Amidst repercussions and retaliations, civilians flee to escape battle for Hama airport

AMMAN: In the week since Syrian rebels launched a campaign to take the Hama airport and draw regime forces away from Aleppo city, regime forces have responded by bombarding the villages they lost control of, sparking an exodus of civilians from the area.

When rebels advanced into the villages, the regime responded with heavy aerial and ground bombardment, sending most civilian residents—some regime supporters, some opponents—running in whichever direction they felt would keep them safest from the bombs.

Tens of thousands of civilian residents have fled their north Hama homes since allied FSA and Islamist rebel factions launched their campaign last Tuesday. Some people ran north, to rebel-held territories in Hama and Idlib provinces and as far as the Turkish border. Others headed west to regime-held villages, south to Hama city or else chose to stay in their homes.

Muayad al-Hamwe, a pro-opposition citizen journalist currently in the north Hama countryside told Syria Direct that some “30,000” of the displaced have headed north, to the rebel-held Hama and Idlib countrysides. Syria Direct could not confirm al-Hamwe’s estimate.

“Some people are afraid of fleeing to Hama city and being arrested by regime forces, or being displaced yet again if the rebels advanced,” said al-Hamwe.

The displaced civilians are mostly from four villages that rebels captured in recent days 10km north of regime-held Hama city—Halfaya, Taybat al-Imam, Souran and Maardes.

“It’s difficult to calculate a precise number” of the displaced, Bilal Ahmad a-Zaidan, a citizen journalist from the Hama countryside who fled from his home this past week, told Syria Direct. A-Zaidan estimated the number at 100,000 people, a figure Syria Direct could not independently verify.

 A recent photo of displaced civilians in north Hama. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Voice.

At least some north Hama residents are still in their homes, facing the bombs and “refusing to leave for personal and family reasons,” said al-Hamwe. A-Zaidan gave the same account, adding that residents are sheltering “in basements and caves.”

On Thursday, several vehicles were bombed from the air near the recently captured north Hama village of Souran, a strike that pro-opposition Orient News said killed 10 members of a single family of displaced people.

A video by the Hama Civil Defense shows the scene of the bombing: burning vehicles that appear to include a truck, a four-door sedan, a van and one body. Images of charred human remains were later circulated on social media.

The day of the strike, Syrian state media reported that regime warplanes targeted “terrorist gatherings” near Souran, “killing more than 10 terrorists and destroying a BMP.”

‘Sleeping rough’

Regardless of which direction displaced civilians take, they are facing shortages of everything, particularly housing.

“We are sending out a distress call to all organizations working in the liberated areas,” Amer Nayef, the president of the opposition Hama Provincial Council’s relief office, responsible for the displaced, told Syria Direct’s partner site, the Syrian Voice. “Displaced residents keep on coming…they are living without any stability.”

“People are sleeping rough near roads and in farmlands,” displaced journalist a-Zaidan, in the north Hama countryside, told Syria Direct. “Some are living in the homes of their relatives or residents of the villages they fled to, who are providing shelter, clothes and blankets.”

In regime-held Hama city, the combination of thousands of newcomers and an existing population that is increasingly anxious about a rebel advance has put mounting pressure on the city’s resources, leading to bread shortages.

Hama city currently hosts a population approximately three times what it was before the war began: roughly two million people, a number that includes original residents and displaced people from the Hama countryside, Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo and Homs provinces.

“People are scared that the battles are coming closer to Hama city,” Hazem al-Hamawi, a citizen journalist in the regime-held city told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Residents, he said, are preparing for the worst.

“There is a huge demand for bread at the moment, which has made it somewhat scarce,” said al-Hamawi. Syrian state media reported increased pressure on Hama bread ovens on Tuesday. The state-run General Company for Bakeries there “is taking all the steps to meet the needs of the citizens and families coming into the city,” reported SANA.

Residents are “buying a lot of food from the markets and storing it,” said al-Hamawi. “Money is being withdrawn from the banks and converted into dollars.”

Displaced people in Hama are living in mosques, schools or the homes of relatives, while local organizations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are providing some support.

Stalemate on the ground

On Tuesday, rebels were neither gaining nor losing ground amidst ongoing regime airstrikes.

“The battles are ongoing until now,” Abu Milad al-Hamawi, a spokesman for Jaish a-Nasr, one of the FSA factions participating in the offensive told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The battles continue on the Maardes, Maan, Khataab and Jabal Zayn al-Abidin fronts, Abu Arab a-Shami, commander of Jaish a-Nasr’s artillery brigade told Syria Direct. “The regime brought military convoys and large forces in an attempt to advance on Maardes, but we have driven back all the attempts.”

The surface area of the battlefield “is expanding on a daily basis,” north Hama citizen journalist al-Hamwe told Syria Direct, “which foretells an increase in the number of the displaced each day.” 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

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.