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The Bitterness of Exile

In Ramadan, we ate nothing but bulgur wheat and lentils for three days. Three days without yoghurt and vegetables because there were none to be had in the village and in any case prices were very high
The Bitterness of Exile

Our life of exile in Qurqunya, a village in the north of Idleb province, began in August 2012. I left with my family – my mother, younger sister and three-year-old brother – my older brother’s family, consisting of his wife and four children, and my aunt’s family – mother, father and two daughters.

We used to live in an area close to Idleb called Broma. When the army advanced on the Bab al-Hawa road, they encountered a number of rebel brigades, one of which was led by my older brother. My brother came with a group of men to give us the news that regime forces would not accept this reverse quietly and would be returning with new weapons and a fleet of aircraft.

“You have to leave the area to keep the children safe,” my brother said. “You have to get as far away from here as possible, as fast as you can.”

That night, my brother was able to persuade my mother that we needed to leave, but my father would not back down from his pledge to stay put.

“We aren’t leaving to save ourselves, but to spare the children unbearable trauma,” my mother said.

At the end of that dark night, we decided to leave. My father was to remain in Broma to help the rebel fighters in the event that something happened.

My brother accompanied us to Qurqunya, but I felt uneasy the whole way there. When we arrived, Anas al-Zayr, battalion commander of the Youssef al-Athma Brigade, was waiting for us. He assigned us a house that used to belong to a “shabeeha” – a regime thug or collaborator.

We spent 10 days there. It was the holy month of Ramadan, and the village had no grocery stores selling basic essentials. We hadn’t brought any food with us except for a few snacks to keep us going and feed the children. There was only one bakery in the village that made just enough bread for the local residents. But there were many people like us who had been displaced from other areas, so the bakery always had long lines of waiting people.

Every morning after dawn prayers, my mother and my uncle went to stand in line at the bakery. On one occasion, shots were fired to disperse the crowds and my mother was slightly injured in the hand.

We were short of water, and buying a water-tank would have been very expensive. We washed our clothes by hand and we heated up water in the sun so we could take showers. It was very hard. At the beginning of our time there, during Ramadan, we ate nothing but bulgur wheat and lentils for three days. Three days without yoghurt and vegetables because there were none to be had in the village and in any case prices were very high.

When my brother came and saw the situation we were in, he went to the neighboring town of Marat Misrin and bought 50 bags of bread and lots of fruits and vegetables. He left us enough for what we needed and distributed the rest to other refugees like ourselves.

After that, Zayr moved us to another house close to his own, but it was dark and cramped and smelled terrible, so we moved yet again to a third place, which had been the home of a regime police officer.

At the end of Ramadan, it was Eid al-Fitr, but it was a holiday of bad omens since we were away from my father and my brothers. We had been displaced from our home to strange houses in a faraway village. It was a holiday of exile, homelessness and tears. On the morning of Eid, only we women were there. Our men were far away fighting a war and we had no news of their fate.

We were in great need – we lacked everything from security to tenderness and stability. Every time I looked into my mother’s eyes, my aunt’s eyes, my sister-in-law’s eyes, I saw that they were filled with tears.

I couldn’t bear feeling this way. I couldn’t bear the distance and the separation, especially not during Eid. When I looked at our friends, they were all surrounded by fathers and families, going to visit relatives with joy in their faces, while I was far from my father, my siblings, my home and my loved ones.

The next morning, my father surprised us by visiting us. He had come to check on us and see how we were doing. That second day of Eid, I was full of an indescribable joy. I laughed and cried all at the same time, and I had no idea why.

I decided to go back with my father and stay there with him, because I couldn’t stand exile any longer. He took me with him, but after three days my brother brought me back to Qurqunya because my father was going to accompany them to the next battle and they didn’t want me staying at home alone.

I returned with my brother, his battalion, and its equipment and weapons to Qurqunya. When we arrived there, they decided to postpone the battle to the next day for military reasons.

My cousin, Mohammad, was a small boy of 12. “I want to come with you,” he told them.

Before they left, Mohammad was asleep. My brother stood next to him and called to him – but in a soft voice. “Look, I woke him up,” he told his friends.

My brother did this out of concern for Mohammad, because he was so young. But when fighting was postponed to the following day, Mohammad happily went off with them to the battle of Harim.

“Pray for us, auntie,” Mohammad said to my mother. Those were the last words we ever heard him say.

They all returned from the battle, apart from Mohammad. His mother heard the news.

Regime forces were told by informers where the family of my brother, the rebel commander, was living and they sent helicopters loaded with barrel bombs. But they only managed to hit the house next to ours.

After that we went back to Broma, bearing the body of Mohammad, the heroic martyr, whom we buried on farmland near our home.

How I pray that those dark days never return. May God accept my cousin’s soul and keep him among the ranks of the martyrs in heaven.

Razan Mostafa is the pseudonym of a 16-year-old in Idleb province. She is trying to continue her studies despite her family’s continued displacement. Her father was wounded and she lost her two older brothers in a battle against the regime forces.

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