The mom's story I could not forget

Some stories do not leave you. You cannot forget them long after you tell them. And you wonder, often, how they end....

Posted: Feb. 20, 2018 12:00 PM
Updated: Feb. 20, 2018 12:00 PM

Some stories do not leave you. You cannot forget them long after you tell them. And you wonder, often, how they end.

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Here is one such story. It doesn't yet have an ending, but it is no longer where it began.

Escaping a war-torn city

I met Batoul last summer just outside the Syrian city of Raqqa, the town ISIS called its capital. She fled her city eight months pregnant. Escaping coalition airstrikes aimed at shaking ISIS from its stronghold, and braving ISIS snipers and land mines designed to stop civilians from leaving, she led her three small children and mentally ailing husband out of the city and away from danger.

She felt nothing but terror, she says, but she knew she had to get out, for the sake of the baby she was carrying -- and her three children whose hands she held.

They escaped Raqqa one early morning in a convoy of several families all hunting for safety and the chance for survival. The vehicle behind her exploded, she says, when it drove over an ISIS explosive.

"The thing that made me leave was my baby," she told me while I was in Syria reporting for PBS NewsHour. "I was afraid to give birth in Raqqa."

"We were afraid for ourselves and also for our kids," she said. Afraid because of all that she and her family had witnessed and endured.

In the years before she fled Raqqa, while ISIS remained rooted in the city, ISIS authorities jailed her husband for the crime of trying to support his family by selling cigarettes. For four months she took care of her kids, worked as a maid cleaning houses, and pleaded with ISIS to free her husband from captivity. Eventually she paid $1,200 for his release. She said she saw no end to the Islamic State's horrors.

"One time, I went to the doctor with my daughter when she was sick, and we saw a beheading," Batoul said. They ran away from the unspeakable show of death, but her daughter couldn't forget what she had seen. And neither could she.

By the time the family reached the camp for Raqqa's displaced, thousands from her city already had settled in. Just weeks afterward, she delivered a baby, a little girl who weighed just three pounds. That is when I met her -- two weeks after the baby arrived.

Sitting among the displaced last August, with her tiny baby in her arms, she spoke eloquently about what she hoped for the future.

"The Syrian people have grown tired, but especially the people of Raqqa," she said. "We suffered a lot under the control of ISIS. And we hope to go back."

She wanted to go back to Raqqa, she said, but not under ISIS. Back to a different future and a life filled with hope and joy, not death and war and hangings and beheadings.

We finished our story. I left Raqqa and went back home. Three months later, US-backed forces liberated Raqqa from ISIS.

I thought of Batoul. How was she? How were her children? How was her tiny infant baby, so much smaller than all the newborns I was accustomed to seeing back home in the United States? How was she managing all of it?

Return to Syria

Batoul remained on my mind and, six months later, in early February, I returned to Syria to research my next book. I told my Syrian colleague I wanted to return to the camp and see if Batoul was still there. He told me the odds were slim. Surely, he said, she had gone home or left the camp for a new destination. Even if she were still there, the camp stretched city blocks and now was home to thousands. How would we ever find her?

We decided to try. We made our way to the camp for the displaced. Many from Raqqa had left, but what felt like a whole city had sprouted up in the camp in the intervening half year since my last visit. And many from the town of Deir Ezzor, where the ISIS fight continues, now filled its lanes. We showed Batoul's picture -- on my phone since last summer -- to a few folks in charge of the camp. They pointed us toward a tent at the end of a long row.

"Just a minute," a voice said from inside when a camp administrator called hello. A moment later, a woman stepped out into the camp's busy walkway.

It was Batoul.

As storytellers, we strive to maintain our reserve, our remove. To do our job well, we have to, because otherwise the heartbreaks you see can be too many to keep going and the bigger narrative can get lost. There is always another story to tell, to share, to try and move people and show how deeply personal war is, even though we never speak about it that way.

But in that moment, I felt no distance, just a feeling of joy as I hugged her -- a woman, a survivor, a mother, whose fate I had thought of so very often. And as she spoke and showed me her chunky, happy, healthy baby girl -- her tent warmed cozy with a heater paid for by a job she loved with a charity there at the camp, which she worked while her children were in class at a nearby school -- my eyes watered.

I had wondered whether the baby had made it, whether they had survived as a family. And now here she was, telling me that not only were they alive, they were thriving.

"For five years, no books, no teachers," she says, pointing to her children as they hopped around the tent. It was Friday -- their day off. "Now they are learning," she said. She dreams they will become teachers.

"I do not want them ever to go back to those dark times," she says of life under ISIS.

But her family cannot go home now because there is no home to go to. Airstrikes leveled their house, she found out a few months ago.

"It was a very, very sad scene," she says of her return to her old street post-liberation. She saw bodies in the street and was told there were mines all over -- in refrigerators, tea kettles, all across Raqqa.

"I cried. My husband felt sick, and I told him, 'don't worry, thank God we are alive,'" she says. "The most important thing is that we are freed from ISIS."

A future free from ISIS

And though the coalition's military campaign flattened her home, she says, the airstrikes were without question necessary.

"No one could defeat (ISIS) without airstrikes," she said. "The airstrikes made them leave."

And now, she says, after ISIS, so much is possible for the future.

"I have hope for a better life," she says. "We are in a safe place, we are rid of oppression." And, she says, "we can't live in the future as we did under ISIS. They destroyed all our dreams."

Raqqa's citizens are ready to restart their lives, even if they have lost their homes. They want to push forward after so many years under the black flag of ISIS's reign. But the world that intervened to end the reign of ISIS cannot abandon Raqqa now, she says. Crucial work -- work upon the foundation of which all other hopes sit -- remains to be done.

"After the destruction of the city, who will rebuild it? We don't have anything," she says as she bounces her healthy baby girl in her left arm. "It is the responsibility of the world to help us."

Raqqa's families will do their part, of course, and rebuild, she says. But they cannot restart a crushed city all on their own.

Batoul finished speaking.

"I am so very glad to see you," I said and thanked her for hosting us in her tent and sharing her story. We hugged as I left, and a few minutes later my Syrian colleague, who had translated for me, broke the silence in which we walked to our car.

"She is very strong," he said. "It's good that we found her."

I nodded but found I couldn't quite speak in the moment.

Batoul's is only one story. But it is one that stands for a whole lot of others. Mothers, fathers, little ones, pushing through a war that has extinguished the power of adjectives to describe its hell.

And yet, somehow, they are managing to keep hope in hand.

Now it is up to the world to do its part: to help the city rebuild and people return home. Not only for the sake of Batoul and her children and tens of thousands like them, but also for its own benefit.

Because if the region is to have a stable, peaceful future, it will be because of moms like Batoul who refuse to give up -- who remain determined to raise educated children and teach them to believe in love and possibility, despite the carnage of their nation's war.

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