Family flees Islamic State's Uqayrbat before regime encirclement: 'Escape is now all but impossible'

After more than three years living under the brutal rule of the Islamic State, 40-year-old Mohammad Azz a-Din had enough. Russian and Syrian warplanes have waged an intensive bombing campaign on Azz a-Din’s native Uqayrbat city in eastern Homs countryside in recent months, but the offensive stepped up in intensity late last week when the Syrian army grabbed a large swatch of territory that effectively splits Islamic State holdings into 2 contiguous parts. Given the new state of affairs on the ground, Azz a-Din calculated that staying in Uqayrbat, in Syria’s central desert, was more dangerous than attempting an escape.

Before the encirclement, which likely would have prevented Azz a-Din from actually escaping, the desert path out of IS territory was littered with landmines and Islamist fighters to prevent residents from escaping. Nonetheless, Azz a-Din, his wife and three children left in two cars for regions to the east controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Today, Azz a-Din and his family live in an encampment in rebel-controlled Idlib province. “The situation here isn’t great,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani, “but relative to SDF territory and the hell of Daesh, it’s a vast improvement.”

Q: It is incredibly dangerous to escape from the Islamic State, especially with the regime closing in. Why did you choose to run and risk your life in the process?

I decided it was the time to leave because of the increasing number of bombings that Russian and regime warplanes were carrying out. They were massacring civilians in the area.

It’s true that fleeing brings with it a number of dangers, most notably the Islamic State members who try to prevent residents from leaving the areas under their control. If they catch you, they’ll either fine you or throw you in jail.

Inevitably, the poorest residents are unable to find a way out because they just don’t have the money to do so.

Outskirts of Uqayrbat. Photo courtesy of the Uqayrbat and its Encircled Villages.

The road is littered with landmines, and the regime was never far away, particularly given their recent advances in the area. But the most dangerous part of it all are the warplanes. They’ll fire on any car, regardless of whether it’s carrying IS combatants or civilians.

Activists and the local council have urged the opening of safe passages for people to leave and for civilians not to be used as human shields, but this has only fallen on deaf ears from all sides. Every single day civilians are being bombed and killed, whether inside their villages or while trying to escape.

Now, the regime has totally encircled the area around Uqayrbat, and escape is now all but impossible. This means that thousands of civilians are now trapped and vulnerable. Soon, there will be massacres in the area as the bombings continue.

Unfortunately, our only sin is that we live in areas under Islamic State control. But that doesn’t matter [to the regime]. They consider us all to be IS and that we need to be exterminated.

Q: Describe the journey after leaving your home.

We left the village of Uqayrbat in two cars, and headed down a desert route directly toward the villages of Raqqa province that are under SDF control. We wended through rugged terrain in order to avoid IS checkpoints.

The road was long—around 900km—and scattered with landmines in some sections. We also faced a number of airstrikes from the regime, but thank God the bombs landed far from us.

[Ed.: Uqayrbat is an estimated 110km southwest of the nearest SDF-controlled towns and villages of Raqqa province.]

We arrived to SDF-controlled territory, where they checked our identities and asked where we were coming from. They searched our cars, with the goal of finding Daesh [IS] fighters. Afterwards they took us to a camp set up especially for people in our situation. It resembled a prison, and we stayed there for 15 days. It was forbidden for us to leave before that.

The situation in the camp is extremely bad. It can’t be described unless you see it for yourself in person—people started calling it the “death camp.”

After 15 days, [the camp authorities] started allowing us to leave, granting us letters of passage at a cost of SP2,000 [$4] per person.

We arrived at a camp near the city of a-Dana in the northern Idlib countryside. Now I’m living with my family in the camps like any other displaced person. The situation here isn’t great, but relative to SDF territory and the hell of Daesh, it’s a vast improvement.

Q: Describe life in Islamic State territory.

Life under IS is hell. There are no food or hospitals, and medical centers are completely out of service. IS acts terribly towards us—they enforce lashing, torture and imprisonment for things like smoking, being late for prayer or not wearing the sharia-compliant clothing they force on us.

They act as though we were second-class or third-class citizens compared with their fighters, who enjoy many advantages [denied to us.]

There’s no room to compare my current situation with my previous one under IS. Now, I feel like I’ve been born again, even though I’ve been displaced and don’t have aid. I feel like I’m a human being with dignity, living with the freedom that the Islamic State took from me.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

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.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.