The following is an extended version of Leila Sibai‘s piece ‘The Fall of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta’ prepared for Global Voices’ Special Coverage page.
The Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus has been a scene of intense suffering throughout the seven-year-long war in Syria, as the harshest and longest-sustained example of the regime’s “starve or surrender” strategy as well as the target of several chemical attacks.
Ghouta has been besieged since late 2012, when Assad’s forces lost control over the area to opposition groups. In 2013, the regime tightened the siege, preventing food and medical supplies from entering.
On February 18, 2018, Syrian government forces, the Russian air force and allied militias started a fierce offensive to retake the area. Several weeks later, Ghouta fell.
Ordinary people have borne the brunt of the bombardment: The Violations Documentation Center (VDC) for Syria told Global Voices that, as of April 16, 2018, it had documented 2,165 deaths, of whom only 201 were non-civilians.
And as of March 8, 2018, 30 medical facilities had been bombed, nine of which were rendered out of service, according to the VDC.
Below is a selection of Global Voices’ stories on the years-long plight of Ghouta’s residents.
Ghouta’s youth become war reporters
Under these desperate circumstances, even children became war reporters, as Mazen Hassoun reported for Global Voices on March 19, 2018.
Hassoun spoke with 12-year-old Noor Al-Khateeb, who alongside her sister 8-year-old Alaa has taken to Twitter in a joint account to speak for themselves about the ongoing siege.
Noor told Global Voices that she wants “to be a journalist to convey the innocents’ suffering or study chemistry to make medicine to the people.”
Their account was set up by their mother Shams Al-Khateeb, who also spoke with Global Voices.
Shams said that they had become desperate:
“Most of the time the girls stay close to me and hug me and start crying when an air strike hit nearby. We don’t have much food, only some herbs like parsley, nor water to drink or shower.”
When 20-year-old Mahrous Mazen was sitting in his class seven years ago, he never thought he would become a photojournalist covering the suffering of the people of his home city, Douma, one of the towns in Eastern Ghouta.
Mahrous told GV that his father was killed in an air raid by regime jets in 2014. He lives today in a shelter in Ghouta along with his family and neighbours.
The ‘shelters’ are just normal basements lacking the proper equipment to protect civilians from air strikes. Mahrous told GV that “every shelter hosts 30 to 40 family, I’ve visited one in Arbin that hosts 120 families.”
Read More: Ghouta’s Youth Become War Reporters to Shine a Light on Suffering Civilians
Food and Healthcare Under Siege
Prices peaked as a consequence of the siege. As the region is primarily an agricultural area, people were able to harvest some seeds and feed themselves as the siege tightened while medical supplies quickly ran out.
In September of 2017, Joey Ayoub and Mustapha Itani wrote about how one NGO in Eastern Ghouta was cultivating mushrooms and distributing them for free.
One of the organizers, Dr. Ahmed Leila, told GV that they had been struggling to make this project known for the previous three years and expressed relief at it “finally seeing the light”.
Dr. Leila told Global Voices that they started by “producing seeds from mushrooms that grow naturally in the region” before examining them and assessing their quality and suitability to be consumed.
They then built a small mushroom farm in a tub, and when this worked, they moved on to a bigger tub, and so on. Now, they have “designed an educational farm for the region”.
Read More: Syrians in a Besieged Town Are Learning to Grow Mushrooms to Survive
Over the past few years graphic pictures of children starving to death in Ghouta caused regular public outcry that went mostly unanswered.
In late 2017 Ghouta was again in the media spotlight because of the degrading medical conditions caused by the siege. UN experts called for the most severe cases to be evacuated to Damascus where they could be treated, as well as aid for those whose medication was no longer available.
In an article published in Global Voices in January 2018, Firas Abdullah, a Syrian freelance photojournalist who had been based in Douma until his forced displacement by regime forces, described the dire conditions in which cancer patients were treated in Dar al-Rahmah Medical Center, the only center specializing in the treatment of tumors in Eastern Ghouta.
