"It was too dangerous to go out" - An excerpt from Hara Hotel

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In Hara HotelTeresa Thornhill tells the recent history of Syria through the stories of the people she met at Hara Hotel, a refugee camp on the Greece–Macedonia border. In this excerpt she hears the story of Nizar Ali, an engineer from the Ghouta who had to flee Syria, leaving behind his family, in order to find safety. 

‘What’s your job?’ Without thinking, I used the present tense

‘I’m an engineer. Was an engineer, I should say! I don’t feel as if I am one any more, I’ve become a professional refugee!’ He pressed the frame of his spectacles against the bridge of his nose, with a grimace of resignation. Then he held out his hand. ‘Nizar Ali, pleased to meet you.’

As we shook hands I found myself telling him that he would work again, one day, without a doubt. I don’t know where my certainty came from; my words were a response to his despair. That must be one of the hardest things, I thought, to lose your sense of identity through not being able to practise your profession. I asked how long it was since he’d left Syria.

‘I set off three months ago, in January.’ This time he forced a smile. ‘And I’ve been at Idomeni thirty-seven days, to be precise!’ I saw a sweetness in his face, only partially masked by the look of frustration. I thought he might be in his late thirties.

‘You’re not staying at Hara?’

‘My tent’s at Idomeni. I come to Hara every few days and book a room to get a good night’s sleep and take a shower . . .’ He grimaced in embarrassment.

‘Are you . . . here by yourself?’ I was never sure if it was wise to ask this question; but a man of Nizar’s age was highly likely to have a family.

‘My wife and our two little boys are with my parents in Damascus. My plan was to send for them when I arrived in Germany . . . but now, I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.’ He picked up the can of Fanta, lifted it to his lips and put it down again.

‘Are they . . . safe?’

‘Much safer in Damascus than where we used to live at the beginning of the revolution. Back in 2011, we were in a small town in the Ghouta, about ten kilometres outside the city. Damascus is so expensive that all young couples wanting to settle down used to move to the Ghouta. I drove into the city to work every day. ’

‘Why was the Ghouta unsafe?’

Nizar looked at me steadily. ‘Don’t you know about the Ghouta? Okay, let me explain. During the first few months of the revolution, every Friday there were demonstrations in our little town. The marches used to come right past our house. During those early demonstrations, there were cases where shots got fired through people’s windows in the chaos of the moment. The security forces wouldn’t have been aiming into the houses, but mistakes were made. At first, if we heard there was to be a demonstration, we used to close the windows; then as the violence increased, we had to take refuge in the bathroom, in the centre of the house. Imagine – me, my wife and our two little sons, who were two and four at the time, crouched on the bathroom floor. My wife and I would sing to drown out the noise of the shooting going on in the streets. Sometimes I put my hands over the children’s ears to stop them hearing the people shouting slogans, followed by the sound of shooting and screaming.’

My eyes were fixed on Nizar.

‘We tried to distract the kids from the real reason we were sitting in the bathroom; but it didn’t work. At those moments my wife and I were in the grip of extreme fear and of course the kids picked it up. So the point came when we decided it was too dangerous to remain at home during demonstrations. We used to get up very early on Friday mornings and drive to my parents’ place in Damascus. We’d stay there till it was all over, and then go home.

‘We continued to live in the Ghouta for as long as we could, but there were times when I didn’t go to work for two or three days because it was too dangerous to go out. There were demonstrations all over the Ghouta, peaceful at first but eventually some elements in the opposition resorted to violence. The Free Syrian Army became active in our town, attacking the regime with bombs and rockets.

‘One day I was returning home from work by car around six p.m. My wife called me in tears, yelling “Don’t come home, it’s really bad, I’ve been in the bathroom with the kids for four hours without a phone signal, they’re fighting in the street outside.” Then the line went dead. The regime used to cut the mobile signal in areas where there was trouble, to punish the residents.

‘I was beside myself with worry and didn’t know what to do. I phoned a friend, who convinced me to stay put and not try to go home, although I felt terrible about my wife and kids being alone there. I waited in the car for two hours, trying to call her every few minutes, although mostly I couldn’t get through. Eventually I reached her and she said things had calmed down and it might be ok to try to drive home. By now it was completely dark, as the regime had cut the electricity supply to the area and mine was the only car on the road. On the outskirts of our town I came to a roadblock. Six armed men jumped out at the car and forced me to stop. I was terrified, but I managed to explain I was just going to collect my family. The men fired questions at me till an older man’s voice from the darkness behind them shouted “Let him go to his house”, and they let me go, telling me to take a back street.

‘When I got home, my wife and the boys ran from the bathroom to the front door, sobbing. We hugged each other and then we ran out to the car. I drove like a maniac to my parents’ place in Damascus.

