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Syria: Doing whatever it takes to escape

15 Nov 2017

Syrians in Ain Issa camp tell us their stories

After four months of fighting and thousands of airstrikes, on October 17th the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced they had taken control of Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) stronghold that the group had held since 2014. Then, on November 3rd, the city of Deir ez-Zor was retaken from the IS by the Syrian army backed by Russia.

Some 60 kilometres away, Syrians who succeeded in fleeing the bombing and fighting in the towns of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are attempting to rebuild their lives in Ain Issa camp. MSF runs a primary health centre in the camp, referring the most serious cases to hospitals in Kobane and Tal Abyad.

The Syrians that MSF have talked to in Ain Issa camp have told us of the trauma they endured: the fighting, the atrocities perpetrated by IS and the massive bombing raids carried out by the international coalition.

Where are the war-wounded?

Over 15,000 people have sought refuge in Ain Issa camp. They have fled from the fighting in and around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor where IS combatants, the SDF­­ – with backing from the international coalition – and the Syrian regime and its Russian ally continue to battle it out. But only a few of the Syrians in the camp are from Raqqa itself.

“Except for some rare exceptions, we don’t see war casualties from Raqqa. Two brothers, aged 3 and 7, were wounded by IS snipers while fleeing the town and were admitted to the hospital in early July. They’re still traumatised. People like them, those who survive the airstrikes and horrors perpetrated by IS, will have to overcome the trauma of the siege,” explained Hakim Khaldi(advisor to MSF’s Operations department) back in August.

MSF emergency coordinator Arnaud Fablet agrees: “Very few war-wounded are managing to get out of the combat zone.”

Civilians subjected to massive bombing raids

Entire Raqqa neighbourhoods have been laid to waste during the four months of fighting. Trapped and used as human shields by IS, the town’s civilian inhabitants have been subjected to coalition airstrikes, snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by Islamic State. While it is IS’s reign of terror that haunts the people in Ain Issa camp, it was the intense bombing that drove most of them to flee.

Mohammed* is from al-Michleb, a district on the outskirts of Raqqa. In June, the Syrian Democratic Forces tightened their stranglehold on the town in their efforts to overwhelm IS and its combatants. Mohammed’s family were on the frontline. He remembers the snipers holed up in their neighbourhood and his relatives killed during the coalition airstrikes.

Farid’s* village is near Deir ez-Zor airport. Farid recalls the bombs targeting boats as they attempted to cross the Euphrates and recounts his escape across the desert.

Fatima is from Rmeila, an east Raqqa neighbourhood. Fleeing the atrocities committed by IS and the international coalition airstrikes, she arrived in Ain Issa camp in June. She describes how IS fighters demolished adjoining walls in houses in her neighbourhood to enable them to pass from one to the other under cover of civilians. She also recalls the intensity of the bombing raids.

Aziza arrived at Ain Issa camp in May. She, her husband and two children live in a suburb of Raqqa. IS fighters tried to make them go to the town centre to use them as human shields. Her husband, who now serves with the SDF, was arrested on several occasions by Hisba, IS police tasked with enforcing order and morality.

Doing whatever it takes to escape

Nawal and her family have been living in Raqqa for over ten years. They arrived in Ain Issa camp in June when, with support from the international coalition, the SDF launched the final phase of their offensive to re-capture Raqqa from IS.

From her front door Nawal used to see parked vehicles belonging to IS fighters living across the street. When the international coalition airstrikes intensified, the family decided to flee because the fighters’ presence posed a direct threat. The first time they tried to escape through east Raqqa, IS caught them and confiscated all their possessions. IS fighters then put up cement walls around their neighbourhood to stop people getting away. The family spent three weeks trying to escape and called on human smugglers who demanded 50,000 Syrian pounds (80€) for each person.

It was the morning of yet another day of fighting that they managed to find their way out through the north of the town—11 family members on two motorbikes. “A man we met on the road helped us to steer clear of snipers hiding out between two factories on the outskirts of the town.”

During their flight, they crossed paths with the SDF who took them to Ain Issa camp. They’ve been living there since. “We’re waiting for Raqqa to be liberated and the mines to be cleared to go home and get back to our lives”, says Nawal.

Ahmad’s arrival in Ain Issa camp on September 1st coincided with Eid. Two of his children died when their house was bombed. During his escape, he was wounded by an IED planted by IS and his wife was killed. He and his daughter now live in Ain Issa camp where Amhad is treated by the MSF physiotherapist.

Huge need for mental health services

Most of the displaced in Ain Issa camp have witnessed extreme violence: torture, executions, airstrikes, and loss of one or several family members. “There’s a huge need for mental health services in Ain Issa”, explains MSF psychiatrist Paula Orsi. "The grim living conditions in the camp exacerbate already-existing stress and don’t provide the sense of security essential to people fleeing a conflict zone.” Whereas the children have access to spaces where they can socialise and share moments that have nothing to do with the war, the adults have no opportunity for social interaction unrelated to the violence they’ve been exposed to.

“The people I’ve met show signs of depression. We’ve also seen a significant number of individuals with conversion disorders [editor’s note: characterised by symptoms affecting voluntary motor skills or sensory functions] who were, for example, completely disoriented after having lost consciousness. This is indicative of extremely high stress levels”, continues Paula Orsi.

Wahid*, a painter from Madan, a village between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, recalls the coalition airstrikes and the many civilian victims, most of them children. He and his family fled under the cover of darkness and crossed the Euphrates.

MSF works in a health centre in the town of Tabqa, a strategic position captured from IS by the SDF in April. MSF used to have a team providing medical consultations in Twaheena, a makeshift camp on the banks of the Euphrates northeast of Tabqa.

At the end of September, there were close to 6,000 people in Twaheena camp. Most had fled the fighting opposing the Syrian regime backed by Shia militias and IS fighters in the Hama region in the west of the country.

Taking place over several months, these population displacements shifted along with the frontlines. The displaced have lived in IS-held zones and have fled the fighting. Some have a deep-rooted fear of the Syrian regime and its methods – and of being forcibly conscripted into the government army.

*all names have been changed

FOOTNOTES: All photographs by Agnès Varraine-Leca