After leaving Waer, residents choose to return from life in camps of northern Syria

A young man named Fawaz was one of dozens of Syrians from Waer who stepped off a bus in their home district of Homs city on May 7 as journalists snapped photos of the city’s governor welcoming the returnees.

It had been just over a month since he, his wife and two children boarded a similar bus to leave their home, possibly permanently, for a camp in rebel-held northern Syria in territory controlled by Turkish-backed rebels.

The 32-year-old and his family left Waer on March 27, alongside 2,000 fighters and fellow residents for Jarablus, as part of a Russian-brokered agreement that will see all fighters exit the last rebel-held district of the provincial capital, as well as any residents wishing to leave.

The former teacher expected that life in Jarablus would be far better than life in the nearly demolished district of Homs that was encircled for years until its surrender in March.

But when Fawaz arrived at the camp on the outskirts of Jarablus that would be his family’s new home, he saw that there were no tents, no equipped medical facilities and no sanitary facilities.

His two children contracted digestive illnesses from the water and the camp’s unsanitary conditions, Fawaz tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali.

When their situation worsened, Fawaz made arrangements to go back through a camp resident with a connection to a regime official.

Pro-regime media outlets reported the return of Fawaz and several other families from rebel-held territory in the north to the Waer district. In statement to SANA on May 7, Homs Governor Talal Barzani said that people’s desire to stay in Homs is evidence that “the state is only one that guarantees the dignity of the Syrian citizen.”

Q: Could you talk about your time living in Jarablus? How did it match up with your expectations?

I can say with all certainty that it was terrible. The camp was very far from Jarablus. When we arrived, we saw there were no sanitary facilities or medical centers. There weren’t even tents—we had to wait for two days until they arrived. Illnesses were spreading among the camp residents.

We expected to go to a place that would be better than Waer. We expected that some basic services would be provided. But it was just like Waer—no water, no electricity.

All we wanted was a place that would be slightly better than Waer. Sadly, it was much worse. We were out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 Homs governor Talal Barzani welcomes returnees from Jarablus on May 7. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Q: Describe your thought process in deciding to return to Homs city with your family.

My children started to get sick from the water and the lack of sanitary facilities in Jarablus. They were vomiting all day long, and they had diarrhea. The medical clinic didn’t give out anything other than painkillers, which were of no use.

There were promises that we would be taken to a school or a shelter, but that didn’t happen.

The main reason [I returned] was that my children were ill. Their condition was getting worse every day with no signs of improvement.

I had left Waer so that I wouldn’t lose them. So, I decided to go back where I could at least live in a house with four walls and roof in an area where the most basic services are available.

Q: SANA and several pro-regime media outlets reported on the convoy of residents who returned to Homs from Jarablus. In a statement to SANA on May 7, Homs governor Talal Barzani said that people’s desire to stay in Homs is evidence that “the state is only one that guarantees the dignity of the Syrian citizen.” Do you agree with this statement? You’ve been in Homs city for two days now. Are there any indicators of what your future life in the city will be like? 

I don’t know what to say. Some people now accuse me of being some sort of traitor for returning to the Syrian regime. All that doesn’t matter to me now.

My children have started to go to school. I’m living in a spacious house which has basic services.

[Ed.: Fawaz is temporarily renting a home in Waer while he searches for permanent lodging. The house where he and his family previously lived in was destroyed by regime shelling of the formerly besieged district, he tells Syria Direct.]

The Red Crescent gave us some basic necessities such as furnishings for the house, clothing and food. Now, I’m starting to look for work, and I’ll possibly go back to teaching in one of the nearby schools.

I think that life here will be better than Jarablus, even though the Syrian regime is in control. All that matters to me at the moment is that my family is safe.

Q: On May 7, you and 36 other residents who were unhappy with the conditions in the Jarablus camps returned to the Waer district. How did you make arrangements to return?

I heard that a number of families who went to Jarablus had returned to Waer a few weeks ago. I started to search for relatives and friends who were interested in returning.

[Ed.: A convoy reportedly brought camp residents who wished to leave Jarablus to Homs during the first week of May. "Last week, five families—21 people including 12 children—returned after leaving the Waer district for Jarablus,” Syria’s state news agency SANA reported on May 7.]

Someone at the camp informed us that he was in contact with a representative from the Syrian regime, who would make all the arrangements for us to return. He would not reveal [the representative’s] identity.

We followed the procedure that he laid out for us. Buses brought us to Waer, and facilitated our passage through the Syrian regime’s checkpoints. We were then welcomed by the governor and mufti [of Homs].

I can’t talk about the route we took back for security reasons.

Q: In recent weeks, you prepared yourself and your family to leave your home in Homs city. You then moved to a camp in Jarablus in the northern Aleppo countryside, and then you returned to Homs. How has this experience affected you and your family mentally and emotionally?

During these last weeks, there wasn’t a moment to rest. First, we were under siege and shelling in Waer. Then, as we exited Waer, we were terrified of an explosion or something like that on the road to Jarablus.

After we arrived [in Jarablus], we didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any peace of mind. The entire time I was scared for my children, taking them to the medical clinic. I had to secure basic necessities for my family such as food and water.

Even now, after returning to Waer, I don’t feel entirely safe, but we are staying in our city where there are basic services. My children are the most important thing. The most important thing is that they are safe, far away from disease and famine.

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.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.