In March of this year, Syrian and Russian forces launched a fierce seven-week offensive against rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. Thousands of Syrian families - who had already endured five years of bombings, shootings and chemical weapons attacks in the besieged enclave, attempted to flee along the humanitarian corridors to safety.
Among them was a family of four – 11-year-old Hannah, her younger brother Abdullah and their parents. Not all of them made it. Both Hannah’s parents were shot and killed during their escape, leaving the two children to continue their journey to safety alone.
We spoke to Hannah a few days after she and her brother arrived at their new home in the SOS village community in Saboura, and she told us her story:
I am eleven years old. I should be in fifth grade now, but I left school two years ago because it was destroyed.
We lived in Eastern Ghouta before we escaped. I can say that there is no life inside that place. It is really scary. Not a single day went by without many bombs falling. After losing our home we had to move to different places to live.
The life inside is very dangerous. When shells fell my mother used to hold us so strongly that our shoulders would hurt. I can't believe that we survived through all that bombing. I lost my three close friends in one month and my brother lost his best friend too.
My father and mother had to work many hours every day in the parsley harvest to earn money. It was not enough because everything is expensive. It is also very dirty where we lived and there were no doctors. My father was always saying to my mother that he doesn’t care about himself anymore, but he doesn’t want us to continue living this life. He kept saying that death is better than this life.
We tried many times to get out of Eastern Ghouta during daytime but we could not because it was very dangerous. But one day my father became very angry. He told my mother that we should try again during the night so that no-one could see us. First my mother refused and was very scared and would not talk about our escape. They talked for a few days and then they decided that we are going to escape at night.
The night we left my father told us to keep running as long as we can and to crawl when we cannot. He told us not to stop, no matter what happens, and so we did. We left the house at midnight without taking anything with us and we kept walking very quickly until we reached an area where my father asked us to stop for some minutes. He was waiting for a moment to cross to the other side of the road so that we could walk along the collapsed building’s walls.
We were very close (to the humanitarian corridor) when the shooting started. At that moment we were scared and started running very quickly, but my mother was slower than us. I am sure that she was shot because she fell and started screaming loudly. My father ran back to carry her, and he shouted at us to keep running. We ran until we reached the nearby trees and because of the fire we began to crawl, so we wouldn’t be shot. I don’t know what happened to my father because after he shouted at us we didn’t hear his voice again.
We crawled until one of the soldiers saw us and took us (to a security checkpoint) where there were many other soldiers. My brother and I were shivering, and we could barely answer the questions they asked us. I was able to speak but my brother was not.
Thankfully the Damascus Governorate bought the children to the SOS village community in Saboura, where they are now living with their new SOS mother and siblings. Both children show signs of intense psychological trauma, including night terrors, and they are receiving counselling and support to help them cope with their war-time experiences.
My brother and I are now living in the house of Mama Wardeh with four other children. She told me that she is very happy that I am going to live with her because all the other children in the house are boys. She is beautiful and very nice with us. The day after we arrived she introduced me to the girls who live in the neighbouring house in the village and now I visit them every day. I like Manar, my friend who lives next to our house.
Mama Wardeh is sleeping in my room with me so I feel safer, because I told her that I dream about my mother, laying on the ground and bleeding.
SOS Children’s Villages runs two village communities in Damascus which care for children who have lost parental care. We also run interim care centres for children who have become separated from their families during the conflict which works to reunite them with their loved-ones.
Our child-friendly spaces in the war-torn region offer psychological help to traumatised children, educational activities and access to healthcare, and help ensure children have structure to their days. We also provide children and families in Syria with emergency relief, trauma-counselling and financial support so that children are not forced to work to support their families and can return to school.
*The names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.