Mohammed a-Shami is living in a camp for displaced fighters in Idlib, hoping that a doctor will repair the tendons in his shattered left hand before winter approaches.
Earlier this year, the 25-year-old journalist and former local council member from the Outer Damascus town of Qudsaya, took up arms for the first time to “protect” his hometown from “advancing regime tanks.”
A-Shami participated in only one battle, which took place this past September, and “resulted in reconciliation with the regime and our leaving for Idlib,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.
“I’m full of sorrow, but we had to leave,” says the injured fighter, speaking of the 1,296 other Free Syrian Army fighters and their families who left Qudsaya and its sister town of al-Hameh, both encircled since July 2015, in accordance with the truce.
“We couldn’t let the regime burn the city, which it had promised to do,” he says.
Two other Outer Damascus towns, Darayya and Moadamiyeh, have also yielded to regime pressure and signed truces with the government in recent months. As in Qudsaya and al-Hameh, the agreements required fighters to either give up their weapons or leave the towns for northern, rebel-held territory.
So far, the government has upheld its end of the truce agreement in al-Hameh and Qudsaya. Life for those who stayed behind, including a-Shami’s family, he says, has improved.
“Things are back to how they were in 2011, before the war,” says a-Shami, who speaks regularly with his family back home. “No one is experiencing harassment or trouble.”
But after years of war and siege, trust is hard to come by.
“We’re still afraid that the regime may double-cross us... and make the remaining residents leave Qudsaya.”
Q: Tell me about Qudsaya at the beginning of the revolution. When and why did you join the popular movement?
I joined the peaceful movement at the beginning of the revolution. We had followed events in Egypt and Tunis, but we took to the streets once we saw how security forces treated protesters in Daraa. They were oppressed, arrested and killed.
On May 20, 2011 we held the first demonstration, in solidarity with Daraa.
After that, we organized other demonstrations in the city.
We had other reasons to demonstrate—Assad and the Baath party dominated the government. The rest of us were politically marginalized and lacked positions of power. We also protested the long-term detentions of citizens.
We rejected the state’s appropriation of land, which it designated for members of its party to settle in.
In short, our revolution was a popular explosion against the state’s decades-long policy of unjust arrests and oppression of its citizens.
The demonstrations in Qudsaya continued. More and more people joined, demanding justice, accountability and equality between all groups in society. We demanded that the Emergency Law and Article 8 of the constitution be repealed. We asked for freedom of the press.
[Ed.: The Emergency Law, established in 1963 when the Baath party came to power, gave the government the authority to investigate and detain suspects deemed national security risks. It was lifted in 2011 after 48 years. Before it was revised in 2011, Article 8 of the Syrian constitution stipulated that the Socialist Arab Baath party was the leading party in the state and society.]
At Qudsaya’s entrance on October 13. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.
Q: How did the regime respond to the demonstrations in the city?
The state responded by dispersing demonstrations and launching a campaign of arrests and disappearances against activists, who were stowed away in the cellars of its prisons.
I was one of them. In September 2011, I was followed, shot at and taken away.
Prison was like the pictures of Guantanamo that we saw on the news. I spent my time locked away in an unknown security branch of the state. I was treated worse than the other prisoners because I had studied media.
Q: When and why did you take up arms? What battles did you fight in?
I took up arms at the beginning of 2016 because Qudsaya needed fighters to protect it. We only fought in one battle, which resulted in reconciliation with the regime and our leaving for Idlib.
[Ed.: Shami is referring to clashes that occurred on September 27, when regime forces attempted to storm the sister towns of Qudsaya and al-Hameh. The FSA rebels in the towns drove back the advancing tanks and, almost immediately thereafter, agreed to begin truce talks with regime representatives, Syria Direct reported last month.]
Q: What led you to accept the ceasefire?
We left after the regime rained barrel bombs, missiles and shells upon al-Hameh and Qudsaya. This put us under more stress, since we had been besieged since July 21, 2015. We had nowhere to escape—the regime wouldn’t let anyone leave the city.
