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Finding Refuge: Ten years of war in Syria, through the eyes of Syrians forced to flee

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Damaged buildings in Idlib, Syria, just one of many cities ruined by a decade of war
Damaged buildings in Idlib, Syria, just one of many cities ruined by a decade of war   -   Copyright  (AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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The war in Syria has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people, displaced half of the country’s population, and ushered in a humanitarian crisis that sent shockwaves across Europe - and the world.

It's now 10 years since the start of the conflict.

Looking back on this decade-long conflict, Euronews has released a series of exclusive reports telling the story of the war through the personal experience of those who lived through it – and escaped.

The uprising

“The people want the fall of the regime” – was the chant echoed by the tens of thousands of Syrian who, in March 2011, took to the streets for the first time daring to shout what they once feared to whisper.

Muhammed Subat was among them. “Nobody could say anything. But in 2011, words just came out…everyone took to the streets to say: ‘liberty, dignity, we want to remove Assad.’”

Bashar al-Assad had governed Syria for 11 years, inheriting power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had spent 30 years at the helm.

The family ruled a totalitarian state and Syrians held them responsible for a dark era where corruption, injustice and torture were the norm.

Inspired by the initial successes of a powerful wave of uprisings that was getting rid of dictators and transforming the face of the Arab world in the so-called Arab Spring, many in Syria dared to dream about change.

The southern city of Daraa, Muhammed’s hometown where the initial protests took place, was to become known as the ‘cradle of the revolution’.

And there the regime of Bashar Assad was to unleash the first wave of terror Syria was to witness for the next 10 years and beyond. It tried to suppress the protests with deadly military force, and mass arrests.

Muhammed Subat ended up in Assad’s jails – twice.

“In a very small space, there were more than 100 people. There were electrical shocks. And insults…everything. There is something where they hang you upside down from the ceiling for nine or 10 hours, and they beat you. And our sole crime was to participate (in protests) and ask for freedom. That was our crime.”

The Syrian regime justified its initial actions by accusing protesters of carrying out an armed insurgency from the start. Protesters staunchly deny this.

“From the beginning, the Assad government - and its media - lied. And everybody knows they are liars. Everyone saw that people in the streets had nothing, how can the protesters be to blame? What did they do? They didn’t do anything. They sang, they danced, they spoke…everything was beautiful. We were like in a bubble…we wrote songs about the revolution. But the government lies. All it says are lies.”

Military escalation

After months of brutal government crackdown against protesters, military officers began defecting to form a resistance movement. By July 2011, the emergence of the Free Syrian Army marked the beginning of a new phase in the revolt.

“And when the regime starts to bomb cities, we tried to ask the international community to intervene, to protect us from getting killed, but no one responded,” says Khaled K K, from Homs, who was only 21 when he decided to pick up arms.

“We lost hope and we said we have to rely on ourselves and on what we have.

“I didn’t know how to use a weapon. I never saw a real weapon before.”

Like Khaled, thousands joined the conflict in a fight for freedom, democracy, and a new Syria. But very quickly the multitude of groups diverged in their priorities.

By January 2012, al-Qaida fighters announced the creation of a Syrian branch. The newly-formed Nusra Front called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria.

All the while the fighting continued to intensify. Rebels captured the eastern half of Aleppo - Syria’s second city. Regime forces dropped barrel bombs on densely populated urban areas.

By the second year of the conflict, one million civilians had fled, and another half a million were displaced.

Then US President Barack Obama said "we cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime and also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized...that would change my calculus, that would change my equation."

But exactly one year later, in eastern and western Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, a sarin gas attack hit rebel-held areas, killing hundreds.

Obama’s “red line” had been crossed, but nothing was to be done - action was voted down in Congress.

The Ghouta chemical attack was the closest the West came to direct intervention.

Foreign intervention

At one point the UN said the battlefield chaos made it impossible to count the dead. So they stopped. But the fighting didn’t.

Syria’s war was to become the most complex conflict to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring.

From the onset, external players used Syria to settle their scores. Dozens of countries, regional governments, and global powers got involved in fueling the flames of the war within the country’s borders.

