Qudsaya: The Last Sanctuary Declared Dead

I pack my suitcase and prepare to leave. Among the things I carry with me is the smell of blood and gunpowder, which has pervaded my every breath for three consecutive days. I also carry with me sounds that haunt me and drown my memory in grief and pain, in addition to many unfinished stories.

Using my phone’s camera and its limited memory, I capture some of the despair reigning over the place: Small vehicles, taxicabs, and mini trucks transporting those who have been forced out of their homes. Everyone is looking back through the glass windows, sighing with tears in their eyes.

A young man passes me by. I hear him exclaim, “The old lady… she is alone… we couldn’t get her out.” He is referring to one of his neighbors in the building where he lived. She is handicapped and cannot walk. A soldier pushes him violently towards the car, which is going to take him away. He orders him to shut his mouth in an authoritative and arrogant tone. All my senses are fixated on what is happening around me. Reeling with painful memories, my mind takes me back to last night.

The Night Before

Darkness and silence loom over our alley in Qudsaya Suburb, but our neighbors in the older part of the town have lost the ability to distinguish between night and day. They are living in a perpetual hell. The wind blowing from the north-west, no more than 2 km away, bears witness to that hell, and transmits unimaginable grief: women howling, and men screaming and beseeching God, at times muffled by the blasts of bombs fired regularly from the Republican Guards’ housing compound. Passing above us, they explode below that stricken sky.

In order to hear more clearly, I approach the window or the lounge’s glass door that overlooks the street. I hear people screaming, “God is great! God is great!”. Their desperate supplications call out to God: “O God, we have none but You, O God.” This sounds nothing like that harmonious chanting typically heard in protests, however. With the extent of the agony, and the echoes of repeated utterances of that phrase, all at once, one is struck with the notion that God is truly the only source of succor and relief left for these people.

The heart-breaking wails of women are multiplying. I rush outside, with tears in my eyes, and I look towards the north. My roommate follows me and shouts in horror, “You are insane! Come back, the alley is filled with shabbiha [death squads].” At that moment, I had a burning desire to head to Qudsaya, to Ahdath and Al-Hameh streets. I wanted to find out what is happening there, but I was fortunate to have many obstacles: Qudsaya Avenues was surrounded and threatened by the shabbiha coming from Wuroud neighborhood and from the Republican Guards’ housing compounds. They were even joined by some of the neighborhood’s residents.

It is late in the midnight. It is pitch black and there are no lights in the distance; it seems that there is a blackout. Sounds of nearby combat are heard, and the random shelling intensifies. Driven by my disappointment and the pleas of my terrified roommate, I return to my house. The main door of the small flat, occupied by the two of us only, is damaged and does not close firmly. And the glass door of the lounge that overlooks the street can be easily opened from outside, while merciless shabbiha are swarming the area. All of this was aggravating my roommate’s sense of horror as she tells me about the rape cases recorded a day earlier.

The amount of suffering, panic and imminent danger is rising, and so is the frequency of the bombing. Sounds mix; the roaring of jets taking off from Mazzeh Military Airport to declare war, the pounding of the shabbiha’s footsteps as they head to Avenue 3, the sirens of an ambulance that the regime’s soldiers could not locate, and the creaking of doors and windows as shells explode nearby. I have a severe headache and I become nauseated and start vomiting over and over again. All I hope for is that these sounds producing an endless loud ringing in my ears would stop; that morning would come; and that I would discover that all of this was nothing but a nightmare.

Loaves of bread and a bloody sidewalk

Morning traumatizes me with news of last night’s massacres. I go out on the streets after three days of siege and curfew. The roads leading to Damascus are blocked. Today’s test is cancelled. I do not care for it though, for it is the test of dignity that I must face now.

Walking around in the neighborhood for more than 200 meters might be fatal, because snipers are deployed on the rooftops, and the sounds of combat are heard nearby, coming from a place close to Qudsaya Square. They say the fighting is between the regime and the Free Army, whose combatants are being pursued in the streets.

