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We were friends… in Syria

We were friends before the catastrophe…

I’ve met Ali, Khaled and Ahmad in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. While they were trying to recover and find a decent place to live, they counted me their stories.

The testimonies below aim to describe the exode of these three friends who crossed the Iraqi border, escaping the raging war of Syria. Suffering, pain and humanity were part of their trips. Different entry points to finally be together again in Kurdistan…

Ali - "I hoped my name wasn’t mentioned anywhere on a list"

« My name is Ali*. I’m from Syria, I’m thirty one years old, originally from «Hamshli city», but I used to live in Damascus and I worked as a teacher in a private school there.

In 2012, I went to the military service, because in Syria it’s an obligation, not a choice. I did not want to do my service because of the ongoing revolution in Syria. I wanted to move to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, I couldn’t stay there because it was becoming worse and worse day by day.

I’ve participated in demonstrations against the government because I wanted to tell the media in order to tell the world that it is the regime that was killing people. There were no groups coming from outside Syria at the beginning, at least, during the time I was there. I’m sure of that. I have seen Syrian security forces killing people… I have seen that with my eyes!

But now many groups, many people from outside and even some countries are involved in Syria’s war. But at that time, no…! I’m sure of that. Syrian people were participating in demonstrations… Security forces and military men were killing people…

Some people fled to Lebanon; others to Jordan, but for me, as I’m Kurdish it was better to move to Iraqi Kurdistan, because I knew this region; I knew people there. At that time, the Kurdish government was welcoming the Kurdish people from Syria, now It’s a bit different.

So I decided to move from Damascus to my fathers’ home in a Kurdish area, near « Ramshli ».

I hoped my name wasn’t mentioned anywhere on a list… For that, I didn’t use my own ID card, I used another Identity card, because if they looked at my name and checked on the list, they would have probably seen that I was wanted due to my participation in Damascus demonstrations. I was really afraid they would discover I wasn’t the real ID holder. It wasn’t easy at all.

I came from Damascus to “Tedemore” by bus. There were many checkpoints to cross from Damascus to “Tedemore”. I continued for a while and then we reached “Deresore”.

I finally joined my family but my mother was not happy about it, because it wasn’t safe for me. If anybody told the authorities that “this guy” was coming from Damascus and was wanted, they would have just come and arrested me. My mother asked me to cross the border as soon as possible.

The day after I decided to leave my family. After half an hour I arrived into a small village around 04:00pm. I went to a smuggler’s house and I paid him around 400 USD. I stayed at his house with six other guys. He suddenly asked us to go in his car and when we arrived there, many people were waiting too. We were about 30 people. I remember there were three or four entire families. The others were young men just like me. We drove for about 15 minutes. Then at a certain point, they switched off the lights of the car. Few minutes later, they asked us to remain quiet and to start running! “Go! Go! Go!” I knew they paid the security officer who was guarding the Syrian border but there were many guards and not all were paid…So no 100 % warrantee for us. It was very muddy and not easy for us to run in such circumstances. It started raining. I remember when we arrived at the last point, close to the border we have been discovered by a Syrian soldier and instead of shooting he told us in Arabic “God be with you!” I won’t forget ever his words.

Then we passed the border and arrived to the Iraqi side. There was a light screening the area, like a radar, so when the light was coming near us, we were laying down, on the ground. Of course, the smuggler let us cross on our own…They left us without notice.

I think we walked about two hours and we arrived to another village. There was a Kurdish Security guard waiting for us there. He came, received us and as he said we were safe then and we should not worry no more. In spite of his words, we knew that it wasn’t finished because there wasn’t only Kurdish government there, but also the Iraqi government. It wasn’t safe. The radars were not for the Kurdish government but for the Iraqi government. The smuggler didn’t mention anything regarding this detail. We thought we were going straight to the Kurdish region.

We slept one night there, in that village. Then a driver dropped us to another village and the Kurdish authorities finally registered us

Now, I’m in Erbil. I have been living here for two years. When I arrived here I started to look for a job because life is not as cheap here, not like it was in Syria. I was alone, my family stayed there. I came alone to Kurdistan.

