We had gathered as usual in one of the Raqqa houses for a dinner that consisted of a pot of bulgur cooked on firewood, olives and old bread. The older people shared a can of halva to maintain their level of blood sugar. The flames of the candles flickered with the breeze that came in through a hole created by shell damage to the house, and making out the details on the faces around me was difficult.
There wasn’t enough food for everyone owing to the sudden late arrival of some families driven out of their homes by Islamic State because the battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces had drawn closer to their street.
In one corner of the room sat a man and his wife and their four small children. They were among the new arrivals. The man refused to eat and said he wasn’t hungry, a response that baffled everyone, for how could a man not be hungry in Raqqa? We insisted that he join us but he refused, although his wife joined us so she could feed their children. Her eyes were swollen from continuous weeping – which was not strange, because the women and children always cried.
After dinner we went and sat near him to try to get him to join the conversation, but his responses were always short, and he did not want to talk. His dialect indicated that he was not from Raqqa itself, and one of the families said the family had been displaced from another Syrian city. The conversation moved to the military developments and where the battle lines had reached, and the number of families that had been able to flee. That was when he began to weep.
His wife sat next to him and caressed his head, saying: “Whatever God has preordained will happen.” Everyone was silent, looking at him, waiting to hear his story. Then the wife began, explaining that they had been waiting for a chance to get out of Raqqa in order to treat their sick son, who she said might need surgery. Her husband interrupted her and began talking, describing the day before the SDF reached their neighbourhood and how he had planned to get out of this hell to take his son for treatment.
Someone asked him why he hadn’t just taken the risk and fled, like many other families, since his son’s life depended on it. He said he could not subject all of his children to danger just to save one of them, and that anyway he was unable to carry all the children and run with them from snipers and shells. He wept profusely as he said these words. People tried to comfort him, but he kept shaking his head as if to say words were hopeless.
I sat by him and reminded him gently that he still had his strength – that he could carry two of his children, his wife could carry one, and I could carry the fourth, then we could all run and get out of here. He looked at me in astonishment, asking me if I was joking or serious.
That was my last, brief moment to back out of my decision, but the tears in his eyes were enough to convince me. I answered that I wasn’t joking, and that I could help carry his children, and that I knew the streets here well. Until that moment, I had had no intention of leaving Raqqa.
The man was very excited, to the point of asking that we leave immediately. I told him we would have to wait: it was night, and impossible to see anything ahead of us. We might get shot once we reached the area controlled by the SDF if we were mistaken for Isis members in the darkness. We had to wait until a little before sunrise, and then we would move.
I went to the house where I was living, and destroyed the internet device and my computer, burying them underground. I was worried for the families still remaining, in case Isis raided the house and found the devices and punished them.
We took off half an hour before sunrise, walking between destroyed homes and sometimes hiding inside when we heard gunfire. We had to walk roughly 1,500 metres before we reached a safe area. My big fear was of stepping on a landmine that would blow us all up. The child was hugging me, I felt his quickened breath on my neck. I whispered that he should not be afraid, that we would arrive soon, and he smiled and nodded.
There were just two streets left between us and the safe zone when Isis snipers began targeting us. We didn’t know where the shots were coming from, so we bent over and began running. We hid for a while in the rubble of a destroyed building. I asked the father to put down his children and walk out slowly to signal to the SDF that we were civilians so they didn’t fire in our direction.
The SDF fired in the air to indicate to us that we should hurry. The Isis sniper kept firing towards us but the bullets hit the ground. The child pulled on my hair. I ran faster until we made it to a house that SDF fighters were occupying, and we exited from the back.
When we got to the SDF-controlled area, some fighters gave us food and water and asked if anybody was wounded. The father told them his son was sick, and one said a Kurdish Red Crescent doctor would see him. I was told to prepare myself to go to a camp for those displaced from Raqqa.
I stayed in the camp for a week. Conditions were bad, but better than life inside the so-called capital of the Isis caliphate. Now I am waiting for my family to join me near Aleppo, and we hope to go to Turkey. The situation remains volatile inside Raqqa, with Kurdish-led fighters still clearing militants and landmines. So I will follow news of the city from afar for now.
After vowing that I would stay until the fall of Raqqa, I feel sadness at missing the moment when the black flags were taken down and the hated Isis were driven out. But not when I remember that family I left with, and that struggling child, who at least now has some chance of a better future.
• Tim Ramadan is the pseudonym of a Syrian journalist based in Raqqa working with Sound and picture organization