have an obligation to serve your nation against the enemy.” I never went back to the university.
As the war intensified, my family and I started moving from one place to the other. By 2013, we had no option but to leave the country and drove to Lebanon. At the time, I thought that our move was temporary, and that soon we would return to a better country, liberated from dictatorship and oppression. But a few months passed, and the months turned into years, and the years into a decade.
Today, [as the Assad regime and its allies have reasserted their control over much of the country] returning to Syria seems impossible. Living in Lebanon was never easy, but in recent years, it has become unbearable. I feel unwelcome. No day passes that I do not think of my father. He was killed in the war, and we could not even bid him farewell.
Helping others has given me a sense of purpose, and it helps me cope with my own situation. I stopped dreaming. I fear that when I closed the doors of our house in Homs, I was turning my back to a lost happiness that I will never retrieve.
PHOTO CAPTION: A woman walks amidst debris in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State (IS) group on May 1, 2019. Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images.