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One mile to Syria: war accounts from Syrian refugees

Middle EastWar Zones

“I went to the caves after the military post near my village was attacked by farmers.”

A voice is missing from the international debate on the Syrian War. As world leaders focus on chemical weapons and radical fundamentalists, the voice of the Syrian people, civilians and refugees remains nearly absent from discussions of intervention. The simple truth is Syrians are dying and, whether through bombs or sarin gas, a large portion of casualties are civilian.

The Syrian conflict, like similar uprisings that took root during the 2011 Arab Spring, began as a civil war between an oppressed population and their ruling dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Since then, fighting has become locked in an apparent stalemate, causing more than 100,000 causalities over a two year period with neither side gaining ground or significant advantage.

At the same time, the war has drawn involvement from neighboring countries, dividing the Middle East along Sunni-Shiite lines and morphing a national conflict for democracy into a proxy war with implications that could reshape regional and international politics. To further complicate the matter, foreign militias associated with Kurdish groups and Al-Qaeda networks have also entered the conflict with intentions of forming new nations for their own ethnic groups and followers.

Caught in the battlefield is the Syrian population. More than 2 million civilians have taken refuge in neighboring countries while an additional 4 million have been internally displaced. These migrations have created the largest refugee crisis since 1995 and the numbers continue to rise.

From beginning to end, it is the Syrian civilian who bares the weight of this conflict. On one shoulder stands the United States with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar while the other holds Russia, Iran, China and Hezbollah. If and when these stacks fall and military intervention is undertaken in Syria, the question remains: Where will the Syrian civilian stand when the dust settles?

In effort to give a voice to the Syrian people, independent journalist and photographer Diego Cupolo wrote Seven Syrians: War Accounts From Syrian Refugees a non-fiction book by 8th House Publishing released in November 2013. Seven Syrians presents the war as experienced through Syrian refugees living in Reyhanlı, a Turkish town one mile north of the Syrian border that was bombed in May 2013 for hosting a burgeoning refugee population. The interviews were conducted between July and August 2013 and have been adapted as monologues to create seven flowing narratives.

The following is an excerpt of two personal accounts from Seven Syrians that were gathered while Diego Cupolo volunteered at Al Salam school for Syrian refugees in Reyhanlı.

Shelter in the Caves

Hussein haj Ahmad - 33 years old, English teacher, Idlib region

I went to the caves after the military post near my village was attacked by farmers. They weren’t part of a militia then, no organization whatsoever, but they were armed and they managed to kill more than a hundred government soldiers.

It was a surprise attack. Their first response after the military started shooting protesters in the streets. Some celebrated, but I didn’t. I knew the air raids would come shortly after and they did. Bombs landed on my village every single day for the next two months. It was the worst experience of my life.

I took cover in the caves, up there in the mountains, and saw the bombs fall on what used to be my home. All I could do was watch. Each bomb was strong enough to destroy twenty to twenty five houses.

Worse, each bomb produced a very high, horrible screeching sound when it exploded. I don’t know what they’re called officially, but we call them pressure bombs. They were one of the many gifts Bashar received from Russia.

Usually, the air raids started at one or two in the morning when everyone was sleeping. Many people died this way, mostly children. A midnight rocket.

I stayed in the caves a total of 45 days, just waiting for the bombs to stop falling. I had no choice. During the initial protests, I broke my leg in three places. I could barely walk. I was on crutches this entire period. For food, for water I was completely dependent on other people. Fortunately, I was not alone.

There were many families in those caves, large groups of people I had never known before. As the time passed, we all became good friends, we all relied on each other.

It was a new experience for me because I was used to living alone. I would come home from work alone, watch TV alone and then go to sleep alone. There, in the caves, we did everything together. We took care of each other. Many had it worse than I did.

One older woman, she was blind. She was always terrified. She would hear the helicopters hovering above, but she couldn’t see them and she had no idea if they could see her. Imagine.

In the day time, we would take her outside to get some fresh air, you know, to let her breath. We all tried to get out for air whenever possible and every time we went out we took the old blind lady with us. We’d sit her down on a good rock so she could relax, but she never relaxed.