From my apartment, I walk down the slope and get to the end of the road where a right turn leads to Avenue 1, and then to the main street leading to the junction at Qudsaya’s entrance. Old people gathered in the street warn me not to go any further. There is only one young man around. Hit by a bullet in his head, he lies on his back, just a meter away from the corner towards the right. No one dares to approach him. The sidewalk is covered with his blood. I scream in outrage, and tell them that we must help him. Before I rush towards him, my neighbor grocer pulls me back. “My daughter, you would die in vain… snipers have no mercy,” he says. “That poor guy was going to get some bread and look at what happened to him.” As soon as he had uttered these words, a garbage truck came speeding from the opposite street. Two men dragged the young man quickly and threw him over the waste in order to give him first aid.

I crumbled at the sight of these events, and I left the place feeling depressed and overcome by an immense feeling of defeat. I was falling apart, fading. I kept thinking of this young man who risked his life for a few loaves of bread. He must have been forced to go out after three days of siege. He must have been unaware of the fickleness and cruelty of snipers. For the first time, I understand the meaning of the expression “a morsel soaked with blood,” to pay for a loaf of bread with your own blood.

Handcuffed Corpses

I head home. The voice of one of the regime’s soldiers speaking through a megaphone beats like a hammer in my head. He is calling for the evacuation of Qudsaya. Only three hours left to depart and to assemble in the square on the main road. They are worried about our safety. They are going to expel the terrorist armed gangs, and our displacement will only be temporary. This is what the regime’s soldiers were telling the locals.

We can now move under the merciful whims of snipers stationed on the rooftops. As I approach my house, I turn back. I follow my involuntary steps. I do not know where I am going. I just wander through the streets. My eyes gaze in terror at the surrounding ruin. Few are the walls that do not have bullet holes in them, and fire devoured several charming grocery shops. The silence is overwhelming, no sounds are heard, except for frightened footsteps, occasionally startled by gunfire, rushing to get to the square. I continue to walk between alleys. Startled by sounds of bullets, I panic and start running. For the first time, I hear the sound of gunfire so close that it almost pierced my ears. I know nothing except that I am following my accelerating and stumbling steps, which lead me to the main street.

I weep from the sight of blood and horror I glimpsed on my way. I stop at a corner, where the main street separates me from two burnt bodies. I cross the street and walk towards them, stricken by what I leave behind, only to find something more horrific!

Two young men, with hands tied at the wrists behind their backs, are lying on the ground, with visible signs of torture on their mutilated bodies. Burns cover their bodies, they are naked from the waist down, holes fill their thighs, and their features are unclear and distorted. People pass by indifferently. They gasp as they hurry to make use of the remaining time to evacuate. Gatherings are banned, and giving medical assistance to anyone makes you an easy bait for snipers.

I look away. I do not want to see. I close my eyes, then open them, then close them again. Mixed emotions take over me: sadness, anger, panic, curiosity… I do not know what came over me, but it was as if I suddenly have mustered some boldness to scream at passersby about the necessity of identifying the two young men and delivering them to their families. This harrowing scene stops someone, a man in his sixties, who screams in bewilderment, “My God… My God.” He extends his hand to the shirt pocket of one of the bodies to look for identification papers, but there are no signs of their identity whatsoever. We look for anything with which to cover them. My eyes pause at a large poster hanging from above one of the shops. We tear it off and lay it over them.

“Come on, my daughter, there is nothing else we can do for them… You did well, and you seem to be a tough and a decent girl. Let’s walk away from here before someone notices us… time is not on our side.” The middle-aged man continues along his way, and I trace back my aimless steps.

I could not understand anything, and did not comprehend the reason behind all this savagery that pushes people to commit acts more heinous than murder: why torture and mutilate corpses? I wander my despair between Qudsaya’s narrow alleys. At every corner, all I see is destruction. Streets do not look the same. Nothing looks the same. I was stopped by the sight of the friendly cats these neighborhoods were known for; disfigured, they lie in the street in a pool of their blood. Even well-meaning pets did not survive the actions of humans. Everything I saw was heart-wrenching and induced desperation. I get closer to the wide street close to my house, where there was yet more blood.

