Matilde Gattoni: The Swallows of Syria

7 minute read

Editor’s note: The people in the story have been photographed with their faces covered and their names have been changed for security concerns. For the same reason, the exact locations in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where the interviews took place have been kept hidden.

“They were five, their faces covered with masks. They broke into the house and went upstairs. Few minutes later, they came down with my son Ali, handcuffed. They brought him away with no explanation. ‘Keep your mouth shut, or we will kill you’ was the only thing they told me.”

Sitting on the porch of her new house in the Bekaa Valley, the Eastern Lebanese region bordering with Syria, Somaya struggles to hold back tears while recounting the last time she saw her son alive. Three days after his arrest, Ali’s corpse was found in a ditch near Talbiseh, a small village close to the Syrian city of Homs. “He had eleven gunshot wounds in the stomach, the left arm was broken and both kneecaps had been removed,” she says. Following her son’s death eight months ago, Somaya moved to Lebanon, where she is trying to cope with the nostalgia of her beloved country and the desperation of a mother that cannot get peace. “Ali was a simple taxi driver—he didn’t like politics,” she says. “During the protests against the regime he used to stay at home because he didn’t want to run into troubles. Since his death, I pray to God every day to rid us of Assad.”

Somaya’s story is not unique. Since the start of the revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than one hundred thousand civilians (at least 114, 955 according to UN agencies) have taken shelter in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, the majority are children and women. Most of them are housewives, but there are also students, teachers, retirees and widows. In order to flee from a revolution that has slowly escalated in a full-scale civil war, many have crossed the border illegally, defying the bullets of the security forces to save the lives of their children. Today, they live scattered between the Northern city of Tripoli and the myriad of small villages along the Syrian border. “This war is a heavy burden on our shoulders. Many of us have lost husbands and sons, and now have to take care of their families on our own,” explains 27-year-old Rasha, who fled the village of Soran on March 1 and is now hosted with her family in a stark two-room flat in the Bekaa.

Like her, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees (more than 31,095 according to the UNHCR) are still unregistered and live in desperate situations. Hosted in basements, farm sheds or tents, they survive thanks to the rare food rations delivered by local NGOs. The Lebanese government, which never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have a specific legislation to deal with them, has so far refused to set up proper refugee camps for Syrians, out of fear that they might be infiltrated by armed groups and rebels, as was the case with the Palestinian ones in Lebanon during the 70s.

Many of the women refugees in Lebanon live halfway between prisoner and ghost, trying to avoid contacts with the local population for fear of being caught by the agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party allied with Assad that constantly scours the country for dissidents. “Every time my husband is late at night, I become hysterical,” says Samira, 28, her dark, expressive eyes gleaming on her olive skin. Until six months ago she used to live in Hama with her four kids, the eldest of whom is only 11. Her husband, an opposition supporter, had already fled to Lebanon months ahead. During her lonely nights when Hama was bombed by the regime forces, Samira’s only dream was to rejoin him on the other side of the border. One night, the long-awaited phone call finally reached her. The following morning, she made an 80-kilometer trip that lasted for 13, interminable hours, during which Samira had to change four cars and pay $400 to bribe the Syrian soldiers manning the checkpoints all the way to the border. Today, Samira and her family live in the outskirts of Tripoli, but their problems are far from over. The stairs of the dilapidated building they live in are filled with pools of water and piles of garbage, while their balcony overlooks a rubbish dump. The monthly rent of $100 is a prohibitive price for her husband, who is struggling to find a job in Lebanon and is quickly running out of money. “We don’t know how to pay the next rent,” she says, before busting into a flood of tears.

The families who managed to reach Tripoli are the luckiest ones. Predominantly inhabited by Sunnis, the city has become the main stronghold of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon. There, refugees can enjoy proper health services and a relative security, but in the Bekaa valley, the situation is totally different. Divided among Shia, Sunnis and Christians, the region has been the theater of several raids carried out by the Syrian Army, as well as arrests and kidnappings of Syrian political activists and opponents of the regime. Hezbollah controls much of the region, and gives a hard time to refugees and the people who are helping them.

Though grateful for their safety, refugees still yearn to return to their own lives and homes. Mona, a 28-year-old refugee who escaped from al-Qusayr together with her husband and two young sons, now stays in the house of a host family all day long watching television with the kids. But the Arabic teacher has not lost the hope of going back to Syria to start teaching again. “Too much blood has been spilled for freedom,” she says. “If the revolution succeeds, I hope the next generations will not spoil its fruits. This is the message I would like to send to my pupils.”

