Why I chose to leave and why I chose to stay: Two voices from town now under government control, both of regret

The suicide bombing last Saturday that targeted the convoy of residents evacuating from two Assad-loyalist towns in north Syria overshadowed similar operations happening in other parts of the country.

In the long-encircled town of Madaya, 40km outside Damascus, more than 3,400 residents chose to leave on Friday for what will undoubtedly be new and permanent lives in rebel-held Idlib province. But the vast majority of the town’s 40,000 people chose to stay.

Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Bahira al-Zarier spoke with two Madayans—one, a Civil Defense director who opted to move to Idlib, and another who remained at home in Madaya to look after her aging mother.

Today, both residents say they regret their decision.

“I wish I had stayed and died there,” says Hassan Younis, 27, who served as Madaya’s Civil Defense director before boarding an evacuation bus to Idlib on Friday. “No choice remained for us but to leave from this hell.”

Muram a-Shami says that little has changed since the town was turned over to regime and Hezbollah control last week. Madaya is still surrounded by Hezbollah fighters, who recently set up earthen berms in the area.

 Madaya evacuees arrive in Idlib on Saturday night. Photo courtesy of OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images.

The situation “has gotten worse,” she says, “because regime forces and Hezbollah can come and go as they please in Madaya.”

So why stay? “It was purely for the sake of staying on our land and living far from the bombs and any siege,” a-Shami says.

Hassan Younis, 27, is the former director of Madaya’s Civil Defense branch. He left Madaya on Friday alongside his sister. Their mother chose to stay behind.

Q: Can you describe your journey north to Idlib on Friday and Saturday? A suicide car bombing killed more than 100 people aboard evacuation buses from the besieged towns of Kufraya and al-Fuaa on Saturday—were the people on your own bus aware of the attack?

We left Madaya after a long delay. Everything was fine until we arrived at the Ramouseh checkpoint. There, we connected to the Wi-Fi so that we could send out the latest news on Facebook.

[Ed.: Ramouseh, held by the Syrian government and located just south of Aleppo city, is an agreed-upon checkpoint for Madaya evacuees en route to Idlib.]

There, I saw the news [of the explosion targeting the bus convoy from Kufraya and al-Fuaa] and was shocked.

I tried not to let the news leak out to the women and children who were with me on the buses, so that they wouldn’t get frightened. But when the news spread to the other buses, the women found out and they felt that they and their children were in imminent danger. They began crying.

The men climbed down from the buses and prayed to God, pleading for mercy. We were convinced that this was the end. People started following the news as the death toll [from the explosion] crept upward: ‘100 dead, 102 dead,’ and so on.

We were in the bus depot at Ramouseh, which is a very exposed area, surrounded on all sides by walls that are two-and-a-half meters tall. Half an hour after we heard news of the explosion, we observed a strange movement of security vehicles and cars belonging to the Liwa Fatemiyoun [an Afghan Shiite militia] approaching us. We also saw cars carrying machine guns driving toward us. This unnerved us deeply, and we accepted that this was God’s ending for us.

We expected that they would kill all of us out of revenge for the residents of Kufraya and al-Fuaa who were killed in the explosion.

Some of the people tried hiding in outdoor structures that appeared to be bathrooms. Others hid under the buses themselves. People were shouting and screaming. A few began praying, begging God for mercy.

Q: What were your thoughts in this moment? Did you regret leaving Madaya?

Because of my work in the Civil Defense, all I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to rescue the children around me after my death. I was looking at all the women and children around me, urging God not to allow them any harm.

I regretted leaving Madaya. My thoughts took me back to the four years of siege that I lived through in Madaya, when death was waiting for me in every moment. I wished I had stayed in those moments and died there.

My thoughts even went out to my brother, who was at the scene of Saturday’s explosion. He was one of the rebels accompanying the buses from Kufraya and al-Fuaa. I had no idea what had happened to him. When the explosion hit, he was around 20 meters away—thank God [he was not hurt].  

The thoughts that impacted me the most, however, were for my mother, who had chosen to stay behind in Madaya all alone, and refused to leave her home. [I imagined her] seeing news of the bombing and the casualties…it’s impossible to describe these moments.

I felt a coldness. I prayed and then began reaching out to media activists, to the Red Cross and to the UN. We urged them to come and save us, that we had more than 500 women and children among us, all in the hopes that they could come and try to do something.

We also communicated with a few news outlets such as Orient and al-Arabiya so that the world could know about what was happening to us.

At the same time, we felt that our work would just amount to nothing—the situation was not in our hands.

  The Ramouseh bus depot on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Madaya.

 But the Civil Defense in Outer Damascus had instructed us to remain calm [in case of an emergency such as this]. We began calming the children and women, telling them that we had received news that everything was okay, and that the [evacuation] agreement would be carried out fully.

