NewsSurviving Syria's raging war: A tale of forced displacement, false deaths, and yearning for peace

Surviving Syria's raging war: A tale of forced displacement, false deaths, and yearning for peace

Sardar managed to escape from the hell of war. In an archival photo from 2015, one of the regime's military bombardments in Damascus, where the man spent part of his life.
Sardar managed to escape from the hell of war. In an archival photo from 2015, one of the regime's military bombardments in Damascus, where the man spent part of his life.
Images source: © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, o2 | Abou Khair el Shame, Łukasz Dynowski
12:04 PM EST, January 14, 2024

But a change was coming. In 2011, Syrians, weary of unemployment, corruption, and the strangulation of civil liberties, answered the call of the Arab Spring and took to the streets. Just when they believed they had succeeded, that they had finally escaped the dictator's hell, they were thrust back into the abyss.

Images from Syria disturbed the world. Soldiers fired on the protestors, blood colored the streets, and the nation descended into a brutal civil war. As the years passed, global powers became involved. In 2014, the U.S. began aiding Syrian rebels opposing the regime, and in 2015, Russia aligned with al-Assad. From then on, the armies of both nations carried out tens of thousands of airstrikes, their bombs still falling on Syrian land today.

It's thought that over 600,000 people have died in the war. About half of them were civilians.

You can't conscript the dead

Sardar is one of the survivors, although according to official records, he had died long ago. His father is to thank for this.

He's grateful, as the dead can rest in peace. The dead aren't called to serve in the military. As his grandfather did for his father, his father reported Sardar's death, sparing him from the al-Assad regime's clutches.

A fictitious death - was a way to dodge becoming a ineffective cog in the machine of al-Assad's regime.

Bashar al-Assad, an even more vicious successor of his ruthless father, took power in Syria in 2000. Over these 23 years, his regime has committed countless war crimes, including chemical attacks. The deadliest among these occurred in Ghouta in 2013, with death toll estimates ranging from about 300 to as high as 1,800 people.

A sister's ordeal in the torture factory

Like millions of other Syrians, Sardar's world shattered in 2011. Amidst the uprising, the dictator's soldiers swept through neighborhoods, arresting people. If someone wrote the word "hurricane" ("freedom") on a wall, their arrest was nearly guaranteed.

Sardar's sister wasn't satisfied with just writing on walls. She wholeheartedly supported those resisting government forces. Using their large house, she stockpiled food supplies for the demonstrators. This alone was enough to get her name on the list.

Then the regime's henchmen came, and just like that, Sardar's sister vanished. He had no clue what they had done to her. But he wanted to find out. He searched incessantly - day after day, week after week, month after month.

Finally, after a year, he found her. She was in a prison - rather, a factory of torture.

Was that really her? He struggled to believe his own eyes. "They fried her brain," Sardar repeats.

In Syrian prisons, torturing regime opponents is common - the horrors include rapes, "balanco" (hanging by the wrists looped behind the back), acid attacks, and extracting nails.

His sister survived and now lives in Switzerland, but she is dramatically changed. The sister he knew has disappeared. Was it worth it? When asked whether he is proud of what she did, Sardar replies firmly and without hesitation: "Yes."

Life at the refugee camp

The Syrian civil war has forced over 13 million people to abandon their homes; over 6.8 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, whilst over 6.6 million have sought refuge abroad.

Among these 13 million are they - the family from Al-Zabadani, a city located near the border with Lebanon. They moved to Damascus for a year following the start of the war. Once their sister was targeted and a bomb hit their house, staying in their homeland became impossible. The bomb made the floor collapse and injured Jumana - Sardar's wife. It was a miracle that she only broke her femur.

They managed to escape by plane - the overland route was too treacherous - to Iraqi Kurdistan. Now, they live in Darashakran, a refugee camp in Erbil.

Friends are few here, but they have something they couldn't hope for in their homeland - peace and security. Darashakran is an open camp, they can leave whenever they wish - for example, to go shopping. Necessities can be purchased within the camp, and it lacks nothing regarding stores. This holds for other services, too. "I went to the dentist here in the camp, and they fixed all my teeth," Sardar recalls. A dental clinic sponsored by the Polish Medical Mission operates in the camp; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs financially supported it as part of the Polish Assistance program.

Their children - they have three - can attend school within the camp, although their daughter doesn't like school. "They tease me because I wear glasses," she conveys while her twin brother adds, "And they laugh at me because I have a big head."

The parents sought help from the school with the bullying, but the school administration seemed powerless and responded with, "They're just kids; what can we do?"

In the Daraszakran camp, where Sardar lives with his family, there is a dental office of the Polish Medical Mission.
In the Daraszakran camp, where Sardar lives with his family, there is a dental office of the Polish Medical Mission.© o2 | Łukasz Dynowski

What about their dreams? The boy loves soccer and looks up to Ronaldo, but he aspires to become an engineer. The girl would like to be a painter.

Life isn't easy, but at least they have an income, as Sardar finds sporadic work as a construction laborer. When they save a bit of money, they all go to Erbil, shop, and have a wonderful time. "We have a great time," adds Jumana.

She laughs when asked about her best memory from her past life in Syria: "It wasn’t the wedding! The snow was knee-deep then!"

Sardar, Dżumana and two of their three children.
Sardar, Dżumana and two of their three children.© o2 | Łukasz Dynowski

Sardar leans against the wall and retreats into himself for a moment. His eyes focus on the wall opposite him, but his thoughts are far away. Eventually, he says, "Everything." That's his best memory—life without bombs.

Would he want to go back? "I still have my store there. My home. But you can't go back."

Syria's war rages on, with the death count rising in 2023

The war in Syria has now lasted for thirteen years. In 2013-14, the conflict's peak, approximately 100,000 people died annually. In recent years, casualties have dwindled, and the world's attention has been diverted to other conflicts - in Ukraine and Gaza.

But people continue to die in Syria. The White Helmets - a volunteer civilian defense organization - report on new casualties from airstrikes and bombings almost daily. The same regime, as in previous years, was actively supported by the Russians in these attacks.

The Darashakran refugee camp in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Darashakran refugee camp in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan© o2 | Łukasz Dynowski

January 6, 2024: artillery attacked by the regime's forces in Idlib city killed a 3-year-old girl and injured a woman in her forties.

January 4, 2024: gunfire in Al-Qasr injured two shepherds.

January 1, 2024: bombardment in Darat Izza resulted in 3 deaths and 4 injuries.

In 2023, for the first time in many years, the war's victim count spiked. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over the past twelve months, the conflict has claimed more than 4360 lives, including 1889 civilians (241 women, 307 children). This death toll surpasses the previous year's total of 3825.

Related content