Mona is not the only one missing school: 16-year-old Zaynab comes from the neighborhood of Al-Khaldeeye, one of the opposition strongholds in Homs. Until last January, she was the best in her class. But Zaynab’s dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly put to an end when she was forced to quit school after some soldiers kidnapped, raped and killed three of her schoolmates. Zaynab now lives in Tripoli with her father, brother and a mentally-challenged sister she has to look after. When she receives food from charity organizations, she has to sell part of it to buy garcinia cambogia medicines. Despite the hard times she is going through, her faith in the future is still intact. “I was expecting the revolution to be brief and successful,” she says. “But I am still hopeful. Assad will fall soon, and we will be able to go back to Syria victorious.”

Her optimism is not shared by other refugees, who are feeling the burden of the never ending clashes, deaths and deprivations. “I don’t know how this war will end—we cannot even understand who is fighting whom anymore,” complains Badia, a 51-year-old woman who came to Lebanon to cure her daughter who suffered brain damages during a raid of the security forces in their house in Bab Drieb, Homs. “If this is the revolution, if it means that I am not able to go out of my house to buy a piece of bread—then I don’t want it.” Or, as Rasha, the young Syrian girl from Soran, puts it: “It doesn’t matter who wins this war—Syria women don’t have rights from the day they are born. As a Syrian woman, I don’t know what freedom means.”

Matilde Gattoni is a photographer based in Dubai and Lebanon. Her work often focuses on issues related to water around the world.

Matteo Fagotto is a 33-year-old freelance Italian journalist based in Dubai. He focuses on African and Middle Eastern issues through reportage and feature stories.

