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

Syria: Saving My Memories

Despite the danger, it was impossible to leave everything behind.
By Alaa al-Zuhouri
  • A woman in Aleppo’s Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)
    A woman in Aleppo’s Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood. (Photo: Hussam Kuwaifatiyeh)

The day my mother, my sister, and I fled our city of Al-Qusair will remain forever ingrained in my memory.

It happened towards the end of May 2013. Government forces had captured most the villages in rural Homs that surrounded Al-Qusair. The city was besieged and subject to intense government bombardment. Staying was no longer an option.

We left our house with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. I knew I shouldn’t take anything with me to remind me of my city and the home where I was born and grew up in.

But I refused to give in. I decided to upload some of my photographs and videos on to a memory stick and take it with me.

It was a dangerous thing to do; we would be crossing many government checkpoints, and if the soldiers found it my life would be in danger, regardless of the photographs on it.

I did not care. My fate was in God’s hands.

We all wept as we drove out of our neighbourhood. Little did we know it would be the last time we saw our city.

Our driver dropped us off at the outskirts of the city and told us we would have to continue our journey to the nearest town on foot. We walked for more than three hours under the scorching sun.

A large crowd of women, children and elderly people had already gathered in the town, some had been waiting for days. We came from different cities, towns and villages, but we all had one thing in common: we could no longer live with the constant bombing and siege.

We joined them and waited. We were thirsty but didn’t dare go into any of the shops to buy water. The town’s residents were loyal to the government and gave us hostile looks, as if we were terrorists.

A convoy of large lorries finally arrived to drive us away. Government soldiers pushed us into them like cattle.

The lorries left the area around two hours later, taking us on the next leg of our journey. We were already exhausted.

A short while later, we stopped at the first checkpoint on our route. Everything went smoothly and we moved on.

The second checkpoint we stopped at was more intimidating. The government soldiers who manned it shouted insults at us, but we all kept quiet as if nothing was happening.

The third checkpoint we stopped at was even worse. An officer came and asked for our ID cards, collected them and walked away. Another soldier then ordered us out of the trucks to conduct a search. A number of our fellow travellers were disabled, so I asked him if they could remain seated, but he wouldn’t allow it. My sister and I helped them out of the truck and accompanied them to the pavement where they sat down.

Around ten minutes later, the officer who had taken our IDs turned up.

“Who’s Alaa?” he called out.

“I’m Alaa,” I replied, trembling.

He gave me a dark look, as if I were a criminal, then turned and walked away.

I thrust my mobile phone into my sister’s hand. I was sure I would be detained and wouldn’t be able to continue my journey with my family.

I was consumed with fear, but tried not to show it.

A very tense hour passed. One woman and her three young children were all crying. I was told that an arrest warrant had been issued for her 13-year-old daughter, but the mother would not hand her over.

The officer finally came back, his face like thunder. He stood there silently, trying to intimidate us. He then walked up to the driver and read out our names. But then gave us our IDs back and ordered us to drive on.

When we finally departed, I felt as if a miracle had occurred.

The trucks dropped us off at the town of Hisya where a local family took us in. We left them a few days later in the dead of night, along with a group of opposition fighters. Our next stop was the city of Qara in the Damascus countryside, and from there we headed across the Syrian-Lebanese border, towards the town of Arsal.

The journey to Arsal took a week. We travelled both day and night, and were exhausted when we arrived at the camps for Syrian refugees. We stayed with some relatives for a few days and then moved on to a small town in Lebanon.

By the time we arrived at our new home, I was homesick for my city, my country, my memories and my life.

I even missed the terrible sounds I had become accustomed to hearing every hour of every day; the bullets, mortars, missiles, aircrafts, demonstrations and even the sound of mass funerals.

The first thing I went out to buy was a laptop. I rushed back home and picked up my winter boots, the ones I been wearing during the long journey from Syria to Arsal.

I reached inside one of them and pulled out my precious memory stick. The memories I had carried on it had survived.

Alaa al-Zuhouri is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor. The 20-year-old was forced to abandon her secondary school education when the revolution started.  She is now working on developing her skills in film-making, stage acting and writing.

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

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