‘That was the last time my wife and kids saw our home in the Ghouta. I had to go back a couple of times to fetch our clothes and documents. Initially we imagined we’d be able to live there again after a few months; but things got worse and worse and eventually the regime sealed off the area. Anyone seen going in was assumed to be with the regime, and anyone seen coming out was assumed to be with the rebels. So it became a no-go area.’

By now my stomach was in a knot. I kept thinking how difficult it must have been for Nizar to leave his wife and kids behind in Damascus. I asked him what he’d felt about the revolution when it started.

Nizar took off his spectacles and polished them again. ‘Look, when the children wrote on their school walls in Deraa, nobody thought it would become a big deal. The Assad regime had created stability over forty years and in general people were not thinking about change. The middle classes were quite well off and in the last ten years people had started to buy mobile phones and new cars, to eat out two or three times a week and shop in malls. New Arab banks were opening and people had deposits in them. Life was good in Syria before the revolution. Okay, we worked hard, most middle-class men had two jobs. I only had one, but I used to work ten hours a day, six days a week, with just Fridays off – that was the norm.’

‘But what about the poor?’

He replaced the spectacles. ‘Even the poor had enough food. They might earn as little as two to three dollars a day, but they could live on that, without saving anything. Nobody was below the bread line.’

‘What about in the countryside?’ Nizar’s description was at odds with what I’d read. I’d understood there had been widespread rural poverty, especially with the impact of the drought.

Nizar pursed his lips. ‘In the rural areas, people were not desperately poor, but there was a lack of services, sometimes no internet, inadequate schools.’ He placed his Fanta on the bar and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Look, when it started in 2011, the country divided into two groups. The group I was in said: “We don’t need a revolution, look what happened in Iraq and Libya; we don’t like our government, but it won’t be any better under anyone else – who would rule us, if not the Assads?” There was also concern about where a revolution might lead: it seemed so uncertain. The older people said it wasn’t worth the risk, and so did many people my age.’ He looked at me intently. ‘Many of the poor also felt like this. They were preoccupied with meeting their basic needs and had no time to think about change.’

‘And what did the other group say?’

‘The other group said, “This is our moment, if we don’t rise up now, we’ll miss the chance. Our children’s futures are not looking good; we should rise up.”’

I asked Nizar if his group’s view of the regime had changed over time.

‘Yes of course, but let me explain how it happened. At the beginning in March 2011, the trouble started in Deraa. We got the details of what was happening from Facebook, because the regime censored the news. Then there was the first demonstration in Damascus, in which the demand was simply for a liberalization that would improve people’s lives. People wanted freedom to think and to develop their country. Nothing was said at that point by the demonstrators about wanting regime change. Most of them had a lot of faith in Bashar – he was young, westernized, handsome, and he’d made many promises of reform, however vague.

‘At the beginning, let’s say 20 per cent of people were with the revolution and 70 to 80 per cent were neutral. Then the demonstrations started to get more frequent and much bigger in Damascus. The brutality of the regime response was extreme, with many demonstrators imprisoned and tortured. All this made the people who had opposed the idea of a revolution think again. When the government tried to say it was all down to foreign agitators, people became very angry. On one occasion, the regime said on national TV that the demonstrators were not demonstrators, rather that they had come out to thank God for rain, after years of drought! Another time they said the demonstrators were “viruses” and that they were “going to exterminate them”. So, gradually, people lost faith with the regime and more and more people started to support the revolution. At the same time, the demonstrations spread to Homs, and Deraa was besieged by the government. As more and more people were killed, the demonstrations became much bigger and the regime used ever more savage violence, particularly in the countryside.

‘But, you know, it needn’t have been like this. If Bashar had come out in the early months and said to the people, “You’re right, I will punish those who killed and tortured demonstrators, and then I’ll liberalize and give you more freedom”, it would all have ended, even after seven or eight months. If he’d done this, then there would be a statue to Bashar in every town in Syria.’

I asked Nizar when his view of the regime had started to change.

‘I was like everybody else, my view changed because of the brutality. And eventually I became afraid for my life, and for my wife and children’s lives.’

‘What was it like when you moved to live with your parents in Damascus? Did you feel safe?’

‘Thankfully there was nothing going on in the area where my parents lived. But we heard gun fire most nights coming from other areas of the city, and small or big explosions. By now the kids were showing signs of being affected. They had nightmares and difficulty sleeping. They would wake, crying, for no obvious reason. Even when they were awake they were jumpy, for instance, if a door banged.’

‘That must have been so painful for you to see!’

‘Of course. The worst thing for me was always the suffering of my children.’

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