There is no shelter, then, from the violent scenes, from burnt rubble scattered everywhere, and from the color red covering many things here. I see garbage containers contained in dark blood hanging from all sides, and meters away I notice another body tied at the wrist, appearing to have also been burnt. I evade it and continue to walk with heavy steps and a heavier heart. I do not wish to see any more mutilated bodies, I want to reach the end of these bewildering scenes of cruelty.

Packing up

I head home with tears in my eyes, barely able to move my exhausted body. Once bustling with life, these neighborhoods have become desolate, and worse yet, they have been demolished over the heads of their inhabitants. What I see around me is beyond my capacity to remain composed. I feel sick, and I have a severe pain in my lower abdomen; it is s like having labor contractions. I hold up with extreme difficulty. Everything I experience seems to be ending with an indescribable mental breakdown.

Inside the house were some beautiful things that withstand artillery sounds with us, but nothing had any meaning under the weight of the collective and explicit death outside. We will leave the house and its keys to their fate. I contemplate the things we will leave behind: our incomplete sentences on the walls, the pile of empty beer bottles that accompanied us “in the good times and the bad,” the lecture notes that remain untouched, and the magazines from which we used to read and learn the art of journalism.

I ache at the sight of each trinket. In every spot and at every corner, we have an unfinished story. My colleague alerts me to the time, as she packs her suitcase. She is set to go to live with her relatives in Jaramana. I had already decided to return home. Qudsaya was the last of my stops in Damascus.

I pack my suitcase and bid farewell to the good friend that I met not so long ago. It saddens me that she can no longer have her favorite evening pastime: smoking a hookah on the balcony.

Compared to the time I spent in other districts of Damascus, my stay in Qudsaya was very short. But I did not feel I belong there as much as I did here. I fell in love with the place, and became attached to many of its beautiful details. I drag the suitcase behind me, just like everyone else. The difference between me and them is that I was lucky enough to be going home. Qudsaya was but one stop in my journey, and perhaps this made it easier for me; it was everything to its natives, who leave in body, but remain here in spirit and mind. Their sullen appearance and the frozen blood in their veins tells of it.

Silence reigns, and not much noise could be heard, despite the fact that the evacuation is happening in all the neighborhoods of Qudsaya and al-Hameh. The number of people is substantial. All you can hear is the sound of the rolling of suitcase wheels, accompanied by the footsteps taking the descent. Vehicles have been prohibited from coming up to the town, so people have to walk for a while. I peek out of the car window to take more pictures of displaced families and children, who are being thoroughly inspected. A soldier stops me, threatening to confiscate my phone. I obey his arbitrary command with bitterness, and regretfully delete what I had documented.

Bus terminals are also crowded with suitcases. The majority of passengers are no longer poor Syrians coming from Jazira, but displaced ones coming from all parts of Syria: Homs, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Hasakah, Aleppo… all the hotbeds of the conflict at the time. Most people are heading towards Hasakah.

I barely manage to secure a ticket for a bus that is leaving soon. It is an exceptional trip, where everything is unusual. The bus departs full at six in the evening – I was not used to the bus being completely full. I get a ticket, and I go to sleep on one of the rear seats. There are many people from Syria’s inlands. Sitting behind me is a young man from Talbiseh, Homs, who is constantly being stopped by regime checkpoints along the way, with persistent interrogation, inspection and humiliation, for no other reason than that he hails from a city detested by Assad’s soldiers – it does not matter that his papers were in order. I was surprised by the precautionary measures he had taken before heading to Jazira: a sponsor’s document from Qamishli. Oh, for shame! We now need a sponsor to travel from one Syrian area to another! A domestic visa!

On the road to Palmyra, we are stopped by yet another checkpoint. An officer gets on the bus dragging with him a detainee. He asks the passengers to spit on his face because he insulted the Army. They all cheer like cretins: “We offer you our soul, our blood…” I pray that this disgusting and provocative situation would end calmly. The road is too long – it took sixteen hours, double the usual time.

