LATAKIA, Syria – Raneem had a choice to make. The last time the 26-year-old from Hama province saw the man she loves, he asked her to marry him. She said yes. But her parents forbade the engagement. It was 2015, four years into the Syrian conflict, and Raneem was in love with a man her parents believed would endanger her.
“My family never understood the situation they put me in,” Raneem told Syria Deeply. “I could not marry anyone else. I love him, but they did not care about that. My family rejected him because he is opposed to the Syrian regime.”
Raneem and her family lived in a part of Hama province controlled by the Syrian government. Her fiance, whom she did not name for security reasons, is from rural Idlib province, an area controlled by the Syrian opposition. Her parents were worried that if she married him, Raneem would have to move with her husband to Idlib, which is frequently targeted by the Syrian government’s aerial bombardments.
Raneem’s choice was stark – disobey her parents or give up on marrying the man she loves. But first, she had to find him. It’s been a year since the proposal, and 365 days since the young couple last spoke. When her parents rejected the proposal, he fled the government-controlled area of Syria. Raneem has subsequently rejected all of the men who have asked for her hand in marriage, and has spent the past year looking for her beloved.
Her choice is one shared by dozens of young women living in Syria. A large number of those who live in government-controlled areas have fallen in love with men with whom they studied, or whom they met before the Syrian conflict began – men who live in places the war has labeled “opposition-held areas.” As the conflict has divided the country, their relationships have become increasingly difficult to maintain: The men are harassed or conscripted into the Syrian army if they stay, and the women face danger and extortion if they travel between cities.
Salma, 25, met her fiance four years ago while they were attending the same college. She is from the government stronghold of Latakia and he is from Idlib. After he proposed, the situation in Latakia became too dangerous for him as he supported the Syrian opposition. He fled the city for Idlib, but he did not bring Salma.
“He visited my family, asked for my hand in marriage, and then disappeared. It was very hard to convince my family to say yes. I now live in stress. My family wants me to terminate the engagement, but I am not willing to marry someone else,” Salma said.
Salma does not know when she’ll see her fiance next and she is scared that her engagement will fall apart. Transportation between the two areas has become almost impossible. After the proposal, she planned to go to Idlib through the al-Madiq Castle crossing in northeastern Hama province, but her family warned her that women were being harassed at checkpoints.
Such checkpoints have become dangerous places for women across Syria, who often face sexual harassment, extortion and, in some cases, even arrest. In one particular incident at a government-run checkpoint in the province of Daraa, women were arrested and then traded to armed factions in exchange for weapons, according to a report from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
But physical danger is not the only obstacle awaiting women at the checkpoints. Many have paid large sums of money, up to 1 million Syrian pounds (around $4,600), to get to opposition-controlled areas.
Marwa, 24, from Homs, crossed three Syrian provinces to reach the man she loves. She traveled north with her mother and mother-in-law from Homs to Hama province and on to her final destination, Idlib. At the final checkpoint to reach Idlib, the regime’s officers harassed them, and took a golden ring that Marwa was wearing in order to let them pass, her mother told Syria Deeply.
“We had no other choice. We offered to give them 25,000 Syrian pounds [$115]. That was all the money we had, but they said that it was not enough, so Marwa gave them a ring that I had given her as a gift,” the 45-year-old mother said.
After the exchange, the trio were able to cross the checkpoint and now they are in Idlib, awaiting Marwa’s husband, who is supposed to pick them up and bring them to his house for their wedding celebration.
“I understand what it means for a girl to finally marry the one she loves. When we are with someone we love, we can overcome all difficulties,” Marwa’s mother said.
The alternative solution for these relationships is not much better. Men who favor the Syrian opposition are often faced with harassment and punishment if they choose to stay in the government-controlled hometowns of their fiancees and brides.
For women in these areas, marrying a man who has been displaced to government-controlled territory is not a viable option. According to Salam, a 25-year-old woman from Jablah, a coastal city in the largely government-controlled Latakia province, these men are extorted on a daily basis.
Last year, Salam and her fiance were strolling down the city’s boardwalk when government security officers stopped them. The officers “verbally harassed” her, but her fiance, a displaced individual from an opposition-held area, was powerless to defend her. The pro-government officers could easily have become violent toward him, sent him to jail or arrested him for evading Syria’s mandatory conscription.
“It is dangerous to confront them. This incident affected him a lot. He felt completely helpless, and that he could not continue with our relationship because he felt that he could not protect me.”
There are no exact figures on the number of men who have left opposition-controlled territory or fled Syria altogether, but there is no shortage of reasons as to why men are a rare sight in government-held areas. Aside from dealing with daily discrimination, men have been leaving in droves since 2014, when the government took new measures to enforce the mandatory draft and prohibited all males born between 1985 and 1991 from leaving the country.
In Latakia, some 17,000 men are wanted for conscription, according to Zaman Al Wasl, an independent Syrian news website.
Soon after the incident on the boardwalk, Salam’s fiance escaped to an opposition-controlled town, which she did not want to mention for safety reasons.
“He still wants to marry me, but we need to find a way for me to safely move there,” she said.
Salam’s fiance escaped to a different part of Syria, but for other women, the journey they must make to be reunited with the men they love is much more difficult.
Though Raneem hasn’t seen her beloved since his failed marriage proposal, she knows he is in Turkey. He had, in fact, offered to move them both to Turkey if they got married, in order to appease her parents’ fear that Raneem would have to move to Idlib. After a year, and many failed attempts at crossing the border, she recently arrived in the neighboring country and is living with her brother, who left Syria to avoid the Syrian regime.
She spends her days trying to contact her beloved’s friends, hoping that she will be able to locate him. She said she is sure that he has not gotten married and is waiting for her.
“I hope that I will be able to find him,” she told Syria Deeply. “If I do, no one will be able to stop us from getting married.”