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Inside the Largest Mass Displacement of Syria’s War

In recent weeks, Syrian journalist and activist Logain Almelehan found herself caught up in the largest single displacement of the Syrian war, as hundreds of thousands fled a government offensive in outhwest Syria. She tells her story to Sophie Zinser and Jesse Marks.

Written by Sophie Zinser, Jesse Marks Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
A Syrian child looks through the window of a bus as displaced people from Quneitra province are evacuated to Idlib and Aleppo, July 21, 2018.OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The Assad government’s rapid advance through southwest Syria since June 19 displaced 330,000 Syrians in one of the largest and fastest displacements since the beginning of the seven-and-a-half-year war. Among them was Logain Almelehan, a 32-year-old Syrian activist and journalist for Horriya Press, a pro-revolution news platform founded in 2015.

On July 12, Almelehan fled towards the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights along with nearly 164,000 others. She lived in a makeshift camp near the border until opposition forces surrendered on July 19. The Syrian government’s recapture of most of southwest Syria and consolidation of control of the city of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, marked another critical turning point in the war.

But this was not the end of Logain’s displacement. Under the deal, at least 7,000 Syrians – civilians and fighters who refused to surrender – were evacuated to the one of the last opposition strongholds, Idlib in northern Syria. Faced with no other options, Logain and her family joined the evacuation. Logain relayed her story through a series of phone and WhatsApp interviews, which are translated and edited below.

Before the Offensive

I am originally from the Bedouin areas of rural Daraa. I studied journalism, so during the revolution, I started working as a journalist in Daraa City with a Syrian newspaper, reporting on daily news in the south. I particularly enjoyed writing opinion pieces. I loved my colleagues and how we worked together. We were a team of 13, and I was the only woman.

We learned from others in Ghouta, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and the countryside that horrible events were occurring in Syria. I personally have nothing but a pen to write with as a tool of rebellion. Thanks to God, I was able to write about the revolution, the situation in Syria and how people felt during the war.

After we were forced to flee our home, everything changed. I used to live in a clean, beautiful house with my husband. I worked; I got a regular paycheck. Now my life has turned around 360 degrees. Everything is its opposite. Nothing resembles what it used to be.

The Coming Offensive: July 12

My family and I were living in the mountains. When the offensive began, I went to the city of Harak, where there was an internet connection so I could report on the raids from there. The bombing got worse every day, but I refused to leave. I would not let the regime succeed in controlling me. I also hoped that the revolutionary forces would repel the regime’s advance.

My husband, brother and I were at home when we heard the sound of the planes, and listened intently to see which direction they were coming from. We moved underground to escape the bombs and shrapnel. It was a terrifying moment when everyone emerged from hiding to see the aftermath. The neighborhood was annihilated. The whole city itself was eliminated.. You could count the number of survivors on two hands. All of my friends asked me why ّّI didn’t leave immediately after that.

Now my life has turned around 360 degrees. Everything is its opposite. Nothing resembles what it used to be.

But I didn’t leave until after Busra al-Harir, a nearby town, fell to regime forces.We feared our city would be the next to fall. Under cover of night, my family packed our belongings into a friend’s car and decided to drive further south toward Musayfrah, a town near the Jordanian border under the cover of night when airstrikes slowed.

We left the city of Hirak for the small town of Musayfrah by the Jordan border in the rural area of eastern Dara’a. We tried to go toward the Quneitra countryside at first, hoping it would be safe. But, after I received information from conflict analysts that Quneitra would soon fall into regime control, we continued south to Musayfrah. The whole trip, only 20 km, took a full day. I cried the entire journey.

My brother was martyred in this war, so that I could live in freedom. It was a moment I will never forget. I wanted to die. As I walked beside his grave, I hoped to die. The dead are lucky to have died. I no longer have my home. There is no place that is my own, no place in which I feel loved and safe. Instead, I feel lost, without knowing what to do or where to go. I grow anxious thinking about the future. Time feels empty. There is only killing, criminals and Russian bombs. And I feel very frustrated to have become displaced.

Onward to the Golan

After only one day in Musayfrah, we decided to continue to seek safety in the Golan at the town of Quneitra, in the hope that Israel would be better than any Arab country and accept Syrians at the border. The entire journey to the border, I saw car after car carrying Syrians escaping the conflict, like I was watching a film about war on TV. We faced a difficult journey to the Israeli border from eastern Dara’a. We arrived to our destination in the evening after hours of travel, but I immediately felt depressed. As Syrians, the area we were displaced to in the Golan did not feel like the country that I was born in nor the country where I live.

