After escaping IS-held Deir e-Zor, family splits apart on journey to safety

Umm Talaa’s family of seven once lived under the Islamic State in their Deir e-Zor province village. But in early October, as frontlines drew closer and bombs rained down, they knew they had to leave.

Before beginning the dangerous journey from the Islamic State-held Deir e-Zor countryside to relative safety in border camps along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey more than one month ago, Umm Talaa’s family split up.  

It was her husband’s idea. If something happened to one half of the family, his thinking went, then at least the others would survive.

“I told him that we either live together or we die together, but he didn’t accept that” Umm Talaa tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. “He wanted someone to survive and carry on the family name.”

After paying a smuggler, Umm Talaa, two of her sons and one daughter left their village in one truck. Her husband, another daughter and remaining son departed in another.

“It felt like it was going to be the last time I’d ever see them,” says Umm Talaa.

The family briefly reunited in the a-Sidd camp, a displacement camp run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria. From there, the family paid another smuggler and split up once again for the journey toward rebel-controlled Idlib province and the border camps.

Residents of Deir Hassan camp last summer. Photo courtesy of Deir Hassan Camp.

After an arduous journey, half of the family—those who left a-Sidd with Umm Talaa—arrived at a displacement camp in Idlib two weeks ago.

Her husband and remaining children never arrived. Phone calls have gone unanswered, and there is no record of them in the border camps.

Umm Talaa does not know what happened. Other camp residents—some waiting for their own family members—tell her that the rest of her family may just need more time. Umm Talaa waits and hopes but fears the worst.

“We withstood bombs and Daesh’s terror, surviving it all,” says Umm Talaa. “But as just as soon as we’d escaped we lose half our family?”

“All I can do is cry for them.”

Q: How did you leave your village?

We left Khasham [more than a month and a half ago] because of all the bombs, missiles and shells flying from every direction. Everyone in Khasham left; nobody’s there anymore.

My son Talaa, who left for Turkey in 2014, sent us money so we could get out of Khasham. Our plan was to go to the northern border camps in Idlib and eventually join Talaa in Turkey.

We paid a smuggler 100 dollars for each member of the family—700 dollars in total—to take us out [of IS territory].

The smuggler exploited us; he wasn’t willing to negotiate at all. ‘If you want to pay, pay,’ he said. ‘If not, there are plenty of people who will.’

A photo taken last year by displaced people in Deir Hassan. Photo courtesy of Deir Hassan Camp.

My husband, Abu Talaa, decided that I would go with one smuggler alongside my sons, Abdullah and Salim, and my daughter, Samahir. Abu Talaa, along with my other daughter and son, Rajwa and Odai, would go with another smuggler.

He was afraid that Daesh would capture us, or we would be hit by a bomb and killed. He wanted someone to survive and carry on the family name. I told him that we either live together or we die together, but he didn’t accept that.

So, we left at 2 o’clock in the morning and we said our goodbyes. It felt like it was going to be the last time I’d ever see them.

Q: What happened on your journey out of IS territory?

Our truck pulled away, and the truck with Abu Talaa was driving behind us.

We drove [north] from Khasham, in the desert between Deir e-Zor and Hasakah, for around six hours. It was nighttime, and I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

When I woke up and looked back, I couldn’t see the truck with Abu Talaa and the kids behind us.

I burst into tears, I just cried. The smuggler told me that there were lots of SDF checkpoints, so they were taking a different route.

The smuggler turned us over to the SDF and we went [into the a-Sidd camp], but not before they checked our paperwork and turned us inside-out searching us.

[Ed: The a-Sidd camp in rural southern Hasakah province is administered by the US-backed, Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces.]

Nine hours after we arrived in the camp, we were reunited with my husband [and the other children]. They had gone through another checkpoint.

We spent two days in a-Sidd, and found another smuggler who we paid 300 dollars to get us out.