Soon we read a Syrian army statement on Mayadeen [a pro-Syrian government, pro-Hezbollah news outlet] saying that they would fulfill their obligation to protect the residents of Madaya and Baqeen [a village neighboring Madaya, and included in the evacuation agreement] from any revenge attacks.

That’s when our nerves began to settle down. At the same time, we couldn’t help feeling that perhaps the news wasn’t true—but a drowning man will grab onto straws in order to keep hope of survival.

Then we received news from Jaish al-Fateh [a rebel operations room that includes members of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham] that the agreement would still be carried out, and our buses would move onward to Idlib. Even then, we felt unsafe and tense until we arrived to rebel-controlled territory, and we saw opposition forces as they welcomed us.

We still can’t believe that we left Ramouseh alive.

Q: Can you describe how your life is now in Idlib? How does it compare to Madaya? You said that after you learned of the explosion, and expected to be killed, you regretted your decision to leave Madaya—do you still feel that you made the wrong choice?

Right now, I’m living in Idlib city. It’s been three days, and yet we all are just sitting around and thinking back to those brutal moments in Ramouseh. We’ll never forget it.  

There is no comparison between Madaya and Idlib. Though there are foods [in Idlib] that we haven’t seen for years [in Madaya], including certain meats and vegetables, at least in Madaya we were living off our land and in our own neighborhoods among our families.

We come from a town where even the simplest daily necessities were denied to us. When we pass through the vegetable markets [in Idlib], it is as though living in a dream. An evacuee goes to ask a vegetable seller how much a kilo of onions are, and the salesman responds ‘SP100’ [$0.50]. And he’ll repeat his question as though he didn’t believe it, because a kilo of onions costs SP25,000 [$117] in Madaya.

Q: Why did you choose to leave Madaya? Who did you leave with?

No choice remained for us but to leave from this hell. The regime had entered our area, and my brother was one of the rebels who left from Wadi Barada—he is now here in Idlib, too.

I left with my sister. My mother stayed behind in Madaya, saying that she was born on this land and will die on it.

**

Muram a-Shami, a woman in her thirties, decided to stay behind in Madaya with her mother. She withheld her real name out of fear of arrest by the Syrian government.

Q: For years now, you’ve been faced with death by sniper fire, airstrikes and starvation—all at the hands of the government, which is now in control of Madaya. What made you decide to stay there, despite all the potential dangers?

I decided not to leave because I live with my mother, who is elderly and has no provider or income. If I went to Idlib, the two of us would live beneath the bombs, or we’d have to flee to a refugee camp—staying [in Madaya] would be more merciful for us.

Our choice to stay behind was purely for the sake of staying on our land and living far from the bombs and any siege. For us, leaving would mean homelessness. It would mean losing our land, our house and our family.

 Boarding the evacuation buses in Madaya on Friday. Photo courtesy of Madaya.

Q: Talk about what has happened in Madaya since government forces finally took control. What does it look like on the ground there right now?

Monday afternoon, a group of pro-regime militants entered Madaya and began raiding many of the homes of residents who left. They removed the doors and entered, without facing any resistance from the people in town. Then they started looting everything—electrical appliances, furniture.

Whatever they didn’t take, they broke. [The pro-regime militants] said that these houses belonged to terrorists who destroyed the country, and that they wanted to burn [the houses] down and leave nothing behind.

They looked around at everyone with contempt and flung insults at them, as if to provoke any response that warranted arrest.

Then Hezbollah began erecting earthen barriers and surrounded the town once again. The checkpoints are still in place within the city.

On Thursday [one day before evacuation buses began transporting Madaya residents north to Idlib], Hezbollah allowed some vegetables and other food supplies [into Madaya], but the prices were no different than they were during the siege.

So, the situation here hasn’t really changed since the implementation of the agreement. On the contrary, it’s gotten worse, because regime forces and Hezbollah can come and go as they please in Madaya.

Q: As a civilian still living inside Madaya, what are your biggest fears for the days ahead?

I am afraid that the regime could take revenge on us and not stick to its promises, especially after the Rashideen bombing. I worry that we will pay the price for the attack.

Many of the residents regret that they believed the regime and Hezbollah and stayed behind. But I feel that simply staying alive after everything that has happened in Madaya is the only way we can still resist.

I am afraid that the regime will continue its practices against the people because the number of those who stayed is large compared with those who left. I am afraid it will put pressure on us.

Q: You said earlier that the situation in Madaya has actually grown worse since evacuations began. Do you regret your decision to stay?  

Before, all we thought about was the siege, and how we could secure our daily food. But now, there is fear in our eyes.

Yes, I regret not leaving. Many of the residents do, because we are living in suspense and the unknown. Even the agreement that includes Madaya is unclear, without details about the fate of those who will stay. The only thing that was clear was the part about leaving, because it was in the interests of the regime and Hezbollah.

 

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.

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.