It is the morning and we are approaching the edge of Jazira: there are no outposts, no provocations, no insults, and no blood. Life seems normal and quiet here. Everything inspires serenity and safety, especially my mother’s embrace, taking me in her arms with indescribable warmth and joy, like someone who has just found a treasure. My safe return home was her only concern as she listened to the news coming from Qudsaya.

I wipe the dust off the worn-out suitcase, and throw myself in my mother’s welcoming embrace.

A Massacre Took Place!

A hot bath, a home-cooked meal, and clean ironed clothing… Everything here is offered without the slightest hassle. Warm weather, clean air, the sounds competing in which being sparrows warbling… Everything bodes comfort.

In Amouda, in the far north of Syria, my life is filled with paradoxes. My mind is still in another area in the country, still shocked by the amount of death and horror I beheld. Nighttime is my witness. It is then that I see nightmares of what I experienced. My mom tells me in the morning that I drove them crazy with my night terrors. I was screaming: “Shut the windows and doors … shut them well… the shabbiha are swarming… the monsters are coming.”

It seems to me that I am now in a different historical era. The revolution here in Hasakah is not the same revolution there, the protests have become numerous and divided, and the goal is not united and neither are the voices. There are new demands and slogans: federalism, self-determination, Kurdistan, confederacy… There are no agreed-on local councils anymore, but several fragmented ones. The movement took on a new turn.

I stepped away from the peaceful activism in which I had sometimes partaken back in Damascus. Beside my harsh experiences, there were other reasons. The militarization of the revolution, and the nationalist and Islamist attitudes that gradually dominated the rhetoric of peaceful protests, have rendered me averse and alienated.

Qudsaya had been my last stop in Damascus, where I had rented a small house and decided to go back to the university. The protests and slogans in Qudsaya were different. At least there was one protest and one local council over there. During my time in Qudsaya, I did not hear any slogans other than the demand to overthrow the regime: “The people want to execute the President”; “We die for Syria”; “They say we are armed but we don’t even have a bullet…” These were the words echoing in the demonstrations there.

I developed a deep sense of belonging to that area, and a need to be there. I pick up the remote-control to hear the news coming from my last sanctuary in Damascus. The shocking news hit me again like a lightning bolt which split me in half. A big massacre in Qudsaya and al-Hameh on the 26th of June 2012, one day prior to our forced evacuation.

The scenes are violent just like the ones I saw with my own eyes, especially the handcuffed and burned bodies. But there were too many of them. Dozens of young men were murdered in the same manner. I am flabbergasted, as I arrive at the conclusion that these were systematic mass murders, and not individual cases as I had previously thought – it was a massacre.

Activists tell the story: doors were knocked on by the secret police saying: “We want the young men to check their military service papers, and we will bring them back.” Those who left only returned as dead bodies, handcuffed and thrown in front of their houses or in nearby streets. I feel guilty for leaving behind the locals suffering, resisting, and burying their martyrs with dignity. I am overwhelmed by a funereal silence, and remain stiff where I stand. What a calamity this is! I have only seen some of its details, unaware of the full truth that I now see clearly on the TV. Brutal murder acts were committed by Assad’s men, and we were only a few meters away from that. They are good at hiding atrocities, and they have always tried to conceal their heinous actions with severe repression.

The fact is, a massacre took place in the north-west side of the neighborhood. The fact is, the area of Qudsaya where I resided, Qudsaya Avenues, has now turned into Assad’s Avenues. Regime forces had tightened their grip in the aftermath of the massacre, and “their” Avenues are now used to export death to other neighborhoods of Qudsaya and al-Hameh. Yet from Qudsaya –which has been subjected to several sieges and bloodbaths, for almost four years– “Yes to Peace, No to War” campaign was recently launched, on the 29th of September 2016, calling for lifting the siege imposed on civilians, and for an end to the massacres. But the massacre in ongoing, and so is the displacement, the first chapter of which I had witnessed myself. The last of these chapters was a truce after nearly a year of siege on a part of the town outside the regime’s control, and one of its clauses was the forced expulsion of dozens of families to the countryside of Idlib.


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