Reem Salahi: Today My Village Was Shelled

HSRR attorney Reem Salahi has been traveling through Syria this Summer. She wrote the following on June 27, 2013:

Today my village was shelled. I was in a deep sleep and in the outer peripheries of my consciousness, I heard an explosion. “Reem, Reem, get up. Hurry,” my housemate told me. I woke up startled and realized that this time, it was our turn. This time, the government was shelling our village. We ran into the bathroom which had an attic above it. A whizz and an another loud explosion. “That was really close,” she said. “What time is it?” “7 a.m.,” I told her. “Good,” she said. “The children won’t be out yet.” Two more explosions. My housemate paused a moment to study the house. “This is the safest place,” she concluded.

The shells fell one after another. My housemate brushed her teeth and I changed out of my pajamas in case we had to leave the house. After approximately fifteen shells, they stopped. “It’s because it’s Thursday,” she told me. “They are warning us not to go out to the demonstration tomorrow. They are definitely going to shell us tomorrow.” A few minutes later, we heard the sound of ambulance sirens.

We went to the rooftop to see the damage. A young boy was lying on his mattress on the roof of the neighboring house. The shelling had awoken him but he hadn’t bothered to go inside for protection.

“It’s not the shelling that scares us; we are used to it,” told me a resident of Saraqib, a neighboring village, a few days before. “it’s the airplanes and the explosive barrels that frighten us.” “The first shell is the most dangerous. You don’t know where it will land. After the first shell, you can run indoors for protection and it’s much safer. There’s nothing to protect you from explosive barrels though. They can wipe out an entire building and even a street. If you go indoors, the whole house will fall on you. So now, every time we hear an airplane overhead, we go outdoors and watch it. We have a higher chance of survival if we are outdoors.”

The residents of Saraqib had only recently returned to their village when I visited. The streets and alleyways were a testament to the government’s vindictive shelling of their village while many were away. Buildings completely decimated, large holes where the shells fell, broken streets and pavements. The main street was lined with bags piled seven feet tall full of sand to protect the store fronts from shrapnel. Checkpoints and armed men littered the city center. But like the other villages, there were no government soldiers, no pictures of Bashar or government flags. The only reminder of the Baathist government came in form of Russian shells, scud missiles and explosive barrels dropped from the heavens above.

I met a group of young activists in Saraqib who created two weekly magazines for the residents there — one for kids and one for adults. They showed me a handful of pictures that the kids had drawn in response to a contest in one of the magazines. Each picture contained guns, missiles, helicopters, fighters, and/or tanks. Even the picture with the sun and birds had a tank and shells in it. “The top half,” said the young man pointing to the sun and birds, “is what this kid learned to draw in school. The bottom half (pointing the tank and weapons) is what the government taught him these past two years.” After that contest, the activists decided to specify exactly what they wanted the kids to draw: animals, sports, etc.

As we sat and talked, two shells fell nearby. I jumped in my chair. “Here, here have a cigarette. It helps,” told me one of the men. The others in the room didn’t even flinch. “There goes another martyr,” joked one of the men. The others smiled but their eyes revealed the pain within.

When it was time to go, I asked if it was safe to go outside, if the shelling had stopped. “You never know,” said one of the activists, “khalas say the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) and the rest is on God. If anything happens, it’ll be quick. We’ll smile at one another and go up to the heavens together.” “Let’s hope we go up and not down,” laughed one of the men. The others laughed but I couldn’t help notice that one of men was convulsively twitching and the entire group was chain smoking.

As I scrambled to the bathroom this morning, I remembered the internally displaced women I met a few days ago who had been living in a school for nine months with twenty other families: “Show me a government that kills its own people, that targets its own women and children and shells them,” they told me. “What’s happening in Syria is unparalleled.”

This morning, it was my turn, my village’s turn to be targeted and shelled. I don’t know when or where the next shell will fall. What I do know, though, is that the government will target the likes of me, the Syrian men, women and children who are sleeping or playing on the streets or cooking for their families or preparing a weekly magazine or demonstrating because they dared to stand up and ask for freedom. 

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