All photographs taken in Jdeideh, Faqaa and Tripoli, Lebanon in 2012. Rasha, 27, from Soran Jdeideh Aside from her husband and two children, all of Rasha's family is still in Syria, including a brother who is serving in the Army. She is concerned he might get killed by the Free Syrian Army in her village. "As a Syrian, personally, I don't know what freedom is," she said. She does not want to return to Syria. Matilde Gattoni
Husniyah, 80, from the village of Nazarieh Jdeideh Husniyah arrived alone and is now hosted in a small two-room-house together with seven other members of her family. They are helped by neighbors who have donated blankets and some food. "The house is so small that we have to cook in the bathroom, but as long as I am alive, I don't care about it," she said.Matilde Gattoni
Asma, 30, from Al Qusair Jdeideh Asma escaped with her family after the Syrian Army killed one of her children. "One day they knocked at the door, when I opened it I was carrying my baby in my arms, they asked me where my husband was and I told them he was not in, so one of the soldiers took out a knife from his pocket and cut my baby's throat."Matilde Gattoni
Latifah, 42, from Zahra Jdeideh Latifah used to live a comfortable life before the revolution started. Her husband was managing a transport company, but the vehicles were destroyed after the village came under heavy shelling during clashes between the Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army. "At that time we used to sleep under the trees and go back to the houses during the day, for fear of being hit," she said. Her family now lives in a concrete shed infested with insects, scorpions and snakes.Matilde Gattoni
Nour, 9, from Al Qusair Jdeideh Nour escaped Syria with her mother and brothers after having lived for almost three months in an underground cave. She is now hosted by a Lebanese family. Nour is still psychologically traumatized by the war. Every time she hears a bell ringing or someone knocking at the door she begins to panic and cry, thinking that the Syrian Army is here to get her.Matilde Gattoni
Rabiah, 15, from Zahra Jdeideh Rabiah arrived in Lebanon with her family. A 9th grade student, she already lost one year at school because of the uprising. She constantly has nightmares where she dreams of bullets chasing her while she tries to run away. "I wake up crying and screaming," she said.Matilde Gattoni
Nour, 45, from Al Qusair Jdeideh Nour escaped with her children after the army had entered their house while they were away. They left women's lingerie hanging across the dining room and wrote on the wall, "You are lucky your women were not here." Nour's husband decided to escape, fearing the army would return and rape the women.Matilde Gattoni
Zaynab, 16, from Al-Khaldeeye in Homs Tripoli Zaynab fled with her family after the Syrian Army repeatedly came looking for her father. An honor student, Zaynab was prevented from attending lessons after some soldiers kidnapped, raped and killed some of her schoolmates. Despite the difficulties of living in Lebanon, she feels that victory for the revolutionaries is very close and is confident she will soon return to Syria. "When it all started I expected it to be swift and quick, like in Egypt," she said. "But Assad is a hard head and has powerful international allies." Zaynab takes care of her father and siblings who are all mentally disabled. Matilde Gattoni
Zahra, 46, from Zahra Tripoli Zahra arrived in Tripoli almost one year ago, during Ramadan, after seeing the bodies of the first protesters killed by the security forces being paraded through the village at funerals. Her family's savings ran out last month and she doesn't know how to pay the next month's rent of $200. "Yes, the regime is corrupted and used to mistreat people, but before the revolution we used to live better," she said. "Life was quiet and peaceful."Matilde Gattoni
Djamilla, 56, from Baba Amro, Homs Jdeideh Djamilla escaped after months of living in terror in-and-out of an underground cave where she was hiding with her family during the bombings and shellings. She, along with 20 family members, are now being hosted by a Lebanese family. They left all of their belongings behind them and have recently learned from neighbors that their house was destroyed.Matilde Gattoni
Wurud, 50, from Zahra Jdeideh Wurud arrived with her family of 22 people, after the Syrian security forces set up a checkpoint close to her house. "One day they opened fire on both sides of our house. I went out and ran through the fields with my children. From a distance, I saw our village being destroyed, house by house," she said. Through the shelling, bombing and sniper fire, it took six hours to cover the few kilometers between their village and the border. Wurud's husband, a former Arabic teacher, suffered a stroke in Lebanon and is now unable to work. Her sons work as laborers in Lebanon, "but they are treated like slaves," she said. "They are paid half the money of a Lebanese for double the work."Matilde Gattoni
Sayyidah, 23, from Qusayr Faqaa Sayyidah's husband used to run a petrol station and make $2,000 per month. They decided to leave when their villa was destroyed during the clashes. During the trip, two of her friends were killed by snipers right in front of her eyes. Shocked by the event, she is now unable to talk about this or anything related to the war. She received psychiatric assistance in Lebanon for the first months, but had to quit because the treatment was too expensive.Matilde Gattoni
Badiah, 51, from the neighborhood of Bab Drieb in Homs Tripoli Badiah arrived in Lebanon after the army stormed into her house and arrested one of her sons. One of her sisters was so shocked by the event that she went into a coma and suffered brain damage. "I am here in Lebanon only to treat my daughter," she explained. Badiah has left her husband and two other sons in Homs, where they still live in their house, partially destroyed by the shellings. "There is just one safe room remaining, they sleep and live there."Matilde Gattoni
Karam, 28, from Homs Jdeideh Karam's house was in Bab Amr, right in front of the Syrian Army's tanks. After being moved by the rebels to another house in the center of the neighbourhood, she and her family decided to leave. During the clandestine trip to Lebanon she was helped by the Free Syrian Army. "They showed us the way, they kept my little baby," she said. "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here today."Matilde Gattoni
Samira, 28, from Hama Tripoli Samira, together with her four children, had to change five cars and bribe her way through the military checkpoints to the Lebanese border. It cost her $400, four times her husband's average monthly wage. She now lives in Tripoli. "I miss the soil of Syria, the land," she said, before bursting into tears. "We live in misery here. The kids don't go to school and every time my husband is late I become hysterical, fearing that he might have been stopped at a checkpoint and sent back to Syria."Matilde Gattoni
Mona, 27, from al Qusayr Jdeideh Mona arrived in Lebanon with her husband and two small children, after her brother-in-law was killed for being a member of the Free Syrian Army. A former Arabic teacher, Mona now spends most of her day at home, waiting for the fall of the Syrian regime. "The war will leave big scars in the country," she said. "This bloodshed will always remain in the mind of the people."Matilde Gattoni
Tara (left), 25, from Baba Amro, Homs Jdeideh Tara left Syria with two children after her house was destroyed. Her husband stayed behind to help his father. She has received no news since she left and still hopes to hear from him.Matilde Gattoni
Najiba, 63, from the village of Soran, north of Hama Jdeideh Najiba arrived in Lebanon after the first protests erupted in Hama. "The Army was shooting at everyone, I remember seeing 50 or 60 people dead," she said. She now lives in a concrete shed, in an orchard on the outskirts of Jdeideh. In exchange for looking after the trees, she can stay for free. "I would go back to Syria tomorrow, if it wasn't for the kids. I am very worried about their safety," she explained, pointing at her four grandchildren.Matilde Gattoni
Selma, 35, from Zahra Faqaa Selma arrived after her house was razed by Syrian Army tanks and mortar shelling. "We became refugees in our own place, just because we are Sunni," She said. Without documents or money, her family is forced to rely on donations and help from the Lebanese families in the village where she now lives.Matilde Gattoni
Aziza, 35, a Turkmen Syrian from Qusayr Jdeideh Aziza fled after her husband and sister-in-law (whose children she is now raising) were both killed by sniper fire while going to the souq. She frequently returns to Qusayr to check on her father, whose health is deteriorating. She now lives in a makeshift tent camp on the outskirts of a Lebanese village in the Bekaa Valley, where she picks apricot to survive. She is paid less than $5 for seven hours of work each day.Matilde Gattoni

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at