I received a phone call a few days ago from Fatima, the principal of our school in Jarjanaz, a town in the Province of Idlib. Her words chilled me: “They are killing us, they are destroying the school, the houses, everything… they are targeting the civilians… the Syrian regime is killing us.” There were no homes, no buildings left untouched by the airstrikes carried out by the Russian and the Syrian regime military forces.
She affirmed, “I just packed all our school’s furniture and stationary in one room; I am taking the computer, the projector, and heading with other teachers outside Jarjanaz where we can save the children.”
Fatima is originally from Darraya, a suburb outside Damascus where the peaceful protests began in 2011 against the oppressive dictatorship. This was the city where the people distributed flowers and water to the personnel security with the slogan: “It is better to be killed than to kill.” Darraya’s people paid a high price, as their city was besieged until August 2016. It was then that Fatima and 2,500 people were forced to board green buses and leave their homes after the Assad regime and their Russian allies imposed a deal. Today, Darraya is a ghost city.
Fatima and the other 2,500 residents arrived in Jarjanaz with hundreds of other families from Darraya. Idlib’s population was 500,000 before the war started in 2011, but after the forced displacement, the population has grown to nearly 2.5 million. Now, due to the forced relocations and bombings, we have lost track of who is alive and who is not.
Jarjanaz was a small suburb outside of Idlib, with moderate and educated people and an open-minded local council very willing to cooperate on women’s issues.
My friend, Afra, and I wanted to give a hand to the women of Darraya and Jarjanaz, so we decided to open a school in 2017 with the help of the European Union. We named it The Jarjanaz and Darraya Women’s Peace Centre. The Centre’s mission is to help the women of Darraya in Jarjanaz to learn Arabic, English, computer skills, peace studies, capacity building, and obtain psychological support which is provided through Skype on a full time basis.
The energetic and tireless Fatima taught computer classes, and was also keen on attending English and peacebuilding classes herself, especially the classes taught via Skype by our colleagues Gail and Manal. The Centre was operating day by day, despite concern about armed groups, such as Al Nusra. The women at the Centre assured us that the people of Jarjanaz and Idlib hate the Al Nusra front and blame Al Nusra as the cause of their misery in Idlib. They know that Al Nusra is the sole reason for the opposition losing the city of Aleppo.
But they have been bombed; and the bombs in Jarjanaz smell of war, and death is everywhere as usual. “We have nowhere to go!” Fatima shouts from the small tent that is now her home. We used to have a group chat to stay in contact with the staff from the Centre in Jarjanaz. Now, some of the teachers are not responding to our attempts to reach them, and we do not know if they are safe. The last video we received was the bombing of Jarjanaz.
Fatima and her colleagues have left, and so nobody answers the phone. Again, another dream has disappeared, as 120 women left Jarjanaz and the school where we tried to provide hope, and possibilities. Women continue to pay the the high price of the war, radicalism, and Dictatorship.
We are waiting for Fatima and others to appear again and tell us that they are okay. The ceasefire that once existed in Idlib is no more.
The rainbow-colored school we painted last year for 120 women, and for students studying how to mediate and solve conflicts, is now closed, cold and forcibly abandoned.
The voices of the women are silent; their laughter and singing are gone. Where else can they go if Idlib is no longer safe?