Civilians risk it all in Syria’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ to escape Islamic State


February 15, 2016

Residents of southern Al-Hasakah countryside, controlled by the Islamic State, are being pummeled by both regime, Russian and American-led airstrikes on their land. With nowhere else to go, they are fleeing in droves to regime-controlled areas in Al-Hasakah city, the provincial capital.

The problem is getting there. On the main road north to Al-Hasakah city, the YPG’s has set up “mandatory conscription campaigns” at their checkpoints on the main road, ensnaring military-age travelers.

In order to avoid YPG conscription, civilians take a 40km circuitous path on foot through an agricultural “wasteland,” Umr Abdul Aziz, an activist still living under IS control in Hasakah’s southern countryside tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

This wasteland, under daily bombardment by the YPG, IS, the regime and the international coalition, is what Abdul Aziz calls the Bermuda Triangle.

Why take such a risk?

“We are dying—we are being sacrificed in this war on the Islamic State even though we are not the terrorists,” says Umm Jasim, a mother and one of the thousands of Syrians who made it to the provincial capital. Here, she tells Noura Hourani how and why she left.

Umr Abdul Aziz, speaking from Islamic State territory in Al-Hasakah’s southern countryside:

Q: Why do people leave IS-held areas for regime territory?

People are just looking for safety. IS-controlled areas are under daily bombardment and most of the victims are civilians. Also, the IS educational system is collapsing or has practically disappeared and people want to complete their studies.

There is mandatory conscription in areas under YPG control as well as taxes and other burdens on people.

That’s why civilians see regime-held areas as being the safest despite the lack of goods, the inflation and the absence of some basic staples such as sugar.

Q: What roads do people take? How do they get from southern Hasakah to Haskah city?

Most of them are from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside, controlled by the Islamic State. They head towards the western villages in the early hours of the morning from Jabal Abdul Aziz to areas held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

They do so in taxis or rental cars that can cost as much as SP5,000 (approximately $26.50). Some of them have relatives or friends in these villages and stay with them the first night.

The next morning, they continue east of Jabal Abdul Aziz towards regime-controlled areas on foot. This area is one of the most dangerous places [in Syria], which is why I call it “the Bermuda Triangle.” They have to walk 30km to 40km through agricultural land to avoid YPG checkpoints.

Q: Elaborate on why you see this area as “the Bermuda Triangle?”

There is ongoing fighting there between regime forces, the YPG and IS. All sides are bombing it in addition to airstrikes from the international coalition and Russia. The area is a wasteland. There aren’t any stores or restaurants to get food or drinks. All of the residents in the villages there have fled to more secure locations.

People used to move around on motorcycles. But since the YPG banned motorcycles and cars due to the Islamic State’s serial car bombings, there is no mode of transportation there. People take shelter on the agricultural land to bypass the YPG checkpoints where there are mandatory conscription campaigns.

Umm Jasim, speaking from Al-Hasakah city:

Q: Why did you choose to leave and head towards regime-held areas?

Russian aircraft bombed my village and massacred 13 civilians. Warplanes with the international coalition also renewed their bombardment of the area and targeted the village several times. Fearing another massacre, I fled seeking safety.

Unfortunately, I was forced to choose the lesser of two evils: territory under regime control. These areas are not targeted by airstrikes at least, even though there is inflation and a shortage of basic necessities. Here, there is also the chance for my daughter to continue her education, which she didn’t have access to in IS areas and had stopped going to university.

In the end, we chose education above all else including relatively cheaper food and goods in IS-controlled areas.

Q: Tell us about your journey.

My daughter and I left our house and said goodbye to our home as tears welled up in my eyes. I stopped for a moment to look for at the house where I had spent my entire life—inside I knew this would be the last time I saw it.

We left from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside by taxi, heading towards the countryside to the southeast of Jabal Abdul Aziz. I paid SP5,000 (approximately $26.50) to travel just these first 30km. I stayed the night with an Arab family to rest up for the most difficult part of the journey to come.

We traveled 40km through YPG-held areas to regime territory, weighed down by fear.

In the early hours of the morning, my daughter and I began walking on foot through deserted agricultural areas, carrying only a little food and water and nothing else. There, only abandoned villages remain. Before this had been a bustling area, filled with the sounds of children.

Now, there is nothing but the sounds of war, ruins and fading memories. 

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