The minute she heard the sound of helicopters or an explosion in a distance she’d start yelling, “Take me to the cave! Please take me to the cave! I don’t want to die! Please! I don’t want to die!” She’d swing her walking stick through the air as she yelled. “Take me to the cave!”

That’s just one of the people I was with. There were many. Mostly women, children and the elderly. Men stayed in the village to fight Bashar’s army. I was injured, so I couldn’t fight, but even if I was healthy I would have stayed away. I don’t want to die. I’m still waiting to marry, you know, this is very important for Syrian men. After university we are supposed to get married and start a family. I’m still waiting for this to happen.

It could’ve happened. There were some younger women in the cave. Sometimes they would talk to me. They told me not to worry so much, that I would find a wife after the war, but it’s not easy. The war doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon and I’m only sitting here, waiting, getting older. I still hope for a family of my own some day.

The fear I have is an abnormal kind of fear. I fear the rockets and the bombs more than others because there is so much I haven’t accomplished in life. Up there in the mountains, in the caves without food, it’s just suffering … just fearing … just thinking about the future … just crying sometimes.

There are questions, so many questions that you start asking yourself. Where can I go? What can I do? Will this war ever end? How long can I keep living like this? Should I keep living?

We all asked ourselves these questions in the caves. None of us knew whether we would make it to the next day or not, whether we would endure the next battle. All Syrians are terrified about the future. We have no idea what will happen to us and this is an unsettling thought.

My house was hit by a rocket. I have no place to go back to. The Syrian Army bombed our village to punish us. They said we allowed those farmers to attack the military post so everyone must pay the price, even the children. There is no place for civilians in Syria, only armed rebels and Bashar’s army. I had to leave.

As soon as my leg got better, I crossed the Turkish border to see what I could find in Reyhanlı. Many Syrians were going there so I thought maybe I could find a job or start a new life while I wait for the war to end. This has also been difficult. Local landlords take advantage of refugees. They see us like money. They charge us Istanbul prices to rent apartments in a little farming town.

Employers also take advantage of us. They pay us less than Turks. Much less. I was being offered 20 Turkish Lira for 15 hours of work before I got a teaching job at a private school.

I’m just barely self-sufficient now, but still, nothing is easy. You know there was a terrorist attack here? I was having a tea in the town center when the first bomb went off. It couldn’t have been more than 25 meters away from where I was sitting. I ran as fast as I could. I went so fast I lost my sandals and ran barefoot over broken glass. My feet were a bloody mess. I still have some scars. See?

The locals blamed us for the attack. They said Syrians brought the war across the border. Angry mobs destroyed every car with Syrian license plates. We received threats. Our neighbors told us to move to another town. I didn’t leave my house for 10 days. I didn’t eat and lost two kilos during that time.

Now Reyhanlı is more or less back to normal. I work, I eat, I sleep, but I’m still looking for a way out of here. People say it’s easy to reach Europe from Istanbul. First, I need to save up money. Then there’s the paperwork. Always paperwork and I don’t understand Turkish.

I just want to live without war again. I’m so tired of migrating. Of moving, changing apartments, being without friends. Being without family. I want to start a family. No one can understand our suffering.

The Letter B

Abir Hashem - 36 years old, Primary School Teacher, Allepo region

When my students write the letter “B,” they cross it out. Some stopped writing all together. For them, “B” stands for Bashar.

One day, I was teaching the alphabet and one of the boys said he hated this letter. Started yelling. He was so angry. Just six years old.

The influence of war has been too heavy on the smaller children. They are young and they relate everything to violence. When I draw pencils on the board, they see missiles. When I draw a cloud with rain drops, they see a plane dropping bombs.

It’s hard to talk about families because many children have been separated from their relatives. They lost their parents and live with their uncles, grandmothers, cousins. There is no stability in their lives so they always talk about their memories of Syria, wanting to go back to Syria. They talk about life before the war.

Yesterday, there was a lesson on “home” and “what is my home.” I gave them papers to draw their homes and some drew houses that were on fire, houses that were destroyed. One drew a tank next to his house.

