‘Nobody is thinking about a return’: Voices from the ground after car bombing kills more than 100 evacuees from pro-regime villages

An unclaimed suicide car bombing southwest of Aleppo city took the lives of more than 100 people on Saturday, most of them evacuees from the rebel-blockaded, Shiite-majority Idlib villages of al-Fuaa and Kufraya.

The attack follows a complex surrender and evacuation deal brokered by Iran and Qatar last month stipulating the evacuation of thousands of Shiite villagers from al-Fuaa and Kufraya. In exchange, pro-opposition fighters and some civilians are being evacuated from the Outer Damascus towns of Madaya and Zabadani, as well as Wadi Barada.

Madaya, Zabaani, al-Fuaa and Kufraya have all been encircled by regime and rebel forces respectively for the past two years.

After days of delays, the first round of evacuations of 2,000 opposition Outer Damascus residents in exchange for 5,000 pro-regime Idlib residents left their homes on Friday. All evacuees headed to exchange points in and on the outskirts of regime-held Aleppo city. 

For all, the journeys stretched into Saturday. In rebel-held Rashideen, dozens of buses carrying residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya waited for hours to enter Aleppo city in exchange for their counterparts from Outer Damascus. Men, women and children waited inside buses or sat in the grass on the side of the road. 

Then, according to sources on the ground and videos from the scene, a blue pickup truck supposedly carrying food but in fact filled with explosives drove up alongside the buses and detonated.

The massive blast killed more than 100 people, according to both pro-opposition and pro-regime sources.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the massacre.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s bombings, competing narratives emerged almost immediately. Pro-regime media called the massacre a terrorist attack, while some opposition supporters accused the regime of responsibility in order to sabotage the evacuation agreement.

 SARC and Civil Defense personnel at the scene of Saturday’s bombing. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Civil Defense

Assad supporters on social media condemned a perceived imbalance in reporting compared with a recent regime sarin attack against an opposition Idlib town. Rebel supporters condemned the regime and lauded opposition journalists who were filmed and photographed rescuing the wounded.

At the center of the rhetoric and accusations are the victims—people who thought they were at the end of a nightmare only to find themselves in a new one.

On Monday, two days after the bombing, Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani and Mohammed al-Haj Ali spoke with two residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya—one of whom was evacuated in the same convoy targeted in Saturday’s attack—as well as a journalist with pro-opposition Orient News who was at the scene and pulled victims from the wreckage.

Hussein, a 31-year-old nurse and married father of two from Kufraya. He was evacuated in the convoy that was targeted, and is currently in a temporary shelter in Jibreen, Aleppo city.

Q: You and your family were on one of the buses in the convoy that was bombed in Rashideen on Saturday while waiting to enter regime territory. Where were you when the bombing happened?

The journey was really terrifying. The whole time, we were petrified, afraid that something would happen, that we would be shot or detained. Unfortunately, what happened was worse than what we expected. Most of the dead were women and children. But it was not wholly unexpected.

I was approximately one kilometer away from the bomb site, and was not able to go there. We heard the sound, and saw columns of smoke rising from the area. We immediately knew that our fears had come true.

Q: Hours after the bombing, you and the other surviving evacuees were finally able to enter Ramouseh, in regime territory. How are you feeling, after getting out of a two-year siege? Where will you go now?

I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, I feel happy because I escaped Kufraya and al-Fuaa after the siege, and also survived this car bombing. Other times, I start crying for those who were killed and injured in the terrorist bombing, and out of fear for those who remain inside the towns.

When I got to Aleppo, I checked on people I know, and started to think about what to do next. I am thinking of going to Damascus now. I have relatives there, in Sayyeda Zainab. But first of all, I have to get my affairs in order, to find housing, work and transportation there.

Q: How has Saturday’s bombing affected you? You escaped the siege, but paid a horrific price.

For the last two years, during the siege, we have paid a large price. It was not only in this bombing, but also in hunger and shortages of medicine. That, in addition to bombings by the [rebel] gunmen surrounding us.

Q: Some opposition sources are accusing the regime of carrying out the bombing in a false-flag attack. How do you respond to that?

Regardless of who carried out the explosion, this was a terrorist act. The goal behind it is to ignite discord among Syrians, so that there will not be another reconciliation agreement elsewhere.

Q: After two years of siege and bombardment, then this attack, do you have hope that you will return to your home in Kufraya one day and live a normal life?

There is still hope, certainly. Kufraya would remain in my heart whether we left or not. All my childhood memories are there. We will return someday. And if not, we will keep telling our stories to our children. Surely they will go back one day.

**

Abu Haidar is a 37-year-old math teacher and married father of one who is currently in al-Fuaa. He is scheduled to leave his rebel-encircled hometown in a coming round of evacuations.

