Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa drink tea in Jazra, a western suburb of the northern Syrian city, on August 8, 2017.
Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa drink tea in Jazra, a western suburb of the northern Syrian city, on August 8, 2017.

Sawsan Karapetyan and her family lived in fear for years as some of the few Christians in Daesh's Syrian stronghold, Raqqa. On Tuesday she fled, clutching her rosary.

Under the cover of darkness, the 45-year-old Syrian-Armenian and six other family members left Daesh-held territory in the northern city on foot.

They were rescued by Christian fighters participating in the battle to oust Daesh from Raqqa and taken to the safety of the western suburb of Jazra in the back of a truck.

"I didn't want to leave, but there was so much bombardment around us that we fled," said Karapetyan, 45, still clad in the black robes mandated by Daesh.

Like many of the thousands who have fled Daesh control, they escaped with virtually nothing.

But Karapetyan could not bear to leave behind her rosary, or her pet parrots, "Lover" and "Beloved."

"It would have been a shame to leave these birds in Raqqa. I left everything except them," she said.

Karapetyan and members of her family sit near their pet parrots,
Karapetyan and members of her family sit near their pet parrots, "Lover" and "Beloved", in Jazra, a western suburb of Raqqa. (AFP)

As she spoke, she sipped a cup of tea handed to her by fighters from the Syriac Military Council (SMC), a Christian unit battling alongside the US-backed SDF to oust Daesh from Raqqa.

The group has been battling Daesh in the city since 2016.

The offensive has ravaged the city, leaving civilians caught in the crossfire of mortar rounds, sniper fire, and US-led coalition air strikes.

London-based monitor Airwars recently reported that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by internationally-backed forces since August 2014 in both Iraq and Syria, including at least 7,337 deaths caused by the US-backed coalition in this region.

"When Raqqa was bombed, we'd gather together to pray to the Lord so things would be calm," Karapetyan said, fiddling with her greenish-grey rosary.

Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa drink tea in Jazra. (AFP)
Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa drink tea in Jazra. (AFP)

Along with three female and three male relatives, she fled Raqqa at 3:00 am on Tuesday using an escape route the SMC opened two days ago.

"We lived through the hardest moments these last three days because of the fierce bombing. I was terrified for my husband and my family."

Celebrating holidays in secret

Armenians in Syria are descendants of those who fled Anatolia at the height of World War I.

Armenians and Syriac Christians once made up around one percent of the city's population, which is predominantly Arab.

Before the fighting began, there were two churches and hundreds of Christians living in the city, but nearly all of them escaped to Qamishli, a city near the Turkish border, when the fighting began.

When Daesh seized Raqqa in 2014, most of the city's Christians, as well as its Kurdish population, fled.

The UN says between 10,000-25,000 civilians, many of women and children, remain trapped in the city and expressed deep concern for their safety.

Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa. (AFP)
Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa. (AFP)

"When Daesh entered they burned the churches, all the prayer books, the angels, the statue of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus the Messiah," she recalled.

Before the fighting began, there were two churches and hundreds of Christians living in the city, but nearly all of them escaped safely to Qamishli, a city near the Turkish border. (AFP)
Before the fighting began, there were two churches and hundreds of Christians living in the city, but nearly all of them escaped safely to Qamishli, a city near the Turkish border. (AFP)

The city's famed Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs and the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation were both ravaged by the terrorists.

"We used to celebrate our holidays in secret, spending them at home in fear," Alexey, 50, said, still dressed in the headscarf and robes required by Daesh.

"We would light a bit of incense just to feel that it was a religious holiday."

Alexey presses the palm of her hand against her worn face, exhausted by the terrifying journey to Jazra and missing the home she left behind.

The UN says between 10,000-25,000 civilians, many of women and children, remain trapped in the city. (AFP)
The UN says between 10,000-25,000 civilians, many of women and children, remain trapped in the city. (AFP)

"We all left Raqqa and all of our things stayed behind. It's a painful feeling. We tried to stay but we couldn't take it anymore."

From Jazra, she and her relatives planned to head west to Aleppo to be reunited with Armenian family members they lost touch with about a month ago.

"We will pray again"

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from Raqqa by the escalating fighting.

Matay, a 22-year-old Christian fighter, said that his forces had secured a route in recent days to help civilians flee.

"We got a Christian family out yesterday ... This is our goal in the campaign to liberate Raqqa."

Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa greet fighters from the Syriac Military Council. (AFP)
Members of an Armenian Christian family who fled from Raqqa greet fighters from the Syriac Military Council. (AFP)

Kardij Kirdian, 50, fled on Tuesday after his brother escaped the day before.

"I can't describe the feeling when we saw the Christian fighters welcoming us," he said.

He said that he had chosen to stay in his native Raqqa even if it meant paying exorbitant taxes.

Under Daesh rule, Christians face the choice of converting to Islam, paying a tax called jizya, or fleeing under threat of death.

"The first year, they took more than $100 (55,000 Syrian pounds) per person as jizya. The next year it was 66,000, and this last year it was more than $300 (166,000 pounds) each." Kirdian said.

To afford the levy, he would rent out and farm fertile land around the city.

Armenians and Syriac Christians once made up around one percent of the city's population, which is predominantly Arab. (AFP)
Armenians and Syriac Christians once made up around one percent of the city's population, which is predominantly Arab. (AFP)

The 50-year-old was wearing a loose charcoal grey robe and had thick, jet-black eyebrows and an unruly salt-and-pepper beard.

"Daesh blew up all of the churches, which devastated us. I haven't prayed inside a church since 2013," Kirdian lamented.

But he remained hopeful.

"If we rebuild them, we will pray again in Raqqa."

Source: TRT World