Living in a former cow barn in southwest Daraa province with his young daughter and pregnant wife, Daniel Muhammad did not think that things could get much worse.
He had been dwelling there, on the grounds of an abandoned dairy and cattle farm for approximately one year, since fleeing his hometown near Daraa city, after Syrian government forces captured it in February 2016.
An estimated 300 families were also occupying the farm grounds, owned by a Syrian-Libyan company before the war, Syria Directreported last October.
During his time living in the barn, Muhammad had made the best he could of his circumstances, borrowing money to fix up a stall as a home for his family, the former construction worker tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Falluji.
Then, three weeks ago, alleged Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) swept into the area as part of an offensive against rival Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist brigades there.
The site of the cow barn-cum-camp for internally displaced people, a village called Jileen, was one that JKW captured during its campaign. While the advance halted last month, battles continued on the fronts between JKW and other rebel factions.
Amidst the fighting, JKW opened a corridor out of the areas it controlled last week, finally allowing civilians to leave.
Muhammad and his family left yet again, this time to escape the fighting and JKW. They left most belongings behind in the cow stall and made a four-hour journey on foot and horseback, taking a muddy road from Jileen down into the deep valley adjacent to it, then up towards FSA-held towns.
Now staying with a relative, Muhammad reflects on the “terrible suffering” of repeated displacement. As battles continue between JKW and their rivals, it is unclear when he may be able to return to his makeshift residence in the cow barns.
“I don’t know what tomorrow holds.”
Q: You have been displaced more than once. Can you tell us a bit about your story of displacement? And what happened when you left JKW-held areas one week ago?
Displacement means terrible suffering. My story began when the Assad regime took control of my town of Ataman [4km north of Daraa city] in February, 2016. I abandoned my house and flee to the town of Jileen [15km northeast].
Near Jileen, I lived at the Libyan company cow barn. It used to be a place to raise livestock, and isn’t suitable for living in the first place.
It was much more difficult to flee areas controlled by IS [on February 28] due to the ruggedness of the dirt road we had to walk on. My wife is pregnant, so I paid to rent a horse and she rode on it with my young daughter.
We walked for four hours towards a village controlled by the FSA. While we were walking, the clashes and shelling between the FSA and IS were nonstop. We were afraid of being injured by a stray bullet.
Once we got to Amouriyah, there was nowhere for us to take shelter, except for a small mosque in the town. There was a school as well, but it was already filled with displaced people who had arrived in the area before we did.
Ultimately, I was taken in by one of my relatives in Muzayreeb, a town in the western countryside. We are living in his house.
Q: After being displaced multiple times, what do you hope for?
My hope is the same as everybody’s: to live in safety under these circumstances. I hope to return to my house in my village, Ataman, now under regime control.
I even hope to return to the place that I fled to first, the cow barn, which JKW has taken control of. I had fixed up a cow stall and turned it into a place for my family and I to live. That cost me a lot of money, in light of how scarce work opportunities are. I went into debt to get most of the money. All my household goods are still in the cow barn area.
I don’t know what tomorrow holds for me.
Q: Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed took over the area where you were living, near Jileen, two weeks ago. What happened after that?
The Islamic State took control of a number of villages.
[Ed.: Throughout the interview, Muhammad refers to JKW as “the Islamic State.”]
IS seized the food and flour in those towns. They killed two young men who had been wounded in the al-Manshiyah battle [against government forces] in Daraa city. They had been taken to Tseel for treatment, and when IS came in, they executed them.
[Ed.: JKW has circulated pictures of executed rebel fighters online since its advance last month. The fate of the staff of the Tseel Hospital, one of the largest in the area, is not clear.]
It was difficult for us as civilians to secure food and fuel, but these materials were available for members of IS. There were many executions and beheadings of FSA fighters who had been captured while trying to regain control of those areas.
On February 28, IS opened a corridor and allowed people to leave for areas outside its control.
Q: Was anybody arrested or detained by JKW while you were leaving the Jileen area? Did you experience any form of harassment?
Many people who had been in the FSA were arrested. A number of civilians were interrogated but none were arrested.
Some people had to remain in areas controlled by IS because they have nowhere else to live if they leave their houses.
We were allowed to take anything we wanted with us when we left, but we only took our individual possessions. The road is difficult, and we didn’t have much to take with us in the first place.
Q: Between JKW areas and those controlled by the FSA lies the Yarmouk Valley. A large number of people fled to the Yarmouk Valley and are still there. Why are they staying?
As for the people who chose to stay in the valley, some of them do so because they have nowhere else they can go to seek shelter. Others are afraid of the security checks that they could be subjected to by the FSA after they leave, because they have relatives who joined IS [JKW].
Others head to villages already teeming with residents, and stay with relatives or rent a house there.