“[At] the [beginning] of 2017, the siege [tightened] … so the huge number of patients leads to drain treatment and [a shortage] of many medications. Now what we have in our hands serves only 3% of patients.”, reported Dr. Mohammad, who works at Dar al-Rahmah.
Yaser Al-Shami, the administrative officer, explained that, at that stage, the centre was not to conduct all aspects of cancer treatment, since post-surgery and radial therapy materials are no longer available in Ghouta.
Shami called for the evacuation of patients from Ghouta in conformity with the terms of the de-escalation agreement that provides for a reduction in the level of violence and the re-opening of trade, both of which could significantly improve the lives of patients in Ghouta.
Read more : Cancer Center in Syria’s Besieged East Ghouta Struggles to Survive
“Do Others Know We Exist?”
In January, about a month before the beginning of the latest military offensive, shelling began to intensify in Ghouta. People went underground and started to spend most of their time in overcrowded shelters.
In a testimony collected by Global Voices at the start of the military escalation on February 20, Bereen Hassoun, a nurse and a mother, gave a harrowing account of her everyday life between the basement and the local medical centre in Harasta in Ghouta.
Life in the basement was rudimentary. People suffered from the cold and have little access to the most basic amenities. Diseases circulated easily between the children due to the unsanitary living conditions.
“The water was very dirty, and I didn’t have diapers for my son. They cost 300 Syrian Pounds (approximately 50 US cents) apiece. Instead, I used a cloth covered with a plastic bag that used to hold the 800 Syrian Pounds (approximately USD 1.55) worth of bread. There was barely enough water for us mothers to wash those diaper cloths. We washed them in the same place we washed the dishes, where we washed our hands and from which drank.”
Sometimes, when the field hospital became too crowded, they had to move minor cases to the shelter, where they would be treated in plain sight. Injured children would be treated in front of other children.
Bereen gave a raw, painful account of her experience of motherhood under siege. The siege fundamentally affected her ability to provide for the most basic needs of her children. She described the guilt she felt as she ate secretly, away from the eyes of her children, because she couldn’t handle the hunger anymore.
“What is motherhood when you can’t even buy a “piece of biscuit” for your son, or ensure a child’s most basic needs because they’re too expensive, too far out of reach, or not there at all because of the siege? When you eat quietly, it feels as if you’re stealing. You eat just because you can’t stand hunger anymore. How do you live when you have to lie to your son, trying to convince him that radishes are in fact apples?”
Bereen and other parents also had to address their children’s well-founded fear of death as the offensive continued. She described her own fear and pain at the news of the death of her neighbour when the planes hit the building facing the basement.
“We were crying for Umm Muhammad, and because we were afraid. We wondered whether we were going to face the same fate, and whether our children would be rendered motherless.”
Read more : “Do Others Know We Exist?”: A Nurse’s Testimony from Syria’s Besieged Eastern Ghouta
On February 24, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2401 that demanded a 30-day ceasefire that would enable the sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded. However, the VDC noted no significant reduction in violence following resolution 2401.
On February 27, Russia unilaterally announced a 5-hour daily truce that would allow for the establishment of humanitarian corridors.
In a testimony collected by GV and published on March 1, Aous Al Mubarak, a dentist in Harasta, showed no surprise at the non-compliance to the ceasefire.
“We have grown used to statements from major powers that contradict their actions. The reality is that we have not witnessed a ceasefire of even five minutes over the past ten days.”
In his testimony, Aous recounts the long plight of Ghouta since the start of the uprising in 2011. He reminds the reader of the initial peaceful protests that were met with violent repression.
“Roughly a year after the start of the revolution, thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands of imprisonments later, after the regime’s lack of response to any of the demands, no matter how small, and its continuation of its brutal crackdown, protesters began to carry weapons.”
The Chemical Massacre of 2013
According to Aous, the experience of people in Ghouta was shaped by two major events: the chemical attack of 2013 and the siege.
During the night of 21 August 2013, the cities of Sin Tarmar and Zamalka in the Eastern Ghouta were hit by the largest chemical attack witnessed in Syria during the entire conflict. Around 1,500 people died.