I have married my wife 5 months ago. My wife joined me here as we were engaged.

At the beginning I faced difficulties in applying for a job because of my accent, really different from the Iraqi Kurdish accent, I couldn’t teach at school. But then after 6 or 7 months I started teaching in the schools. It was good for me to have this chance even if the salary was not that high.

Now I’m working in humanitarian organisations, taking care of Syrian refugees. It’s good.

When I arrived to Kurdistan, I was thinking that I would have stayed here maybe one year or maximum two years and then I would have the chance to go back to my country, but now It’s different, the crisis lasts more and more and is becoming worse and worse.

I have been admitted as a refugee and I have a residency permit… But this is not the case for all refugees. The residency card allows me to work, which is good, but I can’t go to any other part of Iraq, neither in Turkey nor abroad. Without passport I can’t plan anything. I’m just following the destiny God prepared for me.

But maybe, with the help of organisations coming to Kurdistan to take care of Syrian refugees, I could have a chance to travel to their country, to France or USA… I don’t know.

Damascus stories…

You know when I was in Damascus, I participated in demonstrations even though I was afraid to be captured by the government. You know in Syria it’s better to be killed than being captured because of the torture. You cannot imagine what they do to the people there…

Now, when I’m thinking about that time, I’m telling myself, how a courageous man I was, just to stay there… Just to be there…

Even after two years, I keep on having nightmares.

Sometimes in my dreams, I see myself at home waiting the military to come… and seeing militaries shelling Damascus city…

Sometimes I see myself trapped in demonstrations, looking for my friends, although they were dead already or reported missing.

For the military service, the reason why I didn’t want to join, it was because at that time they were just killing their own people and I didn’t want to kill my people or to be killed by my people because either you kill or you get killed.

That’s why I didn’t want to serve in the military, to kill people for Mr President! Serving Mr President was unthinkable! I even hate the people who served in the military, the people who refused to run away.

For the regime I’m now a traitor. I’m traitor because I refused to kill my people.

You know, two moments I can’t forget.

The day we crossed the borders.

During the trip I could only count on God and no one else. I was begging God : “Please God, help!”. And I was wondering: “What have I done to be in this terrible situation?”. There were all these kids crying while we were all running, because they knew, even if they were very young, they knew the situation was dangerous. They felt that their families were afraid… It was a very hard time!

I remember this day at the Mosque in Damascus:

I was in a mosque and we were praying. While praying some young children rushed into the Mosque shouting :“Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar !! » God is the greatest, God is the greatest… ! And the security forces came just after them. We were praying in the mosque and they started firing at the mosque. We couldn’t go out and we stayed inside the mosque during 16 prayers. At that time, I was just waiting for death to come, but also it was like a direct connection with God as we were praying close to our death!

Yesterday while some people were celebrating the last day of the year, we heard Fireworks. My wife woke me up and she said

“Have you heard?”…

I said:

“No, no…They are just celebrating…”

“No…, no they aren’t…They’re bombing…, they are shelling….”

I’m disgusted now; I was thinking that because the Regime was killing people, the “developed countries” wouldn’t have accepted these killings. I was convinced that if we just demonstrate and tell the world what is going on down there… They would have prevented this regime from continuing… That’s what I was thinking…

I remember when the Government started shelling “Homs” city; It would have been the final move for the regime… The world would not have accepted this!

Nothing happened!

We have to work for peace now, we have to struggle… but now It’s like hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago! Nothing really changes in this world…! »

*SP : The name has been changed to protect Ali from any potential risk for him and his family

Khaled - "The smuggler we paid just sold us to the regime..."

« I’m from Syria. I graduated from engineering in Agriculture. After I finished my study in 2009, I went to military service because it’s an obligation.

In Syria; it’s not a choice. 7 months after I joined my military assignment the crisis started. I was supposed to serve the country one year and a half. I accomplished this year and a half but they didn’t release me because they needed soldiers, they needed me. So, no other choice than to serve eleven months more. Unforunately, I have spent the last 3 months in jail… I was tortured during that time.

