They managed to escape a hellish warzone, but are now trapped in purgatory.
ASHIDIN, Syria — Samira Sabagh was sitting on the ground when I met her, and the first thing I noticed was that her hands and face were almost black. She was wearing a traditional green dress that smelled of smoke. She was about 65, just one of more than 100,000 former residents of eastern Aleppo forced to leave the rebel-held area under threat of annihilation by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Sabagh was disoriented. Her children and all her family had been killed in Aleppo, with the exception of a daughter living in Idlib, not far from here. “I don’t know how to go to Idlib,” she said, referring to the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province where many of the displaced Syrians were fleeing.
I asked her about the soot on her face. It’s bitterly cold in Aleppo now, she explained, and people were living in the streets for a week waiting for the evacuation to begin. So everyone had to burn shoes, plastics — anything they could get to stay warm, and that left her face and hands covered in soot. She told me the story through tears.
Rashidin, the town on the western edge of Aleppo city where the buses arrived with the newly displaced, is the last place on the Aleppo-Damascus highway that one can reach from rebel territory. Rebels call it point zero. Every exiled Syrian brought here had soot on their hands and faces. Their clothes reeked. Their bodies smelled as if they hadn’t bathed for a month. Almost everyone said they had burned their furniture, automobile tires, even clothes and blankets, for heat. And some burned their possessions rather than let them fall into the hands of the pro-government militias.
I had driven here with a cameraman from the news bureau I manage in Idlib, a journey of a little more than an hour. In the gas station parking lot where the buses arrived, I heard tale after tale of what residents of eastern Aleppo endured during the devastating bombing campaign and starvation siege of the rebel-held enclave — traumas that were exacerbated by the mocking of pro-regime militiamen as they abandoned their city. And now they were stranded in the bitter cold with no idea what comes next, forced to rebuild their shattered lives once more.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross had organized the buses after rebels reached a deal with the government to withdraw from eastern Aleppo in exchange for safe passage for their families and other civilians who feared the revenge of the militias. When they came off the buses, everyone was shivering from the cold. They were hungry, and local charities handed out fruit and small food packages. They looked tired and depressed as they sat on the ground, eating them. The best organized were the rebel groups, which sent buses and minibuses to fetch the families of fighters and transport them to secure lodging.
But most had no idea where to go and sat on the ground debating their next move. “I hear Atarib is a good town to stay in. I will go and look for an apartment,” one man told me, speaking of a town close to the Turkish border that is often the target for regime airstrikes.
The only joyful sound came from some of the children, who acted as if they’d landed in paradise. The elders were silent and bewildered, looking as though they’d just stepped out of the grave.
I tried to start conversations by offering congratulations to the internally displaced people on reaching safety. But the stories they told were beyond my imagination. For a while, I forgot I was a journalist; I was so affected that I wanted to reach out and hug them.
Samer al-Najjar was wearing two leather jackets, on top of three sweaters, when I met him. Aleppo, he said, was like hell: He had been expecting to die at any moment.
He told a story of a woman who had nowhere to live giving birth in the street shortly before the buses arrived. “It happened after three days of waiting. People carried her to the back of a truck and put up a nylon tent over her,” he said. A SARC volunteer helped deliver the baby. Tears welled up as he spoke of her. He didn’t know her fate or that of the infant.
Ahmad Hamido was about 65. He had a white beard and wore a woolen hat, and his right hand shook as he spoke to another reporter. I saw tears in his eyes and felt he needed someone to talk to rather than another interview. So I stopped playing the journalist, put down my camera and microphone, and placed my hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
He started to tell me what happened when his fourth-floor apartment was destroyed and he had to flee from one neighborhood to another to escape the bombing. I tried to console him. “You’re alive and sound, and that makes up for everything,” I said.
