Whenever Mohammad Kheirallah hears a knock on the door of his house, his heart stops for a moment. He drops everything and crawls up to hide in a small storage space above the kitchen door, where he patiently waits, sometimes for hours, until his parents have seen the visitors off.
“I feel like a dead man, living in a constant state of stress and fear,” he tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.
As buses entered the formerly rebel-held town of Babila in south Damascus earlier this month to evacuate thousands of fighters and civilians to the north, the 23-year-old chose to stay behind as the Syrian government regained control of his town.
“I told [myself] I would finish my university studies and defer my military service, so that I could be safe like any other normal person,“ he says.
Instead, he now finds himself a prisoner in his own home.
In early May, approximately 8,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated from the formerly rebel-held south Damascus towns of Yalda, Babila, and Beit Sahm as part of a Russian-brokered surrender agreement between the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army factions that had controlled the area since 2013.
Syrian government police forces enter Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm on May 11. Photo courtesy of SANA.
The surrender agreement reportedly stipulated that no man in the towns would be summoned for military service for the next six months, and since Kheirallah did not take part in any armed activity throughout the war, he believed it was safe to stay.
However, after hearing news of other young men being arrested at government checkpoints, Kheirallah started fearing for his life. He has not left his home for the past five days.
“The hardest thing a human can experience is being imprisoned without knowing when it will end,” he says, asking to use a false last name for fear that government forces will be able to find him.
“With every passing minute in this situation, I regret not leaving to go live in the camps,” he says.
Q: Why did you stay in Babila rather than join the evacuation convoys that left south Damascus for opposition-held territories this month?
When the revolution began, I went out to demonstrate against the regime, but the demonstrations were peaceful and unarmed. I didn’t take up arms against anyone, so I fulfill the conditions of the reconciliation [agreement]—that was the only reassurance that pushed me to stay rather than go. I told [myself] I would finish my university studies and defer my military service, so that I could be safe like any other normal person.
I also didn’t leave Babila because my father and mother are old, and I’m all they have left. My brothers are outside Syria, and my sisters also left for Turkey at the beginning of the revolution.
Old people don’t want to leave their homes to go live in the camps.
Q: Can you tell us about the general situation in Babila after the last buses departed? And how is your personal situation after the government regained control?
Living conditions are good. Food, goods and medicine are coming in: Everything is here. There are some examples of misconduct by government forces, such as furniture-looting.
Russian forces are present in Babila, and they don’t allow misconduct by regime soldiers. A few days ago I watched from the window of my house as Russian forces beat some soldiers because they were stealing from the houses of people who left for the north.
Residents move around very little compared to before the regime seized control, and people are keeping to themselves. Everyone is keeping an eye out and moving with caution.
People are afraid of what the future will bring, especially since arrests happened three days ago at the regime checkpoint close to Yalda. My parents heard from people in the street that there were three guys my age—of course we know them—who were heading to Damascus University through the Yalda checkpoint and were arrested while crossing.
Those guys hadn’t left [south Damascus] for years and were in the same situation as I am. That is, they have no [charges] against them except for not having performed military service. Under the reconciliation agreement, they have a period of six months [before facing conscription].
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Residents of Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham board evacuation buses on May 4. Photo courtesy of Rami Al Sayed/AFP/Getty Images.
When my parents heard the news, they went [to the checkpoint] to ask about the reasons for the arrests. The response [from the personnel there] was that the agreement doesn’t cover those with Syrian blood on their hands. My parents were told that their children had supported the terrorists, that they’re wanted and that the reconciliation doesn’t include them.
After hearing what happened to these guys, my parents regretted, on my behalf, not leaving Babila for the liberated [opposition-held] areas. They started worrying about me leaving the house, even if only on our own street. They are scared that I will be detained because we know that there are are people who are regime agents, and they have definitely relayed information to the [regime] security apparatus.
Q: What is life in your home like now?
I don’t leave the house, and if someone knocks on the door I immediately hide in the crawl space [above the kitchen door]. If anyone comes to visit my parents, I have to go to crawl up there and wait until the guest leaves. Some days, visitors stay for two or three hours before leaving.
My mother has started saying that her son left for the north, because we no longer trust any of the guests coming to our house. We worry that they might be regime spies. As you can imagine, the sound of knocking at the door terrifies me. If someone knocks on the door late at night, my heart stops, and I fear that it’s the security forces coming to raid our house.
On top of all this, I have become a burden on my parents instead of serving and providing for them.
With every passing minute in this situation, I regret not leaving to go live in the camps. I feel like I’m a prisoner. The hardest thing a human can experience is being imprisoned without knowing when it will end. It could be permanent.
Q: Do you have any hopes for the future, for your life under government control?
A future and a life?! Do people in my situation have any future or life? I can’t leave my house. I won’t be able to build a future, continue my studies or even come and go like any other guy my age.
My future is in the regime’s actual prison, and until then I live in a more merciful prison at my home with my parents. I am ruined. I feel like a dead man, living in a constant state of stress and fear.