Thousands of civilians fleeing home, some for the 3rd time as Daraa city fighting spurs mass displacement

AMMAN: Six consecutive days of fighting between rebels and regime forces in Syria’s southern Daraa province are creating a new displacement crisis after thousands of residents fled to the province’s rural countryside.

An estimated 17,000 people from the provincial capital and and its outskirts are now living in “tragic” conditions away from their homes, as multiple families cram together into rental homes and tents away from the most intense fighting in Daraa city, Nibras Abu Nizar, a spokesman for the province’s opposition-run eastern district, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“No organizations are currently helping them,” Nizar added.

At least one town, Nuaimah, immediately east of Daraa city and with a population of 7,400 people before the war, is now “virtually empty of residents,” the provincial spokesman said.

 Aftermath of an airstrike in Daraa city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Daraa civilians are fleeing the largest battle to hit the divided city since 2015, with hundreds of regime and Russian airstrikes along with artillery shells originating from both sides crushing homes and shops along the frontlines.

Fighting broke out on Saturday after rebels claimed that the regime exploited a May ceasefire agreement to bring allied Hezbollah and Iranian reinforcements to the city and launch an attack on opposition-held southern neighborhoods.

But for civilians living in rebel territory in southern Daraa city, as well as the town of Nuaimah just 3km to the east, the fighting this week has been devastating.

Nizar estimates at least 60 percent of the town of Nuaimah alone is destroyed, with the rest of the suburb’s homes “totally damaged,” leaving residents with little choice but to flee deeper into the countryside.

 Aftermath of an airstrike in Daraa city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

For Abu Nasser, a Daraa resident who fled his home along the Yarmouk river in southern Daraa city early Wednesday morning, this is his third time being displaced by fighting since 2015.

All three times, the 45-year-old father fled “out of fear of my own life, and my family’s lives,” he told Syria Direct.

Most recently, he said, what spurred him to leave was the psychological toll of the latest round of airstrikes and artillery shells on his eight-year-old son, Muath.

“He began to shake in fear and urinate involuntarily because of the hysterical bombings [on the city]. This was a situation he couldn’t handle.”

Ayham a-Seed, a citizen journalist living in a neighborhood of Daraa adjacent to Abu Nasser’s, describes a “doomed” residential frontline with no passable roads or drinking water.

“The number of displaced families was about 450 from the Daraa Camp [neighborhood] alone and 800 from the Tariq a-Sadd [neighborhood],” he said.

Today Abu Nasser is living with relatives in Zeizoun, a village northwest of Daraa city, after Free Syrian Army fighters helped him, his wife and seven children escape the city limits. They are crammed alongside three other families in a two-bedroom house.

Abu Nasser is one of thousands of Daraa city residents who have fled their homes multiple times. Like others, he returned from exile to his house in the provincial capital early last month, just after a Russian-led plan for “de-escalation zones” went into effect. Abu Nasser said he had hoped the evacuation would bring him and his family respite from the violence.

Under the terms of the Russian proposal, fighting was to halt between Syrian regime forces and rebel groups in opposition-held territory across the country, including Daraa province.

The current round of clashes, which continued into Thursday, erupted after the Russian proposal went into effect. They follow a similar round of battles launched earlier this year. 

In February, opposition fighters announced a military campaign—dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation”—fearing Assad’s forces would attempt to infiltrate the rebel-controlled southern half of the city in order to reach a border crossing with neighboring Jordan. Two and a half months earlier, the Jordanian government indicated its willingness to reopen its border points with Daraa province on the condition that regime forces control them.

For Abu Nasser and his family, the renewed round of fighting means they have little hope of returning soon to their embattled neighborhood in Daraa city.

“We left our homes for a third time,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if I will ever return again.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

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.