Rebel forces in Syria’s Hama province launched a large-scale military campaign last week to advance on the provincial capital city and its airport. But the offensive is wreaking havoc on residents of towns on the frontline. They, facing regime airstrikes, are fleeing their homes by the thousands in search of safety.
For both Mohammad Nour, 24, and Firas Jaber, 35, two young fathers from northern Hama, it is the third time they flee their homes in recent years.
Rebels have launched offensives from rural north Hama province, due south of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, every year since 2014. They last attempted to take control of Hama city in September 2016, Syria Direct reported at the time. Similar campaigns were launched in 2015 (“Victory from God”) and 2014 (“Badr a-Sham”), both with the same stated goal: reach the Hama airport and conquer Hama city.
All the offensives have failed, with tens of thousands of residents fleeing ground battles and regime airstrikes with every attempt. In the latest campaign, the UN said this week, up to 40,000 people were displaced by increased fighting in Hama.
An airstrike just outside Halfaya on Wednesday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Halfaya Media Center.
Nour, a farmer, drove his wife and young son north from their home city of Halfaya on Tuesday night to rebel-held Idlib province, as “regime and Russian airstrikes were targeting the road,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani. “It was 40km of crucial, intense moments of terror.”
Jaber, a motorcycle salesman, tells Syria Direct’s Reham Toujan that he, too, fled to southern Idlib from Halfaya earlier this week with his wife and children.
“I don’t even know where I will be tomorrow,” the father says. “And if the clashes continue, we won’t even be able to return to our house and our land.”
Firas Jaber, 35, is a motorcycle salesman from Halfaya. He, his wife and four children recently fled their home and headed toward rural southern Idlib province.
Q: Opposition and regime forces have clashed numerous times in Halfaya since 2014, when rebels launched their first large-scale military campaign in the area. How has the repeated fighting impacted you and your family?
The fighting has intensified recently, which forced residents to leave their homes and their jobs. The clashes that surround Halfaya, and the continuous regime and Russian bombings, they’ve forced me to leave behind my land and my home, afraid for my own life and the lives of my family members.
Luckily for us, the weather isn’t very cold, like it was the beginning of winter, which made things very difficult for displaced people at the time.
Q: Last Tuesday, a number of rebel factions announced a renewed military campaign to move toward Hama city and its airport, before making advances in city’s northern countryside. What is your reaction to these advances, as someone who has been displaced by the fighting?
To be honest, there’s no way for me to describe my feelings. I was happy about the Free Syrian Army’s successes. But at the same time, I became very scared because I knew that with those successes would come intensified airstrikes every day. Right now, my family and I are displaced, and this is the cause of a lot of bitterness.
[Ed.: Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), along with a number of Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigades, are participating in the current northern Hama offensive. Though ground attacks have not centered on Jaber’s home city of Halfaya, clashes between regime and rebel forces have taken place in the surrounding area. Amidst the fighting, numerous airstrikes have hit the city and its outskirts in recent days, according to local news page Halfaya Media Center.]
Inside Halfaya on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Halfaya Media Center.
Q: How has repeated displacement impacted your ability to live a normal life and raise a family?
This is the reality that’s been forced on us. Right now I’m living in a small house in southern Idlib, in the Kafr Nubl area. I’m still working in the motorcycle business, but my financial situation is not good. My rent is SP15,000 [$70] per month, and work has slowed down greatly.
Q: What kind of future do you realistically envision for you and your family, in light of the constant displacement from your home?
In my situation, the future is impossible to know. I don’t even know where I will be tomorrow, and nobody knows what to expect.
This [uncertainty] has impacted my children and has held them back from the things they deserve—especially their right to an education. The future doesn’t look good at all. And if the clashes continue, we won’t even be able to return to our house and our land. This is a catastrophe.
Mohammad Nour, 24, is a farmer from Halfaya who has been displaced three times since 2015 along with his wife and toddler-age son.
Q: What caused you to flee your home so many times?
The first time, I left because the regime seized control of Halfaya. They even started converting my house into a military barracks and destroyed our restaurant in the city, which was my family’s only source of income outside of my farm.
I left the city a second time yesterday [Tuesday], after the regime unleashed their wrath over the civilians and rained down bombs, rockets and ground artillery.
I was terrified for my family, so I left the city with them, leaving all of our things behind.
Q: As someone from Halfaya, in Hama’s northern countryside, you have personally experienced a number of opposition campaigns and intense clashes over the past several years. How has this fighting impacted you and your family?
I have been uprooted three times. The first time, I left my city of Halfaya and headed toward Kafr Sijneh in rural Idlib province, after the regime took control of Halfaya in September 2014.
I stayed there with relatives for two weeks in the hopes of finding a house to rent, but because of the sheer number of displaced people there, I wasn’t able to find a home. So I decided to leave Kafr Sijneh and head toward a-Sheikh Mustafa in Idlib province’s southern countryside.
Halfaya on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Halfaya Media Center.
It was difficult, but I found a house for SP20,000 [$93] per month in a-Sheikh Mustafa. Throughout this time, I wasn’t able to find a new job to cover my needs and the rent. My father sent me all of my money.
I stayed there until January 2016, then the opposition returned and retook control of Halfaya once again in August 2016.
A few months after that, I decided it was time to return home, because I was in dire financial straits. I went back to my city, to my house and my yard, in which I had begun farming, but my joy did not last long. Just two months later, I was forced once again to flee my city with grief.
Q: Describe your journey north since you left Tuesday. Where are you headed?
I drove off in my car at sunset and headed toward Latamna [a town in rural northern Hama province, currently under rebel control]. The road was very difficult because the Orontes River surrounds us from three sides. Regime and Russian airstrikes were also targeting the road.
We went from beneath the bombs in Halfaya, to beneath the bombs in Latamna. The road north [to Kafr Sijneh] passes through Latamna, and it was about 40km of crucial, intense moments of terror and anxiety for my family until we arrived once again to Kafr Sijneh.