When we left al-Sidd, we split up again into two groups, like we did when we came. This time, I went with just two of my sons. We paid a smuggler $600 to get us out in two groups and take us to Idlib.

When my sons and I arrived in al-Bab [in the northeast Aleppo countryside], we were stopped at a Euphrates Shield checkpoint. Men from the Free Syrian Army checked us and searched us, especially the men. They were scared of us—we were 10 adults and four children in the truck.

[Ed: Euphrates Shield was a Turkish military operation in northern Syria that lasted—officially—from September 2016 to March 2017. Today, Turkish-backed rebel factions occupy a swath of territory in northern Syria between Kurdish-controlled Afrin and Kobani cantons.]

After [the checkpoint], we went in trucks to an FSA-controlled area. We slept out in the open, the men under a tree and women in the trucks with the children. The men slept in shifts—afraid that someone would attack us while we were sleeping.

[When we were on the move again,] we got water and food from villages we passed through. Every family that was with us feared what lay ahead.

On the third day of our journey after leaving a-Sidd,  our truck broke down along the way. We couldn’t walk since we had all of our belongings. Eventually, the driver was able to bring a mechanic to fix the truck, and we continued on to a Kurdish [SDF]-run checkpoint that wanted money from us before we could get into Afrin.

At the checkpoint, the [SDF] grabbed a 35-year-old man [who was with us] and took him away, saying that he was with Daesh. His wife was crying and screaming, but the driver headed off and finished the trip [to Afrin.]

By the time we got to Afrin, I didn’t know anything about where Abu Talaa [and my other children] were—I’d lost all trace of them. We kept driving until we reached Sarmada [in Idlib], and the driver said he’d taken us as far as we agreed.

We slept out in the open in Sarmada for two days. Some people gave us bread and food. Afterwards, a man who’d been traveling with us since we left a-Sidd said we should go to [the north Idlib town of] Salqin, that he had relatives there and things would be better if we went there.

Things were better in Salqin, so we stayed for six days in the streets there, eating what we could. The man who had relatives there brought us food and blankets. He had come with us all the way from a-Sidd and he told us to go to [a nearby border] camp since they’d give us tents and help us.

But I didn’t have any money left. Some people were renting cars to get to the camps, but we were too embarrassed to ask them to take us without paying. Instead, I asked them to just take our belongings to the Deir Hassan camp.

That morning, we set off on foot, me and my two sons. We would walk for two hours, then rest for three or more. Some good people took pity on us and helped us along the way, and one driver eventually gave us a ride. That’s the life of people who leave their homes—they’re very poor people.

When we got to the camps, I asked the administration if Abu Talaa, my daughters and my son Odai [were in the border camps]. Their names weren’t there.

Q: How did you respond when you heard that your husband and children weren’t in the camps?

As soon as they told us he wasn’t there, I lost it, sobbing. Everyone tried to calm me down and tell me to wait, maybe they’re on the way.

I protected them from Daesh only to lose them on the way? We withstood bombs and Daesh’s terror and survived it all, but now as soon as we escape we lose half the family? I can’t even tell you how I feel every moment of every day.

I’ve now been in the camp for two weeks. Every Deir e-Zor family in the camps tell us that we got here early, and maybe he just needs more time. Lots of other people here are in similar situations, waiting for the rest of their family.

At first we thought maybe they were just somewhere else, but we each have phones with each other’s number saved. [Ed.: Since arriving, Umm Talaa has tried to contact her husband and children by phone but received no response.]

I’ve been asking basically the whole city of Deir e-Zor to ask their friends and relatives if they know anything. All I can do is cry for them.

I swear to God: If he is dead, blown up by some bomb, the children and I are a thousand times better off had we died than being here [in the camps]. The camps are all fear, anguish and exploitation and you need money for everything. I’d rather live under the bombs than here, like this.

We got out of Deir e-Zor safely, only for me to lose the rest of my family on the roads.

This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.