They left only with what they could carry: Syria's internal exiles on the pain of never being able to go home
Bana last saw her son Mohammed at breakfast at their home in Aleppo, just before he rushed out to school on 12 August 2012.
He never came home. Bana and her husband waited, then asked after him among his friends – without luck.
Bana, who asked we not use her real name for her own safety, recalls: “One of his schoolmates came to our house, red-faced and breathless, and knocked frantically on the door. He said to us that Mohammed was caught in a demonstration and was arrested by the police. I fell down sobbing, I couldn’t help it.”
The couple have been frantic for information from the authorities about Mohammed, who was 17 at the time and the eldest of their three sons, ever since.
“We paid money for information about him. They said to us that he was alive but didn’t give us the opportunity to see him. Even now we don’t know if he is alive or not.”
Living without dignity
Bana and her husband are but some of the thousands who fled Aleppo two years ago, as the fighting between rebels and the Syrian government forces reached a crescendo.
When the eastern neighbourhoods of the country’s second city fell to fighters backed by President Bashar al-Assad, families like her’s fled under a UN-brokered deal, taking with them only what they could carry.
Their story is but one among millions: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that more than “half of the country’s pre-war population have been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011”.
It puts the number of refugees still within Syria’s borders, up to and including the end of 2017, at 6.8 million, including 2.9 million in 2017 alone.
Meanwhile the Red Cross reports that at least 34,000 people, including civilians and rebel fighters, were evacuated from Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods during the week-long operation which began in mid-December 2016.
Bana and her family now live in the village of Kafranbel, in the south-west of Idlib province. She works as a cleaner (“I don’t get paid that much, but it is better than doing nothing”) while her husband is employed as a taxi and delivery driver.
One of the few items she was able to take with her was a photo of Mohammed, who would now be 23. His face also gazes down from the pictures on the walls of their new home.
Bana is tired beyond her 40 years and speaks at a low, exhausted volume. Her hands shake. Every now and then she gasps as she recites her dark memories. When she talks of Mohammed she cries, giving thanks if he is alive and asking that his soul be allowed to rest if he is dead.
But there is no bitterness. Instead she is grateful for what she has, for surviving with the rest of the family, and she says for God’s blessing and mercy.
Bana’s home in Aleppo was one of the city’s older properties, notable for its historic architecture and a courtyard open to the skies. When war broke out they would be woken each day by the sound of explosions and fighter planes echoing around the walls of the neighbourhood.
“Our breakfast in this environment was a loaf of bread, olives and za’atar and a cup of tea. Despite its simplicity it was more fulfilling. Having the surrounding magical trees all around the house’s walls, the fountain in the courtyard. It was priceless.”
She recalls the years of hardship in the Old City without essential services, of surviving air strikes without number. “We weren’t afraid of death. The feelings we had while living in our home gave us enormous power. It made us fearless, even under the worst circumstances.”
But while the family may seem more secure now, they do not feel it. The luxuries they have now, and which they went without for years, count for little.
At least in Aleppo, Bana says, they could live in their hometown with dignity rather than being driven out. Her memories tumble back to family gatherings, to family meals – and a life without fear of death or war. Now she lives somewhere she does not know and in a world that to her and her family is alien.
“My life now is to wake up, serve breakfast for my three sons in a small table which we barely fit around, living in a house we have never lived in before.
“We have a kitchen where I can barely wash the dishes and an old washing machine that can’t efficiently function because of the bad electricity we have in our district. This is our life. I am not sure people from outside can know what it feels like.”
The thugs who run neighbourhoods
But Bana is wary of going back to the eastern areas of Aleppo which are now controlled by the government. Her first fear is that their house, even if it is still standing, may have been requisitioned.
In April, Damascus passed Law No 10. Ostensibly to encourage post-war property development, it allows homes to be confiscated and redeveloped, or pays owners compensation under a new property law.
Then there are the shabiha, the gangs of government-backed armed thugs who often bring terror to neighbourhoods. In the early stages of the war they were used to repress demonstrations and kidnap protesters. Now they can be seen in charge of checkpoints, especially in areas where the government has won back control.
“They are in control at the moment, looting houses and blackmailing people to get money out of them, threaten them with prison and accuse them of working with the rebels and so on.”
Bana is contemptuous of reports about a return to normal life, dismissing them as “nonsense” and put about via Assad’s “social media armies to reflect this fake image”.
“In the east and notably in the Old City district, electricity doesn’t come for days or even weeks and people still rely on generators in their daily life.
“I wouldn’t return, neither would my family, despite the talk that life is going back to normal, of houses, streets, services gradually going back to how it was before the war.”
Fleeing from place to place
In Ehsem in southern Idlib, Masoud sips his usual cup of tea under the weak autumnal sun. His calloused hands, in which he holds a cigarette, are shaking – but it is not because of the cold.
