In the few quiet moments, Muayyed Abu Amer’s friends still gather to chat, drink tea and brew coffee late into the night—just like how things were before the war.
It’s a mainstay of social life in Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world: gathering on sofas and plastic lawn chairs for a sahrah with friends to while away the evening.
But Abu Amer’s southern Idlib hometown of Khan Sheikhoun is no longer in the same Syria that it once was.
Khan Sheikhoun sits on the edge of a so-called “buffer zone,” mapped out in September last year by international powers with the aim of halting a widely anticipated assault on the area by the Syrian government and its allies. The zone—comprising areas of Idlib province, as well as rebel-held parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces—is the last major opposition bastion in Syria after years of advances by the government saw pocket after pocket across the country return to Damascus’ control.
But since February, pro-government forces have been pummelling parts of southern Idlib with shelling and airstrikes, devastating nearby towns and displacing thousands from their homes.
The streets outside Abu Amer’s house are now nearly empty. Most of his neighbors have fled north to escape the bombs. Many of those who remain are either thieves hoping to take advantage of the abundance of unoccupied homes, or families—like his—who simply have no money to pack up and go.
Without the funds to take his family to safety, Abu Amer stayed put with his wife and two young children in Khan Sheikhoun, as the bombs fell around them.
“Life here is like a horror film,” the 27-year-old tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim. “When the bombs start raining down on the residential neighborhoods, panic and fear take charge.”
Still, there are the nighttime sahrahs with friends to stave off the fear, even if for just a little while.
“At every sahrah, we say goodbye to one another not knowing who among us might be killed.”
“We all wonder if it’s the last farewell.”
Q: Despite all the bombing on Khan Sheikhoun recently, why did you decide to stay?
Khan Sheikhoun has faced brutal bombing, focused on residential neighborhoods. It’s been from the beginning of February until now, leading to most of the residents being displaced. I decided to stay, though, as a result of [my] financial circumstances. Fleeing requires huge amounts of money that I can’t afford to pay.
Q: How is daily life now inside Khan Sheikhoun? When there are bombings, what do you do to protect yourself?
Life here is like a horror film. There is a near total lack of daily necessities. Especially after most of the residents were displaced, the regime has deliberately bombed bakeries and companies that were providing vital services to people here.
When the bombs start raining down on the residential neighborhoods, panic and fear take charge. After we hear the alarm sirens or warnings from spotters, we go down to the shelter with our children and whoever is left of our neighbors. But there isn’t anyone left in the city except for a few families in each neighborhood.
It makes me more afraid when I see that it’s only us and one or two other families left [in the area]. We want to stay on our land and in our house, but the bombing doesn’t leave us alone.
We also want to flee and live far from the scourge of daily bombs, but that’s simply not possible for us.
Q: When did the rest of your family leave Khan Sheikhoun? Was it difficult to see them go?
Twenty days after the bombing started, my family—close family members, relatives—left the neighborhood, which added to my suffering. I stayed on with my wife and children because we are unable to flee. My wife and I are suffering from that separation from our relatives. I can’t go to them. I have to stay here and surrender myself to whatever God allows to happen.
I also stayed in order to protect my property and my neighbors’ property from thieves. They are taking advantage of the recent displacement and stealing from the [abandoned] houses. The problem of thieves is something that is found in every town or village that is facing bombs and displacement. There are volunteers from the local residents who help patrol the city in order to limit the amount of theft so that now it’s become nearly non-existent.
Q: Do you communicate regularly with your family members who have left Khan Sheikhoun?
There is constant communication between those of us who stayed and those who fled. Every hour, every second, there is something new being circulated about bombing on the city. My family members call me to check up on my situation and make sure I’m okay. They advise us to flee and to go to where they are, but we aren’t able to.
Most of our conversations are about how we are getting by in Khan Sheikhoun, and how they are doing after being displaced. We talk about the bombings, aid, who’s been killed and who is injured, who else has remained here.
Q: Do you still have friends inside Khan Sheikhoun?
We still have some friends and relatives inside the city, and their situation is similar to ours. We visit one another sometimes, and stay up late having sahrah gatherings together.
At every sahrah, we say goodbye to one another not knowing who among us might be killed.
The sahrahs today don’t happen as much as they used to. The goodbyes after them have become something that fills our eyes with tears. We all wonder if it’s the last farewell.
Q: Are you scared being in Khan Sheikhoun? After all, it’s a city that has gone through so much bombing over the course of the war, including a chemical attack.
I’m not afraid of my own death, because I’m a believer and if it’s my fate to die, then that’s that. But I fear for people other than me. I fear losing loved ones or family members, or my children.
This city has seen many violent bombings previously, and it faced a chemical attack carried out by regime warplanes against its residents.
We just want the pro-regime bombing on opposition areas to stop, and for the international agreements that are supposed to halt the bombardment to be applied so that we can return to normal life and to our homes, and live like any normal person in the world.
I didn’t leave the city before because I feel as if I’m humiliated outside of my home, especially with my financial situation. But the bombing pushed most of the residents to leave their homes and flee.
I think about fleeing to where my relatives are in the northern border areas, and I want to take my children far away from the bombs, the warning sirens and all the terrifying sounds. But I’m not able to.