Last Wednesday, in the largest single humanitarian evacuation in the past five years of war in Syria, 250 wounded people and their companions left the regime and Hezbollah- blockaded Outer Damascus towns of Madaya and Zabadani in exchange for the same number from the rebel-blockaded Idlib villages of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.
Regime forces and ally Hezbollah encircled 40,000 people in rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani in July 2015. An ongoing blockade supported by snipers and landmines ensures that nothing and nobody gets in or out. Victory Army rebels led by Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra have blockaded 20,000 people in the neighboring, regime-held Idlib villages of al-Fuaa and Kafariya since March 2015.
In the four towns, hundreds of ill and wounded residents have been without access to the treatment and medications they need for months. One of those evacuated last Wednesday was 26-year-old Madaya resident Ibrahim Abbas, who Syria Direct first interviewed one month ago.
After a sniper shot him last March, Abbas has been living with a hole in his stomach exposing his large intestine for more than a year. Suffering from extreme pain, Abbas has needed an operation since then, but was not included in three earlier evacuations.
Last week, Abbas said goodbye to his family, got on a bus and travelled to rebel-held Idlib city, where he hopes to get surgery soon.
Leaving Madaya was “a mixture of joy and sorrow,” Abbas tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali. “My family was happy that I would get out and receive treatment, but at the same time sad at my departure because it looks like a one-way trip.”
On the way out of the mountain town, Abbas came face to face with “the Hezbollah and army personnel responsible for the blockade, heavily armed and watching us,” he says. The personnel treated the evacuees well, but “the hatred in their eyes was clear.”
Now in Idlib, Abbas is waiting to have the surgery he’s needed for a year, and making plans for the future, to keep working as an activist and citizen journalist. He’s hopeful.
“All options are open to me here, everything is available,” says Abbas. “I’m being well-treated here and I feel that I am in my country.”
Q: Why did you have to leave Madaya?
I was wounded in the abdomen by a sniper [in March 2015], which Syria Direct published about one month ago. As one of the injured, the medical committee in the area examined me and recorded my name. I was also examined by a joint [Syrian Arab] Red Crescent and Red Cross delegation four or five months ago.
Ibrahim Abbas (far left) reaches rebel-held Idlib city last Thursday after being evacuated from Madaya the day before. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Abbas.
Q: What did you take with you when you left? Did anybody accompany you?
I packed a bag with clothing, my mobile phone, laptop and hard drive. I said goodbye to my family and went to the departure point. My friend was supposed to come with me, but he changed his mind at the last minute because he preferred to stay with his family to take care of them.
Nobody from my family left with me. Leaving Madaya to go to some place we know nothing about would be difficult if my family was with me. As a young, single man, it’s easier to manage.
Q: What was the scene at the departure point? Who got to leave? What about those who stayed?
Different groups of people left: young men, middle-aged men, women, children and the elderly.
The scene was a mixture of joy and sorrow. My family was happy that I would get out and receive treatment, but at the same time sad at my departure, because it looks like a one-way trip.
The feelings of those leaving were the same: joy that they would break through the blockade and get treatment and sorrow that they were leaving.
As for those remaining in Madaya, some were uncertain about leaving, because it looks like a plan to empty the area and change its demographics. Some wanted to be leaving, either to reach their family outside the blockade or because they were fed up with the difficult situation at home.
: Syria Direct reached out to Marjolein Wijninckx, the Syrian Program Manager for peace organization PAX, for comment on last week’s medical evacuations: “It is a relief that those who urgently need medical care finally have access to it, as their situation is critical. But we are concerned that this evacuation will be another population transfer and that those evacuated will not be allowed to return to their homes. The international parties involved, such as the UN and ICRC, should demand assurances that these people can return home, and monitor the situation. Evacuations and aid convoys are temporary measures to relieve the suffering, but the only sustainable solution is to lift all sieges and end war crimes.”]
Q: Once you got on the bus and started the journey from Madaya to Idlib, what was the security situation like along the way? What were the concerns of people inside the bus?
The team put us on the buses at 1PM and we stayed there, waiting in the heat with the bus doors closed until we set off at 5:30PM.
The security situation was stable, praise God. Personnel at the Hezbollah checkpoint on the way out of Madaya searched all the passengers and their belongings, one by one. They also took names, checked them and individually photographed each person leaving. There was a women’s team to search the women.
People were anxious for the first 25 percent of the journey, but after that, it lifted. For most of us, the fear was a result of seeing the Hezbollah and army personnel responsible for the blockade, heavily armed and watching us. But we got used to it.
The Hezbollah personnel treated us with respect, which made me tell the person who searched me “Allah yaatik al-afiya, habib” (God bless you). But the hatred in their eyes was clear.
That checkpoint at the entrance to Madaya is the only place we were searched. We weren’t checked at all at the rest of the checkpoints.
We arrived in Idlib and got off the bus at 8:30AM the next day.
Q: Where did you arrive in Idlib? Who met you, and how was the reception?
The wounded who were previously evacuated were the first to greet us. There was also a committee from the Red Crescent and a group of activists from aid organizations. Of course, there were also journalists covering the event.
The reception of the activists and Red Crescent was fine, but the reception from the injured who were previously evacuated was warm and full of love, as they’d been eagerly awaiting us.
The final destination was a shelter in Idlib city, a school that had been equipped as housing, with five young men or a family to a room. A large portion of those who came did not stay at the center, but settled into residences that they rented in the village of Maarat Misreen because of the poor services at the shelter.
The situation in the shelter is very bad. One of the guys still inside just contacted me, saying: “It’s a mess.” In my opinion, the Red Crescent must own up to this, because it’s their fault. Of course, the United Nations is also to blame.
As for myself, my friend who was in the first group of the wounded who left Madaya greeted me. I left the shelter and stayed with him for the first night, and after that got my affairs in order.
Q: How is your health right now? Have you received treatment? What is happening with the other wounded people?
I am in contact with the other wounded people. They will be presented to a medical committee that will evaluate each case. Some will be sent to Turkey for treatment, others will get treatment here, depending on each case and its requirements.
As for me, the group that I work with as an activist [Amrha] is sponsoring my treatment. Yesterday I had some tests, today I have some medical analyses, and the operation will be soon, God willing.
Q: What are you thinking now? Do you have any plans for the future?
Once I finish surgery and get my health back, I want to do some exercises for a bit to get my muscles back. There are also plans to open an Idlib office of the Amrha collective based in Madaya. I’ll also keep working as an independent journalist.
Q: What are you feeling, now that you’ve gotten out of Madaya by yourself but all your family is still there?
I am happy that I’m in an area controlled by the opposition. All options are open to me here, everything is available.
I miss my family and I speak with them constantly throughout the day, but I’m being well-treated here and I feel that I am in my country.
Q: Are you thinking of going back to Madaya?
I hope to return as soon as possible.