Regime forces are drastically expanding their territorial control over Syria, wresting dug-in cities from opposition hands by following a familiar playbook: encircle, starve, bomb and, eventually, negotiate surrender.
The Assad regime’s use of siege warfare was on full display in the Waer district of Homs city where, for years, government forces pummeled the pocket with both airstrikes and shelling. At the same time, the nearly 50,000 residents remained trapped inside.
When surrender finally came earlier this month, the regime offered Waer’s fighters and residents a choice, the same given to other defeated populations: Stay in your homes and accept amnesty and life under the regime, or leave, likely to never return to the city again.
But where most other evacuations—what pro-opposition circles call “forced displacement”—meant a one-way trip to Idlib province, Waer residents were allowed to choose between Idlib, the north Homs countryside or the north Aleppo border town of Jarablus.
A bus carrying opposition fighters and their families at the edge of Waer, March 18. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
So, how does one pick the destination of their exile?
“There’s no easy choice,” says Abu Mohammad, 50, who elected to leave on the first convoy out of Waer en route to Jarablus, where nearly 4,000 evacuees now live in tents along the Turkish border.
In hindsight, “my advice would be to go to Idlib,” the Waer father of three and former candy pushcart seller tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar from the encampment where he now lives. “You’ve got more freedom of movement and, ultimately, more choices if you end up deciding to leave for elsewhere.”
Q: Why did you choose to leave your life in Waer for the uncertainty of Jarablus?
When we were preparing to leave, we were told that everything was available in Jarablus and that it was safe and perfectly well supplied given that it’s under Turkish influence. When we left, we were under the impression that we’d be living in a fully equipped camp, but when we finally arrived, we were shocked.
Things are hard, especially given that we’re now living in tents after having been in houses. There are facilities, such as bathrooms that are just outside the tents, but aside from that and our meals, we’re not given any aid.
In the city itself, just about everything is available; however, as formerly encircled people, we don’t have the financial means to buy even the most basic things.
In the beginning, everyone [from the first Waer convoy] was staying in tents. After a short while, there were some families who found homes but with great difficulty. Rent is prohibitively expensive, especially for a displaced person who lived under encirclement until very recently.
Tents line the Jarablus camp for displaced residents from Waer. Photo courtesy of Abu Mohammad.
Q: If you were giving advice to someone contemplating leaving Waer, what would you say? Where would you tell them to go?
In theory, you could stay and return to the regime, but they don’t keep their word, and they can’t be trusted. Staying means that you could be arrested at any given moment or something far worse. It means you can be forced to join the army.
So, if you’re going to leave Waer, then you’ve got three choices: You can go to the north Homs countryside, Idlib or Jarablus.
Look, there’s no easy choice. Option one, you go to the north Homs countryside, but that area is encircled and is going to be the regime’s next target after Waer. Option two, you go to Idlib where virtually every other displaced person has been sent, but here you face the very real threat of genocide. Finally, option three, there’s Jarablus, which in my opinion is the safest area, but for many people, living in a tent is not an acceptable option.
My advice would be to go to Idlib. It’s a border area; you’ve got more freedom of movement and, ultimately, more choices if you end up deciding to leave for elsewhere.
Q: Do you regret leaving Waer?
With every fiber of my being: yes. It was a feeling that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Those were incredibly difficult moments. How could they not be? You are abandoning your homeland, the place where you grew up and lived your whole life. You’re leaving your house, your friends, your people. When we were on the buses we were saying if only we had stayed and faced the bombs, if only we died and never left. When we did leave, there were tears of sorrow streaming down our faces. How could there not be?
A member of the Turkish-backed FSA stands guard in the border town of Jarablus, August 31, 2016. Photo courtesy of Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images.
Q: What are your next steps given the situation that you’ve described in the Jarablus camps?
Of course, I don’t plan to stay here. Since I first arrived, I’ve been thinking about moving to another place, particularly given how hard things are here. The problem, however, is that I don’t have the money to rent a home right now, but I’ll try to find work. Unlike Waer where there was very little work, here there are actually opportunities. Unfortunately, though, I’ve reached an age where a lot of work no longer suits me, and my choices are somewhat limited.
I never expected to be living in a situation like this, especially not in a tent, and especially not at my age.