Ahmad said none of his close relatives survived the siege. Some of his cousins were killed by snipers when they unknowingly wandered into the vicinity of the militia-held checkpoints. His suffering hadn’t stopped even after the arrival of the buses. He said the Syrian militias insulted them before they departed. He said a pro-regime militiaman went on the bus and threatened the passengers, demanding they surrender. No one responded.
Nearly all the children I talked to were traumatized. They told stories of bombing and death. Most everyone with whom I spoke had lost at least one family member in the bombing.
Israa Mansour was 9, with curly hair, a red jacket and blue jeans, and frayed gloves with holes in them. I asked why her family had left Aleppo. “Because Russia and Iran will kill us,” she replied. “May God punish them. They kicked us out of our homes.”
Samara, 10, said she hasn’t been to school since it was bombed during the barrel bombing campaign that lasted more than two years. She said her younger brother was killed in the bombing. “We are going to our relatives in Idlib,” she said. “Inshallah I will be back to school there.”
I saw a rebel fighter waiting for a family he hadn’t seen for four years. When they arrived, he took his wife in his arms and cried. He picked up his two boys, ages 5 and 7, and hugged his wife. When I looked at him, he hid his face, as if to say, a man in uniform carrying a rifle should not be seen crying.
Nearly everyone I met there was poor. You could see it from the clothes they wore and the simple things they were carrying. The rich had left Aleppo long ago. Those who stayed behind had nowhere to go or no means to leave.
But even those who were lucky enough to find lodging after the fall of eastern Aleppo are still destitute.
The “widow’s house” in Idlib city is a second-floor apartment with 10 people living in it. There’s no furniture — only two threadbare rugs, two mattresses, and some blankets on the floor, along with a very old stove.
Wafaa al-Zein, 44, now the head of the family, greeted us by apologizing that she couldn’t offer us anything to drink or eat. The family has a gentle manner, suggesting they had lived well in eastern Aleppo but now have no money and have to rely on charity for food, blankets — everything. The apartment itself was a donation from another family. Umm Ali, as Wafaa likes to be called, has four children, ages 9 to 24, and three grandchildren.
They have gone through an immense tragedy. A little more than one month ago, on Nov. 28, Umm Ali’s husband and the husband of her 24-year-old daughter, Amina, were killed by a missile while sitting in front of their temporary home in eastern Aleppo. The son-in-law’s body was torn in so many pieces that Amina was unable to bury him.
“I only could find small pieces of him. I kept looking for his body parts for many days,” she said. Two days after the bombing, she found his foot on the roof of a neighbor’s house.
Amina has three children, ages 1 to 4, and says she doesn’t know how to raise them alone. “They keep asking me when their father will come back. They don’t believe he is dead,” she said. She put her hands over her face to hide the tears. “If only I was able to bury him.”
Ali, at 19, is now the man of the family. He and his father had a business selling vegetables from a cart in eastern Aleppo until the siege made it impossible for them to replenish their stocks. But he was wounded in the war and is now unemployed — he begged for my help in finding a job.
Their departure from eastern Aleppo during the evacuation has been seared into his memory — he referred to it as “the journey of humiliation.”
Ali wouldn’t look me in the face as he described what happened. After boarding the buses in eastern Aleppo and crossing into government territory, some pro-regime militiamen began spitting at the windows of the bus. Others boarded the buses, pulled down their pants and demanded the women look at their genitals. “I was so angry, I hit my head on the inside of the bus,” he said. “I wanted to kill myself.” But his mother told him: “Forget this. They are worthless people. We should not take them seriously.”
Like so many others, the whole family had waited in the cold for three days for the buses to take them out of government-held eastern Aleppo. Staying was not an option for Umm Ali. She said she didn’t fear death but wanted to preserve her honor and that of her daughter. Without saying the word, her fear was being raped.
“I was worried about my daughter and about myself,” she said. Both her husband and her son-in-law were opposition sympathizers. “I was worried they would arrest us and carry out revenge.”
Roy Gutman contributed to this article from Istanbul.
Photo credit: ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images