Civilians flee on foot as regime forces close in on Islamic State territory in central Syria

As regime forces close in on a pocket of Islamic State-held territory in central Syria, thousands of civilians are taking any opportunity to flee to safer ground.

The desert region of Uqayrbat—a cluster of towns and villages that span eastern Hama and Homs provinces—was encircled by regime forces in mid-August amid a wider, months-long campaign by the government to drive out the Islamic State. Since then, residents have been trapped between Islamic State checkpoints, a shifting front line and deadly regime and Russian airstrikes.

An estimated 10,000 residents of the Uqayrbat region gathered in the northernmost portion of the encircled pocket, in an area called Wadi al-Azeeb, in recent weeks, hoping to escape ongoing clashes between regime forces and the Islamic State to the south and east.

Last week, Uqayrbat tribal leaders informed residents that a civilian corridor to rebel-held territory in northern Idlib province would be opened along a nearby highway following negotiations with the regime, Syria Direct reported at the time.

But “the negotiations were merely an illusion,” says Abu Qasim, a shepherd from the region who spent 20 days “squatting in the desert sand” in Wadi al-Azeeb as he waited for the corridor to open.

When no safety corridor was announced, Abu Qasim tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani that he decided to make the journey north with his wife and four children by foot, across 12 kilometers of mine-filled, regime-held territory separating Wadi al-Azeeb from opposition-held areas of eastern Hama province to the north.

This past Sunday night, the family departed. By sunrise, Abu Qasim and his son had successfully reached the rebel-held town of Sarha in the eastern Hama countryside, joining the 1,700 others who he estimates have made the crossing thus far. He is still waiting for his wife and the rest of his family to join them.

Q: Describe the situation in Uqayrbat before you fled.

When bombardment of the towns increased and planes committed a number of massacres against civilians, most people began to look for a means to flee and depart from this hell. But fleeing has been dangerous and extremely difficult since the start of the regime’s campaign on the region. This is because IS doesn’t permit residents to leave, there are landmines [along the route out] and the regime targets anything that moves. Nonetheless, a small number of residents took the risk and crossed great distances [in order to escape]. 

Displaced Uqayrbat residents reach rebel-held eastern Hama on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Bawaba Hamah

After regime advances, the encirclement of the area and an increase in the bombing, there were distress calls asking the regime to provide a safe route for civilians. The route would be arranged through negotiations between local leaders and regime representatives.

People were then told that the regime is going to allow them to cross [to rebel territory] via a highway north of Uqayrbat, and they began to head toward Wadi al-Azeeb, hoping it was true. About 10,000 people gathered in [Wadi al-Azeeb], where they had no choice but to believe and to cling to any hope. 

My family and I were among those who headed toward Wadi al-Azeeb about 20 days ago. Like many others, we slept out in the open. Some dug holes and others made small homes out of their cars in order to avoid the heat by day and for shelter at night.

No description I can provide will be able to portray the suffering taking place there. Some people died of hunger and thirst, and some died from the bombing or injuries and illness.

One day before I left, a pregnant woman died along with her fetus as she gave birth. She couldn’t find anyone to assist her with the birth. There is no health care, no doctors or nurses. There is no medical equipment, no purified water. Nothing at all. If someone faces a critical injury, their fate is death.

I spent 20 days squatting in the desert sand. We saw death each night and witnessed the burial of children, women and the elderly with our own eyes. Our distress calls to be evacuated were not heard and everyone continues to undervalue our lives.

Some realized that all of the negotiations were merely an illusion. They preferred to return to their homes, to die there rather than in the desert. I too tried to return after giving up hope, but I wasn’t able to. Even returning was not easy. 

Q: How were you able to flee and who was with you at the time?

Sunday night, we made a new attempt [to escape] with a smuggler who agreed to show us the route. We left together along a rugged smuggling route. Family members were leaving spaces between each other due to the mines in the area, so that an entire family wouldn’t die [if one exploded].

I walked with one of my sons. My wife and my three other children were behind me with another group.

I walked with a group of about 200 women and 10 young men, by foot, since cars cannot cross through the area. The catastrophe is that there are elders and sick people who can’t walk. I don’t know what their fate will be.

A displaced Uqayrbat resident reaches the rebel-held rural Idlib on Monday. Photo courtesy of Saed Charity Association.

We walked 12 kilometers by foot. Throughout the route I was accompanied by fear of a mine explosion or fear for my wife.

I finally arrived as the sun rose and breathed a sigh of relief. But my joy was not complete as I was worried about my family’s fate. I later learned they were not able to make it across.

Q: Have you been able to contact your wife and children? What is their situation like?

They are well, thank God, and will make another attempt to cross onWednesday. I’m nervously waiting for their safe arrival.

I was able to communicate with them via a friend two days ago. Since then, I haven’t been able to reach them and am very worried about them. Who will provide them with food and water? Getting food and water has become very difficult.

The Islamic State was providing food to residents once per day but it wasn’t enough to feed a child. Getting water was another issue. There were two wells dug by the Islamic State in an area near the Wadi. You had to stand a full day under the sun just to get a few liters of water. Some emptied the cooling water from their cars to drink.

In the end, no one cares about us. Neither the Islamic State nor the regime. Each cares about its own interests and they’re using us as human shields. We’re like a commodity; when it expires, it gets thrown in the trash.

Q: How many people have been able to flee up to this moment and how many remain in Wadi al-Azeeb? What is the current situation there?

[Uqarybat] is almost completely destroyed. War planes destroyed everything. Residents no longer have homes to return to, so the situation in Wadi al-Azeeb doesn’t differ too significantly from the situation in their villages.  

[Wadi al-Azeeb] is the only area where civilians can cross. It is the closest point to opposition territory and presents the smallest distance to cross.

Q: What is your current situation?

I am currently staying with a friend who welcomed me. I put up a tent near his house.

The people here are very generous—they’ve welcomed us, offered us assistance and opened their homes to us.

When I realized I was no longer under the Islamic State’s control, I felt an indescribable sense of freedom, that I’m a human with self-determination. Don’t laugh, but I’m smoking three packs of cigarettes per day—my friend pays for them—after being forbidden from smoking [under IS].  

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.