“The wall engraved with shrapnel” and the remains of books: Memories of displacement in Idlib

A pile of books and belongings of Syrians fleeing the conflict. Source: Ahmad al-Sabah

By Alaa Nassar

With each new story of displacement Ahmed lives out, he recalls the details of his house, the windows, the colors of the walls, the beautiful memories he had there. But just as he begins to acclimate to each new home, he must endure another story of displacement.

Ahmed al-Sabah, 44, has been displaced so many times that leaving has become a routine scenario for him and his family. They “have been displaced fifteen times, not including temporary trips to caves or nearby shelters for just a few hours or days,” [he told Syria Direct correspondent Alaa’ Nassar in an interview]. Ten times his family has been displaced inside the city of Kafranbel, finally culminating in their journey to the city of Idlib proper following the Syrian government’s military escalation Idlib’s southern countryside.

In recent weeks, northwest Syria has witnessed an unprecedented military escalation, resulting in a large wave of displaced [families] heading towards more secure areas near the Turkish border [to the north]. Ahmed and 33 members of his large family were among those fleeing.

On Thursday, warplanes targeted the town of Kafranbel in an air raid, wounding [a number of] civilians. Last Monday, the bombing knocked a White Helmets center out of operation.

The Response Coordination Group, a local documentation team, [reported] around 260,000 people were displaced between February 15 and May 13 following the recent campaign by Syrian regime forces in northwestern Syria.

Although Ahmed al-Sabah’s new residence in the city of Idlib is not fully safe, he is not considering crossing the border into Turkey. “We can’t go any further north, at least unless the circumstances force us to,” Ahmed [told Nassar], adding that [the city of] Idlib itself feels stable, even if only temporarily, because it is “closer to home,” referring to his hometown, Qamhana, in the northern Hama countryside.

In additions to the burdens born by every displaced person in northwestern Syria, Ahmed carries with him what is left of his library from one house to another as people around him ask, “Do these conditions allow us to [enjoy] reading and culture?”

Which city are you from? When and why did you leave your first home?

I am from the town of Qamhana in the northern Hama countryside. I think this region has become known to all for its bad reputation during the revolution, especially for its large number of supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In November 2011 I was released from detainment and returned to my town, where I pursued my media activism under pseudonyms. At that time, at the beginning of the revolution, the term media activist wasn’t used, but later the term emerged.

At the end of 2013, I received information that my family and I were in danger. Of course, this was because of a website we were running in the period leading up to the revolution, and my family was involved in the matter [as were my] wife and friends. When the issue arose, I contacted some of my friends in northern Idlib, and they advised me to leave. So I left Qamhana for Kafranbel in the southern Idlib countryside because the situation was no longer safe for revolutionary activism, and the level of danger and threats grew far greater than expected.

This was [my] first story of fleeing. From there I began my journey of displacement in the Idlib countryside, being forced to move inside Idlib [more than ten times]. I’ve been displaced 15 times, not including temporary trips to caves or nearby shelters for just a few hours or days until the bombing dies down.

You say you’ve experienced continuous displacement, can you tell us about that?

I spent four years in Kafranbel, and in one [year?] I moved between ten homes. In every house I lived in, I lived the experience of displacement. I lived through most of the bombings of Kafranbel, and I was often close to the targeted locations, especially because the neighborhood I was living in was considered the city center. Next to me there was a White Helmets center and an ambulance center which were repeatedly targeted during my stay. And the doors and windows were constantly crashing in on us from the machine guns and barrel bomb bombardments by the Russians and the Assad regime.

All these stories I lived. The area was dangerous as it was recently targeted by Russian and Syrian planes, as it had been previously, and this is what happened.

The last missile came down close to us, about 50 meters away. I think the target was a nearby factory, in which there once was a headquarters of a military faction. In front of us there’s a medical center, so we are between two targets. Maybe the next time the missiles will hit the building we’re living in. That was exactly the reason for our last displacement, when we moved from Kafranbel to Idlib.

As for previous displacements, some were due to reasons [unrelated to the war]. For example the owner of the building wants his son to marry and take the place, or for another reason, such as raising of the rent or eviction — that’s in addition to the shelling which terrifies the women and children.

After your last experience, do you feel displacement has become normal to you? How do the local residents receive displaced people coming in?

Definitely, I’ve adapted to displacement, so to speak. Every week, every day, or every month — there’s not much difference.

I do have furniture and life’s necessities, but it’s not easy to move it from one place to another. I’ve become somewhat indifferent, or convinced that this is all a part of God’s plan and test of our patience. So we’ll remain like this, preserving the principles of the revolution for which we set out in the first place. And this requires us to face many difficulties.

Displacement is a small part of these difficulties. The burden of displacement is nothing compared to the other burdens faced by those around us — blood, arrest, homelessness and poverty. We have experienced all of these, so displacement is easier. It’s not our greatest difficulty, so naturally we should bear it.

I’m not saying being displaced is easy. With every new displacement story, I start looking for friends around me to help me move the furniture, and this alleviates many of the other difficulties that come with displacement.

Honestly, I’ve set the record for being displaced. The last move was number fifteen, and I can say that the view of local residents towards those who are displaced has changed in recent years from how it was at the beginning of the revolution. I don’t want to generalize, but today, in my opinion, the residents of the north look at displaced peoples as no more than a sort of tourist who can satisfy the greed of the landlord who wants to get what he can from them, as if no others will ever come!

Eight years after the revolution, the rich have become poor.

What has displacement cost you, both materially and in terms of morale?

There’s no doubt the material costs of displacement is great, but the costs in morale are greater.

