As Waer returns to regime control, residents once determined to stay explain why they're leaving for a life 'in tents'

Ramziah al-Assaf was determined to stay in Homs city.

Al-Assaf lives in Waer, a formerly rebel-held neighborhood of Homs now in ruins after years of siege and Syrian regime airstrikes. After surrendering in March, the district is returning once again to government control, as thousands of civilians and opposition fighters evacuate the enclave in accordance with the ceasefire agreement.

Civilians were given the options of heading to rebel territory in Idlib province, to the blockaded northern Homs countryside, or to the ill-equipped encampments along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Waer’s 50,000 residents could also choose to remain in their homes.

Al-Assaf chose to stay, even divorcing her husband who chose to leave, because “I cannot bring myself to live in a camp,” she tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from Waer.

Mohannad al-Homsi, a Waer resident who played for Homs’s home soccer team before the war, felt similar apprehension about leaving.

“My life is better off in Waer,” he tells Syria Direct reporter Lina Eghzawi. “It’s our right to stay in our homes, and not in tents.”

Nearly two months have passed since the March ceasefire agreement, and seven rounds of evacuees have left the bombed-out district within the ongoing evacuation.

Watching their neighbors leave and the gradual signs of regime presence returning to their neighborhood, both al-Assaf and al-Homsi now say they’ve changed their minds and want to leave.

Both are slatedd to board buses on Friday for the northern Aleppo border town of Jarablus, where rows of basic tents await them.

Here, al-Homsi and al-Assaf describe what both of them to leave their homes and choose life in a camp.

Ramziah al-Assaf, 35, is from Waer. Her husband was among the opposition fighters who left in the first convoy to Jarablus. She initially decided to stay in Waer with her two children, 5-year-old Mohammad and 4-year-old Miaas.

Q: Why did you decide to stay behind in Waer, even after your husband left?

The main reason is my lack of hope that the Syrian revolution will succeed. The only choices laid before us were to head toward Idlib or to rural northern Homs province.

The situation on the ground in those two places isn’t any different from what we were seeing in Waer—both are bombarded with airstrikes, with a poor quality of life.

There was also the option of going to Jarablus, but I [initially] could not bring myself to live in the border camps. I have kidney problems, and need to undergo dialysis once a month.

Staying behind in Waer was a point of contention between my husband and me, and led to us divorcing one another.

 Syrian regime soldiers oversee Waer evacuation on April 30. Photo courtesy of Homs Now.

Q: What made you change your mind about leaving Waer after the seventh convoy of residents left for rebel-controlled areas?

After the evacuation convoys began leaving Waer, I needed to visit the Homs Central Hospital for kidney dialysis. When I was leaving one of the checkpoints between Homs and Waer, regime authorities took my ID from me. They started doing a background check, and pestered me, saying: 'Your husband is with the terrorists—why didn’t you go with him and be with all the other terrorists in Idlib?'

They told me that we are animals, and one [of the security officers] said: 'You’re an idiot like your husband. I lost my brother because of your so-called ‘freedom.’ All you are is scum.' I can’t even repeat the other insults and swear words he said to me.

He went on, 'Do you think that we are going to forgive you? I swear to God, we’ll burn your heart.' His eyes were full of hatred.

After that, I decided to go to Jarablus on the next convoy.

Q: Today is likely your last day in Waer for the near future. Do you feel that you made the right decision in choosing to leave?

I feel satisfied with my decision, like many other residents who changed their minds about staying in Waer. I did choose to stay initially, but they are not letting us enjoy the security and life that we had before the revolution.

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Mohannad al-Homsi, 30, is married and has a young daughter. He was a well-known soccer player for al-Karameh Club, a Homs city soccer team. Al-Homsi and his family were among those in Waer who decided to stay in the district after the evacuation agreement was signed.

Q: What made you initially decide to remain in Waer?

The regime promised to provide security for us. I have a house in Waer and I didn’t want to go to the border camps, where people are dying from the living situation. My life is better off in Waer. It’s our right to stay in our homes, and not in a tent.

Q: Why have you changed your mind about staying behind in Waer?

I went back on my decision to stay in Waer because of harassment at the hands of the shabiha [pro-regime gunmen]. They’ll stop me for an hour or more at the checkpoint that separates Waer from the rest of Homs city.

Eventually they let me through, after searching and verbally harassing me. Some of them threaten me. 'Soon, you’ll get what’s coming to you, you sons of bitches,' they tell me.

Now, I definitely can't stay in Waer. Even though [regime forces] haven’t entered the neighborhood yet, they are degrading us and promising us that they will take revenge on us because of our past support for the opposition.

So I decided to leave. After the insults and swear words that they said to us, I knew they wouldn’t forget that we called for them to be overthrown. 

Q: Do you feel you made the right decision, now that you are preparing to leave Waer?

I feel despair and defeat. Everything is gone, and nobody is listening to our voices. Waer used to be a paradise, but now it is a void. I tried to stay here, but the situation is going from bad to worse, and [regime security officers] are still manning the checkpoints—what are we supposed to do if they actually enter Waer?

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.

Lina Eghzawi

Originally from Daraa, Lina studied Literature at Damascus University. She moved to Jordan in 2012 and completed a degree in interior design.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.