Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fleeing My Homeland, Syria

Reflections on leaving a war-torn country, perhaps forever.
By Haya Mohammed

It used to be that every time I rode the bus, I would daydream and drift off, focusing on anything but the streets of Aleppo and its people. That changed in the last week before we were to travel, or rather leave this city, never to return.

Then my eyes began to linger on the details of the city, on the misery and wretchedness in the faces of its children. I watched how life there unfolded, knowing I’d probably never be back to live there myself. Even riding the bus, and all the hours stuck in traffic, began to move me – the same traffic that once caused me to curse the day I ever heard of buses.

There was my university. I’d barely been enrolled for a year and a half, but it it had imprinted memories on my soul that I doubt I’ll ever be rid of. I looked at its buildings, the plaque bearing its name, the students I’d never really mingled with for fear there might be an informant among them who could denounce me, and I sensed that I would miss them all.

The university labs bore a special place in my heart, since my father, kidnapped by Islamic State, had studied in them. Every time I entered a lab, I’d imagine that he’d once sat in the same place as me, labouring over an exam at one of the same desks.

For a week, I took in all these details, until I was struck by the pain of thinking I’d never return. But the worst pain came at the moment when I hugged my friends close and looked into their eyes filled with tears at our parting. The same eyes that had watched over me for so many years, the same eyes that had cried with me over my miseries, and laughed with me over my joys.

The pain sharpened as the bus drove through the university campus carrying me home on the final day before our departure. That evening, my eyes glittered with tears as I looked at the faculty square with its buildings and gardens glowing in reflected light. I took a deep breath and tried to convince myself that someday, perhaps, I would return.

On the morning of our departure, my sister and I loaded our suitcases, filled with everything we owned, onto the service taxi heading to Kafr Nabel. We took the Salaheddin highway, flanked on either side by the ruins of buildings as wretched as our own hearts. They seemed as hunched and tired as we were, bidding us farewell and telling us to save ourselves before what had been done to them was done to us.

We arrived at the Khanaser road checkpoints, and I was seething with resentment as I looked into the faces of the soldiers, those monsters who had forced us to submit, abandon our revolution, and leave our country. There were many checkpoints, and the price of getting through each one and all the humiliation that entailed was a roll of hundred-lira notes or a packet of cigarettes. Still, we remained terrified that we might have overlooked something while securing our cell phones and laptops, or even with our passports stamped with Turkish visas – now a crime punishable by imprisonment.

We heaved a sigh of relief after the last regime checkpoint, only to steel ourselves for a new round of theatricals of a different kind. We hurriedly pulled on jogging suits, veils and abayas, and covering our faces with a piece of black cloth to ready ourselves for the Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoint, only a few hundred metres down the road from the regime one.

When we got there, the soldier on duty only had eyes for the few cassette tapes on the dashboard next to the driver and demanded to know what they were. The quick-thinking driver answered that they were a mix of Koranic readings and songs, so the soldier launched into reciting some hadith of the Prophet’s which I can no longer remember, about how listening to music is forbidden. But the driver seemed well used to these sorts of situations and swiftly replied, “These are just sounds I play just so as not to fall asleep. I don’t focus on the meaning. It’s only a way of keeping me awake.”

The driver told us that this was the most crucial checkpoint, and that whatever we might encounter afterwards would pose no problems. This allowed me relax enough to close my eyes and go to sleep. I woke up in Talmus, a town in the countryside surrounding Maarat al-Numan. But it was no ordinary town. It was like footage from a documentary reel showing towns blitzed during the Second World War, collapsed buildings, rubble everywhere, buildings riddled with bullet holes, entire neighbourhoods empty and abandoned.

Despite the devastation there, it didn’t affect me the way that seeing Maarat al-Numan did. I knew the city from the tender years of my childhood. I was dumbstruck as I wondered how many barrel bombs had fallen there, and how many Syrians had died under the rubble, and how Jabhat al-Nusra had managed to seize its beautiful museum and turn it into a base. How those villages and towns had changed since our last visit three years ago!

The changes seemed to have spared our own small village, which had been ignored by the regime’s air force. When we entered it, everything was just as it had been, except that this was the first time I was coming without my father. Our land, which my father had lovingly planted with olive trees, stood waiting by the side of the road as if for the return of the hands that had once tended it.

The motion of the trees prompted me to let my tears fall, my strangled sobs to release themselves from my chest, and I finally heeded them when I saw my grandmother’s face, and when I saw the deep grooves carved there by the cruelty and harshness she’d lived through, the same grooves that were on the face of her kidnapped son. In her face I found a year-and-a-half’s worth of suffering, and in her arms I found my father’s arms, the arms my soul longed for.

We spent our last night in Syria in my grandfather’s house, huddled around the heater that we once sat round with my uncles and my father. His absence was palpable, and our tears betrayed every happy memory we tried to recall.

The next morning we took our last journey to the Bab al-Hawa crossing. It had been closed for two days, and the traffic was so terrible there seemed to be no hope of crossing that day. But with the help of some friends who sympathised with the plight of two young women travelling alone across the border, we managed to cross without having to wait in line.

It was raining, and with every step we took our feet sank deeper into the mud, tripping on abayas and getting tangled up in veils we weren’t used to wearing.

I felt a flash of rage at the humiliation we had to live through as we fled our country. I felt the suffering of those who had fled before us. In the sad faces of the Syrians surrounding me, I saw the pain of leaving behind an entire life, scores of memories, houses and perhaps the martyred dead.

I took one last look at my country, delighting in it. Oh, homeland, how much hurt we have suffered within you, how much time we will need to gather up your wounded, and how cowardly we are to abandon you as we do.

Haya Mohammed is the pseudonym of a student from Raqqa who was living in Aleppo, and is now in Turkey.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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