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

Our Neighbours' House

Reflections on a childhood in the Syrian city of Raqqa, now under the control of Islamic State.
By Haya Mohammed

We spent the best days of our childhood playing with our neighbours’ children in that house. Our neighbours were able to afford it after more than 25 years working for the Syrian state.

We dreamed and played under the jasmine tree that spread its flowers around the house. The scent mixed with the smell of the soil.

The time we spent with our neighbours epitomised the love and unity that existed among Syrians. They were Shia Muslims while we were Sunni, yet their children were like brothers and sisters to us, and they were like our second parents.

In that house we planned trips, we made desserts, and celebrated birthdays and many other happy occasions together. We even invented our own celebrations. We mourned our neighbours’ loved ones and they mourned ours. We found solutions to any problems we faced.

That house witnessed not only their lives but ours as well.

But when dark times fell upon the city, our neighbours were forced to close the doors of a house that had welcomed us for so many years, a house whose residents treated us as one of their own, and members of their wider community no differently.

They closed the doors behind them, leaving memories and dreams behind in every corner of the house.

When the day came, our neighbours held back the tears as they handed the house over to some tenants, hoping that one day they would be able to return.

We cried continually as they departed and left us alone in great fear.

Of course their lives were much more important than a house, especially after an “emir” of the Islamic State – I do not know who appointed him to that title – called them apostates and threatened them with execution.

We tried to ease our pain by consoling ourselves with the thought that this dark time would pass and they would return, and together we would paint a bright future for Syria.

What consoled us most was that Islamic State left the house safely alone and did not confiscate it on the pretext that its owners were apostates.

Maybe the clerks forgot to report the house, until the day came when they set eyes on it. Eventually they did report it, and ruined every aspect of it, even the paintings we and our neighbours had done.

Under their flawed version of sharia law, they declared the house theirs. They drove out the tenants and handed it on a platter to one of their own.

Darkness fell on the house. A new story began being written for it, this time smelling of blood and gunpowder.

They used the coffee cups we once drank from; they slept on the same mattresses we slept on as children; they sat under the jasmine tree, which should have withered at the sight of so much hatred in their hearts.

They stole the laughter we had in that house, our silly jokes that made us laugh till we cried. They even stole our games – cards, chess, Monopoly and maybe the cubes we made in our early childhood days.

What is the house like now, I wonder? How are the walls and the furniture? It has certainly lost its radiance and it must yearn for the noise we made.

It mourns our plight and our loss. I am certain, though, that it is still standing and awaiting our return.

Haya Mohammed is the pseudonym of a student from Raqqa currently in Aleppo.

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

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