To flee or to settle

Nivin Hotary is a Syrian activist from Ghouta, living in northern Syria.

On 10 July she addressed the United Nations about the conditions for people living in displacement camps in Idlib. Here is her speech:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Nivin Hotary, I am a mother of two children. In March, I testified before the UN Security Council about the situation in eastern Ghouta.

Back then, I hoped that the UN would stop the bombing committed by the Assad regime and Russia, end the siege of eastern Ghouta, and prevent us from being forcibly displaced.

When I gave my testimony, I was sitting in a dark room with no electricity due to the ongoing siege. The audience at the Security Council had to turn off the lights in the hall to be able to see me. They shared seven minutes of darkness with me, but they couldn’t end the darkness for me. Today I’m in the north of Syria, in a lighter place, but the darkness and sadness of forced displacement runs deep inside me.

I chose to flee my home in Ghouta because I refuse to live under the Assad regime, I refuse to live under the control of a war criminal. For seven years, Assad has bombed us with all kinds of weapons, globally prohibited weapons, right under the world’s eyes.

He kept us under siege in one area in eastern Ghouta for five years, during which many children died of malnutrition and many others died because the regime refused to grant them medical evacuation.

During the last few months of the siege, between mid-February and the end of March, the amount of terror against us by the regime and its allies, was equal to the entire siege of Ghouta.

Three types of aircraft would gather in the sky — helicopters, military and scout planes. During each airstrike, many rockets and barrels would hit the same place, along with ground artillery shelling. We lived in these months in underground basements. We would eat one piece of bread all day with nothing else. While hiding in the basements, we watched babies being born, and people dying who we were unable to move outside because of the heavy bombing.

After enduring these crimes mentioned, we were given two choices, to flee or to settle.

To settle means to go to shelter centres controlled by the regime and announce that we’re terrorists and beg for pardon so the regime allows us to stay.

To settle means the regime will arrest our men and force them to serve in the army, the same army that’s currently bombing people in southern Syria.

To settle means to go back in humiliation to our lives before the revolution and shout, “Assad Forever!”

I know exactly how dangerous settling is for any activist or supporter of the revolution, so I chose to flee.

To flee means being pulled from our roots, leaving behind everything we’ve spent our lives building, and move to a new environment, a new beginning, to start from nothing with nothing.

Forced displacement is a punishment imposed on us by the regime and Russia, because we demanded freedom and to freely choose our president. We were forced to choose this punishment because we won’t accept Assad as our everlasting leader.

Let me tell you a little bit about our journey, where our safety was “guaranteed” by Russia. The whole trip, from Ghouta to Qalaat al-Madiq took 27.5 hours. The regime sent us north in rundown public buses, which would not stop to allow us bathroom relief.

They gave us two biscuits and one bottle of water for the whole trip.

The drivers took the buses, on purpose of course, through regime-supporting areas where residents were waiting for our caravan to pass to insult us verbally and with hand gestures. Some of the buses were attacked by Assad supporters and military members and a child in one of the buses was killed.

We arrived in the north exhausted, physically and emotionally, but we were warmly welcomed. There we found other displaced people who had arrived years before us from all over Syria. We and all the displaced have become a burden on the area.

It saddens me to speak about the humanitarian situation in the north, where there are thousands of displaced families living in tents. When we first arrived, the displacement camps were being hit by heavy rain, which caused repeated flooding. Now that it’s summer, the displaced people are suffering because of the very high temperatures.

It saddens me to speak about the women who left their homes to live in a tent in the north. Women who used to be powerful activists back in Ghouta, and now have no role.

When I arrived in the north, I decided to continue with what I started back in Ghouta, I promised myself not to let the displacement stand in my way. I began working with a humanitarian organisation on a project to empower Syrian women.

I visited many communities and attended a lot of meetings to assess women’s needs and offer help.

How do we speak about a woman’s rights and seek to empower her to play her role in her community, when she’s living in a tent, surrounded by thousands of people, with just one or two metres between each tent. Without privacy, good hygiene and faced with so many social and psychological issues, how do we speak about empowering women when there are no jobs for them to do?

I work almost as a volunteer, because my organisation’s external funding has long dried up. I’ll leave it to your imagination to picture the reality of thousands of displaced people, in an area with limited resources, with international organisations withdrawing their support.

I work because women here need me to. There’s a great need for community integration among the displaced women and the local women of the hosting communities. There’s a need for awareness sessions and training courses. Women have a great desire to continue working and engage more in the community. And the community welcomes this, but we’re restricted because of the disruption to our financial support.

Our children are deprived of education because of these conditions, and they need extensive education now.

The international silence and the ignorance towards the displaced are increasing the burden upon them. So many families in the north are now living with no jobs and no sight of a future that would give them safety and hope of a better tomorrow.

This silence and this situation are driving a number of families to consider going back to regime-held areas. Although they know for sure that the regime would arrest many of them, their catastrophic situation is forcing them to take that risk. They’re convinced that the international community is, indirectly, supporting Assad’s criminal regime.

The silence about Assad’s crimes, the world’s refusal to stop the forced displacement or help the dispossessed, is benefitting the regime and pressuring the displaced to go to regime-controlled areas.

It saddens me that this same scenario is happening to my brothers and sisters in the south of Syria. Bombing, the regime’s armies advancing, international silence, and then forced displacement for those who refuse to settle with the regime. More displacements and more burden with absolutely no effort to resolve the problem.

When I gave my testimony in March, I was hoping for the Security Council to take a real humanitarian step that would prevent our displacement, but we were displaced anyways.

Today I give my testimony and I don’t know how it will affect you, but my duty is to participate, to deliver an image of our situation, to put the responsibility on you for the thousands of displaced Syrians, and to demand accountability for the crime of forced displacement against the people who refused to accept “Assad forever” and were punished for it.



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