After the Islamic State driven out, residents return home to find ‘75% of al-Bab destroyed’

After the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Aleppo province fell last week to Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, Osama Mohammed, 36, almost immediately returned to his home in al-Bab after than more than one year displaced.

Mohammed, who fled al-Bab a year ago and settled 50km northwest in Azaz, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier that he found his home—along with “75 percent” of the city—in ruins.

Free Syrian Army rebels expelled Islamic State (IS) fighters on February 23 after more than three months of heavy fighting.

Before withdrawing, IS fighters looted houses, blew up buildings and “planted landmines in every corner of the city,” says Mohammed, who currently sleeps in his living room, the only undamaged room in his house.

“It’s our duty to return, even amid these dreadful conditions. We have to rebuild the city to what it was,” says Mohammed. His wife and children, still in Azaz, plan to join him in a few days.

 Al-Bab, February 25, 2017. Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

For resident Oumayma, 45, who stayed with her four children in al-Bab amid IS rule and bombardment of the city, life after the Islamic State is “jubilant.” She and her children are among an estimated 100 families who remained in the city despite IS’ presence.

“The liberation of the city was a victory for every person, young and old.”

Osama Mohammed, 36, returned to al-Bab on February 25, after he fled to the city of Azaz in the north Aleppo countryside one year ago. His wife and three children, who are still in Azaz, plan to join him soon.

Q: When did you return to al-Bab? Why did you come back?

I came back on February 25, two days after the city was liberated.

I returned because al-Bab is my city, where I was born and raised. I didn’t want to leave in the first place, but the Islamic State occupation and their savage practices against residents drove me away.

Even though I fled just 50km north of al-Bab, to Azaz, I felt like a stranger in that city.

This is how displaced Syrians feel, like we’re strangers in our own land.

Landlords take advantage of our situation and it’s impossible to find work. After leaving all of our belongings behind in al-Bab, we had to deal with this. People treated us like foreigners, as if we weren’t fellow Syrians. 

Q: How did you feel when you heard the news that al-Bab was liberated?

Words can’t describe what I felt. I couldn’t believe it. When my family and I heard that al-Bab was liberated, we were overjoyed. We felt as if the war had ended. We could finally go back to our town, and our home, and feel safe.  We had lost hope that we’d ever return.

Q: Did you return to al-Bab alone? Who came with you?

I left Azaz for al-Bab with a group 100 men. We came without our families so we could assess our homes and repair any damage before they joined us.

More and more people arrive each day. So far, around 1,000 men have returned to the city. There are also 100 families who never left al-Bab in the first place.

Shops have opened and life is gradually returning to normal.

Q: How did you feel when you first reached al-Bab? What did you think about?

I couldn’t believe that I was finally here, and that the faces of those who are distorting Islam weren’t.

I remembered the fear I felt, the amount of smuggling that occurred and the lashings that IS conducted in the city’s squares. We couldn’t even leave our homes, because we were too afraid.

Q: Before withdrawing, IS fighters planted landmines inside the city. Have the landmines been removed? Is it safe?

For the first two days, residents weren’t allowed to return out of concern for their safety. IS planted mines in every corner of the city. But since people insisted on returning, Free Syrian Army fighters gave them permission to come back.

We were informed that we’re personally responsible for any landmine-related injuries, since they haven’t been cleared from the city yet.

But people are so eager to return they’re not thinking about the risks. People are dying every day because of these landmines.

[Ed.: On February 28, nine people were killed and several injured by landmines in al-Bab, Shaam News Network reported that day.]

Some residents who have experience are removing the landmines themselves while they wait for more experts to arrive.

We have to be very careful with the landmines, but it’s our duty to return, even amid these dreadful conditions. We have to rebuild the city to what it was.

  Al-Bab on February 25. Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images. 

Q: What condition was your house in? What about other houses?

Half of my home was in ruins. Everything in my three-bedroom house was destroyed except for the living room. My relatives who had stayed here told me that once IS knew that I had fled, they stormed my home, stealing and smashing my belongings. IS fighters also moved into my house. It was also hit by an airstrike.

I’m planning on bringing my family here in a few days. We’ll sleep in the living room until I rebuild the rest of the house, which will take time.

About 75 percent of the city is destroyed. IS members looted several houses before blowing them up. They stole from civilians who stayed inside the city. They planted landmines in every part of the city before they withdrew.

The days that al-Bab and its residents experienced under IS rule will never be forgotten. Not even the stones of the buildings will forget. This destruction is a testimony to the group’s savagery.

**

Oumayma, 45, is a resident of al-Bab with four children. She didn’t leave al-Bab. Her husband died seven years ago.

Q: Describe your feelings once you found out al-Bab was officially liberated.

I felt like I had risen from the dead. The atmosphere was jubilant. People opened up their shops and went outside, congratulating each other. The liberation of the city was a victory for every person, young and old.

We were terrified during every moment of Islamic State rule. They frightened the life out of us, and we struggled to meet our most basic needs. Fear and bombing encompassed us.

We were detainees, trapped inside our own homes, with the fear of IS and bombings encircling us. Fighters began stealing from residents and capriciously whipping and killing them.

Q: Why did you stay in al-Bab, despite the bombings and the Islamic State. What kept you here?

I didn’t leave because of my children. My husband died seven years ago and I was worried that if IS caught me trying to leave, they would punish me.

So I decided to stay and endure the group’s hellfire. I stayed inside my home, and only left if I absolutely had to.

Q: How is life in al-Bab now, without IS? What are your hopes for the future of the city?

Residents are returning to their city. Since there are still landmines, we leave home with great caution. Some residents have started removing landmines themselves.

People in al-Bab are elated after its liberation by rebels and Euphrates Shield fighters.

As for our hopes, we ask God to increase security in the city, and in all of Syria, because this war has sucked the life out of us. We pray for the restoration of al-Bab, that it may return to what it was before Islamic State rule. 

 

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.

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.