I’m a person who loves to hold on to old things and memories. And any person who lives in a particular place develops a sort of familiarity with that place, which makes him feel it is the right place to live in, even if it becomes dangerous as the days go by. As time passes in the home, a certain familiarity forms between you and the doors, the windows, the shape of the ceiling, the sight of the home and the colors of the walls.

Even the place where the wall is engraved with shrapnel — with that, terror turns to a mark of security and stability as the person becomes fully familiar with with the place, even with its destruction.

About a week after each [time we] move, you can see the sadness in the eyes of each of my family members as they begin to reject the new place, even if it’s much better than the last. When you live in a new house or tent, it’s as if you bought a new shirt and haven’t gotten used to wearing it, even after washing it many times.

A new home needs time for a person to become familiar with it, it takes time for it to embed itself in your subconscious, and then for you acclimate to it and feel stable there, to feel as if the new place has become a part of you. But then we live through another the story of displacement, and we continue wandering around in the same circle of suffering.

We heard you have cultural and historical interests. Can you tell us about that, and about your library?

I used to own a private library in my first home in Qamhana, but when I left I couldn’t bring it with me. I only brought five percent of the total books.

More importantly than that, I used to keep historical documents because I used to work in research on the area’s historical ruins, and I had worked on these documents for several years.

I also had an archive of very old photographs that I buried before I left, and I don’t know what happened to them. As for the heritage and cultural possessions that I had held on to, like books and furniture, I’m almost certain the regime seized them.

During my journey of displacement, I’ve been able to establish a new private library, but it’s endured a lot of damage. In the liberated areas it’s no small matter if you lose a book, because books are not widely available, and if books are to be found here, they are usually very expensive specialized texts.

On the other hand, unfortunately, people don’t treat books with respect. Once, in one of the headquarters, I found guys burning books in the fireplace. I rushed to save what remained, and now I take them with me when I move.

And I don’t store them. One of the hardest things about moving, whether far or near, it’s moving the books, even if they are small. But under the living conditions here in the north, people say, “Do these conditions allow us to [enjoy] reading and culture?!”

We see tens of thousands of Syrians trying to enter Turkey every day, and yet you remain in the border area. Why are you not thinking of heading there?

I am from the countryside of Hama. If I stay in the countryside of Idlib, I’m close to home. I have no intention of leaving Idlib. I already went to Turkey for a few days, but I felt suffocated, so then I came back. Neither I nor my family were able to stay there.

A year ago, one of my friends advised me during a short visit to Gaziantep that soon no activists would be left in Syria, as they wouldn’t be able to work under the conditions. He told me to protect myself and my family, and to stay there in Turkey. I told him that option will be my absolute last resort.

We didn’t leave Kafranbel until the circumstances forced us to. It’s very risky for women and children, and especially for us, as I’m bringing with me more than one family as well as some elderly folks.

There are about 33 people in my family, including the women, children and elderly. Getting them all into Turkey would be very difficult. Even the idea of getting them to the northern Aleppo countryside, Afrin for example, is unlikely. We feel stable, even if only for now, in Idlib province. We stay together as a family, and we’re closer to home, closer to the area we left on our first move.

We can’t go any further north, at least until the circumstances force us to and remaining here becomes no longer an option. And I don’t mean not an option for me, because I’ve become used to these conditions. I mean for the children who tremble in fear at what is happening here.

Actually the women and children have never been able to tolerate the bombings. When shells are landing 50 or 100 meters away, even we men find ourselves under tension and unable to work. The hardest part of being bombed is living surrounded by women and children in a corridor no larger than one-and-a-half by three meters, hearing them scream and wail in fear. At that moment I was speaking with a German journalist who was asking me about the situation and the scene before me. I told her I don’t have words to describe what I’m seeing in front of me, my tongue can’t express it.

I should add that when a person leaves his homeland, or his city behind, his views change. Two years ago, when I was visiting Turkey, I was meeting with activists I had known since the start of the revolution. They experienced the events in Syria with us, including displacement, but after that they left for Turkey, which changed their thinking towards Syria.

Within Arabic literature, we hear about various subgenres. Do you think that what is happening with displacement has spawned “revolution literature?”

The Syrian Revolution necessitated this, what is now called “revolution literature.” And I also believe there is “displacement literature.” But if we want to speak realistically, this didn’t arise from the eight years of sacrifices. Today’s writer or poet is concerned with far more than just writing.

I used to write, but stopped. The conditions, pressure of work and burdens of life and survival do not allow me to do so. In contrast, we find many examples of model writers, advanced in age and free of responsibilities, who write and narrate, like the poet of Kafr Nabudeh wrote about his home at the start of the revolution. Although his poetry wasn’t powerful, the passion in his verses gave his work great value.

Today, the time to write revolution and displacement literature belongs to those who live outside the country. I see many young people writing and I follow their work. It’s true, they are able to portray a beautiful picture, but they’ll never deliver it with the same feeling of life. Such a picture can’t just be painted in just any way and be expected to produce feeling. It is very difficult to convey people’s feelings.

I was writing before the revolution started, but after a while of being displaced — and with all the contradictions in which we live, and the shifting map of control, the lack of understanding reality and not knowing what will happen tomorrow, the inability to rationally analyze what’s going on — this makes writing difficult. Literature requires the author to unlock in his imagination [and take it] far from reality so that he can write spiritually.

Today, unfortunately, we’re unable to let our thinking or attention be distracted for even a moment, or else we might overlook an oncoming plane or the survival of our family, or what’s happening on the front line or revolutionary activities. We need to be completely focused and attentive, even more than we need to write or express. At the beginning of the revolution I was documenting every development. Now I don’t find the time to do anything.

Translated by: Jared Szuba

Authors
Alaa Nassar

Reporter