‘As the darkness increased, so did our fear’: Residents of regime-held Hama village flee Islamic State attack

Ismaili villagers in the regime-held east Hama countryside bordering Islamic State (IS) territory are used to hearing the sound of clashes outside of their villages since IS started attacking the area in 2015, but July 17 was different.

In the village of Tal Atout, 22-year-old university student Talab Salamuni was sitting in the dark with his father, mother and younger siblings, waiting for his father to decide whether they were to grab their already packed belongings and flee 15km west to Salamiya city.

The house had no electricity because of a power outage, and, “as the darkness increased, so did our fear,” Salamuni, also a student at a local university, tells Syria Direct’s Shady al-Jundy from Salamiya city.

Salamiya, located 33km southeast of Hama city and 45km northeast of Homs, is home to the largest population of Ismaili Shiites in Syria. Most Ismaili Shiites, who recognize the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader, live in regime-controlled territory.

Earlier that same evening of July 17, a local NDF leader sent a member to warn residents of Tal Atout and neighboring Mafkar a-Sharqi that the National Defense Forces had to withdraw from the villages after two days of heavy IS attacks because “the situation was out of control.”

IS fighters began attacking Mafkar al-Gharbi and Tal Atout on July 15 with rocket-propelled grenades.

Salamuni’s father decided to leave at midnight after hearing an explosion that “shook the village.”

The Assad regime is not sufficiently defending Salamiya and its surrounding villages, a former colonel who defected from the army tells Syria Direct.

 Downtown Salamiya last week. Photo courtesy of Salamieh Live

“IS has been attacking this area for several years,” said the colonel. “The regime, however, has not taken the most basic steps to strengthen its defense.”

Talab Salamuni, a university student from Tal Atout, now in Salamiya city.

Q: When did you decide to leave?

At 12am Sunday we heard the sound of a huge explosion that shook the village. My father quickly decided to leave, as if he had anticipated events to develop like this. We grabbed our basic belongings—which were already packed—and we left.

Outside, the sound of fighting was even louder. Most people in our village were leaving. Some of them fled on foot, hoping that they would find a car along the way. We went to my uncle’s house in Salamiya. His three-bedroom home hosted about 30 people from Tal Atout and Mafkar a-Sharqi, a neighboring village. Most of them left the next day to rent houses, even though rent is very expensive.

Q: How did you flee?

People are used to hearing the sound of fighting in the forest outside our village, Tal Atout. But on July 17, things were different. That evening, a National Defense leader sent one of his members to the village around 7:00pm to tell us that the situation was out of control and that he was forced to withdraw from the village’s outskirts.

Some people left immediately after hearing the news, but my family stayed at home because we own a car. We knew we could escape if IS actually entered Tal Atout.

Even though the National Defense Forces began withdrawing, some young men from our village refused to withdraw, determined to fight till the end.

The electricity at our house was out. As the darkness increased, so did our fear. I was waiting with my siblings in the corner of the room and my little sister asked my mom if IS would slaughter us. My mother couldn’t do anything but cry.

My little siblings cried and trembled when we heard the sound of fighting come closer, or at least we thought it was approaching.

[Ed.: Salamiya city and countryside have an average of six hours of electricity daily due to frequent power outages.]

Q: What are you hearing residents saying about the ongoing fighting?

People are very scared because of the lack of security and stability, in addition to fears that the terrorists may reach Salamiya city. Especially since the regime failed to take enough steps to expel IS from the area.

Q: How is this new wave of displacement affecting Salamiya city?

The number of displaced people from Tal Atout and neighboring village Mafkar a-Sharqi is shocking.

Salamiya has already received many displaced people from Hama and Homs. The burden on the city has increased with the new arrival of people. Work opportunities are scarce, no comfortable housing is available and food aid is limited. 

Former Syrian Arab Army colonel who defected in 2012, and now lives in the Hama countryside.

Q: Who defends Salamiya’s east countryside? Who are they affiliated with?

A regime brigade in Barri Sharki village (located east of Salamiya city), the Baath Brigade and the National Defense Forces. These are fixed artillery forces that are not involved in active combat, they just responsible for covering fire.

[Ed.: The Baath Brigades are a volunteer pro-regime militia composed of Syrian Baath party members.]

Q: What logistical preparations have been taken to defend the area?

IS has been attacking this area for several years. The regime, however, has not taken the most basic steps to strengthen its defenses. The only things here now are a few earthen berms. These aren’t enough to defend the area.

Q: Why do you think that the regime doesn’t bring reinforcements Salamiya and its countryside?

It’s obvious that the government doesn’t want to reinforce Salamiya because even though the city itself is facing an imminent threat, regime forces are neglecting it. The regime made Salamiya a mobilization area for its soldiers to gather before heading towards A-Raqqa. This makes al-Assad seem more powerful in the media since A-Raqqa is a well-known terrorist capital.

Also, the regime benefits from these continual threats because they’re a way to silence complaints about kidnappings and the lack of water and electricity in Salamiya.

[Ed.: Salamiya is facing a water shortage because rebel groups to the east in Homs control al-Rustan Dam, Salamiya’s main source of water.]

Shady al-Jundy

Shady is originally from Damascus but was raised in Hama. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in law before moving to Jordan in 2012. Shady wants to learn journalism as he believes in the strong ties between law and journalism, especially when it comes to the Syrian issue. He wants to use journalism to point out breaches of human rights laws and international protocols.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.