From Idlib to the world: We are still here

By Mohammad Yusra* Syrian humanitarian worker and one of three million civilians currently in Idlib province, trapped between pro-government forces and the closed border to Turkey,

There is a piece of wisdom we often say here: “If you hear the shots you are safe, because you are still alive to hear them.”

In Syria, everywhere is a frontline. The struggle is all over Syria. In my small village, I saw a plane bomb a house 200 metres away.

Whenever my children hear the planes, they try to climb up onto the roof to see where they will hit. The houses here are not big, usually only one storey high. My wife and I make them hide in the kitchen, under the sink. It is all we can do to protect them.

Since February, planes have been bombing Idlib city again, where many civilians are gathered. They have hit schools and other ordinary buildings. Thousands are fleeing. Eight years have passed, and we are still under shelling.

Idlib before the war was a bit overlooked but we were well-educated. We exported teachers to other parts of Syria. We studied the wars in Europe and knew a lot about world politics. I watched Channel 4 to learn English. I still do, and I follow the conversations about Brexit. We can see how Britain respects the law. People there have the right to say their opinions.

 

Leaving Syria is not just leaving a country. It is leaving a homeland, a community. And of course anyone who leaves might not be allowed to return.
Mohammad Yusra, Syrian humanitarian worker

 

Here in Syria we did not have that. We could not discuss the government. There was a lot of silence. If you asked a question, we would give the same answer as the government; we knew their thinking.

I made a choice to stay. At first, we thought the war would not last long. Later I considered going to the Netherlands, thinking our children could get an education there.  I even tried, but was stopped.

After that, my wife convinced me we should stay, no matter how the situation would evolve in Syria. Many of my friends left. But we stayed.

I remember reading For Whom The Bell Tolls at university, about a group of friends who decide to stay behind enemy lines to fight for their beliefs. I think that most of my colleagues and I feel we have a duty to stay and work for our country. To participate, and to pave the way for democratic change.

Leaving Syria is not just leaving a country. It is leaving a homeland, a community. And of course anyone who leaves might not be allowed to return.

The hardest part of living in Idlib is trying to provide for your family. We have had no electricity for eight years. My family rely on a few solar panels, and a car battery when it rains. This is how we heat water to bathe the children. Finding a way to keep them clean is difficult. They wear layers in winter because it is cold, and all those clothes must be washed by hand.

At the beginning of the war, we were not very good at adapting to the new reality. We didn’t know how to bake our own bread, for example. We had always gone to the bakery. My wife and I learned to bake – only small rolls – on a wood stove.

It’s a little easier now. Families help each other out, and we avoid the cities because of air strikes. Instead, small shops have opened up in the villages, selling fuel, bread, vegetables and mobile phones.

For the last two years, I have worked for an NGO that supports education. The gap here between the needs and what is available is so big. Many schools come to us for support and we cannot help them all.

I was a secondary school teacher before the war. I also worked in construction during the summer holidays, to save up extra money. I got married, built a house, even bought a car. I know the value both of education and the value of work.

How do we compensate someone for losing their memories, their photographs, and their clothes? [...] A person is made up of their memories. All of these have been destroyed.
Mohammad Yusra, Syrian humanitarian worker

I think I am a lucky person. I have met so many displaced people and seen how they suffer. But it’s not only about the family members who have been killed. How do we compensate someone for losing their memories, their photographs, and their clothes? In every house, there are symbols and memories that can’t be replaced – a person is made up of their memories. All of these have been destroyed.

I met a man some years ago who was a religious scholar and very well educated. When I asked him about his books, he burst into tears. He wrote so many, he told me. Then his library was looted. His books were sold on the streets for almost nothing.

Many people have a bad image of us here in Idlib. They think that we welcome terrorists and deserve to be punished for this. But we were not consulted – not about Al-Nusra, or HTS [Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham], or any other group. No matter which faction is in control, it doesn’t change much for me. Checkpoints scare me. This is not my battle.

I hope that soon there will be an end to this brutal war, and that perpetrators will be held accountable. I hope my family and I will not have to flee.

Some people say we were mistaken to demonstrate; others say we need to pay this bitter price for our rights or that we are part of a world game. I still remember a Lebanese engineer I met before the war who told me at the time that if things in Egypt stabilised, Syria would need to deteriorate – arms traders need a war.

What is clear is that we Syrians have no control. It is the superpowers who are deciding the outcome. The opposition was not allowed to succeed. Even the Assad government is not allowed to make decisions. I just hope we ordinary Syrians will not pay the price if negotiations do not go well.

We are being killed and you are seeing this, you are seeing the photos. But nothing has been done.
Mohammad Yusra, Syrian humanitarian worker

I want to tell the world: we are here. We are afraid of Assad and his militia. We feel we have been betrayed by other governments. We saw some demonstrations in Europe about what is happening here, but not enough. We are being killed and you are seeing this, you are seeing the photos. But nothing has been done.

Every day now there are funerals. Every day we see bodies. The victims are not numbers. We know their names, families, backgrounds, even their faces.

It is hard to believe there are people who bomb a school with children inside. But we don’t have time to mourn. We must go back to life.

My friend’s wife says, “We used to be joyful and celebrate whenever there was a chance, but now we have lost our ability to smile.”

Here in Idlib, we feel our last hope now lies with Turkey. We have stopped trusting any governments who meet with Assad, as if everything were fine.

I watch my children and others’ children playing outside; they speak the words of war: army, Assad militia, revolutionaries.

Another father asks me, “How we will convince them to abandon these words after the war?”

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*The author’s name has been changed due to safety concerns, as those who speak out may face future retribution.