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Why I Fled Damascus

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and a 22-year-old man from a prominent Sunni family. He fled his home in Damascus more than a year ago.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Since then, he has seen a cousin kidnapped for hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom and friends unable to leave their neighborhoods for months on end, given the escalation in fighting. He now lives in the U.S. but asked not to be identified, for fear of repercussions against his family.  

From the very beginning, we were with the revolution. More than half the [prominent] families in Damascus hate the regime and how brutal it is. But they can’t say a single word because they know how the regime reacted when someone revolted against them in the 1980s. For these 30 years, you couldn’t say a word about the regime or the Assad family. My dad used to tell me, don’t you ever say the word “regime,” at school or anywhere. Don’t say this word.

Two cousins were detained and tortured. There were checkpoints in every neighborhood in Damascus. At night, they put up temporary checkpoints. So if it was 11 or 12 at night, it was dangerous for people with the revolution to be out. They have names on lists. It was scary, many of my friends had their houses broken into, or they were detained because they were with the revolution.

The night I left Damascus, I was stopped at two checkpoints: one at the main highway to the airport, and another a half mile from the airport. They want to make sure no one [who’s pro-revolution] is going to escape. We were really scared because my plane was at 5am, and we left at 3 [when checkpoints are more frequent]. You can’t talk to the soldiers as humans : if you say a word he doesn’t like, he can detain you. Checkpoints are the worst nightmare.

Security forces’ cars are all well-known, old station cars. You know them right away. They’re undercover cars but everyone knows them. I saw a similar car when I was driving one night at 11pm in the U.S., and I was afraid for a few seconds.

How did I make the decision to leave? They made it for me. I didn’t want to leave at all, I was O.K. with staying. It was O.K. to me that it was dangerous. I went to many protests, but there were other people working 24/7 for the revolution. I was like, “I’m not going to leave while these people stay.” I thought I’d go for a few months and it would get better and I’d return. Now I think it’s impossible.

My dad was living in London, and he and my mom were saying, “You have to leave, that’s it.” My neighborhood is called Majreen, it’s one of the active neighborhoods. Bashar [al-Assad]’s palace is there. It’s a well-known neighborhood. Many people who work for the revolution live there.

A month before I left, I was going to Beirut with my friends for a vacation. They stopped me on the border before entering Lebanon. When the guard got my name, he said come inside. I thought, instead of vacation, now I was going to detention. He asked what I did, where I was going, who I was going with. By that he means, “Did you do anything related to the revolution?” They started calling around about my name, checking whether any security forces department wanted to detain me. Oh my God, it’s the worst thing anyone wants to happen to him. Then they let me go. They’d mixed up my name. But it was something that pushed me to leave.

The main reason people are leaving right now is because it’s dangerous. The second reason is that everything’s slow now, they don’t have work. One of my best friends just graduated from dentistry school. He’s now coming to the U.S. to do his masters. He’s one of the guys who wants to really leave. I have other friends who don’t want to. They could, but they want to stay and keep working for the revolution. Sometimes when I talk to them it’s really hard because you feel they’re thinking, “You left us, and now you’re safe and we’re stuck here, and we can be detained at any moment.”

Under House Arrest

The really hard thing for people is that every neighborhood in the city now has a minimum of one checkpoint, so you have to pass through a checkpoint every time you go out. One friend said he hasn’t left his neighborhood for four months because he doesn’t want to be stopped. The mortar shells are also a problem, because many are hitting buildings by mistake, from the Free Syrian Army side or the government side; the battle is really close to Damascus. My friend told me 10 days ago that one of his neighbors had a mortar shell crash into their house. When I talk to my friends there, I hear banging and bombing in the background. They are used to it now. When I ask what [I’m hearing], they say “I don’t know, it’s normal.” You could be walking down the street and targeted or killed by mistake.

Kidnapping is another reason people want to leave Damascus. My cousin was kidnapped seven months ago. He was tortured. In Damascus, there are many people who are wealthy. The kidnappers are a network: it goes, “I know a rich family, I’ll go kidnap their son, and they have rich neighbors.” The rich neighborhoods are known. After they put my cousin in the car, they passed a checkpoint without stopping. So that’s a big sign that they are cooperating with security forces.

It’s not politically motivated, it’s about money. They wouldn’t kidnap a rich Alawite family, because they’d be punished or maybe killed. So they just target the rich Sunnis. My cousin’s ransom was around $200,000. And that was at that time. On today’s rate, it would be $400,000. Eighty percent of rich people have left Damascus. They left everything. Whoever could, sold their cars or rented their houses or sold their businesses, and they went to Jordan or Egypt or Lebanon.

What’s funny is that they weren’t targeting my cousin, they were targeting his friend. My cousin tried to defend him. It was around 11pm, in one of the safest neighborhoods, Mazah, where I used to live. A lot of regime families live there, so it’s kind of a safe area. He was going to a friend’s place when four people with guns got out of the car.

He was held for a month while they were negotiating. For 15, 20 days, we thought he was just detained. We knew nothing. My uncle called every security forces branch to check where he was. After 20 days, they called and said, “We want money.” They put him on the phone and made them hear him crying.

Assad [recently] gave a speech. After his speeches, the soldiers at the checkpoints regularly shoot [their guns] in the air, celebrating. One of my colleagues in the university is Christian and pro-Assad. A celebratory bullet hit her in the leg while she was at her house. It’s really sad how she was defending Assad, and yet the bullet that hit her comes from these people.

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