New Syrian army campaign in eastern desert displaces ‘hundreds’ of families with almost no water, shelter

A fresh campaign by pro-Assad forces in Syria’s southern desert is sending “hundreds” of residents fleeing into the countryside with almost no water or shelter.

Among them is Abu Fares, a 46-year-old father of seven from Suwayda province.

He fled his home on Monday when pro-government forces, backed by regime and Russian airstrikes, seized a handful of villages and “strategic points” from opposition fighters in remote northeastern Suwayda province, state media outlet SANA reported the same day.

“Residents were terrified,” Abu Fares tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar from neighboring Daraa province, where he now lives with his family in a tent. His neighbors back home in his Suwayda village also fled “by the hundreds,” he says, most of them paying smugglers hundreds of dollars to transport them west, through regime territory and into rebel-held Daraa province.

The front line, now deeper into Syria’s desert Badia region, is just east of an American- Russian- and Jordanian-brokered ceasefire zone declared on Sunday that was meant to ease tensions between opposition and pro-regime factions amassed in southern Syria.

 A displaced family from Suwayda in rural Daraa on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Ameen Marzouqi.

On Thursday, the fourth day of fighting, at least 1,300 displaced people from eastern Suwayda are now taking refuge in opposition-controlled rural Daraa—and “the number is still rising,” the local director of the opposition Department of Statistics and Administrative Affairs, Ameen Marzouqi, told Syria Direct.

Now in Daraa, Abu Fares and other displaced people can do little but wait out in the open.

Q: Where are you and your family staying right now? Describe the living conditions there.

Our living situation is awful at the moment. Not everyone was able to reach rebel-held territory—many couldn’t pay smugglers, so they had to flee to other areas within rural Suwayda province to get away from the fighting. [Ed.: The majority of Suwayda province was already under Syrian regime control before Monday’s offensive.]

Those like me who were able to reach rebel territory are hardly faring any better. Right now I’m living in a tent in the village of al-Musayfarah, and the temperature outside is rising.

I chose this area, rural Daraa province, because I have relatives who fled here previously.

The worst thing we’re facing right now is the exorbitant price of water, especially amid high temperatures. We have no real shelter; our tent does little to protect us from the sun’s heat.

Water has to be transported to us via tractors because the wells are too far away from us. Every day, each water delivery costs me SP5,500 [$26], and I still have no work opportunities.

Q: What happened when regime forces advanced on your hometown on Monday?

Since Monday morning, regime forces began waging a large-scale attack on the area and raining down rockets and airstrikes.

Our own town of Tel Asfar was hit with around 200 shells and 27 airstrikes within just three hours. Residents were terrified, and fled by the hundreds. The fighting was as intense as Judgement Day.

Out of fear, most of them left without taking any of their belongings.

 A displaced family from Suwayda in rural Daraa on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Bayan al-Kayyan.

Q: How were you able to flee Tel Asfar? What happened to you along the way?

The sight of the bombings and the intensified fighting led me to take my family of nine to a safer area. There were many human smugglers who know the regime checkpoints and pass through them while smuggling families from regime areas into rebel-held rural Daraa province.

Our smuggler charged me SP300,000 [$1,400]. I didn’t hesitate to pay the price by selling him my wife’s gold, which was all we had to secure a livelihood for our children.

Just moments after we left our house, a rocket hit it directly. It was destroyed completely. I can’t describe the suffocating feeling that came over me, seeing my home destroyed—the home where I had spent so many years of my life, despite everything going on around it.

We departed from Tarba in the countryside east of Suwayda city, located north of the town of Umm Ruwwaq. The journey was surrounded by danger, and all I could think about in those moments was how insane I was for crossing this distance. It was a miracle I wasn’t arrested or killed. We had to pass through four regime checkpoints, and every time they stopped us my heart raced.

It was like walking along the edge of an abyss. At any moment one of the soldiers manning the checkpoint can detain you and your companions, especially since those fleeing from an area that had been under rebel control might be considered terrorists.

After three hours of this terrifying journey, my family and I arrived safely in al-Musayfarah, in rebel-controlled, rural Daraa province.

After I reached rebel-controlled territory, what hurt me the most was hearing the news that the regime had taken full control of my hometown.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

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.