By Andrea Krogmann*
Let us call them Samir and Sabine. Let us say they are in their early 50s, Christians who have fled from Al-Raqqah, the stronghold of the terrorist militia Islamic State. They call them “Daesh” in Arabic. There is no word for the horrors that the self-proclaimed warriors of God have inflicted on them.
“No photo, no names!” Samir’s gesture is clear: otherwise his head will roll. Then he lets his arms fall back to his sides, in his hands a piece of paper: a receipt for the tax on Christians in the Islamic State. The amount that the jihadists levy per year and family is 3,700 euros – protection money, but no one is safe from the terror.
Samir and his family were doing well in Al-Raqqah. And then Daesh arrived. Samir paid. When the threat became bigger, the family converted to Islam. “I hated the life, the veil, and that I wasn’t allowed out on the street without a male escort,” Sabine explained. “That is not for us Christians!” Samir prayed at the mosque for the sake of appearances – to protect his family. Then came the car with the fighters. Someone had denounced the family, saying that they had not really converted to Islam, were still praying at home to their God. Samir and his family were able to flee. They found shelter with a Muslim friend. In the night they made their way to Aleppo, cutting across country, the fear of discovery too great. The terror followed. “After two months in Aleppo, I received a call. They told me that they would come and kill me,” Samir said.
The family fled again, to Beirut. Until the phone rang there again, “We know where you are!” The implied threat drove the family to the Beqaa Valley. Samir and Sabine are happy that they no longer have to renounce their faith. “We had a picture of St. Charbel with us the entire time, that is what saved us,” Sabine said. They both say that their faith is “stronger than ever”. And their faith is the reason why they want to leave the Middle East. “We aren’t safe anywhere here,” Samir said. The phone has already rung where they are now, “No matter where you are, we will find you!”
We could call them Jacob and Claire. Their story is also a long story of flight in mortal fear. It started with protests. Their Muslim neighbours wanted Christian support in the fight against the government. “But we Christians love President Assad,” Claire said. “Under him we were doing well and we were safe.” The facts of their flight from Qussair are quickly told. One Friday, the Islamists were preaching death to the Christians. All men over the age of 5 fled to Lebanon. Seventy-five of them did not make it. They were executed by ISIS. The women and children remained behind. The fighters invaded their homes, destroyed, plundered and threatened them with rape. Then the women also fled with their children. No words can express the pain and the trauma.
“There are families here who had to climb over the corpses of their neighbours so that they could flee,” said Sana, the only one to give her name. Sana is Lebanese and, with the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has been helping the refugees in her city since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. “Their children are still drawing these horror scenes today.” It will take time to come to terms with this trauma, but the Christian is happy that her refugees have started to talk about what they have experienced.
She calls herself Maria. The Christian from Sadat does not want to tell her own story and talks about her neighbours instead. “That night in October 2013,” she said, “the men from ISIS came. They called out ‘Allahu Akbar’ three times. Then they killed everyone: the grandmother, the grandfather, the parents, the daughter and the son. Three generations. They threw the corpses into the fountain.” Maria falls silent. “Too many stories have happened to the Syrian people.”
* Andrea Krogmann is a journalist for the KNA Catholic News Agency (Germany) and was part of Aid to the Church in Need’s communication trip to Lebanon in May 2016. She has given us permission to publish her article.