Samah al-Homsiah and her family are searching for a way out of Raqqa city.
At the end of February, the 31-year-old embarked on a journey with her husband and young daughters from Syria’s southern border, near Jordan, up through Islamic State territory and into Turkey.
Al-Homsiah and her family left Homs city in 2014 and fled to Jordan when her husband was called up to the Syrian army reserves. But after her family was deported from Jordan this past February for forging refugee sponsorship papers, she knew that she could not go back to living in Syria.
“We made this decision for my daughter’s future,” the Homs native tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid, “so we could start a new life.”
Al-Homsiah’s plans, however, fell apart when the smuggler leading them to the northern Syrian city of al-Bab en route to Turkey stole her family’s money and abandoned them on a road near Raqqa city.
Now, they are stuck in the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital.
In the streets, residents speak about the coalition airstrikes on the city, fears of disastrous flooding and the possibility of more displacement to come.
“You remember hearing about this on the news, and, today, you are living it.”
Q: What is it like in Raqqa right now?
I never visited Raqqa before. This is the first time I’ve been here in my life. I don’t feel certain that this place is in Syria, though there are families like us in the city—people previously displaced from the Homs countryside or the towns outside Palmyra.
Even though we’re in similar situations, people are wary of one another. There is desolation in people’s eyes from the injustice that comes with the Islamic State.
The city is crowded, mostly with displaced residents from outside Raqqa province. People talk about the disastrous flooding that could happen, or possible displacement.
[Ed.: Syria’s largest dam is in the city of Tabqa, 40km up the Euphrates River from Raqqa city. Former dam engineers and the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently have issued warnings about a potential dam collapse due to nearby fighting and coalition airstrikes.]
People say they’ll flee to Deir e-Zor, but I think most will head toward surrounding [SDF-controlled villages] in Raqqa.
Q: How are you and your family coping with life in Raqqa?
I don’t know what to tell you. When you just think about living here, you feel like there is a mountain weighing on your chest. You think about the planes with their airstrikes. You remember hearing about them on the news, and today you are living it. I look at my daughter, who has lost her education. She’s done nothing to deserve this.
I cry over my son who migrated to Europe. I think of him bringing us over, and I cry.
You think about how you felt safe for a time. You think about a new life where you could forget everything that’s happened. In the blink of an eye, it’s all gone. It’s a miserable place, and I never expected that I would live in any place controlled by Daesh [the Islamic State], even for a week.
Q: Why haven’t you left Raqqa?
We lost our money. We have nothing, so we stayed here. The road to al-Bab is cut off. There are regime forces stationed on the road, preventing anyone from passing through—it’s virtually impossible.
[Ed.: On March 29, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cut the main road that links Raqqa city with Islamic State territory in eastern Aleppo province, including the city of al-Bab, Syria Direct reported.]
We rented a house here after a relative sent us money.
[Ed.: Samah tells Syria Direct that several unlicensed money transfer, or hawala, offices operate in IS-controlled Raqqa. Her relative sent money through one of these informal networks.]
My husband does not work. He won’t interact with people too much, fearing that the Hisbah [IS religious police] will find out about our intentions to go to Turkey or Jarablus [a Free Syrian Army-controlled city on Syrian’s northern border]. We could get lashes for that as punishment, and who knows what would happen to my husband?
Q: Have you looked for other ways out of Raqqa aside from the road to al-Bab?
We’ve been searching. It’s extremely difficult to get to regions under Kurdish control. It costs SP300,000, or $600, per person to get to Ayn Issa [an SDF-controlled city 50km north of Raqqa city], not to mention that the roads aren’t safe. We’d face the threat of airstrikes, or we might be targeted by the Kurdish forces [who control territory north of Raqqa].
[Ed.: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have currently encircled Raqqa city from the north, west and east.]
We’re also afraid that we’d be stuck at the camp in Ayn Issa.
[Ed.: The displacement camp in Ayn Issa is home to hundreds of families from Raqqa who have been displaced by SDF advances and recent flooding in Raqqa city.]
We found out that people aren’t allowed to leave the camp unless they have relatives in Kurdish-controlled territories, and we’re from Homs.
Q: Do other Raqqa residents face similar obstacles to fleeing the city?
Yes, many are afraid to leave. They might be accused of being Islamic State associates. [Displaced] people have been arrested and accused of colluding with IS before.
Q: Why were you and your family unable to remain in Jordan? How long had you been there?
We entered Jordan in September 2014. Before that point, we had been in Homs city where my husband was working. He was notified that he would have to join the army reserves, so we decided to head to Jordan, where my husband’s two brothers have lived since 2012.
We entered Jordan through Ruwaished, near Rukban, and we were put in the Azraq camp because we didn’t have a sponsor.
[Ed.: Syrian refugees who enter Jordan without passports are placed in either the Zaatari or Azraq refugee camp. A Jordanian sponsor is required to leave to camp, a procedure known as a “bailout.”]
We could only take [temporary] leave from the camp. It remained like this for months until we came across someone who told us that he could serve as a sponsor in exchange for 1,200 Jordanian dinars [$1,700]. We sold my gold [wedding jewelry], and we obtained the rest of the money through my husband’s brothers.
But a security patrol stopped us and discovered that the sponsorship was forged. Then, we were deported; me, my husband and my daughter.
Q: Could you tell us about your journey from Jordan to northern Syria?
After we were thrown out of Jordan on February 26 through the Nasib [border crossing], we decided to head towards Turkey where my husband’s brother lives. We didn’t want to stay in Syria. We made this decision for my daughter’s future, for her education, so we could start a new life.
We had begun a new chapter of our lives in Jordan, but that came to an end when we were deported.
In Daraa [southern Syria], we made arrangements with one of the smugglers who provided passage to the Rukban camp on the eastern border between Syria and Jordan. After we arrived at the Rukban camp, we headed north [with a smuggler] toward the town of al-Alianiah in the Syrian desert and from there to Islamic State territory: al-Bukamel city in Deir e-Zor province.
[Ed.: Both the Islamic State and Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebel factions control areas of Syria’s eastern desert, a sparsely populated region.]
In al-Bukamel, we met a smuggler who would secure passage for the three of us to the city of al-Bab for a sum of $1,000. When we were near Raqqa, he robbed us of our money and left us.
Islamic State [fighters] passed by in their cars. They asked us where we were from, where we were going. We told them that we were trying to get to Raqqa. They interrogated us for a bit and took our personal documents, but later returned them.