Like Bana, Masoud and his family also fled Aleppo in late 2016 (he also asked we not use his real name). Two years on and Masoud knows he can never go back to his home in the Old City where his ancestors lived, worked and raised their families.
“Even during the French rule and the Ottoman rule in our country, no one migrated from the city,” he says. “Now I have left and will never come back, not even to be buried.”
His new home is reached through an old wooden door. The living room only has one rug. No electricity means no TV; the family has also been without a telephone since 2012, furthering their isolation.
In the middle of the room sits a small gas fire, which the family could not afford to light even if it worked: instead they tuck themselves under blankets and pretend it is turned on. The only light comes from a single bulb in the ceiling.
During the early years of the war Masoud’s furniture store in the Old City was first looted, then destroyed by a government air strike.
Masoud, who is in his late 40s, his wife and their three children, then aged between eight and 15, moved from their home near Salt Square to the district of Jibb Al Quebeh, depending on income from his food store, another business, to get by.
“I survived with my family during the attacks,” he recalls. “We had enough food on our plates.”
When clashes between government forces and the Free Syrian Army erupted nearby, the family fled again in September 2012 to Masoud’s brother in Hretan, on the north-eastern outskirts of Aleppo. They returned to their old neighbourhood once the ground fighting died down and the FSA had gained control.
“Even though we had air strikes 24 hours, seven days in the last year before leaving,” he says, “we carried on living, working, seeing our sons married off, partying and laughing.”
But the struggle was harder than before and they had to turn to the local council for help.
“My food store’s shelves were almost empty during the first few weeks of the siege in November 2016. We stayed there until the end of 2016. The turning point came on that day, 7 December, when my sons woke me up and told me we had to leave because the regime was making massive advances.”
The family headed for Sif-Dawla, a rebel-held area in al Alebesah district, which was under threat from the government. “We were stuck: the regime was threatening to advance and let its militants kill everyone.”
The memories which will not die
It is now November 2018. The family’s income has dwindled. Masoud no longer owns a chain of stores – instead he works for someone else. “The owner gives me a salary of $50 a month, which is barely enough,” he says.
And memories of life in Aleppo still linger.
“With a cup of coffee and Sabah Fakhri music in the morning, it just refreshed your soul and prepared you to go work every day with full energy,” he recalls.
“There was the large courtyard with the fountain in the middle of it. Waking up every morning smelling the growing roses. The trees around the walls and the rooftop.
“I sit here every morning with my coffee, with a couple of pictures I took a few years ago from my street and neighbourhood, it was like heaven. But this traditional historic morning that I used to have, ever since I was a kid with my family in our old house, has gone and won’t come back.
“It reminds me of my city, where I dream to go one day before I die. I want to pray and visit my father’s grave and spend my last days in a place I’m more familiar with, not here where I barely know a few people.”
There is silence. When he answers a few seconds later it it is with a heavy breath of despair.
“Feelings like that are for a lifetime. An old man like me cannot erase them from my head. I have them in my daily nightmares since we left Aleppo.”
He says that many refugees in northern Syria harbour similar thoughts, of preferring life under siege at home to a peaceful life elsewhere.
“It’s not because we love death or want violence to be part of our daily life, although from an outsider’s view of Syria it may seem like that.
“It’s literally a simple ‘we love our homes’. We don’t feel safe or able to adapt elsewhere. It is worse than death, shelling or bombardment. No one can believe it, but it’s true.”
He says that while they now lived in a small and safe house, they still did not know what would happen next, not least with the negotiations about the fate of Idlib.
“We live in limbo again, fearing another pending tragedy until Russia presses the button to attack us once and for all.”
Why I can’t go back
The dilemma faced by Masoud is that faced by thousands of other displaced Syrians – how can he go home, given all that has happened?
Like Bana, he is cynical about reports that life is now returning to normal in Aleppo and says that eastern Aleppo has access to neither water nor electricity – not that that would stop him going home. He and his family survived worse during the war.
Masoud says that while he fought for neither side during the war, he protested in support of the rebels during the first year and sheltered some of their number.
“In other words,” he says, “ I didn’t fight with the rebels but I can’t go back because I have a history of opposing the regime.
“My views of the neighbourhood were well known to everyone in my district. Going back now would be suicide. What we’ve been hearing since 2017 is that the regime is catching many of those who were living under rebels’ control, regardless of whether they were civilian or not.”
He is also contemptuous of the reconciliation laws intended to encourage refugees to go home, also reports of pardons for army deserters.
“All or most of who came back to Aleppo and elsewhere were subjected to investigations and stayed in jail for a good period of time.
“No one knows if you are alive or not, if you are disabled, if you are recruited to spy on people and neighbours, which is the last thing I’d want my family to do or be surrounded with.”