It was 2014 and Syria’s presidential elections day was approaching, but many of the residents of Idleb couldn’t figure out what to do.
“It’s best you stay at home,” one person would whisper to one another.
I took their advice and stayed at home on June 3.
My plans changed however when our landlord dropped by to see us.
“You must go and cast your vote,” he told me. “Trust me, it’s very important your name is registered. It’s for your own good.”
I contacted my friends and we decided to go to a polling station in a nearby school together. As we stood in line outside the school a girl in her early 20s searched our bags and clothes. She was dressed in military uniform.
We got the all-clear from her and headed into the building, past another guard in military dress, this time with a Syrian flag draped around his shoulders.
The building was packed with voters. As I stood there waiting for my turn I listened to their chatter.
“Can I vote for myself and my wife?” one asked.
“May God protect President Bashar,” said another.
It was finally our turn to vote, so we approached the ballot boxes. The man in charge asked to see our IDs.
My friend Maram was first. Her ID stated she had been born in Latakia [an Alawite stronghold].
The man smiled at her and said, “God bless you and all the people of Latakia”.
He then took my ID, which stated I had been born in Idleb. He didn’t say a word to me, he just handed me a piece of paper with the names of the candidates.
All that was left for me to do was to vote for Bashar al-Assad.
I did this and handed the folded paper back to him. He passed it on to another man who opened it to see what I had written. When he read my vote he looked up at me and smiled.
My friend Layal walked up to the table to cast her vote, but she had forgotten to bring her ID.
“Where are you from? And where is your ID?” one man asked her.
“I’m from Kfar Nabel,” she replied.
“You Kfar Nabel people always cause problems. You cannot be trusted,” he said, raising his voice.
Layal stood there for a moment, then told us it was best she go back home to fetch her ID.
Just as we exited the school, a shell landed on a building opposite and within seconds we were enveloped in dust.
The school guards had frozen in shock. My friends and I started screaming.
We ran towards my house fearing another attack. Minutes later we heard gunfire erupting behind us.
When I got home, I sat down to study for an English language exam I had the following day. It was very difficult to concentrate as the sound of shelling had intensified.
I heard a loud knock on our door, but I was too afraid to open it.
The knocking grew persistent. I heard the voices of our neighbor and her daughter Wiam, who lived on the fourth floor, calling out to us.
I rushed to the door and opened it. They were in tears.
“Can we stay with you tonight?” they asked. “The shells are hitting the city at random and our flat doesn’t feel safe.”
I let them in and we all tried to settle down for the night, gathering in the room with the fewest windows and glass-panelled doors. The electricity had been cut off, so we sat there shrouded in darkness. We had no food.
Outside the battle was intense, but despite the fierce shelling we could hear groups of soldiers on the streets chanting slogans in support of the president.
“God, Syria, Bashar and no one else!” they shouted.
We hoped the battle would end with the liberation of Idlib, ridding us from the government for good.
Early the following morning, our neighbors left. Umm Wiam headed off to the government institute where she worked and her daughter went off to university.
Not long after, Umm Wiam knocked on our door again, her face tight with fear.
“After I got to work, a shell landed nearby,” she said. “I saw it. It nearly killed us.”
Umm Wiam and her friend had run out of the building, not knowing what to do.
“A black car pulled up in front of us, it had three shabeeha paramilitaries in it, and they offered us a ride,” she said,
“My friend was terrified. She didn’t want to get into the car with them, but I convinced her to, and they brought us home.”
Umm Wiam went quiet for a while, then broke down in tears, praying for the safe return of her daughter.
Wiam came back home shortly after and ran into her mother’s arms.
Later that evening, we again heard army soldiers chanting pro-government slogans and playing pro-government songs on the streets.
They were celebrating. Bashar al-Assad had won the elections.
The Idleb fighters retaliated and showered the city with shells. But nothing could stop the government soldiers. They continued celebrating deep into the night, firing round after round of celebratory gunshots into the sky.
Reem al-Hassan is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor from Idleb. The 19-year-old was forced to abandon her studies when the revolution started. She now works as a newsreader at the Radio Fresh station in Kfar Nabel.
This article was republished at a special agreement with Damascus Bureau.