“Do Others Know We Exist?”: A Nurse's Testimony from Syria's Besieged Eastern Ghouta

Children hiding from shelling in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta. Photo by Mohammed Rabee for the Damascus Media Center, used with permission.

The following is a testimony by Bereen Hassoun, a mother and nurse in the city of Harasta in the besieged Syrian district of Eastern Ghouta, where the Syrian regime and its allies have been waging an intense bombing campaign. Controlled by anti-regime rebels, Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian regime and its allies since the end of 2013.

Over 120 people were killed between February 6 and February 8, 2018 alone, and February 19 saw the death of over 110 people in a single day. Some estimates put the total number of civilians killed at around 1,000 in the past three months. Civilian infrastructure has also been severely affected, with four hospitals bombed on February 19.

Speaking to The Guardian's Kareem Shaheen, a doctor in Eastern Ghouta said: “We are standing before the massacre of the 21st century. If the massacre of the 1990s was Srebrenica, and the massacres of the 1980s were Halabja and Sabra and Shatila, then eastern Ghouta is the massacre of this century right now.”

The following testimony from Bereen Hassoun was collected and transcribed by Global Voices’ Marcell Shehwaro:

About a month ago the shelling started to intensify, so I went underground with my family to the shelter in Harasta. The shelter is an open basement space, not divided into rooms. It holds 50 families, including around 170 women and children, all scared and hungry.

The glass in the windows had been broken by the heavy shelling. The cold was brutal, penetrating to our bones, and no matter how hard we tried we couldn't warm ourselves up. The cold became a part of us. Even when I wore five sweaters and three pairs of pants, and hid under the covers with my son, I still felt cold. My 3-year-old son, Husam, kept whispering in my ear: “I’m cold, I’m cold”. My heart grew even colder.

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. Our kids suffered from asthma and eye infections. A single sick kid meant every kid would fall ill. I call that “our normal life” under siege, but the shelling was our other disaster.

I lived in “Al Tibbiya” (“Medical”) neighbourhood, where the field hospital was located, which is why it was targeted. I worked as a nurse, close to my husband, who was a doctor. The shelter was close by, and we sometimes had to transfer the less seriously injured people from the field hospital to the basement when the hospital got too crowded with casualties, and then treat the injured children in full view of our own children. That might be wrong, but we didn’t have a choice.

What is your experience of motherhood when you live a daily life of fears, in constant fear that something might happen to your child or husband, afraid that your child would become an orphan if something happens to you? What is your experience of motherhood when your son asks you every day: “Are we going to die today? Why are they bombing us?” 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 quietly while they’re asleep. 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?

I have always favoured cleanliness, but today I'm afraid my son has got lice.

When a plane bombed us my mischievous little son ran quickly to me, scared to death, repeating his childish prayer: “My God, please protect my father and my mother. God, please protect my mother and my father”. It’s a strange thing to have to switch between playing, being seized by fear and crying, then playing again. They play during the moments of silence, they become fearful at the sound of approaching airstrikes, and they cry as the bombing occurs; and then they return to their games when it’s quiet again.

We couldn’t leave the shelter because we didn’t know at what moment the regime might bomb Harasta. The shelling was so intense, so continuous, day and night. Women never left the shelter except to prepare food for their children, and that’s how we lost Umm Muhammad.

Umm Muhammad was my 28-year-old neighbour.

On one day of heavy shelling, we were sitting in the basement embracing our children. Embracing them and praying, asking the Lord to protect us. First, the warplane bombarded somewhere in the distance, and wherever I looked around the basement I saw mothers calming down their children, praying and crying.

Everyone was afraid, waiting for a possible death. The first strike hit the building above us. Then the civil defence, known as the White Helmets, came and saved us.

We couldn’t locate the children in the haze of dust. My son had been close to me all day long but after the first strike the shelling calmed down a little, so he started complaining and nagging that he wanted to play with his friends. So I couldn’t find him anywhere close when the second bomb hit.

I started searching for him like crazy, among the other children: “Hussam, Hussam, Hussam!” He was, in fact, clinging to me, but in my terror, I couldn’t recognize him. A few minutes later the doctor asked us: “Can you take care of this child? His mother is dead.”

I looked at him and recognized him. He was Umm Mohammad’s son. Umm Mohammad, my neighbour who had been sitting with us in the basement just minutes ago. She had some food at her place and wanted to feed her hungry kids. So she took them to the first floor so that they could eat. Then the bomb landed and killed her.

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.

We argued over our children’s behaviour, their noisiness, and sometimes we would let off steam on each other, expressing our anger, desperation and feelings of being choked in that basement. In the beginning, I used to be surprised at the chaos that would ensue when food was sent to the shelter, but lately I had become exactly like them, maybe even worse, because I simply wanted to feed my son.

One of the mothers started a small and modest stand, selling candies and sweets so that our children would feel alive. And we made an agreement as a group to buy one candy for another person every day. And if one of us was killed, we had to buy the same number of candies to honour the memory of her soul.

A good part of our evenings was taken up with imagining. Not a strange or a fantastic kind of imagining—mostly trying to imagine answers to our questions: were we going to see our parents again someday? Were they going to see our children? Would our children ever be able to play like other children once more? In the future, would they know what bananas are?

Once I asked one of my neighbours: Are we really alive? Do others know we actually exist, and that we’re alive in these basements?

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