The military service was not protecting anybody; it was only serving the regime’s interests.

At the beginning, they weren’t asking me to go for missions as I’m Kurdish and they knew it was impossible for me to kill my people. But step-by-step, they were pressuring us. So when I felt my turn was about to come, I asked the permission to take a rest, a vacation. I knew that if I stayed, and if they would have sent me for a mission, I would not have killed anybody and they would have put me in Jail because I wouldn’t have killed people, considering me as a “traitor”, “traitor” of the nation which means go to jail.

As It was too dangerous to stay at my fathers’ home, I decided to leave. The government was present everywhere and the Iraqi Kurdistan was my only alternative, my only chance of freedom.

I left on 2012, 14th of June. Few days later, I was arrested and thrown in Jail. The smuggler we paid just sold us to the regime, few kilometers far from the land of freedom, few kilometers from the border.

The regime displaced us from jail to jail, from Ramshlo to Ar-Rekka, then Aleppo, and finally to Damascus. No inquiries have been conducted to sue us and to condemn us. They’ve just put us in jail and they used different kind of torture.

One of the most common one was named “Doo lab”: they put your legs and your head inside the tyre so your legs stand up and you can’t move. Your hands are well tighten. They strike you. They strike again and again. Then, they put your legs into the water and again they strike you. They alternated this torture with the use of high voltage until your felt into unconsciousness.

They used this system of tightening in which any temptative of liberation just tight a bit more the rope. Due to the blood concentration, you feel like your hands will just felt by their own on the ground. But the worst thing was that while they torture you, your eyes are covered and you cannot see anything, you cannot see when or from where they will beat you next time.

This happened to me.

In Jail, the place was very, very narrow. We were a lot of people in jail and it was so wet. We were all in the same room and it was located under the ground. A lot of people were sick and wounded but they didn’t treat them…

I witnessed one prisoner’s homicide. He was sick, he was just trying to get some fresh air because he was hardly breathing. They told him “you are doing that purposely, You’re acting! You are not sick, you’re a liar…” but he definitely was… So they struck and tortured him until his end… He died in front of us.

They weren’t giving us fresh food, they were keeping the food aside for two or three days, and then they were feeding us.

Psychological pressure was also hard to handle. I remember this Lieutenant in a Damascus. He was shooting: “ those people don’t deserve inquiries, they don’t deserve this, they deserve to be killed directly! No need to ask or negotiate about what they have done!”. I was followed by a new round of torture.

Finally after 3 months, my father paid around seven thousand dollars to have access to an official judgment. As we paid a lot of money to the judge they released me.

The judge clearly explained me to not confess anything during the trial, even under torture. “Just deny all the facts, otherwise you’re lost”.

Then they gave me a document instructing me to reintegrate my previous military assignment within 24 hours. But I didn’t come back. I went home, took my clothes and left again. I’ve just stayed 3 hours at home then I moved to Kurdistan. Just 3 hours to decide my future!

There weren’t too many governmental officers the second time I reached the border and fortunately it was open this time. I came walking into Kurdistan.

My sister’s husband was working in Kurdistan, so he supported me. I stayed with him for one month and a half and now I’m trying to count on myself.

I studied engineering but I don’t work in my field. I’m working in hotel and restaurant trying to help my family in Syra. I don’t like to work in that kind of job and I was planning to go to Europe but I can’t move anywhere else. No passport neither residency card… I’m condemned to survive here.

I nourish the hope that one day, I’ll be back in Syria. I hope we’ll all come back home but… I doubt it…. Until this regime is there… »

*SP : The name has been changed to protect Ali from any potential risk for hin and his family.

Ahmad - "(...) how many prayers did you do in the morning?"

« I’m Ahmad*, thirty nine years old, from Aleppo Syria.

When protests started in Syria, I was a teacher, I taught English language at the secondary school in a town far away… about 390 km away from Aleppo.

