Tears from Haitham: A Syrian aid worker’s harrowing storyPublished: Feb 19, 2020 Reading time: 6 minutes
Since the beginning of December, intense conflict in freezing weather has forced 900,000 people to flee their homes in northwest Syria. Local humanitarian workers, who are often the last hope for families on the move, have not been spared from hardship in the worst crisis since the war in Syria began nine years ago.
For Haitham*, a humanitarian worker in Idlib, the worst part is watching his children suffer. Despite being a strong and determined man, he can’t help but cry when shares his own story.
“Our displacement took place all of a sudden; it was not planned. The escalation [of fighting] started a few days ago at midnight when the warplane hit. We felt the ground beneath the whole home shake violently. I felt the shaking but did not hear any sound. That is why I thought it was an earthquake. But a few seconds later I heard the sound of the warplane.”
I covered my children with blankets and waited for airstrikes
“The second air-raid was really horrifying. I prayed to God that the children did not wake up and I covered them well with blankets. The sounds of the planes and the airstrikes were very loud as they used heavily-exploding missiles. In less than an hour, five airstrikes hit my village in western countryside of Aleppo. I opened the door, but it was freezing outside and temperature was below zero. I wanted to escape and leave the village, but I could not wake my three children and carry them out. So I decided that we would stay put. The airstrikes went on until almost 3 a.m. and the warplane hit many surrounding villages. The explosions and sounds were clearly heard."
“When I went in the morning to see the damage, I saw that five homes were destroyed, and 11 people were killed under the rubble of their homes. The whole village was terrified because of this and the people started moving to the unknown. Many people fled to the outskirts of the village and waited for a few hours before returning. Others decided to leave for a safer place. I decided I would wait some more, but in the afternoon, helicopters started hovering overhead. Helicopters dropped many barrel bombs on the village and two families were killed by one. My family and I stayed that night at a friend’s home in a nearby town. The same day there were more helicopters and warplanes and I decided I cannot return to the village and made the decision to going to Azaz, a city in the northern countryside of Aleppo.”
Five families in two cars and a tractor
“Here, our suffering [really] started. We packed our things – mattresses, blankets, pillows, and one set of clothing for each person. We had no more space to take more items as we were five families together; three of my brothers and their families, my sister and her big family, my mother, and another sister. We had just two cars and one tractor that had to carry all of these people and their belongings. We left our village at 9 a.m. and arrived in Azaz at 8 p.m. [The road] was very crowded on the way and we had to drive very slowly.”
“Before I went to Azaz, I rented a home there and did not worry about finding one. When I arrived in Azaz, I was in contact with a real estate agent, but he said the home is no longer available and we stayed out in the streets. It was the first time I have been to Azaz and I know no one there so I felt I was really in a catastrophic situation [because] there were many women and children that I was responsible for. It was very cold when we went; temperatures were very low in the morning and at night it was worse.”
“We stayed for almost an hour outside in the street until someone suggested we go to the university building. But here it was also very cold, even colder than the outside, as the halls were not finished and there were neither windows nor doors. Suddenly, a friend of mine contacted me inquiring about us and I told him everything. He sent his friend [to meet us]; he let us stay in his home for the night. The next day we left and I started looking for a home to rent but found none. I also went to the camps in search of a tent to shelter the children, but also found nothing. We had to spend a second day at this person’s house, but his family had left their home in the Idlib countryside, too, so we had to leave.”
“While we were waiting in the street, someone stopped and invited us to his home despite our big number – 30 people, mostly children and women. We shared his and his brother’s homes and they prepared us dinner and we stayed with them. For the first time in four days, we were able to sit next to a stove and have some warmth. Those two brothers were themselves displaced from eastern Ghouta and they had already lived what we were living in that moment.”
The need is greater than the response
“The situation is really bad in Azaz, as many people are leaving their homes suddenly with no tents. The [current humanitarian] response cannot meet the needs of the displaced. I saw many families, including children, sheltering under trees and going into the unknown. [Being forced to flee] is really a ‘trip into the unknown´ as people have left their homes and are going somewhere that they do not know.
“The next morning, we packed our things and returned to Idlib countryside, where someone had emptied his home and put his furniture in his son’s home so that we could rent the home and shelter ourselves.”
‘The whole world has let us down’
“The most painful thing for me was that my children were considering me as their [protector] but I can do nothing to help them. The cold weather they have been through was very harsh and painful. A little child does not know where he is going. My son asked me many times: ´Why are we being hit and why should we flee?´ The scenes of children in the freezing weather were the most touching things.”
“The whole world has let us down. You can do without food or drink, but you cannot do without shelter, especially in the winter. Living in the camp [with a tent] in Azaz has become a dream for many people. Many people are still sleeping in the wild and many others are living in their own cars, waiting. Despite of all this, I am still optimistic and I am sure things will be fine soon. I trust Allah’s will, and not the international community.”
“Everyone should see the living conditions here. We are just human beings.”
* Name changed for security reasons