For many of those forced to flee the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, Latakia has become a departure point to Europe.
For many of those forced to flee the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, the coastal province of Latakia has become a departure point to Europe, where refugees hope to find safety and stability.
FROM NATIONAL STADIUM TO TENT CAMP
“We are from the city of Aleppo. My son was killed in action, leaving three children. We managed to flee to Latakia with the children. Now I live in the camp with my wife and grandchildren,” Said Ibrahim, 53, said.
We met Ibrahim in a huge tent camp for internally displaced persons, which initially was a sports center in a suburb of the capital city of Latakia Governorate.
Latakia Sports City Stadium is one of the largest sports complexes in the country. Back in 1987, it played host to the 10th edition of the Mediterranean Games, multi-sport games held every four years.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the center has been turned into a major refugee camp. The vast stadium and sport facilities provide accommodation for internally displaced people, or IDPs.
According to camp administrator Ali Baghdad, who is responsible for reception and accommodation, about 6,000 people are currently living here.
For some Syrians, the camp has become a place of permanent residence, while for others, it was just a transit point on the way to Europe in search of a better life.
At the camp the refugees are provided with three meals a day, fresh water and necessary medical assistance. The lucky ones also have jobs that the authorities have provided for them.
ONE MILLION REFUGEES IN LATAKIA ALONE
During the years of the Syria conflict, 1.2 million IDPs have passed through Latakia, the province’s governor, Khodr Ibrahim Salem, said. These are primarily refugees from neighboring war-torn regions and the north of the province, where fighting is also ongoing between government forces and rebels of the so-called moderate opposition.
“People from the provinces of Raqqa, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir ez-Zor have come to Latakia. We have tried to provide accommodation and jobs for them… Some were provided with hotel accommodation; some are staying with their relatives or simply with people who care. About 70,000 people live here at IDP centers. Nobody has been left out in the street,” the governor said.
He added that recently the situation in Latakia Governorate has become significantly calmer than in the province of Idlib, which was seized by extremists and where people have no opportunity to live, work or study.
“Of course, we’re unable to fully accommodate everyone. For example, a lot of people have arrived from Deir ez-Zor, where they worked in the oil production sector. Naturally, we do not have such jobs for them here,” the governor said.
FROM LATAKIA TO EUROPE
For some people, Latakia has become a starting point on their long journey to Europe.
In September, a RIA Novosti reporter met Syrian refugees, including those from Lakatia and neighboring provinces, in Hungary and Serbia. They were headed primarily for Germany, known as one of the most prosperous states in the European Union, as well as having a positive and humane attitude toward migrants.
“Latakia is convenient [for migrants] because it is located on the sea coast near the Turkish border,” a refugee said, adding that in Latakia, refugees use fishing boats to reach the Turkish port city of Iskenderun.
From there, they move onward to western Turkey by bus and then undertake a sea voyage to the Greek islands, typically to Lesbos or Kos. Such a trip costs about $1,500, which is not much for the Syrian middle class, whose members spent years readying themselves for the trip.
The most challenging part is to reach Greece. Greece is part of the Schengen border-less zone and the European Union, and once refugees get there, they can request asylum. Greece and neighboring European countries provide refugees with transport and meals as they are interested in refugees moving onward to more prosperous EU countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands.
In Europe, one can meet Syrian natives from all parts of the country — Latakia, Aleppo, the city of Damascus and the rebel-held city of Darayya in southern Syria. In total, over four million people have fled Syria since the start of the civil war, according to UN estimates. Another 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced.
The mass outflow of people from Syria has resulted, in part, in a major refugee crisis in Europe. According to the UN, Europe is now facing the the largest influx of refugees since the Second World War, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.
SUNNIS ESCAPING SUNNIS
Meanwhile, the Russian military is stationed at the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia, as part of its operation in Syria aimed at combating the Islamic State (ISIL) militant group, which has been operating in the war-torn country.
In October, the Syrian army, with Russian air support, started to advance slowly to the east and north, pushing the front line further away from Latakia and freeing more villages from extremists.
Residents are cautiously returning to the village of Al-Bahsa in the north of the Hama province, which was liberated from Nusra Front militants a week ago. So far, they are only coming to see what is left of their homes after street fighting and to pick up some of their personal belongings.
A RIA Novosti reporter met Zeinap, a Al-Bahsa resident, in the ruins of her home. She was trying to salvage something among the dusty fragments of bricks. Zeinap was carefully putting photos of her relatives, kitchenware and clothes into a dirty blanket that she had retrieved from the debris.
“Rebels invaded Al-Bahsa in early August. First, they shelled the city with mortars and then intruded, killing everyone on their way, including civilians,” she said.
Even Sunni Muslims suffered at the rebels’ hands, despite the fact that the rebels are also members of this branch of Islam. ISIL, a Sunni militant group, denounces Shiites, another religious branch, as heretic Muslims.
The majority of residents simply ran away from their uninvited “saviours.”
“We expected an attack because the rebels were not far away, in neighboring villages. Even so, we were only able to carry the most essential things,” she said, adding that while the city was under rebel control, she stayed with her relatives in Latakia.
“I know that some of our fellow villagers have gone abroad, but I have not heard anything about their fate,” Zeinap says.
She said she has not risked going by sea, underscoring that she did not want to leave her homeland.
FROM LATAKIA TO RUSSIA
Refugees from war-affected areas of Syria are fleeing in all directions. Some go to neighboring countries, while others set out on longer journeys, several thousand refugees having gone to Russia.
Refugees who choose Russia are typically Syrian Armenians or Circassians, ethnic groups historically related to peoples in the Caucasus region, or members of mixed Russian-Syrian families.
The reporter met such a refugee at a Latakia airport. Amir Suliman, 25, is a native of Aleppo, Syria’s “economic capital,” which has been divided between the Syrian army and various insurgent groups, including Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
“My mother is Russian and my father is Syrian. Mother decided to leave for Russia because of the war, but father stayed in Latakia,” he said.
Suliman is a well-educated young man, who is fluent in Russian, has Russian citizenship and is studying English.
“I graduated from the Department of Architecture at Aleppo University, but there is no job for me in Syria now. This is why I’m going to my mother, to Russia. I’ll receive a bachelor’s degree there and will try to find a job,” he said.
He boards an Il-76 civilian airliner provided by the Russian Civil Defense and Emergency Situations Ministry together with several dozen other refugees. Amir does not know when he will be able to return to his home country and see his relatives.
“I hope that the war will end soon and there will be demand for architects again. We’ll work to restore everything that has been destroyed,” he said.