syrian war

Escape From Aleppo: An Indonesian Maid Tells Us About Life Inside the Syrian War

Sri Sunarsih left her rural village in Java in search of money and a new life. Instead, she ended up trapped in the middle of the Syrian civil war.
January 27, 2017, 5:30am
All photo by Khalil Ashwai/Reuters

Sri Sunarsih was walking to the market near her employers' Aleppo home when she first noticed signs that something was wrong. The Indonesian maid, then 25, spent little time outside her employers' two-story house in downtown Aleppo. She spent even less time watching television. But something about the heavy security at the market, the road blockades along the way, told the young woman that something dangerous was about to happen.

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"One of the soldiers was shouting at the crowd," Sunarsih said. "I couldn't understand what he was saying. Maybe he just told us to just go back home. So I just went straight home after buying groceries."

It was 2012 and the violence of the Syrian civil war had just begun to reach Aleppo—Syria's largest city and it's commercial center. In the years that followed, Aleppo would witness some of the war's worst violence, as rebels, Islamists, and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad battled house-to-house through the increasingly destroyed city. The rival forces carved the city in two, with Assad's forces in control of the west, and anti-Assad rebels in control of the east.

Tens of thousands were trapped in the city. The east suffered from heavy shelling and blockades that cut off supplies of food and heating oil. Assad's forces began to drop barrel bombs—deadly drums full of oil, shrapnel, and explosives—on residential neighborhoods in the rebel-held east. Entire sections of the city emptied out. Buildings turned to rubble.

Sunarsih was trapped in the middle of it. It's easy to forget it today, but Syria was once a country of relative wealth in the Middle East. It was a place that attracted migrant workers like Sunarsih, a woman from Java's Banten province—where about 5 percent of the population lives on less than $1 USD a day. Poverty rates in Banten have been on the rise for years. Sunarsih was working as an employee of a small cell phone store. She wanted to change her life, earn more money, and see the world. But she lacked any particular skills.

"Night and day I could hear the sounds of explosives and bullets. A bomb exploded near the house, breaking all the glasses and furniture."—Sri Sunarsih

Her father contacted a migrant workers agency, who told him they had a job for Sunarsih as a maid. He arranged for her departure. Sunarsih left the city of Serang, Banten, with no idea where she was heading. She had no idea that she needed things like a visa or a work contract. She didn't even know how much she would earn.

But when she arrived in Aleppo in 2009, Sunarsih was happy with her decision. Her employers were kind. She had heard terrible stories of horrific abuse and sexual assault at the hands of employers abroad. But this family never laid a hand on her, she told VICE Indonesia. Sunarsih's job was simple: cook meals and take care of the house. She saw little of the city outside her employers' home, but she remembers the walk to the market fondly. She grew to like the city, and her life as a maid.

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"The first time I arrived in Syria, Aleppo was a beautiful city," she said. "I seldom went out. When I did, usually it's to shop vegetables. The house was close to a market."

Two children transport their belongings as they flee a neighborhood in northern Aleppo. All photos by Khalil Ashawi

Then the war came to Aleppo. Sunarsih said she knew nothing of the political situation in Syria. She was trapped in a war she didn't understand, living day-to-day in a city with increasingly less options.

"When the war started, I was so scared," Sunarsih said. "I cried all the time. For eight years, I couldn't contact my family in the kampung. But now I'm used to it.

"For two years we used diesel generators for electricity, but that only works until 12 a.m. Every three days my employer bought water from water seller. The prices kept rising. We could afford to eat, but not for anythings else besides food."

When the war began, there were as many as 150,000 migrant workers living in Syria, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Indonesian embassy in Damascus have repatriated more than 12,500 Indonesian migrant workers since the start of the war. Embassy staff said they have no idea how many more are out there.

"These immigrant workers used fake documents when they left Indonesia," said Solahudin, a staff member at the Damascus embassy. "The accurate data is with the Syrian government. [But] Syria is divided into some areas. Some belong to the government, some ISIS, and some rebel militants. It's difficult."

"I think I won't ever go overseas to work again. I want to live in my  kampung. Maybe open a shop. But for now I just want to be with my family."—Sri Sunarsih

The Jakarta-based NGO Migrant Care estimated that there were about 15,000 migrants in Syria when the war began. There could be another 3,000 Indonesian migrant workers somewhere in the country, either trapped, or in the worst cases, dead.

It could've been a similar fate for Sunarsih. She told VICE Indonesia about the terror she felt when Assad's forces, and Russian airstrikes, began to pummel the city's east end in an offensive that the United Nations said killed hundreds of civilians. The rebels lobbed mortars and shot rockets over to the city's Assad-controlled west.

"Night and day I could hear the sounds of explosives and bullets," Sunarsih said with a trembling voice. "A bomb exploded near the house, breaking all the glasses and furniture."

By December, the rebel-held sections of the city had fell. Assad, with Russia and Turkey, negotiated a fragile ceasefire. The ceasefire has held, but sporadic clashes continue. But the lull in the fighting allowed the Indonesian embassy in Damascus to evacuate seven Indonesians who were trapped in Aleppo. Sunarsih was one of those pulled to the relative safety of Damascus. She said a lawyer from the embassy met her in Aleppo. She didn't understand exactly what was going on, but as she left, her employer handed her several months salary. She hadn't been paid in years, with the war taking all the family's money just to survive.

For now, Sunarsih is just happy to finally be returning to her hometown. She doubts she'll ever go abroad for work again.

"I think I won't ever go overseas to work again," she said. "I want to live in my kampung. Maybe open a shop. But for now I just want to be with my family. I haven't even tell them yet that I'm coming home."