Bana (7) with her mother Fatima and two siblings departing East Aleppo under emergency evacuation, December 19, 2016.
Bana’s parents were active supporters of their community even after the war began. Her father Ghassan practiced as a lawyer and Fatima was studying in the university (English and Law) while teaching English to displaced children in Aleppo. As the war intensified around them, the family became physically trapped, unable to flee their city, and unable to obtain food or water. Fatima recounts their final days in Syria:
“In October, the Syrian regime began sending text messages warning everyone that the military will enter the area and clear out the terrorists. We had been under savage siege for a long period of time and couldn’t find a way out. We were too afraid to go outside for any reason, no matter what.
As the siege intensified, bombs went off near us everyday. Bombs were hitting everyone, everywhere. We got into the routine of repairing the doors on our home a minimum of two times per day due to the massive explosions.
Then one day we heard there was a truce and when we came up from the basement thinking that the bombs had stopped, a few seconds later, there was a massive explosion and smoke. We realized a rocket had hit our own home. Two of the rooms were wrecked. I sustained significant injuries and Ghassan was also injured. The kids were in a room where the closet fell on them but luckily none of them got hurt, they only had light injuries.
We felt it had gotten so bad that we had to leave our home immediately no matter the risk of being outside. We tried to reach the home of Ghassan’s parents which was only 200 meters away (0.12 miles), but bombs were falling everywhere. Ghassan took off his shirt, cut it up, and we all covered our faces due to the huge dust particles in the air. The kids were so afraid, crying and screaming each time they saw an explosion. We felt helpless, unable to shield them from witnessing it. We had no idea where to run to. What we saw was astonishing and heart breaking. All the buildings were on the ground and people lied motionless in the streets. We walked over the wreckage, between the bombs…it was the longest walk of our lives. We were in a horror movie.”
Fatima is the mastermind behind the twitter account, @AlabedBana. Since joining twitter in September, 2016, Fatima and Bana have become internationally recognized as the voice of the besieged Syrian people, trapped in the crossfire of war. As one can see from the message behind the tweets of Bana, the family does not promote a political agenda and thus would not be considered a threat to the ideals of either the current regime or rebel armies, though, having a voice can sometimes be a threat in and of itself. With over 350,000 followers, @AlabedBana has been both a life saver and a danger.
“We reached Al Maadi by foot and we were exhausted. We spent the night in a small house where many families stayed as they also fled for their lives. We took shifts with sleeping and standing guard outside, even in the cold and rain. Coincidentally I saw someone using the internet, so I asked him to use it and I opened twitter for few minutes to comfort the people asking about us. At that moment I got a threatening text message which included a picture of our home from above, destroyed, and a personal threat that we will be killed no matter where we go, due to our tweets and being active on twitter. As a result, Ghassan’s parents told us they were leaving us. So did many of the other families. They were afraid for themselves, of course. We turned off the internet and shut down my twitter account until we figured out how we were being followed. I turned off my phone and we left to Al Shaykh Said without telling anyone. When we reached Al Shaykh Said, we received another text message saying do you think if you leave to Sheikh Said you are safe now? We will find you wherever you go! We immediately threw our sim cards.”
As Bana and her family fled through the night, members of the international community were working around the clock on a complex humanitarian evacuation for citizens just like Bana, stranded in East Aleppo, unable to flee under such an enormous, large scale bombardment — 73 buses would soon arrive.
“Once we boarded we were so afraid we would be arrested or killed. Various officers boarded for searches and we were terrified. We were about to die from fear. Especially me, I was expecting to be arrested with Bana due to our tweets and being active on social media. We tried to hide our faces and Bana’s face and even sent her to sit with another family. After all the searches were completed, as the bus started up and pull out for the border, we felt so lucky they didn’t recognize us. When we reached the other side, we felt that we had been reborn. Bana screamed with tears of joy ‘We are finally in heaven!'”
The next day they were surprised to be sitting with the President of Turkey who took an interest in the twitter feed himself. We asked if they had obtained any opportunities or support from their meeting with the President and learned that all doors are open, and that he encouraged them to follow their humanitarian interests. As of this time the family is in debt $1000, has no money or possessions, and is unsure of what they will do next. They said their greatest concerns include finding an accepting, peaceful place to live, school, obtaining work (both Fatima and Ghassan are interested in humanitarian law and education), and preventive psychological counselling for the kids.