In Quneitra I would cry a lot. I started to think about how everything used to be and how everything has become. I remembered the times that we were happy at home and we still had hope that everything would go back to the way that it used to be.

Russian-backed government forces in Syria conduct airstrikes near a camp for displaced Syrians outside the village of al-Rafeed, near the Israeli border on July 19, 2018. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

We considered trying to reach safety in eastern Syria. But how would we get there? We spoke with smugglers to see whether or not the route was safe. I felt alone, as if I was dreaming. I lost track of time. Each night, sleep would release me from thinking about what will happen. But when morning returned, the same questions also returned: If we stay here, will the regime come?

Everyone is puzzled: the world, myself, everyone. But displacement is our destiny and none of us can make any decisions. If we decide to stay where we are, it will be a disaster. We are threatened with death. Men will be forced to go into the army. There is no safety and security if we leave or stay. If we go north [to Idlib], the war will follow us there. If we go to Turkey, we will not be safe. Smugglers will scam us. No matter what we do, we will lose.

The Burden of Displacement

My parents tried to lighten the burden of our situation, but no one can make it lighter. We cannot sleep, think, work or do anything. It is impossible to adapt to the situation. I tried. I tried to make a cleaning routine and organize our new home.But since fleeing, I am not motivated to work, or even do housework. My work as a journalist is not of the same quality as it was. I cannot focus because so many families are crowded into the same space.

Eventually, I forced myself to get out of the camp and head to the city to get back to work as a journalist. But leaving the camp, I only grew more sad, seeing homeless children and families huddling under the trees. I saw a little girl ask her mother, “Who created the army?” “Who created the earth?” Her mother responded, “Allah did.” The girl responded to her mother, “Oh, I cannot love Allah anymore.” I returned to the camp after hearing this conversation. It would have been better to have never gone at all.

If we go north [to Idlib], the war will follow us there. If we go to Turkey, we will not be safe. Smugglers will scam us. No matter what we do, we will lose.

Syrians displaced to Quneitra used to live regular lives, but now there are no cushions or blankets for sleeping or plates for eating. Some people have tents, while others have built makeshift roofs to shield them from the sun. Thousands of people live under tents and trees. Many are elderly, children and women. People are in a state of terror and panic. They do not feel that there is a solution. Above all, they feel helpless. People here are afraid of the world, and at the same time are afraid what will happen if the world tries to save them.

I tried to hide my pain from my husband, but I couldn’t. Sometimes I console him. Other times, he consoles me. It was the first time I saw him cry. I felt guilty for telling him about my pain. I wanted to be strong so that I would not make him feel even more sad. We both cried together.

Displaced Again: July 17

The fighting spread close to our area last night. My family and I left shortly after dark when the bombing and clashes began. We fled a few kilometers south. We are now living in tents outside Rafeed village. In order to access the Wi-Fi network, I am commuting into the village of Qarqus because there is no service anywhere else. Once I got online, I have been corresponding with people, and received messages from everyone I know.

All we see now is bombs, smoke and fire – a world of uncertainty. We do not know where to go or what is the safest path. Are we better off in the street? Should we go west? The situation continues to escalate. We are in hell, and the world is against us. The world is chasing us with the sounds of bombs, planes and missiles.

An evacuation convoy leaves Quneitra for Idlib on July 20. (Ekrem Masri/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As a journalist living in a camp, I continue to report as much as I can from the camp. It is my duty. It is also my job to provide moral support for to my family and my husband. Somes other women continue their daily routines, buying and selling food and clothing.

Syrian women are trying to protect their children. You cannot push a mother away from her children. How do I know this? I see their strength in the midst of the destruction. Other women are afraid of arrest, for example, if their husband was a member of the Free Syria Army. In this situation, a woman’s personality starts to fade away. We are in a state of being flattened.

There is fear for those like me: journalists, and those working in media. We are always afraid, but our fear increases . How can we work? There are no protections for journalists if they are arrested.

If my mind was not confused, and my soul not labored, I would have given you more. For now, I will try to get out of this hell and follow my career as a journalist. Returning to the land of the regime would be a disgrace. I do not want to return or to die. I’ll end my conversation with you with words that the Syrian people continue to repeat, as we try, in vain, to stop the regime: I will come back to my country one day.

Logain left for Idlib on July 21. Sophie Zinser and Jesse Marks interviewed and followed Logain’s flight from Harak, Syria, during July over two days of phone interviews and five days of WhatsApp Text and Voice Messaging. Her messages were translated from Arabic and edited for length and clarity with her permission.

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