In an olive grove outside a northern Idlib village, Jamal Maarouf, 37, lies sprawled out on a tarp with his two wives and nine children.
Formerly a construction worker, he has slept alongside his family on the ground there, in Qah, since government warplanes unleashed toxic gas-laden missiles on their hometown of Khan Sheikhoun last Tuesday. More than 70 people were killed in the attack, a “serious violation of international law,” according to the UN.
Maarouf and his family were not in the immediate range of the chemical weapons, but did inhale residual fumes. He took his family to the hospital on Tuesday where the sight of dead children, and others struggling to breathe, were images he says he can’t erase from his mind.
“I cannot allow myself to see my children die from a chemical attack,” he tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from Qah, one week after the deadly bombing.
Qah is a village in northern Idlib on the Turkish-Syrian border 140km north of Khan Sheikhoun. Just hours after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Maarouf rented a truck and sped his entire family there, with “only ourselves and our clothing.”
In Qah’s olive groves, there is no electricity, no running water, no tents. By Maarouf’s estimation, at least 200 other Khan Sheikhoun families are sharing the groves with him, with no proper shelter and no concrete plan for where to go next.
But the lack of warplanes circling above them means they will stay, for now.
The olive groves, Maarouf says, “are safer than home.”
Q: Describe how you fled from Khan Sheikhoun to Qah.
We were sitting in our house, and after the bomb, we fled to a cave that I had set up as a bomb shelter. [We heard] a missile and loudspeakers saying that the bomb was carrying toxic gas, and they were telling us the symptoms.
Though the bomb fell far from our house, we started to show the symptoms of chemical poisoning, which include tears, mucus and a slowing down of the heart.
After we left the hospital, my children screamed and cried when they saw children who weren’t moving.
I immediately rented a truck and left with every member of my family, and we fled from our certain deaths. Thank God.
Q: Why did you choose to flee to Qah? How are your living conditions there?
I chose Qah because it is on the Turkish border and is not targeted by bombs. There are no planes above it, and it is around 140km from Khan Sheikhoun. It will be safe for me and my children.
There are now about 200 families in Qah, and they suffer from a total lack of basic necessities, except for safety. When we left Khan Sheikhoun, we left with only ourselves and our clothing.
Now, we have spread tarps out onto the ground, and we are living among the olive trees. An organization provided us with some food and blankets, but it was a very small amount and not enough.
Q: It has now been over a week since the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun—have you considered returning home?
I will never return to Khan Sheikhoun. Since the massacre, Khan Sheikhoun has become a city of ghosts. There is a huge displacement of people [from it]—and not just to Qah, but also to the towns and villages surrounding Khan Sheikhoun.
For Assad and his ally Russia, it was not enough that we faced so many bombs that we grew accustomed to them. Now, the chemical attack has made me leave the city I was born in so I could grant safety and life to my young children, who are growing up in the shadow of bombs. These [olive] groves are safer than home.
With the latest massacre, the intense airstrikes and the blood, I can’t help imagining my children dying while they are asleep.
Q: Why do you prefer to remain exposed to the elements with no services, rather than return to your home and your city?
It’s an exchange for the safety and security of my family. I cannot allow myself to see my children die from a chemical attack while they are asleep, like what happened in the chemical massacre [last week].
Q: As a displaced person, what is your response to the American missile strike on the Shayrat Air Base, which occurred after the massacre in Khan Sheikhoun?
We hope that the American government and all the countries of the world will continue to help us get rid of Bashar al-Assad. We plead that the missile strike not be the only thing to be covered by the media because we have gotten tired, and we want closure.
[We also plead] for help, for our people and our children, to end the war in Syria. We deserve safety in our country.
Q: How do you feel now that you are far from your city and your house? Do you really think you’ll never return?
My home is precious to me, but my children are even more precious. God rescued us from being killed by toxic chemicals and gave us a new chance at life.
The reason [for my current situation] is Bashar [al-Assad] the criminal, the oppressor, and every country that supports him and stands by his side, for they are participating in killing us. I don’t think I will ever return to Khan Sheikhoun if there is no guarantee to halt the bombs.
Q: What other options do you have right now, other than staying in Qah?
There is no other option. We will remain in Qah until victory is achieved.