On fleeing the battle for Daraa city: ‘People believe they’re going to die, whether they stay or leave’

Thousands of families are fleeing their homes in the provincial capital of Daraa as fighting rages in a city divided between rebel and regime rule.

On February 12, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, Ahrar a-Sham and Free Syrian Army factions launched their “Death Rather than Humiliation” military campaign to capture at least one regime-held neighborhood and secure a nearby defunct border crossing with Jordan.

Regime forces are responding to the rebels’ attacks with heavy artillery fire and airstrikes in the most intense bombardment on Daraa city since 2015. Opposition sources say regime forces are targeting hospitals, residential buildings and the city’s main water tank.

An estimated 3,500 families have fled the city, while 1,000 have stayed.

In fields and farms to the city’s south, where Daraa resident Abu Mohammad and his family ended up, people are building shelters from blankets and subsisting on sparse emergency relief packages from the local council and Rahma Charity, the only local humanitarian organization serving them.

But the donations don’t even meet “a fourth” of their needs, Osama a-Sayasana, Rahma’s director, tells Syria Direct’s Mustafa al-Hamawi.

“We need immediate support.”

Osama a-Sayasana, director of Rahma Charity, who lives in Daraa city.

Q: When did families begin leaving the city?

A small number of families began leaving on February 11, before the fighting started. They left because they were afraid of the unknown; they didn’t know what could happen.

Beginning February 12, when the bombing of civilian areas intensified, large numbers of people suddenly began to leave.

  Daraa city, February 20, 2017. Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

Q: How many families remain in Daraa city?

There are only 200 families in the city center, which is the most dangerous place to be right now. There are also 800 families remaining in two adjacent neighborhoods. But those who are in the city are no better off than those who fled.

[Ed.: On February 14, Daraa Local Council declared Daraa’s city center a “disaster zone.”]

Q: Why are people staying? What’s keeping them inside Daraa city despite the bombardment?

Some residents have stayed to help opposition fighters defend their land. Other families can’t afford to leave their homes and move somewhere else. People believe that they’re going to die, whether they stay or leave.

This is the reality of the situation—residents who have fled Daraa city are in no less danger than those who have stayed. 

Sometimes, planes bomb the villages that residents have fled to. This happened the other night in Sayda village.

[Ed.: On February 16, four Russian airstrikes hit Sayda village, injuring 15 residents, SMART News Agency reported that day.]

Q: As a humanitarian organization in Daraa, what are you doing to help the displaced families?

Through emergency donations, we’ve collected $40,000 since February 12. But that’s nowhere near the amount that we need to help the families. Some local organizations gave meager donations, while promising to provide more emergency supplies.

Everything that has been donated, including the supplies that haven't arrived yet, doesn’t meet a fourth of our current needs.

We’ve launched a worldwide campaign entitled “Save the Displaced of Daraa,” with the hashtag #SaveDaraa.

Q: What is the medical situation like inside the city?

We need immediate medical support. All six hospitals in the city, which were strategically targeted by Russian planes, are completely out of service.

[Ed.: Three hospitals were directly hit, prompting the others to shut down to avoid future targeting, Baladi News reported on February 16. A-Sayasana says that hospitals have completely shut down and are not taking emergency cases.]

As a result, makeshift clinics were set up in some homes in order to treat emergency cases. Our organization collaborated with the Daraa City Council to distribute some medical supplies to these houses, so they can serve as an alternative to hospitals.

This is the only thing we could do with our current resources.

Q: Are the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or UN responding to your calls for help?

Until now, no, even though we’ve sent them multiple situation reports and requests for assistance. We’ve only received responses from local organizations.

**

Abu Mohammad, 45, fled Daraa city on February 13 with his family of six. He currently lives in a makeshift camp south of the city.

Q: Where did you go?  

My family and I left Daraa city for the fields and farms to the south. We left during the bombings, with only the clothes on our backs. It was terrifying. Some people who knew the roads to the farms volunteered to help us get there. It was a tragic journey, especially considering that we had children with us. We walked for three kilometers, even as airstrikes were ongoing.

Q: What hardships are you facing now?

Finding a single tent for my family. Right now, multiple families are living in one tent, if they can even get one. Many families, like mine, are using blankets and bed comforters to make their own tents.

We’re out in the open, and we don’t have things to keep us warm like blankets and firewood. It’s also really hard to get food and drinking water.

Right now, I’m living off modest donations.

Six days after we arrived, the local council and a local organization provided a small amount of diesel, plus an emergency package that included canned food, eggs and cleaning products. They don’t have the means to do much.

Q: Do you feel safe? Are you afraid that this area may be targeted as well?

Yes, we’re afraid—the regime has targeted displaced people before. People are afraid the regime may take revenge on us. We could face death at any moment. I’m considering going to one of the villages or a shelter… maybe those will be safer.

Or maybe it’ll be better to stay here, living on the farmland and sleeping under trees. We just want to escape death and protect our children. 

 

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.

Mustafa al-Hamawi

Mustafa is originally from Hama. He couldn't complete his university education in Syria and left for Jordan during his third year. He has reported for multiple media outlets in Syria. Mustafa joined Syria Direct to improve his writing and reporting skills.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.