The International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic later confirmed what activists on the ground had been saying, namely that the evidence indicated the perpetrators had access to the Syrian military’s chemical weapons stockpile and access to both the expertise and the equipment necessary to manipulate a large amount of chemical agents which strongly suggests the regime’s responsibility.
In what has become an all-too-familiar phenomenon, the regime was never held responsible. It was asked instead to deliver its entire chemical arsenal. Consequently, the “OPCW-UN Joint Mission on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons” announced on 30 September 2014 that it “has completed its mandate” and its operations drew to a close.
But since then, the regime’s use of chemical weapons continued in a more systematic manner but on a smaller scale.
Aous then touches upon the many consequences of the siege: the hunger, the shortage of supplies, the increasing prices of commodity products, and the people starving to death.
“The number of dead in Ghouta has reached the tens of thousands, among them those whose requests for medical evacuation were denied by the Assad regime. Despite all the rhetoric about de-escalation and truce agreements, the regime’s crimes have never stopped. Ghouta’s residents hear the news and statements then look at their reality only to find nothing has changed.”
Talking about the latest offensive, Aous mentions the systematic targeting of medical facilities and the tireless work of the civil defence team, the White Helmets, who rush to every explosion site to pull victims out of the rubble, despite the great risk.
But Aous also reminds the reader that, despite all the hardships, life in Ghouta was not always bad.
Ghouta was one of the liberated regions that witnessed great developments in democratic self-governance and grassroots initiatives.
“I do not wish to say that all we have witnessed is horrific, as society has managed to make great strides in democratic self-governance, the most important being the election of local councils in which all, including women, can participate—something that had not occurred under the 50 years of rule by both Assads. We have also witnessed the development of many civil initiatives to reinforce the idea of human rights and societal development.”
Aous also explained the moral dilemma in criticising authoritarian groups present in Ghouta in the context of the regime’s siege:
“Roughly a year after the start of the revolution, thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands of imprisonments later, after the regime’s lack of response to any of the demands, no matter how small, and its continuation of its brutal crackdown, protesters began to carry weapons. The revolution headed towards militarization. Radical groups, facilitated by the Assad regime [referring to the regime’s release of hardline islamists who would end up leading factions such as Jaysh Al Islam], exploited this situation under the auspices of protecting civilians and the legitimate right to self-defence, obfuscating their radical agendas and pretending, rather, to take these steps out of altruism and self-sacrifice. As their forces increased in number, they flaunted their radical ideology and human rights violations, without anyone daring to defy them so as not to legitimize the regime’s indiscriminate campaign against all. For the regime never stopped bombing areas no longer under its control, targeting civilians in these areas daily.”
Read more : ’May It Be a Quick Death!’ The Testimony of East Ghouta Dentist Aous Al Mubarak
‘Silence in the safest thing you can do’
While the military escalation on Ghouta was taking place, life in nearby Damascus didn’t go on completely undisturbed either.
In an article published on GV on March 5, Maria Mattar recounts life in Damascus in the past few weeks as some rebel groups have retaliated by targeting the capital with rockets.
Needless to say, showing signs of solidarity with Ghouta was very dangerous.
Online, supporters of Assad were issuing pleas for the regime to put an end to the rocket attacks that target the capital since the start of the military offensive in Ghouta.
Meanwhile Syrian state media have been airing interviews with people blaming rebel groups and urging the government to intervene and wipe out the area.
While the majority of people in Damascus remained silent, whether out of fear or conviction, there are those who denounced the offensive on Ghouta (but kept it a secret).
“Rockets and shells have disrupted life here in Damascus. In some neighborhoods people are no longer sending their children to schools. Just imagine how life is there. Civilians on both sides are paying the price”, says Salam (a pseudonym) a mother of two.
Expressing solidarity remains hazardous explains Ahmad (a pseudonym), originally from Harasta in the Eastern Ghouta.
“Employees from Ghouta are closely monitored. You have to be careful to not even show sympathy. You have to weigh your words carefully. You risk being suspected of having links with ‘terrorists’, you can lose your job if someone tips you off. You risk even detention. Generally speaking, there is a tacit understanding that silence in the safest thing you can do.”
