Portraits of the Displaced from Daraa

Rana Riziq

August 3, 2018

After the regime and its Russian allies began an assault on the southern city of Daraa in June 2018, more than 350,000 people were internally displaced. Those that hadn’t fled already were forcibly evacuated to Idlib through a negotiated safe passage agreement; unless they agreed to pledge allegiance to the regime. In the last few years, Idlib, a city in northern Syria, has essentially become a dumping ground for defeated opposition forces and residents forced to leave their towns as the regime reclaimed their territory militarily.

The journey from besieged to displaced has repeated across Syria and this latest installment shows the increasing control of the regime across the state. Yet as more Syrians are displaced internally, they are faced with renewed challenges of finding shelter, food, and employment. Shuffled around villages, that already are with few resources for their own residents let alone the capacity for incoming refugees, leaves the displaced hopeless and discouraged. While the regime might see itself as winning the war, it may not continue to hold the peace as Syrians are increasingly desperate and angry at the conditions they find themselves now and likely face in the future.

In Daraa, not all decided to leave. Facing impossible choices, many stayed in the area, despite the destruction, and more are afraid of the regime targeting Idlib for its next military offensive alongside its Russian and Iranian allies; a justified fear. However, those that remain also fear being detained or drafted into the regime’s army. Similar to past negotiations, the terms required opposition forces to give over their heavy artillery and light weapons before regime forces retook the villages surrounding Daraa.

At different points in the journey, emergency transit and reception centers for the internally displaced are provided by the regime. Each transit center has two sections - one for woman and one for men. In each section there are basic living materials; each person is given a mattress, blanket, and a pillow. Every day there are two meals per person. This emergency transit camp gives each family the time to find a more permanent place. This temporary camp is supported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOHCA) and the Response Coordination Group, a Syrian civil, non-governmental, and independent organization.

Food tent with a designated entrance for men and women

The trip from Daraa to Idlib prior to the conflict took five to seven hours, but in the current chaos the trip takes more than thirty hours.

"They would point their guns at us on the buses to scare us. They tried to step on our dignity, it wasn't enough for them to force us to leave our houses where we have spent all of our lives" said Mahmoud, a fifty-two year old school principle. He fled Daraa with his wife and their four children after his house was destroyed in shelling by the Russian air force. Mahmoud said after in the last assault it was hard to get food and there was no medical treatment for the wounded, he added "One day I witnessed a horrific shelling. Many children were killed, and their parents had to identify them from their arms and legs."

Mahmoud refused to let us take his picture because he said that he can't trust the regime not to detain him if they knew he had spoken to a journalist. Mahmoud, along with many other citizens from Daraa that had to leave and start over in an unfamiliar city, might still be in danger.

"I don't know what the future holds for us here in Idlib, and I don't think it will be much better than Daraa, but we came to rest and be able to breath again; at least for a while."

—Sadoun

Sadoun Kaloush is forty years old and from the town of Hirak in Daraa province. Sadoun lost his store in 2012 when the regime burned it to the ground. He came to Idlib recently with many people who also do not trust the regime. When asked what he had brought from his house, he cried and said "only my house key" adding "my house was totally destroyed, the Russian air force destroyed it, but at least I didn't lose any of my four children. Many of the wounded died because there were no resources to treat them."

Sadoun said that he wants to throw his house key away because he doesn't want to keep remembering what he left back in Daraa, but he hasn't done it yet. He didn't want to stay in Daraa because he "doesn't want to shake the hands of the criminals who killed my friends and my neighbors."

All I wanted was to finish my studies in high school and go to university, but the war prevented me from that.

—Fadel

Fadel Al-Fayad is nineteen years old and used to work in a motorcycle shop before he left Hirak. His father was detained as a political prisoner in 2006 when the regime accused him of being part of an opposition group. However, Fadel said that his father was not a member of any parties before the revolution.

Fadel said "The Russian shelling was brutal. They used to shell us with 172 cm missiles, and you can't run away from it." Fadel used to raise birds on the rooftop of his house and said "Once the shelling started, my birds left the house and I thought I should leave as well. I don't want to join the graves of my friends in Hirak."

I decided to come to Idib for the sake of my children's lives.

—Mohamed

Mohamad al Hasson is twenty-nine years old from the town of Nawah in Daraa province. He used to work as a taxi driver and has two children; Yehya who is three years old, and Hassan who is a one year old. Mohamad said he doesn't want to leave Syria and he still hopes it will be safe and peaceful soon.

Dyaa Hassan is thirty-three years old, from the town of Lajat in Daraa province. His house was destroyed when he was hiding in nearby shelters, and his leg was wounded in a different shelling. Dyaa said "I couldn't get married because of the war, I didn't have any rights as a person, and now in Idlib I don't have treatment for my leg."

Dyaa is wearing a military shirt, but he says he was not a fighter. "I lost everything, and now I only have a few items of clothing." Dyaa added that he has lost any hope in his life and he doesn't think his future will be any better in Idlib.

Rana Riziq is a freelance Syrian journalist. Photos courtesy of Aref al-Aref.