Q: Late last week, before the evacuations began, people in al-Fuaa and Kufraya told us that they were afraid of an attack by rebel groups or supporters during the evacuation. After the unclaimed car bombing on Saturday, what are people who are about to leave saying?

People are really afraid, especially because of the large number of casualties in this explosion. But they are insistent on leaving. If we stay here, we will die from bombing, siege and hunger. If we leave, there is a chance we could get to safety.

The biggest fear right now is that the agreement could be cancelled after this attack.

Q: Are there any precautions you could take when leaving? Or are you completely dependent on the protection of rebel groups?

I don’t think we can do anything. As civilians, we had no part in the negotiations. We do hope that the Red Crescent and the United Nations take any steps possible to ensure the safety of the next wave of evacuees or find another route that does not go through areas with gunmen.

Q: Who were the 5,000 people who left in the first round and were targeted by the bombing?

Many sick and wounded people left in the first round, in addition to families who wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I don’t believe that there were armed or military people among them. Most were women and children, and I heard that they made up most of those we lost. Unfortunately, terrorism does not distinguish between people.

Q: After two years of siege and bombardment by rebel factions and gunmen in surrounding villages, and then this bombing, do you have hope that one day you will return to your home and live a normal life among your neighbors?

Right now, nobody is thinking about a return. All people inside al-Fuaa and Kufraya are thinking about is leaving. Will they get out? Will they reach safe ground? These are the things they worry about.

There is a fear that we won’t come back, but that is the last thing on our minds right now. In this situation, with the blockade, bombardment and explosions, people just want to live in safety.

**

Ammar Jaber, 34, is a correspondent for pro-opposition Orient News and a married father of one. Originally from east Aleppo city, he lived through the final battle for and evacuation from the city. On Saturday, he was covering the evacuations from Rashideen, and helped rescue wounded al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents after the car bombing.

Q: You were at the scene of Saturday’s bombing. Could you describe what happened?

We were there to cover the exchange of evacuees on the agreed-upon point between [opposition-held] Rashideen [and regime-held Ramouseh] in Aleppo. At 3:30pm, there was a massive explosion near the buses carrying residents and gunmen from al-Fuaa and Kufraya.

It was a car bomb that detonated near the buses and a position where the rebels accompanying them were gathered. Until now, it is not known where the car came from or to whom it belonged.

I was 200 meters away from the buses when a huge explosion sound burst out. My colleagues—journalists and activists—and I rushed towards it, and within a few minutes we were in the center of the massacre.

It was horrifying, an indescribable scene: body parts strewn here and there, blood, smoke and fire.

 Ammar Jaber, right, carries a wounded child away from the site of a car bomb on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Mahmood Talha.

Q: There has been talk that the car bomb entered from regime areas. How? Given that Rashideen is controlled by rebels, weren’t there searches of cars coming into the area?

True, rebels have controlled the Rashideen area for around four years. There has been a lot of talk and questions about where the car came from. Over the course of the evacuation, there were Red Crescent and regime vehicles entering Rashideen from regime-held Ramouseh, bringing food for the Kufraya and al-Fuaa residents.

As for the rebels, there were intensive searches of the vehicles and buses coming in, and individuals coming into Rashideen from their areas were inspected.

Q: Pictures have circulated online of you and other journalists abandoning your work to save the wounded. What were you thinking of at that time?

At a moment like that, it is not possible to think of anything else but saving people. I wasn’t thinking at all of the work that I came to do, or my duty to film and report what was happening. I dropped everything to respond to the call of humanity and conscience. All of us helped move the wounded.

Everything fell away in that moment. I wasn’t thinking about who the woman or child I was carrying was, if they were regime supporters, or our enemies, or if they ever pointed their guns at us. I saw with my own eyes how rebels were picking up and moving pro-regime gunmen from Kufraya and al-Fuaa.

To be honest, I was in shock. I didn’t imagine or expect an explosion like this, of this scale and in this place. In the end, we are people, and human nature and duty are what drove me to save people. I remembered Aleppo, the children of Aleppo, and my feelings then were no different from those I felt when I was carrying the children of Kufraya and al-Fuaa.

There were children burning and women who lost their limbs. I carried the wounded to the ambulances until the end. My task was to save the most people possible.

Q: Where were the injured taken? Are there still wounded people in rebel areas?

The injured were moved to hospitals in opposition areas of the Idlib and Aleppo countryside. Some were taken to the border hospital in Bab al-Hawa.

After some hours, Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) vehicles came and moved most of those who could be transported to Aleppo city. There could still be some critical cases in opposition hospitals, but I can’t confirm that.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.