As the sun sets on the Islamic State, one family flees by night to safety

In the town of al-Asharah, on the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir e-Zor province, Samia Umm Muhammad was born 38 years ago. There she laughed, grew, studied and worked as an elementary schoolteacher. She married her husband, an army officer. She raised four children.

Then, the Syrian revolution started. At first, rebels took control of al-Asharah. Then in mid-2014, Umm Muhammad watched as black flags went up over the streets she grew up in. Islamic State fighters seized power, and everything changed. IS arrested and killed her husband, accusing him of supporting the Syrian regime even though he had defected shortly after the uprising began. Her children saw things children should never see. Bombs fell. Relative after relative was killed or fled the city.

Finally, this year, as IS forces steadily lost territory to simultaneous offensives by Kurdish-led and regime forces, members of the hardline group told Umm Muhammad that her 16-year-old son had to join them and fight for their dwindling piece of Syria.

And so, traveling by night down a desert road in a truck with her children, brother and his family three weeks ago, Umm Muhammad left everything behind in al-Asharah.

Syrians displaced from Deir e-Zor city in Raqqa province on October 11. Photo courtesy of Bulent Kilic/AFP.

“I had a life there,” Umm Muhammad tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier, “but Daesh made it so all we remember is death.”

Umm Muhammad and her family made their way first to a displacement camp in Kurdish-held territories to the north, then traveled to al-Bab in northern Aleppo, now controlled by Turkish-backed FSA forces, to join surviving relatives.  

Today, in the basement of a building in al-Bab, Umm Muhammad is starting to build a new life with her family.

“Believe me, this basement is beautiful compared to al-Asharah, because Daesh is over there,” she says. “All we want now is to live without constant fear.”

Q: What was it like in al-Asharah when you left, and why did you make that choice? What was the state of IS, amid the group’s losses in Deir e-Zor?

[Members of] IS in al-Asharah are really afraid after losing many of the areas they controlled to the advances and bombings by the regime and the Kurds [Syrian Democratic Forces]. IS is weaker after losing Raqqa and Mayadeen.

Civilians in al-Asharah are scared, too. The medical situation is awful. I left to protect my children, because all nations are fighting IS and want to liberate Deir [e-Zor] from them. My son Muhammad is 16 years old. Daesh wanted to take him to fight with them. They told us that he had to join them.

I was terrified of the airstrikes. And even if we survived the planes, we wouldn’t survive the IS massacres. Daesh [IS] takes out its venom and hatred on the city. The group is in total collapse—it will not last.

Q: Tell us about how you were able to leave your town.

I left al-Asharah at 1am on October 5 with my children, my brother, his wife and children. We left at night in a truck driven by one of my brother’s acquaintances, who we paid 700 dollars. Nobody knew we were leaving, not the neighbors, nor any relatives. I don’t have any relatives left [in the town] except for my brother. Some died in the bombings, or were killed by the IS dogs. Others fled to Turkey.

Many people are fleeing Deir e-Zor right now. IS is finished, and people are afraid for themselves.

After leaving al-Asharah, we drove [north] towards the Badia [desert] between Deir e-Zor and Hasakah province. The trip took six hours, and God, we were afraid—all nerves. We had the children sleep quietly. I gave my youngest, who is four, something to make him sleep because he cries a lot. The truck would move for a while then stop, because we were really scared of being caught.

Finally, we reached the first PKK checkpoint.

[Ed.: Umm Muhammad referred to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the PKK throughout the interview. The main Kurdish component of the SDF—the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has ideological links to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Some Syrians use the terms interchangeably.]

We needed a Kurdish sponsor—or a lot of connections—to be let in and brought to the camps. My brother had a Kurdish friend who he had told we were coming, so they let us into the Sidd [displacement] camp. We didn’t give the authorities there our identification papers, because we did not want to remain in Al-Hasakah province. We hid our IDs and told them that Daesh took them, showing them birth certificates and my brother’s driver’s license instead.

After one week in the camp, we found a smuggler who took us out and brought us to al-Bab [a city to the west, in territory held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in northern Aleppo province].  The trip was hard and long—it took 10 hours to reach the city. We had no food or water, the children cried because they were hungry. Even so, it was better than the first trip out of IS territory. Free areas are not frightening like the Daesh areas.

All together, it took us 10 days to get from al-Asharah to Sidd camp, to al-Bab.

Q: Why didn’t you stay in the Kurdish-held areas, in the Sidd camp?

We want a safe life for the children. What they saw with Daesh is enough—they already need a psychologist. If we stayed in the Kurdish areas, we would live in the camp, and [maybe] die of illness. If we went to the regime, I was afraid they would accuse my sixteen-year-old son of belonging to Daesh.

We want to settle down. We have relatives in al-Bab who came here and told us that things were good here.

Q: What is your living situation now, in al-Bab?

We reached al-Bab on October 5, and are living in rooms in a basement. All we want now is to live without constant fear—of Daesh, of bombings. My brother is looking for work and a place to rent. Believe me, this basement is beautiful compared to al-Asharah, because Daesh is over there. They destroyed us and left us forsaken by the world.

Q: How do you see your children’s future, in al-Bab? Do you hope to return to al-Asharah if it is liberated?

I want my children to learn and live without fear of bombings, with nothing forced upon them. I want a normal life for them, far from Daesh. Daesh destroys everything it touches.

I don’t know if we will return to al-Asharah. It is my hometown, I had a life there, but Daesh made it so all we remember is death, injustice, bombing. If the regime liberates al-Asharah, they will see us as Daesh. We just don’t know. I put my hope in God alone.

 

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.

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.