AIN ISSA, Syria: In four years, Mohammad al-Hassan only heard his son’s voice once: when the young Syrian soldier called a radio show to send regards to his family trapped in militant bastion Raqqa. The 62-year-old and his wife Nazira, who never left their hometown in northern Syria during years of Daesh (ISIS) rule, have seen their family torn apart by the country’s complex war.
Out of their nine children, they have not seen their two soldier sons since 2013, nor their two married daughters since 2014.
After escaping Raqqa with their other children three months ago, they have dreamed of one thing: being reunited with their loved ones.
“We don’t know if they are dead or alive,” says Nazira, whose hazel-colored eyes shine bright in contrast to her black headscarf.
“And they don’t know anything about us,” Mohammad adds.
The pair sit in scorching summer sun at a displacement camp in Ain Issa, more than 50 kilometers north of Raqqa city.
It has become home to thousands of people who fled as U.S.-backed fighters advanced to seize the city from Daesh.
Raqqa in 2013 was the first provincial capital to fall out of government hands, two years into Syria’s conflict.
That is when Mohammad lost touch with his two sons, who were fighting elsewhere in the country.
After Daesh overran the city in 2014, Mohammad and Nazira could no longer travel to neighboring Hassakeh province, where two of their married daughters were living.
“[Daesh] suffocated us in Raqqa. ... I haven’t heard my sons’ voices for nearly five years,” Mohammad says.
Abu Samir, a friend who escaped Raqqa with Mohammad’s family, jumps in.
“The only time we heard news of Sami was when he sent greetings to his father on the radio,” he says.
An exhausted Mohammad nods in agreement, adding: “[Daesh] monitored us and told us, ‘If you try to talk to them, you will be guilty of speaking to nusayris.’”
“Nusayri” is a derogatory term militants use for Alawites, the minority community from which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s clan hails, but Daesh uses the word to describe Syrian government forces in general.
In April, as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces drew closer to Raqqa, Mohammad’s family decided to flee their home in the eastern district of Al-Mashlab. They piled onto motorbikes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and made the dangerous journey north to the Ain Issa camp. About 7,000 displaced people live there now, according to local officials.
Children sprint through the maze of tents, where women sit peeling potatoes and tomatoes in the shade.
With temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius, some have set up their thin mattresses outside so they can cool down after the sun sets.
Although they are now safe, Mohammad and Nazira have still not been able to reach their daughters in the city of Hassakeh, about 180 kilometers farther east.
Under the militants’ rule, they occasionally managed to speak to their daughters in secret, using illicit internet networks in Raqqa.
“But for the past eight months, all communication with them has been impossible,” Mohammad says.
“Wafa and Noura don’t even know that we are in this camp.”
They are desperately trying to get permission from the Kurdish police force, or asayish, to leave the settlement and head to Hassakeh.
“They always tell me that there is a long list of people who want to leave the camp,” Nazira says.
This week, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination arm, OCHA, appealed to camp authorities to increase freedom of movement for displaced people from Raqqa, who are often required to have a local “sponsor” before they can leave.
Nazira’s 27-year-old daughter is living through the same heart-wrenching ordeal as her mother.
Raida’s husband was also a soldier in the Syrian army, and she also lost touch with him in 2013.
“I haven’t heard from him since rebels entered the city,” she says, chestnut-colored hair peeking out from her headscarf.
She gave birth to their third child, Issam, just a month after she last saw her husband.
Under Daesh reign, Raida could not leave her home without a male guardian, so her oldest son Faysal, 10, would accompany her everywhere she went.
For years, she persistently sought out any news about her husband – to no avail.
“Every time I encountered a former soldier, I would show him a picture of my husband,” Raida says.
“About a year ago, someone recognized him. They said he might have gotten remarried.”