Syrian family risks all to flee Raqqa as violence surges

As conflict advances on Raqqa, thousands have braved minefields and armed groups to flee the fighting and worsening humanitarian conditions inside the city.

A nurse in Qamishli, Syria, holds two children who survived a mine explosion as their family tried to escape the embattled city of Raqqa. Their mother was killed, their father, Mustafa, badly injured.  © UNHCR/Areej Kassab

QAMISHLI, Syria – Terrified of being caught up in the fighting currently engulfing Raqqa, Syrian father Mustafa Yousef loaded his wife and three young children onto the back of his motorcycle and headed north, in a desperate bid to escape the northern Syrian city that has been under the control of armed groups since 2014.

The family, originally displaced from Aleppo five years ago, had almost reached the safety of a military checkpoint when a mine exploded beneath them, claiming the lives of Mustafa’s wife and eldest son.

“I was relieved when I saw the checkpoint and thought that we had finally managed to escape,” said Mustafa, badly injured and still shocked. “Only a short distance away from the checkpoint the explosion happened. I started waving and screaming for them to come and rescue us.”

Mustafa and his two surviving children were taken to the border city of Tal Abyad, 100 kilometres north of Raqqa, before being transferred to the Qamishli National Hospital in Syria’s far north-eastern Hassakeh governorate.

"I started waving and screaming for them to come and rescue us.”

The explosion left Mustafa with a broken right arm and leg, and shattered his left wrist. His three-year-old son Abdul Karim suffered a broken jaw and shrapnel in his left eye, while surgeons had to remove the toes on his left foot. “We did our best here, but he needs urgent specialized ophthalmological surgery, which we can’t provide,” said one of the doctors taking care of the family.

Despite having no visible injuries, Mustafa’s one-year-old daughter Laila’s condition is the most serious. “She needs chest surgery and paediatric surgery, both of which are not available here,” the doctor said. “She has suffered a bruised right lung, and without urgent surgery she could lose her life.”

Thousands remain stranded inside the city amid rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions, which aside from the fighting include acute shortages of essential commodities such as food, medicine and fuel.

Armed groups controlling the city have threatened to kill any people found attempting to leave, while many of the roads out of the area have been heavily mined, those fleeing the city say. Despite the dangers, more than 160,000 people like Mustafa and his family are estimated to have fled fighting across Raqqa governorate since April 1.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with other UN agencies and humanitarian partners, is doing what it can to provide life-saving assistance to the displaced. This includes providing shelter and relief items in camps established in Raqqa and Hassakeh governorates.

But with only sporadic access in some areas due to the challenging security environment, an effective humanitarian response is more difficult to mount. UNHCR is calling on all parties to the conflict to allow greater and sustained humanitarian access.

“With needs growing and displacement rising, access on the ground is challenging.”

“With needs growing and displacement rising, access on the ground is challenging,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday (June 13), noting that relief items are being airlifted from Damascus to Qamishli – a costly and complex undertaking.

“Until now, there were no viable land routes available to move supplies. With partners we continue to explore all possible supply routes and are working with the authorities to secure greater access to those in need.”  

Having paid a terrible price to make his escape, Mustafa was told that without evacuation and urgent medical treatment, his two surviving children could die or suffer lifelong complications. As a result, UNHCR in coordination with other UN agencies, humanitarian partners and governmental departments arranged to transfer the family to Damascus, where they will get the specialised medical assistance they need.

“It is not the first time that we facilitate such evacuations,” said Roupen Alexandrian, the head of UNHCR’s field office in Qamishli. “Our priority is to make sure that all medical cases are being referred to medical facilities and that evacuation pathways are available for those in critical conditions.”

“People fleeing for their lives are in urgent need of support to survive,” Alexandrian added. “We are working tirelessly to make sure that they receive relief items and have access to a safe place as soon as they reach us.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Qusai Alazroni)