Two years ago, Ibrahim Abbas was walking the streets of his home town of Madaya when a sniper’s bullet tore through his abdomen. Abbas was shot by a sniper stationed at one of 65 regime and Hezbollah checkpoints that surround Madaya. The snipers, who ring the mountain town along with thousands of landmines, prevent everyone and everything from coming in or out.
Since July 2015, 40,000 residents have been trapped inside the former summer resort town 26km northwest of Damascus.
Only three medical professionals—two dental students and a veterinarian—remain in Madaya, none of whom has the equipment or expertise to treat gunshot wounds such as that of Abbas, who now requires a colostomy bag.
After living more than a year with a hole in his abdomen exposing his large intestine, Abbas was one of 250 injured people and their companions evacuated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) in April 2016 to rebel-held Idlib, where he finally underwent surgery for his wound.
Four months later, Abbas left Syria altogether, settling in Turkey. In the intervening seven months, the siege on Madaya has killed both his parents.
Ibrahim Abbas sends Syria Direct a video update from Turkey last week.
“My father passed away at the end of October 2016 from a lack of food and medicine to help with his chronic illnesses,” Abbas tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou. Just one month later, Abbas says, a sniper shot and killed his mother while she was standing outside her home.
“There are no words to describe the loss…I’m intensely sad.”
Q: How is your family doing back in Madaya?
I left my family behind in the worst possible conditions. My father, my mother, sister, brother, his wife and two daughters—were still living in Madaya under the siege, alongside starvation, illness, disease, all while surrounded by regime and Hezbollah checkpoints. Snipers shoot at anyone who attempts to flee from the blockade.
My father suffered from two chronic illnesses—high blood pressure and diabetes. His health declined due to the siege because he needs to take medicine regularly and maintain a balanced diet. Both of those things have been lost in Madaya to the extent that the only medical clinic left in town announced it would close due to a lack of medicine and supplies.
One day, one of my friends called me from Madaya and asked: “Are you ready for what I’m about to tell you?” I knew just from hearing those words that my father had died.
My father passed away at the end of October 2016 from a lack of food and medicine to treat his medical conditions.
I wasn’t able cope with the silence following his death. My mother was killed just one month later.
Q: How did you find out that your mother had died?
My friend called me. He told me: “A woman was killed by sniper fire in Madaya today, and her name is the same as your mother’s.”
After I tried several times to call my sister, brother and neighbors, I wasn’t able to confirm it was her. I eventually called a doctor from the medical clinic, who confirmed the news of her death.
She had been standing in front of her home when a sniper shot her. My brother and sister tried to give her first aid, but to no avail.
There are no words to describe the loss of a family member or loved one, especially when you are so far away and can’t say goodbye—when you can’t kiss their forehead one last time. When the deceased is your mother, or your father.
Q: Tell us how you felt while leaving Madaya.
I’ll never forget how I felt. I was in the clinic in Madaya when someone told me: “Get yourself ready. A team from the Red Crescent is coming to evacuate the wounded, and your name is on the list.”
Among the last words my mother said to me before I left were: “God bless you, my son.” There was a tear in her eye. That was on April 20 of this year.
We rode buses headed toward northern Syria, and I found treatment in one of the hospitals in Idlib. The treatment was free, paid for by an organization called Alseeraj for Development and Healthcare.
It took 15 days before I was able to move again and process food normally—a consequence of the injury to my intestines.
I stayed in Idlib for four months. Afterwards, I left for Turkey to find safety and a new life.
When I arrived in Turkey, I began working to obtain a Temporary Protection Identity card [a card issued by the Turkish government to refugees during times of mass influx], and after that I searched for job opportunities. First I found a job working in a hotel, and then at an internet line-installation company. It felt good to be working, despite the small paycheck.
Now I’m 26 years old, and I don’t plan anything for my future. I’m only thinking about now.
Abbas and his friends in Madaya in October 2015. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Abbas.
Q: What is it like for you to have escaped the siege, while your family and friends are still stuck there?
Despite having escaped from death to life, everything is still a struggle. I’m happy about escaping what’s essentially a giant prison, as well as recovering from my illness after leaving for treatment.
But at the same time, I’m intensely sad. I left Madaya alone, without my family and loved ones. After tasting the bitterness of the siege for nine months, I left all alone. I still keep in touch with everyone there via internet, but there’s one question I can never bring myself to ask them: “What did you eat today?”
Here I am able to eat whatever I want, while they simply cannot.
Q: What do your family members tell you about conditions in Madaya right now?
Madaya’s gone from bad to worse.
Every day is worse than the one before. The situation there is no longer just about food—there’s a collective war on thoughts, culture, health, society, psychology. I’ve heard about more than one case of teen suicide under the siege.
The regime forces and Hezbollah haven’t stopped the daily sniper fire. They’ve killed children, women and elderly people—the same death faced by my mother.
We don’t forget the diseases that afflict the people of Madaya as a result of a lack of supplies, such as meningitis and kidney failure.
Imagine yourself in a giant prison. You’re forbidden from leaving, your food is severely limited—how would you cope? The people of Madaya are now in the 15th month of this.
Q: How long do you think the Syrian crisis will continue like this?
My country has transformed into the scene of an intense battle between forces much stronger and larger than us. It’s as if every country and fighting force in the world has said to the other: “if you want to fight me—welcome to Syria!”
But despite all the destruction, and all the blood, these forces are still working to destroy my country. I’m always wondering, “will the war end today?” “Will I survive?”
I hope the war will end soon. I believe life will return to Syria despite all our challenges and hardships.
Frankly, though, the politicians and soldiers from all sides of the war—with their conflicting interests and aims—have no way of predicting when all this will be over. So how can a man like me know?