“When co-workers complain about shells and rocket attacks and call for ‘wiping Ghouta out’ in retaliation for the rockets, all you can do is grin and bear it. I feel deeply embittered. I have friends and relatives there. I have my house which I am sure is a big pile of rubble now. I have my childhood and youth memories there”
Omar (a pseudonym), a university student, recalls that he and his brothers were often able to engage in public shows of solidarity during the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel and the military offensives on Gaza but, 12 years later, they cannot say anything in public about their own people in Ghouta.
Read more: In Damascus, Solidarity with Besieged East Ghouta is Dangerous
On March 5, the first UN aid convoy reached Douma during the 5-hour daily truce. The convoy was supposed to carry food packages, as well as medical supplies but these were removed by the regime as a condition to allow the convoy’s entry to the area.
As Medecins Sans Frontieres reported:
“An official aid convoy that was granted access to the northern part of the enclave on Monday had medical items removed by the government of Syria, according the UN, which was co-managing the convoy.”
Continuous shelling was reported throughout the convoy’s stay in Douma, in clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 2401. The convoy was also asked to leave before it could finish unloading its cargo.
Another attempt was successfully made on March 9 to deliver the remaining part, although the convoy also faced continuous shelling during the delivery.
On March 7, 2018, the cities of Hamoryah and Saqba witnessed a horrific 10 hours during which all kinds of weapons were used, including the suspected use of chlorine. Doctors described it as the biggest chemical attack in Ghouta since 2013.
It is worth noting that chlorine was not subject to the 2013 chemical weapon deal due to its industrial use. It was however subjected to a prohibition following UN Security Council resolution 2209 in 2015. Chlorine has since been reportedly used over 105 times by the regime forces against civilians.
What Next for the People of Ghouta:
The Syrian regime and its Russian ally have taken over Ghouta. As has happened throughout the war, the use of several unlawful weapons against Ghouta has been reported, including that of chlorine, barrel bombs, cluster bombs and incendiary weapons.
Regime forces appear to be not just out to conquer, but to also destroy. With such an aim, the people of Ghouta will most likely continue to suffer.
Read more Global Voices’ coverage of Eastern Ghouta:
China Central Television Backs Russian Version of the Syrian Crisis, Saying Chemical Attacks Were Staged (22 April 2018)
Syria and the Anti-Imperialism of Idiots (17 April 2018)
“Stop Bombing Syria!” Berlin Protest Demands Immediate Ceasefire in Ghouta and Afrin (28 February 2018)
Syrian Civil Society in Douma Navigates a Tough Crackdown (14 March 2017)
Jaysh Al-Islam Is Leading Peace Talks in Geneva, While Clamping Down on Speech in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta (10 March 2017)
‘Painting on Death’: One Syrian Artist’s Mission Under Siege in Douma (29 December 2016)
In Syria and Beyond, Protesters Make Sure the World Doesn’t Forget the Ghouta Chemical Massacre (24 August 2016)
Syria’s ‘White Helmets’ Have Saved Thousands of Lives. Now, They’re Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (16 August 2016)
The Layered Graves of Syria’s Douma City (17 June 2016)
Surrounded by Rubble, This Flower Seller’s Dreams Are on Hold in Syria (8 June 2016)
Kidnapped, But Sameera Is Ever-Present in the Memories of Syrians (2 October 2015)
#Douma_Exterminated as the World Turns Its Back on Horrific Attacks on Ghouta in Syria (11 February 2015)
One Year Ago Today, Assad Attacked Al Ghouta with Chemical Weapons (21 August 2014)
If I Were A Dictator, I Would Consider You My Enemy (14 July 2014)
Non-Violent Activist Razan Zaitouneh and her Team Kidnapped in Syria (11 December 2013)
Assad Accused of Dropping Chemical Bombs on Damascus Suburb Al Ghouta (21 August 2013)
Syria: Death Toll Mounts as Ramadan Massacre Continues (7 August 2011)
Syria: The People Want to Overthrow the Regime (22 April 2011)
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