On February 13, 2016, a Saturday, I returned to my hometown of Taybat al-Imam.
For the previous four years, I had been living an area an-hour-and-a-half away, so my father and I began our journey at 3.30am.
We arrived in Taybat al-Imam at five am. I told soldiers at the regime checkpoint that I was coming to visit my sister, who had not left the town despite everything that had happened.
By six am, I had arrived in my sister’s neighbourhood. I saw the destruction caused by the regime and the Russian air force, with houses and mosques in ruins.
But in the middle of the ruined streets, I saw children playing together joyfully and fearlessly. There were five of them, including my 12-year-old nephew Hassan and Mohammed, 13.
When I saw them I cried tears of joy, I hugged and smelled and kissed all of them. I hadn’t seen them for four years. A whole generation is growing up during this war. I was afraid that we would have forgotten what the others looked like after all these years, but we hadn’t.
By seven in the morning, I was sitting with my father, my sister’s family and her neighbours in the sun, while the shouts and play of the children filled the neighbourhood with love and joy, just as if everything was normal.
Then, when we were about to have breakfast, I heard the sound of a huge explosion followed by a bomb blast from the checkpoint, then shooting.
I shouted at the kids to hide from the bombing but they smiled at me and said, “Don’t be afraid, we are like birds.”
Over the next two hours, the air raids got worse and people began arriving to seek shelter at a basement near my sister’s house. Men, women and children flocked there. The explosions were terrifying.
When the raids finally ended, Mohammed’s mother began asking about her 13-year-old son.
Where was he?
At first, she thought he had fled to hide in the house. She went to check on him but she couldn’t find him.
A friend of his told us that Mohammed had said he wanted to go to his uncle’s house in a nearby neighbourhood to pick oranges from his tree.
When we got there, we found that bombing had destroyed the house, along with the orange tree.
Mohammed had been killed. His mother fainted and his father started crying.
Mohammed used to say to his father, “I will stay here even if I die.”
Mohammed’s body was buried in the neighbourhood’s main square because the cemetery was being targeted by warplanes. Even the dead can’t rest in peace.
I can’t forget the children of my town of Taybat al-Imam. When Mohammed’s coffin was on the ground, they gathered around it and sang as if with one voice, “We are the birds of heaven, our date is today and tomorrow, don’t grieve my country, we are the birds of heaven, we don’t want money and gold, we want to live happily, we are the birds of liberty, humanity had died, we are the birds of heaven, we call for liberty, we want to fly, fly high, we are the birds of liberty, we are the birds of heaven.”
The evening came and our pain was still so fresh. My father and I had to leave, but I asked him to stay so I could spend just one night next to Mohammed’s mother.
I joined the townspeople who sought shelter in the basement every night. We sat together, sharing memories of Mohammed with his parents and friends.
Mohammed used to say that he wanted to become a leader and carry a weapon when he got older.
That’s how children have become, their dreams changed to become all about the revolution. That’s what war did to them. It killed them along with their dreams, but didn’t kill the hope they have.
My nephew Hassan and his friends sat together, I watched them. They said that they would achieve what Mohammed had wanted to do. They swore on it like grownups, with complete sincerity..
By midnight, the children were asleep but the warplanes were still in the air.
I spent the night trying to persuade the local people to leave, but they were adamant in their refusal. There was danger everywhere, they told me.
The next morning, I said goodbye to all of them. Their eyes were full of strength, especially the children.
Narjees al-Hamawiah, 31, is a widow and the mother of four children. She currently lives in the Idlib countryside.