Syria: "Don't Cry, I'm Alive"

A family nearly comes to grief while fleeing no-man’s land in Douma.

Syria: "Don't Cry, I'm Alive"

A family nearly comes to grief while fleeing no-man’s land in Douma.

My name is Hiba and I’m 23 years old. My family and I were among the last to leave Douma before the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured the town from government forces in October 2012. We witnessed all kinds of violence.

Our house was right next to the Medical Tower, a multi-storey hospital which was the highest building in the neighbourhood, and which was now being used as a sniper vantage-point.

By October 28, 2012, two days before Eid al-Adha, our apartment block was empty except for us. Everyone else had fled, and there were very few families left in neighbouring buildings, too.

At nine in the evening, a government soldier outside was hit in the neck by a bullet. One of his shabiha [paramilitary] friends wanted to rush him to hospital, but the route there was unsafe because of the FSA offensive. So the soldiers decided to commandeer a civilian car and take its driver along as a human shield.

There was only one car left parked in the street, my father’s. The thugs banged on it with their weapons, and – using foul language – called out for its owner to show himself. We were terrified for my father, and afraid they would come upstairs and murder us all.

Abu Nasser, a well-known cleric in Douma, arrived on the scene with his teenage son Hamza. He argued with the men and told them the car’s owner had left town two days earlier. Abu Nasser asked them to leave the vehicle alone and look for another one.

In response, they began beating him mercilessly and accused him of lying, all this in front of his son, barely 15 years old.

The fighters fired bullets into the car, and one of them put the barrel of his gun to Abu Nasser’s head, threatening to kill him unless he found them a car.

We could hear Hamza crying and pleading over the shouts of the regime thugs. He begged them to let his father go, but as his sobbing increased, they became more violent.

I felt so sorry for him – none of this was his fault. But I was also very much afraid of what would happen to me, my father and my siblings if Hamza told the men where we were. I couldn’t decide whether this was selfish, since if I had been in Hamza’s place, I would have told them anything to save my father.

But thank God, a car finally drove up to take the soldiers away, so they let Hamza and his father go.

I watched all this from the window, feeling both furious and sad, crying and praying.

Early the following morning, the day before Eid, I decided to fast. I hoped the coming night would be better than the last one.

The battle intensified and the FSA redoubled its assault on the Medical Tower. The danger increased as the buildings around us were in flames from the mortar shells fired by both sides.

With my parents and siblings – Hazumi, Abbudi, Anusa and the two little ones, four-year-old Lulu and Haddula, only one year old – I went down to the ground floor of the building. We could hear nothing except the rumbling of government tanks and the sound of falling shells and shattering glass.

We stayed in the lobby for three hours, silent and fearful, crying and reading verses from the Koran. When things calmed down a little, we decided to venture back upstairs to use the bathroom, but as we got there, we heard the sound of men’s voices.

“Regime soldiers,” we whispered to each other. They drew nearer and we steeled ourselves to meet them. We had already prepared ourselves for the possibility that we might be shot.

But the men were from the FSA, and they had come to rescue us. They broke a window so that we could climb out onto the roof of a neighbouring building. It was very dangerous, but easier than facing the shabiha.

There was a rickety wooden ladder leading down from the roof. I am afraid of heights, so I watched and waited as all the others went down ahead of me. Everyone urged me to climb down before we were spotted, or hit by a mortar shell.

I put one foot out onto a narrow ledge, but it got caught up in an electric cable. It was hard to free myself, but I succeeded. Then I placed one foot on the first rung of the ladder, only to hear everyone crying out, “No, no, no, no, no, no!”

A strong hand caught hold of my foot and put it in the right place. I had nearly been killed or seriously injured.

After that, we went down into a dark room, our faces only visible by the small flame of a lighter. The FSA men tried to break down a wall so that they could move us to an area behind the municipality building, where it would be safer. They could not break through, however, so we decided to proceed on foot.

We walked in single file like ants, one behind the other, with the FSA soldiers on either side to protect us.

All of a sudden, we heard a tank behind us, and we began running and screaming wildly.

My father urged us to go faster. My sister Lulu fell and injured her hand. My father picked her up as she screamed “Mama! Mama!” and blood gushed from her hand onto his shoulder.

I took my little sister Haddula from my mother’s arms. My mother couldn’t run as fast as I could. I wasn’t afraid for myself, just for the innocent little child I carried. I cradled her head with my hand and we ran for our lives.

We managed to make it safely to the house of some relatives who were waiting for us. There, we heard the screech of an approaching plane dropping a bomb. We had no idea where it fell.

We finally calmed down, broke our fast and then caught up on the latest news. We all went to sleep in the building’s cellar, which was packed with people sheltering from the air raids and tank gunfire. The cellar was divided, one side for the women and the other for the men.

In the morning, we went upstairs to the apartment to have some breakfast. It was the first day of Eid al-Adha. At seven that evening, it was still relatively quiet, and my brother Abbudi and I decided to go down to the cellar to retrieve our pyjamas. We thought we’d all sleep in the flat that night.

My brother went ahead, but as soon as he was on the stairs, bullets began flying.

He continued down to the cellar, and I screamed, “Baba! Baba! Baba!”

Then I felt a bullet pierce my foot.

I hopped around, unable to speak.  I raised my head and saw my father at the top of the stairs, unable to come down and help me. My whole life flashed before my eyes. I was so afraid of dying and leaving my parents.

The firing stopped a few minutes later, and my father was able to carry me back up to the apartment. I had been shot twice in the foot and my body was covered with shrapnel wounds.

When I saw all the faces around me, eyes filled with tears, I tried to console them.

“Don’t cry,” I said. “I’m alive, alive, alive.”

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

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