I was, then, a member of the revolution’s coordinating cell but it was peaceful. We were writing on the walls, hanging revolution’s flags on electric wires… and this kind of things…

I remember we organized two peaceful demonstrations in this small town where the majority of the population was supporting Al Assad and the Ba’ath party. During one of the demonstrations, they arrested seven people, out of the 22 people who were demonstrating. During the second demonstration they opened fire. Some supervisors from the Ba’ath party shot at the demonstrators, fortunately, no one were injured at that time. However they’ve arrested 3 people another time. It was at the beginning and I don’t know what happened to them.

In the middle of 2012, it turned to be armed. Many young men were joining the free army in El Bab city or other cities far away. When the guys were back in town, we were ridiculed them and laughed for the armed revolution as we were living in a “quiet” place and nobody was expecting what finally took place afterwards.

I remember the first serious event that occurred… It was exactly the 20th of September 2012. Syrian fighters bombed a petrol station at Ein Issa, the city where I was living, 79 people died on that day and more than 200 others were seriously injured.

My father’s cousin has been killed during this bombing. He came back with his dead body in the village, that day. I helped people carrying the injured to the hospital where my cousin was working… there were so many dead corpses around me, I even saw one guy with half of the face…

Despite the fear, I stayed there with my father, my mum and my kid. This event has really changed the situation and after that, majority of the people flew away. Ain Issa became a ghost town. Why didn’t I leave? Because I had no car, and there was no possibility to rent one at that time.

So, no other choice than staying at home, locked down inside.

Nine or ten days after, another incident forced our decision to leave the city. Syrian’s aircrafts bombed a car nearby the city, on the main road… Two other civilians were killed in this small mini bus, and so many civilians around were wounded. The area was totally unsecure.

So we moved to Kobani city, which had a Kurdish people majority. My mum and dad preferred to stay there; they were thinking that all would have been finished soon. It was a difficult decision to let them there, but we had a kid and we decided to move. We didn’t want him to see all that, to hear bombs and fights is traumatising, so you can imagine for a kid.

At Kobani there wasn’t electricity, no drinking water, we couldn’t buy things, life was too hard to stay so the idea to move abroad popped up. But passports were compulsory to quit the country.

As regards, I went to Damascus to get a passport, regardless the fact that it was a very dangerous journey, I had no other choice, I had to go. The opposition occupied half of the way but the other side was controlled by the regime. During the trip, I was often asked what were my occupation and the reason for my trip, but I never mentioned anything about the fact I was a teacher because they could have considered me as a defector.

I just said that I was moving to Damascus to work. I was not sure my name was on the regime blacklist or not. You know, when they check out your name on the computer, if they find any reference about you, they may kill you directly without any hesitation. Many people were killed at checkpoints. Fortunately, all went well and I finally got a passport from Damascus.

We decided to move to Turkey for a better life.

Before moving with all my family, I moved alone to assess the situation. I stayed about 35 days. I worked as a porter at the grocery market in Mersin city. Life wasn’t easy there but much better than in Syria so I wanted to bring over my family with me.

Unfortunately my dad told me on the phone that the situation in Syria was worsening and it was not the right time to cross the border again. At this time radical groups appeared. Extremist religious groups were coming from everywhere, controlling some villages. I was really afraid of all these radical groups, because a lot of them were also connected with the regime and they could have killed you without any particular reason. For instance, they were asking you, (even if I pray): how many prayers did you do in the morning? If you hesitated only, they could have killed you, pretending you were not a real Muslim. Some friends of mine reported to me some cases that occurred during Ramadan. They were asking people to open their mouths to check if they were fasting or not. Any doubt they had… you were shot dead. Sometimes, they killed just because of the Kurdish roots of civilians, mixing up everything, religion and nationality. My dad asked me to not to come back to Syria, he proposed me to bring my kid and wife at the Turkish border in Jarabus city instead, when the situation would allow it.

My family finally joined me, we stayed for a while in Turkey, but the working conditions merely allowed us to survive, eating and paying the rent… I had to work all week without any rest as a porter during the 5 days and as English teacher for the weekend.

