This month, Syrians marked the eleventh anniversary of the Syrian revolution – a hopeful time when people defied decades of suppression to take to the streets demanding dignity, rights, and freedom. As a result of the government’s crackdown on protests—later aided and made worse by other actors—the few glorious months rapidly deteriorated into a gory nightmare full of massacres, chemical weapons attacks, targeting of hospitals, apocalyptic destruction, and mass displacement. Across the country people lost everything with the plethora of barbaric actors interfering and disrupting the everyday lives of Syrians.
I come from a small family from Khattab, a town of over ten thousand people who depend on farming as their main source of livelihood. Located approximately 12 kilometers from Hama city, Khattab is a town of minimalism and simplicity. People used to wake up at the crack of dawn to tend to their crops until sunset. In 2011, the contagious air of hope blew in Khattab’s direction, uprooting the generations-old routine and way of life. Many educated yet unemployed youth, inspired by calls for equal rights and opportunity, joined their brethren across Syria in peaceful demonstrations, chanting popular slogans and singing revolutionary anthems. Protests became a regular sight in Khattab before protestors were targeted and arrested by the Syrian government forces. Like everywhere else in Syria, government informants infiltrated the protests to gather intel on those participating. Hundreds of protestors were detained, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and killed. Many of the men did not return, and those that did were maimed or debilitatingly traumatized. Justifiably thereafter, many were too scared to join the protests and the size of the demonstrations dwindled significantly.
One day in early 2012, a man from Arzeh, a small, predominately-Alawite village less than four kilometers from Khattab, was killed during the Friday produce market in Khattab. Now that the revolutionary spirit had reached Khattab, it meant that the two neighboring towns were at odds since the majority of Arzeh’s population vehemently supported Bashar Al Assad. In the two months following the murder, my family remembers living under seemingly unending suffocation. Groups of men from Arzeh would enter Khattab, arbitrarily beating up residents. They restricted people’s movements and forced everyone to stay home. This was early spring, a time when farmers needed to irrigate their crops to ensure a prosperous season. But that season, crops did not bear sufficient fruit, limiting the quantity for sale and diminishing incomes. My aunt recollects the terror campaign by shabiha (government sponsored thugs) from Arzeh on the people in Khattab. Lasting a year, checkpoints were created to choke off the town’s residents, severely restricting their ability to travel in and out of Khattab.
In the summer of 2014, Khattab residents, including my family, experienced another shockwave from the revolution-turned-conflict: the first wave of displacement. It was a Friday in July, around 11 am. Life seemed somewhat normal until there was a sudden piercing boom. People quickly realized it was coming from the direction of the Rahbe military compound that had always been under the control of the Syrian army. Less than six kilometers from Khattab, armed opposition groups had advanced towards the weapons warehouse. That day, the government imposed a strict stay-at-home order. Friday prayers were canceled. For the next four to five hours, my family bunkered in their homes, hoping to survive until the time came when they could flee. One of my uncles lived close to the southern part of town, the farthest away from the clashes. Around the afternoon Asr prayer time, while fasting in observance of Ramadan, my aunt, uncles, and their children were able to run from their homes and make it to my uncle’s place safely. Aircrafts were hastily flying, ambulance sirens blaring, and loud explosions filled the night without pause. About five families gathered at my uncle’s place to map out their exit from the town. There was no water. Electricity was cut off. Around twenty individuals crammed in a house of three rooms.
My uncle’s wife has health issues and she was not feeling well in her congested home, so she decided to step outside for air. As she was sitting in the chair, a piece of shrapnel flew and sliced the bottom of her foot. It was nighttime, so they could not see clearly in the dark and they had no water to treat her. They wrapped her injury and waited for daylight, convinced that any minute, a barrel bomb would land on them. Everyone described it as the longest night of their life.
As soon as they saw the sunrise, they attempted to flee. The checkpoints surrounding the town were refusing to let anyone with a Khattab ID through, so they had to find alternatives. One family member joined a pregnant cousin and begged the soldiers to let them pass, claiming that she was about to give birth and needed a hospital. The soldiers forced the woman out of the car and demanded she rotate to verify that she was indeed pregnant. Eventually, the soldiers allowed them to go. Others fled to a nearby town named Kazo where public transportation to Hama city was still operating. The rest scattered in neighboring towns and villages waiting for the fighting to subside. Even though they were out of Khattab, the deafening noise of helicopters never ceased as the aircrafts continued to crowd the skies traveling to and from the direction of Khattab.
Thinking they would only be away for a week, my aunt packed the essentials: a couple changes of clothes, IDs, cash, and some jewelry. Little did they know, their lives in displacement would last over a month, relocating from one friend’s house in one town to another. Many were never allowed to enter Hama city and had to shelter in neighboring towns until they made it back home. In a single month, my aunt and uncles had to move three times to seek safety from the encroaching barrel bombs.
In late August, they were finally able to return, but by then Khattab was unrecognizable. Although the town was not leveled, the damage and destruction were beyond imagination. A family member’s roof was destroyed by clusters of shrapnel that had landed on the house. Another had the walls in his home damaged. One uncle had his entire house burned down. The soldiers had even poured gasoline on his outdoor plants, killing them entirely. Many residents were victims of arson that seemed premeditated and arbitrary.
Additionally, all of the homes had been stripped bare on the inside. As my family entered the town, they witnessed military trucks loaded with mattresses, furniture, electronic appliances, and other household items that were looted. Doors had been stolen. Curtains and window blinds vanished. The faucets in bathrooms and kitchens had been torn out. Even the hose used to water the outdoor plants had been taken. It was clear that the soldiers and shabiha entered their homes fully equipped with the tools to pull apart and disassemble household items.
After seeing the destruction, the people of Khattab poured their life savings into rebuilding their homes and resurrecting their farms. By the end of 2015, life seemingly began to return to some semblance of normality.
Shortly after, in the summer of 2016, the momentary calm was disrupted. The fighting was escalating and more civilians were dying. Barrel bombs were pouring down constantly. My family members decided to flee for a second time, but only stay away from their homes for a week. People were traumatized from the violence, but they were also afraid their homes would be burned and looted once again. Having spent their life savings to rebuild, many chose to live in their homes and face death rather than leave them behind. My family members opted for the same. After a few weeks, Khattab’s local coordination committee managed a truce and the immediate attack on the town stopped. However, the violence continued in nearby Hilfaya, about seven kilometers away.
In September of that year, one of my uncles was at home on a breezy afternoon rocking his six-month old daughter to sleep in their yard. She had been fussing in the house, so he took her outside to calm her down. At that moment, a rocket fired by an armed opposition group landed next to him, killing him and his baby instantly. His wife and other children were inside the house, shaken by the explosion. Once they collected themselves, they went outside to find the scattered remains of their father and sister— a scenario which Syrian parents and children have become accustomed to.
The tale of my small family from the small town of Khattab is one of millions. It is a microcosm of life in Syria. No city, town, or village has been spared violence and trauma and yet it continues to be civilians that bear the brunt. I chose to document it here not because it is unique, but because it is real. The conflict has disrupted the lives of real people. It has killed real people. And it has forcibly displaced real people—not statistics and figures, not meaningless numbers that we hear recited matter-of-factly. Syrian people, including my family, have endured a decade plus of death, pain, and destruction with no end in sight as their stories fade from headlines and television screens. The suffering is now suppressed and muted. The Syrian revolution sparked hope in many that did not know it existed. Syrians rose against oppression, demanding to live in dignity, only to be met with barrel bombs and bullets. The perpetrators are many and today, the entire world is complicit.
Basma Alloush is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on humanitarian trends and emerging issues in MENA.