I ran from the Syrian regime’s bombs once – now I fear having to do so again

In the opposition-controlled countryside of north-west Syria, I can live a normal life. But for how long? 

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I have recently noticed that most of the kitchenware I have is plastic, the kind that’s for short-term use only. This plastic kitchenware, which may seem a minor issue, has made me realise that I still don’t feel stable and haven’t been able to convince myself that this place is my final destination. I still sleep on a mattress on the floor, with the small bag that I carried during my journey nearby.

I am a forcibly displaced woman from eastern Ghouta, an area on the edge of the Syrian capital of Damascus. I lived there with my family throughout the revolution until March of this year, when the Assad regime escalated its attacks on Ghouta and eventually recaptured it. The regime’s soldiers forced us to choose between living under Assad’s control, or fleeing to the opposition-held north-west of the country, currently home to more than 1.3 million displaced Syrians.

We chose to leave.

I live today in the Aleppo countryside, which is the largest area of Syria, along with Idlib province, outside regime control. The countryside is controlled by various factions. Turkey runs our health and education sectors while local councils, run by civilians, handle all other services. Armed opposition groups also exert military control. With me is my husband, a physician, and my two children, who are finally back at school.

In 2011, I joined the Syrian revolution. Up until then, I had spent my whole life under the control of Hafez Assad and his son, Bashar Assad. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with my children and grandchildren living under the control of Assad’s son, also named Hafez. I wanted to live and enjoy my rights as a citizen in my country, and not as if I were a foreigner with no rights at all. The corruption of the Assad family and their allies was taking away everything from us. I joined the revolution to exercise my right to freedom of speech and the freedom to have an opinion.

I currently work as a member of the women’s department of Aleppo Local Council, which is governed by the opposition Syrian Interim Government. I run projects to support and empower Syrian women socially and politically to play more significant roles in their communities and take part in political decision-making. During the revolution, I watched Syrian women joining men and calling for freedom against Assad. They suffered and endured just like the men and so they deserve to have the same rights and a voice.

Just few days ago, I helped organise a women’s conference in north-western Syria, which more than 150 Syrian women of different backgrounds attended. We all have hope that tomorrow might be better than today, and we all are working to achieve that.

I want to see a Syria that looks like us, all of us – diverse. A Syria that can accommodate all of us, protect all of us, keep us safe and make us feel stable, and one which we can all build together.

But that dream looks a long way off, and in my new home in the north-west, we are facing an all too familiar situation, one that is similar to what happened in the final days of Ghouta, when fighting killed more than 1,400 people and the regime used chemical weapons to take back the area. We hear reports that Russia and the Assad regime are planning an escalation attack against the north-west, in a final attempt to take it over. If this happens, we might be displaced again, but where to? North-western Syria is the last fortress.

If I am honest with myself, I cannot be sure Idlib would withstand an attack. I once believed that Daraya, Homs, the city of Aleppo, Ghouta and Daraa would withstand the regime. One by one, they all fell.

I ask myself, what will happen to the tens of thousands of people living in displacement camps? Already, some of them are suffering from sickness and a lack of food and water. How will they cope if Assad and Russia begin bombing the north-west? It’s a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen.

As activists, too, we are greatly afraid. The regime knows that those who refused to live under its control are gathered in the north-west, and we know that the regime considers peaceful activists and those who don’t support it as enemies and potential targets.

In recent weeks, the regime has been releasing names of detainees who died in its prisons. They were civilian activists arrested after the 2011 revolution, whom we had long suspected were likely to be tortured and executed. The list of names proves that the regime believes peaceful activists must be targeted and killed. If north-western Syria falls, will we be similarly detained and disappeared? We know that the regime has the support of governments of powerful countries, and that the world has largely remained silent about Assad’s abuses.

In March 2018, I testified before the UN Security Council, talking about the violations the regime was committing against the civilians of Ghouta. I called upon the members who attended that session to take action to stop the bombing and prevent our displacement, but nobody did anything and we were displaced anyway.

I don’t think we can rely on the international community to save us, if Assad comes for the north-west. Our only hope would be that Turkey would open its borders and allow us to flee, but there is no guarantee of that.

The displaced people of north-western Syria, my family included, abandoned our beloved homes and towns to live in freedom from the regime. As much as I long to go home, it is far better to live here than under Assad’s control. Despite everything, we still have hope to get rid of the war criminal, to give life the meaning it deserves and to give humanity its meaning back. If Assad does take the north-west, at least we can say, we did all that we could.

Nivin Hotary is a Syrian activist from eastern Ghouta