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My Harrowing Escape from Qusayr, Part II

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and Rifaie Tammas, a 24-year-old from Qusayr. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, working with Syrian government troops, overran the key smuggling route between Lebanon and Homs province last week. Tammas describes the final anxious hours in his city, his chaotic evacuation and a tearful reunion with his mother after losing three close family members.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

The most dangerous place we had to cross on our journey was the Homs-Damascus highway. The areas around it to the west were under shelling and sniper fire, because the regime and Hezbollah knew that the civilians and rebels would flee there. But it was either we wait until the next morning for them to come and kill us, or we move fast and cross. We made the choice that we had to cross, not knowing our fate.

In order to reach a safe place, we had to cross a 50 meter-wide stretch of the highway. But even before we reached this spot, we had to cross over about 1.5 or 2 km of lands that were open to shelling. We started calling it the “death opening.”

When we saw there was no guide, people were confused. It was terrible. The way leading up to the highway was very hilly and tough. There were some houses and tress, but it was mostly open fields. We do not know this area at all and we felt that we could be shot at any minute. And I had my wounded brother Rami with me the whole time.

Rami was completely exhausted after crossing 20 m on crutches. He told me he can’t move another meter and he wants to die right there. He is 22 years old and a defected officer. I put him on my back. He is 85 kg. I moved him for 50 m and I couldn’t move anymore. Even though his leg was broken, sometimes we had to walk or duck and lie flat when there was shelling and shooting.

<img class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-7120″ alt=”qusayr II 1″ src=”http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/qusayr-II-1-300×225.jpg” width=”300″ height=”225″ />At one point we saw two lights ahead and we knew that these were checkpoints. We thought the dark area in between might be safe, so we headed in that direction. Then all hell broke loose.

We came under intense shelling, and some people decided to turn back and continue on a safer route, but we decided to keep moving through. On our way I saw many wounded people lying on the ground with no one to help them. Some people had run for their lives during the heavy shelling, and so many others had been left behind.

We were halfway to the highway when we saw a big house where about 50 people had stopped, most of them wounded. Suddenly, a huge tank shell hit the house when we were 20 m away. Fragments flew above our heads and we ducked for cover. We were okay because the house absorbed the whole shock.

When we started to make our way over, we heard so many sounds. Many people were crying for dear life. You could smell flesh burning. We couldn’t do anything. We were exhausted with no water or food. We had been surviving on tree leaves and some fruit.

I saw these people and I can still remember them begging for help. But I couldn’t. I had to choose my brother. I was also carrying my brother’s rifle because he was a defected soldier. He was trained to not leave his weapon. He had learned to kill them or kill himself, not be captured as a prisoner. I took it just in case we were ambushed.

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About 20 m away from the house another shell hit a group in front of us. They were civilians with wounded people and they had been targeted. Imagine. I felt that’s the end, I’m going to die. I kept on saying shahada with my brother. Even if I made it there is no safety at the end. After all this we might end up near the checkpoint. All we could do was continue under the sniper fire and shelling. Sometimes we would duck. I knew it was useless, but we did it anyway.

My brother kept falling to the ground, and I had to help him stand up or sometimes carry him. I had to lie to him and keep telling him we were almost there because he wanted to give up. We had just lost our brother Hadi, so it was not just physically but also mentally terrifying. But we kept thinking about our mother and sisters.

When we finally crossed the highway, there were people on the other side who congratulated us. But we still had to walk for about another hour before we reached a relatively safer place. We waited in a small village, and then we continued our journey on foot for an hour before we got to another village called Deeba. We arrived there at about 6 a.m. on Friday, and then we stayed there until 10 p.m. Then we could take cars to the Damascus suburbs, where I am staying right now.

An Ill-Planned Evacuation

One of the things that I really hated – that really frustrated me and changed the way I look at things – was not the fall of Qusayr, or that it fell in the hands of Hezbollah. That was sad, absolutely horrible, but the dreadful thing was the way we evacuated. It was the lack of cooperation among Free Syrian Army [FSA] members and civilians. There wasn’t a very good plan, and the regime knew about this. They knew we were panicking and they took advantage of that. They knew about almost every move we made.

<img class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-7119″ alt=”qusayr II 2″ src=”http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/qusayr-II-2-300×225.jpg” width=”300″ height=”225″ />There were guides along the way giving directions to people and telling people, go this way, or shut off your mobile phones, or don’t shout. Some of the guides were excellent and would tell you where to go every step of the way. But the problem is they weren’t spread all across the way.

We were lost many times and got very close to regime checkpoints because of this. Some of the guides were confused. They kept having us go back and forth, and we were carrying wounded people the whole time. There were not enough stretchers, so we were moving them on blankets, pieces of wood or whatever we could find. Sometimes we put them on our backs and took turns. And when we reached the most dangerous spot by the highway, we had no one to guide our group. Some people didn’t do their job well, and this is what caused chaos and many people to be killed.

I would not put all the blame on the regime or Hezbollah, but I also blame the FSA leaders who didn’t know how to do things effectively during this evacuation. We were thousands, and this was a very hard test, and they didn’t pass it very well. They had to know that the regime would take advantage of their lack of cooperation.

On the other hand, the FSA didn’t know how to manage this crisis because they’ve never experienced it. The FSA leaders were very keen on the safety of the wounded, and they tried not to leave anybody behind. Most people acknowledge what the FSA has done for us, but they are so angry with the way the evacuation happened.

Where Are They Now?

The people of Qusayr have spread out to many different cities around Syria. Some made it to Lebanon, but the majority are staying in towns like Nabak, Yabroud and other cities. The rebels are scattered as well and trying to reorganize themselves into a more coherent unit. There is a lot of debate about assigning new leaders and making huge changes after what happened.

Most people are determined to go back and fight. Some have given up and decided to stick with their families, but I think that even they will go back to fight after they rest a bit and think about the whole thing. Being forced to live outside their hometown will make a lot of people go back and fight.

These were the craziest two weeks of my life. I don’t think I could suffer more than this. Ten days before the fall of Qusayr I lost my uncle – he was killed while trying to evacuate the wounded. Days later, I lost my father – a shell killed him when he was going outside to bring us some food. Next, my younger brother’s leg was wounded. And after a week I was forced to leave my house and hometown, and a day later I lost my youngest brother.

<img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-7118″ alt=”qusayr II 3″ src=”http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/qusayr-II-3-300×225.jpg” width=”300″ height=”225″ />Now it feels weird to be away from home, to feel homeless and live in other people’s houses. Luckily, I have some friends who came here before me, and they welcomed me to stay until I sort things out. However, I will have to leave once their mother and sisters come back from a trip to a nearby city.

The only good thing about getting out of Qusayr was reuniting with my mother and little sister. The moment we saw each other, we burst into tears although I was trying to sound strong so that she wouldn’t break down, but I simply could not. Seeing her reminded me of losing my father and youngest brother. Hadi was the hero in our family. He was very loved by his friends and everyone who knew him. He was in the FSA and responsible for firing 14.5 medium machine guns, which is considered a big thing since you have to be very strong to do it. Before all this he was majoring in history.

I still don’t know how I am coping and how I am still thinking. I am crying a lot, especially when I pray. We as Muslims believe that our martyrs are in heaven, so my condolence is that my father and brother are in a happy place now.

Losing them all makes me even more determined to continue what I started. I am going to expose the crimes of Hezbollah and the regime to the whole wide world – that is, if the world cares. They are going to pay for what they have done to us. Sooner or later, they will be brought to justice.

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