I see it in my children as well. I am a mother of three girls and one boy. My youngest daughter also talks about our old house all the time. She always says it was so big and so nice.

“What happened to our house?” she asks me. “What do you think happened to all my toys? Will they still be there when we go back?”

I just tell her not to worry. That she’ll get all her toys back after the war. What else can I say?

I am like any human being. Maybe I look strong when I stand in front of the classroom, but most of the time I am trying not to cry. The children tell me so many stories. How their fathers died, how they lost their friends, everything. They are so small.

I often go home depressed. Every day there is a new story about someone’s brother who did not come home. We all have relatives that are still in Syria and we always receive bad news.

At the beginning of the revolution, I was always out in the streets to protest. I was also a teacher then, but got fired when the school administrator found out I was part of the movement.

It didn’t matter. I was doing whatever I could to support the demonstrators. When the military started shooting people, I drove my car around with medical supplies to take care of the wounded. This was illegal, of course, and the police put my name on a list because of my actions.

They began searching for me in the streets and in my home. I had to move. I stopped going out during the day. I changed my clothes and covered my face, but I was still active. All the women in my neighborhood were scared. They told me to stop supporting the protestors. “It’s too dangerous for a woman,” they would say.

The men also. They would tell me to stay in my home, but I could not. This was too important. We needed to do whatever we could to get rid of Bashar and his regime. Egypt and Tunisia had done it and we really believed we could do the same in Syria.

With my car, I would also deliver food to the protesters. Keep them energized because we slept very little in those days. One night I bought ten kilos of meat and began driving to a house where revolutionary leaders held meetings.

I didn’t know it, but the butcher was suspicious. “Why are you buying so much meat?” he asked me. I didn’t answer. Then, when I left, he reported me to the police.

Ten minutes later, I was stopped by the military and they began interrogating me. I didn’t know what to do so I forced myself to cry like I was confused or scared. Fortunately, they let me go that time, but it got worse after that.

I became known as a revolutionary in my town. There weren’t many women in the movement and I stood out. Eventually, the military came looking for me in my apartment complex. I was home with my husband and children at the time. We watched them go from door to door, checking each apartment. There were men with rifles asking my neighbors where I was.

I was trapped. I couldn’t go out of the house. The military had surrounded our apartment and I didn’t know what to do. The soldiers knocked on every door, asked questions, repeated my name. Then I heard their footsteps coming up the stairs, approaching our door. In that moment I asked my husband to divorce me.

I figured one of us should stay alive to care for our children. Maybe if he divorced me and told the soldiers I was acting alone, that I was crazy, maybe the military would only take me away and leave him with our kids. I was crying. I was begging him for a divorce. I wanted him to blame me for everything.

Then, somehow, I don’t know what happened, but the soldiers skipped our door. I think they arrested one of my neighbors and took them away. I’m not sure, but they never knocked. Maybe it was a mistake, I can’t say. They stayed in our building for a while longer and then left. I couldn’t believe it. We had been spared.

I left Syria after that night. That was enough. I moved my family to Reyhanlı. We came without food, without clothes, without anything.

At first, we weren’t doing much, just waiting. In this period I began gathering the neighborhood children, all Syrian refugees, and I started giving informal classes in my backyard. I wanted to make the best of my time.

Then I was lucky enough to get a job at Al Salam School for Syrian Refugees. I have stayed there ever since. It’s stable and I like to teach children. That’s what I do.

Every week, the school receives more children that only recently left Syria. Many of them have been out of school for more than two years. It’s a hard job, but I just try to keep them from thinking about the war. I focus there attention on the future.

They just need a safe place where they can play and be children again. They are so young.

Diego Cupolo began his journalism and photography careers in New York City and has continued his work while residing in Montreal, Quebec and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the Latin America regional editor for Global South Development Magazine and works on the road as an independent journalist, having reported on Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Nicaragua, Peru and Chile. His written and visual work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Associated Press, The Village Voice, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine, The Argentina Independent and Diagonal Periódico.

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