With the liberation of Palmyra from ISIS tyranny most of the world’s media concentrated its attention upon the destruction of its historic buildings that were declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. Less media focused upon the people who had endured the occupation of their city by ISIS.
“People are more important than ruins.” says Hassan Ahmed, a former resident of Palmyra. “I want you to convey to international organisations and institutions to care about the people of Palmyra who lost their homes, not just about the antiquities.” He continued, “Most people in Palmyra are very poor and I just don’t know how they will be able to repair their homes.”
On the outskirts of a Homs district decimated by months of fighting in 2012, families from Palmyra live in single rooms in a school building that has been turned into a makeshift camp by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Usama, 50, had been imprisoned by IS for seven months. He finally managed to flee in a minibus crammed with other escapees. Men, women and children had to stand in the vehicle, shoulder-to-shoulder, as it lurched across the arid desert terrain. Usama tracked his wife and seven children down to the camp, where they had survived a harsh winter by taping plastic bags across the windows and huddling under blankets. Escaping with just the clothes they wore, the Palmyra displaced have almost nothing. Most are completely reliant on aid. Traumatised from witnessing corporal and capital punishment – hands cut off for smoking, hundreds executed for loyalty to the government of President Bashar al-Assad or his army and their bodies left to rot in the streets – Usama urged the European Union to recognise Palmyra’s suffering and offer support.
Most Palmyra families had relatives killed during IS’s brutal reign over the city. Badria Hussain, 62, pleaded, “I have to tell my story. Please, let me speak! They killed my daughter just for refusing to wear the niqab [full-face veil]. But they didn’t tell me for a month, and watched me come every day to the wedding hall they turned into a prison, trying anything to get her released.” Hussain was eventually handed an IS court document detailing the reasons for her daughter’s execution – mocking IS and refusing to wear the niqab. She refused to repent, so they killed her. And my cousin was an army officer so they beheaded him, cut up his body and scattered the pieces on the ground. They slaughtered nurses because they worked in the government hospital and killed whole families of army officers. I hope no one ever has to see what we have seen.”