The increase in bombings left us with no choice but to accept the ceasefire. We couldn’t let the regime burn the city, which it had promised to do. Assad’s forces had unsuccessfully tried to storm the city several times. They suffered many losses because of our fierce resistance. Finally, the Brigadier General Qais, an officer in the Republican Guard, issued a command: leave or let the city be annihilated.
Q: Why did you decide to leave Qudsaya for Idlib? Why didn’t you stay?
One reason was an injury to my left hand. I was documenting the regime’s vicious attack on Sham al-Amal Hospital, when a piece of tank shrapnel shattered the bones in my hand.
Due to the weak medical capabilities in the town, I was only able to receive first aid treatment.
[Ed.: on October 5, a tank shell hit the only hospital in Qudsaya. The same day, two barrel bombs struck the only hospital in neighboring al-Hameh city, Syria Direct reported.]
Since I was injured, I left Qudsaya without my family for Idlib, so I could eventually get treatment in Turkey. My family encouraged me to leave but they stayed behind. I decided that it was better for them to stay in Qudsaya than become displaced and live in a camp.
Another reason I left was because the regime had blacklisted me and 104 other people. Our names were on a list of undesirable people who were ineligible for reconciliation. We had to leave for Idlib.
Q: Did you face any trouble or harassment on your way to Idlib?
We didn’t experience any trouble on the way to Idlib, which took 10 hours.
The group of 1,297 people who left included defectors, people wanted by the regime and those who simply wanted to reach Turkey.
When we arrived at Qalaat al-Madiq in Idlib, aid organizations and received factions received us. They arranged for cars and buses to drive us to rescue centers and shelters for displaced people, such as schools and camps.
Some of us went to houses prepared by local councils, factions and organizations.
I’m staying in one of the camps that houses fighters from Qudsaya. Bombings still occur near the camps.
Q: Have you received medical treatment for your broken hand?
After my arrival, I was transferred to a field hospital outside the camp. A doctor examined my hand and gave me a splint to stabilize and support my broken bones. I still need surgery—a skin graft and tendon repair.
I asked to be transferred to a hospital in Turkey. It’s difficult to recover inside a camp, especially with winter coming. I don’t have anyone here except for one friend.
Q: Are you worried about your family? Have you heard any news from Qudsaya since you left?
Of course I’m afraid. We’re always in contact. But we have previous experiences with regime ceasefires, like in 2012.
[Ed.: Qudsaya and al-Hameh have gone through periods of encirclement since the start of the war. Negotiations ended two previous encirclements in 2013. The October ceasefire rebel concluded the third encirclement, which began in July 2015.]
After we left, the siege was lifted, food and medicine entered and bombing ceased. The young men who remain in the city have reconciled with the regime, and no one is experiencing harassment or trouble.
Things are back to how they were in 2011, before the war.
Occasionally, the regime enters the city with a reconciliation committee to search rebel offices. It has also established checkpoints on the perimeter of the city.
We’re still afraid that the regime may double-cross us and pull the forced evacuation card by making the remaining residents leave Qudsaya.
We’re scared this may happen, even though Qudsaya has huge numbers of civilians, the majority of whom support the regime.
Q: Did you encounter people who wanted to leave Qudsaya but couldn’t?
Yes. Several young men wanted to leave, but their families prevented them. A number of people faced difficult circumstances, some stayed behind because of their children and others backed out because they were afraid of the unknown.
They had no idea what the living situation in Idlib would be like.
Q: How do you feel after leaving the city that has defied the regime for years? Do you expect to return to Qudsaya in the future? What are you hoping for?
I’m full of sorrow. But we had to leave, to protect the city and save its people from destruction, displacement and death.
I’m hoping with everything inside of me that I’ll return, God willing.
I hope to look at Syria and see the bombing and killing has ceased.
I want whoever is killing and displacing us to be held accountable.