First, Iran-backed militias provided ground support for Assad, while the opposition counted on financial support from Gulf countries, but also training from the US and Turkey.

That was until Russia entered the conflict, shifting the balance of power irreversibly.

‘Mission Syria’ was launched in September 2015, two months after Ahmad Sheer – a painter from Aleppo - fled Syria.

The 40-year-old said he didn’t want to leave, but one day he was left with a choice: to flee, or join in the fighting

“To get involved in the war is something else. It’s something I could not do.”

Moscow claimed it was targeting terror groups, but Russian strikes were found to constantly hit Western-backed rebels - as well as civilians.

Accusations of war crimes were levelled against Moscow because of the constant targeting of hospitals and civilian property.

Ahmed says he watched from afar while his people were faced with unsparing violence. “Pain and shock” are now etched on his art.

Rise of Islamic State

Amid the chaos and violence, Syria became fertile ground for extremism.

The emergence of Islamic State - originally an offshoot of Al-Qaida - spread unprecedented levels of terror, as the group declared a ‘caliphate’, using Raqqa, a city of 300,000, as its de-facto capital.

While extremist followers from all over the world flocked to the territory, Syrians had one more enemy to escape.

Mohammad had already fled the city, but recounts how he lived the horrors perpetrated by the terror group from afar – through his mother and siblings who stayed behind and were subject to the group’s rule.

“One day they came to my mother and said I needed to stop my humanitarian work. She knew then and understood this as a threat,” says Mohammed.

In Eskilstuna, on the outskirts of Sweden’s capital Stockholm, Mohammed is not the only Raqqa refugee.

Doctors Hamza Alkhedr and Ismail Kadro, both medical doctors now employed by the local hospital, say their lives have been forever marked by the group’s brutality.

Not only by ISIS, but also the destruction caused by a four-month air campaign led by the US against the terror group, which is estimated to have killed 1,600 civilians.

The dead include Dr Ismail Kadro’s mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephews.

It was the “8th January, 2016 in Raqqa. And I don’t know who bombed my house, who killed my family. I don’t know. Maybe Assad, maybe America, maybe France, maybe British, maybe Dutch...I don’t know.

Assad’s ‘victory’

Throughout the last decade, multiple attempts to find a solution to the conflict have failed. From initiatives launched by the Arab League in 2011, to talks brokered by Russia, the UN, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Conferences in Geneva, Vienna, involving officials from the US, the EU, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran - nothing has worked.

Civilians suffered not only the physical danger of war, but also the collapse of the economy and the Syrian pound, which drove down salaries and drove up prices.

The situation has inevitably driven millions to flee in search of refuge.

Dorado Jadiba, a 31-year-old dancer from Damascus, was one who risked life and limb looking for a chance of living in peace elsewhere.

His journey took him across Lebanon, Iran, Turkey. He spent two months in a refugee camp in Greece, and suffered illegal pushbacks along the rest of the way.

Now finally safe in France, he has just finished professional training in physical education, and hopes to be able to start working soon – to give back some of what France gave him.

“This country opened its arms to me. From the beginning. There are people here who support me. So of course I hope that one day the French will say ‘this is the man we need’ or ‘this is the man we’ve been looking for.’”

Meanwhile back in Syria, almost 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Their currency, the Syrian pound, reached an all-time low against the dollar, decimating the value of salaries and making everything expensive.

Food prices have more than doubled and the World Food Program warned that 60% of the population are at risk of going hungry.

Despite these problems, Assad remains in control of about two-thirds of the country.

After a wave of uprisings that saw regimes toppled across much of the region, Syria’s leader could, in theory, claim victory.

But Dorado Jadiba says: “Nobody won this war. We lost a lot of things. I lost many of my friends, my cousin. All Syrian families lost someone.”

***

In February 2021, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry concluded civilians in Syria were victims of “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international violations including genocide”.

The commission renewed calls for a “reinvigoration of international efforts to end the conflict and put the country on a path toward peace and justice”.

The Syrian government refused our numerous requests for interviews or comment.