Accordingly, we decided to come “here”, in Kurdistan after I struggled to save a bit of money. My sister and my cousin were both living in Erbil.

We crossed the Iraqi and Turkish border on December the 8th, at 7 o’clock in the morning. When we started walking, the snow was falling, it was so cold and we weren’t well equipped. I carried my son on my back, and my wife carried a small bag, with some food, biscuits and other things. We paid about five hundred dollars for the smuggler to help us cross the border. It was very dangerous and I won’t forget it ever. It was really hard, especially because of the weather, sometimes raining, sometimes snowing. The worst thing was that my kid was getting very cold.

We were walking alongside a river from Turkey to Kurdistan (Iraqi). It was an abrupt and rocky mountainous area. We had to pass through ways with no more than 5cm width, but we could catch the upper side of these rocks and the smuggler was holding our legs to avoid slipping down in the river. On our way, we met a group of Kurdish hunters, three people who were on the other side of the river, on the Kurdish side. Once the hunters heard us, they crossed the river and prepared a fire, a big fire to warm us, as it was very cold. My son was even unable to talk. They took care of him… and I will never forget that!

Then the smuggler was a bit afraid and told us: don’t say I’m a smuggler! It was a condition when we made the deal, to not tell nor the Kurdish authorities nor the PKK fighters what he was doing.

A couple of hours walking, we reached the hunters’ car parked in Misouri area I think. Thank god we’ve met these guys! The hunters carried our bag and the smuggler went back to Turkey.

They drove us to a small town. They gave us food and let us near the stoves to get warm. We stayed there for about an hour and a half. After that, the tone of the hunter proposed us a drop off in Zakho. He told us: “after that, you can go wherever you want”. Fortunately, the authorities didn’t ask us anything during the trip. After we went to Zakho, we rented a car and we managed to move to Dohuk and then Kalak. As it was snowing a lot, the driver refused to continue any further.

So I called my cousin and my sister to pick us up there. As they were already registered in Erbil, they had this UN form to cross checkpoints. We passed the checkpoint using their own forms. Then we went at the UN’s office for registration but when they asked us “when did you come to Erbil?”

We answered “ two months ago”. Because if you say that you arrived recently, they would have replied, “ no way, borders are closed how did you come here?” and we didn’t want to say that we came from the mountain by walking.

When we arrived to Erbil people dealt with us in a disrespectful way… not an issue of inferiority or superiority but there was a general opinion toward Syrians. They weren’t paying so much respect to us.

For example, I was looking for a house for more than 10 days, even far away from Erbil, Perginsh, Chawish, Kaznazan, Aouler. I went to different places, but anytime the same question when I was going to see the landlord:

“Are you Syrian ?”, “Yes”…

“No… we don’t have any place available for now”.

They asked me first if I was Syrian.

This made me feel really disappointed. They didn’t really consider us as part of the Kurdish community but as a Syrian refugee or a kind of gypsy. With the help of friends I finally found a roof to stay, even if expensive.

To find a job, it was the same problem… No residency permit, no job and if by chance you find one, it will be low paid.

I hope to go back to Syria one day because I miss my homeland, my family and friends. Students were also my friends. I was living in a town where almost all of the population knew me very well. I was shaking hands here and there, because I stayed for more than 4 or 5 years and I was teaching at the secondary school. We were much appreciated and respected over there…

I hope to come back, because here I have…nothing. Here I’m a number, not a man. A number of the Syrian refugees, while in Syria I was Mahmoud… an English teacher at the secondary school…

Here we can’t think about a future.

When I think about all these matters, really I get confused and I can’t even express myself. Sometimes my wife asks me: “what will we do next week?”

I answered her angrily: “really I don’t know!!!!”, when I was in Syria and she was asking me, it was clear : “in the beginning of the summer we should go to Damascus, after that we will come back to Aleppo, at the fasting time we will be in Aleppo… we were having a plan for the full year, but now we don’t know what to do even tomorrow… because we are hopeless…! »

*SP: The name has been changed in order to protect Ahmad and his family from potential risks