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The Conversation: My Harrowing Escape from Qusayr, Part I

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and Rifaie Tammas, a 24-year-old from Qusayr. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, working with Syrian government troops, overran the key smuggling route between Lebanon and Homs province last week. Tammas describes the final anxious hours in his city, his chaotic evacuation and a tearful reunion with his mother after losing three close family members.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

There were rumors about an evacuation for over a week before we withdrew, but at that point we still thought that we could stand a bit more, and that some kind of help from other Syrian cities would come. Some 200 fighters did manage to come, but it wasn’t enough.

On Tuesday [June 4] at noon, I heard that Hezbollah and the regime forces were advancing to the city center. I heard they took Rifiyeh, a huge primary school in the east of the city. Then I heard they advanced towards the national clinic, which was used as a makeshift medical facility. They put snipers on the rooftops in these two areas, which meant that they also covered some parts of downtown. That was when we knew Qusayr was over. There was panic among the residents, and the leaders gathered in the evening and decided to evacuate.

I decided to stay with the FSA [Free Syrian Army] Farouq brigade, not as a fighter but because they had Internet. The best place to stay updated was with an FSA group. I also wanted to make sure I had someone to leave with.

I did not know what the FSA leaders were up to, but I was certain that they would come up with a good plan. I heard that they might hit a checkpoint and clear a way for civilians or make some kind of agreement with Hezbollah or the regime. I heard that they agreed with some Hezbollah leader that we can choose any road we want, and he assured one of the FSA leaders that they wouldn’t shoot or shell any vehicle.

I was a bit skeptical about this, since we killed a lot of them. Then again, why should they worry about us or the FSA after we left Qusayr, since we left all the medium and heavy weapons behind? Some FSA fighters took their rifles with them, but that was it. It became clear on the way, however, that the regime was not going to let us go that easily.

‘You Couldn’t Hear a Pin Drop’

We were the last group to leave at 5am on Wednesday. Before we left I took my camera and videotaped whole town for documentation since this was the last time we would see it before Hezbollah and the regime forces took it. There was nothing. You couldn’t hear a pin drop.

We set off at about 5am and headed towards the village of Dabaa, and then Buwayda and Salhiyeh. All of the FSA groups and some 25,000 civilians had to wait there until the evening. We couldn’t move in the daylight, because if the regime forces or Hezbollah saw us leaving, they would target us. There were some houses, but because of our huge numbers, most of us had to stay in open fields. We waited until sunset on Wednesday and set off towards a tiny narrow hidden road.

We thought that the FSA would attack one of the checkpoints on the road in order to allow us to evacuate, but then we discovered that the FSA was planning for us to flee discreetly. The majority of the people were riding in cars or big vans and lorries, but some were also on foot. But we had only driven for about 15 minutes when they told us that we were going to have to walk.

The FSA was in front of us, coordinating between themselves and sending guides to tell people which way to go. We were not moving all together but split into groups of dozens or hundreds. It was one of the roads they had used to smuggle, but it was very dangerous. We were told there was a very high chance that people might be ambushed and killed, and that we might have to retreat.

We had to cross many roads that were open to snipers and very close to regime checkpoints. Every time we crossed a road near a checkpoint, we were targeted by shelling and snipers. But we were moving fast and no one got hurt. That lasted two or three hours. Then we got to a place called al-Hamra where we had to cross a major highway that connects al-Hamra on the western side to Homs in the east. That was very difficult because we were on foot and people were getting very tired. And we were very close to a checkpoint.

I thought that since we left Qusayr and the FSA left all their weapons and tanks behind them, they would leave us alone. I was shocked to see we were targeted by all kinds of weapons: snipers, rockets, gunfire, shelling … it was horrible. They seized every chance to inflict heavy losses, targeting civilians and wounded people. We were forced to leave many wounded people behind due to the intense shelling. We were forced to leave all the weapons we had won for over two years. We left our houses, which were full of valuable things. We left our fields, our lands. We left everything behind, yet the regime was not satisfied.

We were two meters from an important highway when the regime forces opened fire on us. I was with my three brothers. One of them, Rami, had already been wounded in his leg, and he was using crutches, so we had to move slowly. Then I heard a sound near me – it was my youngest brother Hadi.

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I heard him screaming, “My stomach!” He was just meters away. The moment he got shot he was saying, “Shahada,” [the Muslim profession of faith] very loud. He said, “Don’t cry over me.” I thought it was a minor wound, but then I looked at him and saw the life draining from his eyes. I was with my two other brothers, and when he lost consciousness we didn’t believe it. We were kilometers away from home, in the middle of nowhere. There was shooting everywhere, and despite that we started screaming for medics and nurses. We were panicking along with all the civilians. And it was dense darkness. Then, another brother of mine found a car. We got him inside the car, drove 30 meters, and the driver said, “He’s dead, you can’t help him.” He asked us to just take him out of the car, and we did. But one of my brother’s friends didn’t want to believe it, so we carried him. We covered one kilometer in a half hour, but then we told his friend that it was no use. We dug a small hole and buried my brother. He was just 20.

After we buried Hadi we had to again stay in open fields among trees all day Thursday. When evening came we kept moving till we reached another place. The goal was to move east towards the Damascus suburbs. When we reached that location we had already crossed 20 to 25 kilometers (12-15 miles) on foot. If you look at the map, it seems like it wasn’t that far, but we were zigzagging the whole way.

Then we reached a point where either you make it or you’re going to die: the “death opening.”

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