“After four years of siege there was nothing to eat, no water, no gas - nothing at all,” says Dani Qappani, a Syrian activist from Moadamiyeh, Damascus. He was “evacuated” from the opposition-held town on October 19 2016, but says that the considers himself displaced because he had no other option.
“There was no choice. You cannot chose to be with the side which has been killing your people with sarin, detaining and torturing them. You can’t be with that side. Your only choice is to leave.”
It is a view shared by a photojournalist, Ahmad, who was besieged in Darayya, Damascus.
“The news of the “evacuation” was really hard for me. It’s hard for someone to leave their city and its ruins, the grayeyard in which their friends are buried. On the day of the displacement I felt that my soul would leave me.”
The organization Siege Watch, which tracks the numbers and conditions of Syrians living under siege, said in a report in March that 913,000 people were trapped in 37 besieged communities across the country. The majority were besieged by the Syrian government.
“One employee of the UN said to me, “how do you live in this city that’s unfit for life?” And of course he only saw the ruins, not the terror of the barrel bombs or chemical weapons,” said Ahmad of the day he left Darayya.
A series of so-called evacuation deals have seen opposition fighters and civilians leave previously besieged areas for opposition-held Idlib. The deals have been criticized by some Syrians and the international community for constituting forced displacement, a war crime under international law.
The Syria Justice & Accountability Center said in a statement about the Waer deal that, “although the sign-up for the “evacuation” was characterized as voluntary, pro-government forces coerced people to leave, and civilians feared retribution if they remained in their homes. International law clearly prohibits involuntary displacement as a strategy of war.”
“The regime was always saying that the wanted to kill all of us in Darayya. The options I had were to remain and die of hunger or from barrels of TNT - or to leave my homeland. All the options are hard,” said Ahmad.
Qappani said that people who stayed behind in Moadamiyeh have faced conscription and detention, despite the Syrian government committing to a deal that prohibited such arrests.
Despite the denunciations, however, the deals continue, with the latest expected today. Populations of two towns besieged by opposition forces in Idlib are being allowed to leave in return for the lifting of the sieges on opposition-held Madaya and Zabadani.
“I was shocked when I watched the news of other displacements - it was the same exact situation, and the same exact deal: leave or be destroyed,” Qappani said
The Syrian-British author Leila al-Shami has previously written that she sees the deals as part of a strategy on the part of the Syrian government: “The regime is re-conquering territory through evacuating a civilian population it can never hope to rule through consent. Through such demographic engineering the Syrian regime is attempting to ensure a loyal constituency in the areas it deems useful.”
The areas in Idlib where people are being displaced to are not safe either, however. “The situation in Idlib is not comfortable, ever,” said Ahmad. “There’s always bombing from the air, there’s no security. There’s harassment from extremist groups.”
“Either people are living in camps, in terrible conditions, or they must find money to rent a house. That’s difficult, and if you can’t find money then you have to join a military group to get it,” Qappani said of the situation in Idlib. (He is now in Turkey.)
Ahmad said that despite the fact he saw Idlib as a “big prison” he did not want to leave Syria. “I don’t want to live as a refugee. I just want the international community to help us live in security.”
Qappani said that the deals were a loss for the opposition. “We lost because we were forced to leave, and we won’t be able to return unless the Assad regime falls.”
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