The fall of Syria's Eastern Ghouta

‘Ghouta,’ painted by Randa Maddah. Used with permission. Source: Women Now.

The Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus has been a scene of intense suffering throughout the seven-year-long war in Syria. It is 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 President Bashar al-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, “I want to be a journalist to convey the innocents’ suffering or study chemistry to make medicine to the people.”

Noor and Alaa filming the destruction caused by Syrian regime air strikes in Eastern Ghouta. Used with permission.

Their account was set up by their mother Shams Al-Khateeb, who also spoke with Global Voices:

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.

Read More: Ghouta's Youth Become War Reporters to Shine a Light on Suffering Civilians

Growing mushrooms to survive

Prices peaked as a consequence of the siege. Although the region is primarily an agricultural area, so some people were able to harvest some seeds and feed themselves, hunger was widespread. Graphic photos of children starving to death caused regular public outcry that went mostly unanswered.

In an effort to better the situation, one local NGO cultivated mushrooms and distributed them for free, as well as taught families to grow their own, as Joey Ayoub and Mustapha Itani reported for Global Voices on September 2, 2017.

One of the organizers, Dr. Ahmed 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

Cancer patients endure dire conditions

Medical supplies quickly ran out in besieged Ghouta, and in late 2017, the area was again in the media spotlight because of the degrading medical conditions. United Nations experts called for patients with the most severe cases of illness 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.

Dar Al-Rahma Center for Cancer in Eastern Ghouta. Photo taken by the media officer of the center and republished with permission.

“[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 the center could not to conduct all aspects of cancer treatment, since post-surgery and radial therapy materials were no longer available in Ghouta.

Read more : Cancer Center in Syria's Besieged East Ghouta Struggles to Survive

‘Do others know we exist?’

In January 2018, 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.

Bereen Hassoun, a nurse and a mother, gave a harrowing account to the Act for Ghouta collective of her everyday life in these conditions. Global Voices published her testimony on February 20, 2018.

She described how people suffered from the cold and had little access to the most basic amenities. Diseases circulated easily between the children due to the unsanitary living conditions.

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

She said 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?

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

‘We have not witnessed a ceasefire of even five minutes’

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.

On February 27, 2018, Russia unilaterally announced a five-hour daily truce that would allow for the establishment of humanitarian corridors.

In a testimony collected for Global Voices by Act for Ghouta and published on March 1, 2018, 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.

Photo by Samir Al Doumy. Used with permission. Source.

Aous recounted the long plight of Ghouta since the start of the uprising in 2011 and pointed out that the area under opposition rule has made “great strides in democratic self-governance.” However, he added:

[…] all of this is continuously undermined by the attacks on civilians by the Assad regime. 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.

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’

Showing signs of solidarity with Ghouta from elsewhere in Syria has been dangerous. While the majority of people in Damascus remained silent, whether out of fear or conviction, there are those who denounced the offensive on Ghouta anonymously.

Global Voices’ Maria Mattar spoke with three of them in March 2018. Ahmad (a pseudonym), originally from Harasta in the Eastern Ghouta, observed:

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.

Read more: In Damascus, Solidarity with Besieged East Ghouta is Dangerous

When will the suffering end?

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.

Screenshot of latest facts and figures on East Ghouta by the UN at the time of writing. Source: ReliefWeb.

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 and the war in Syria:

This page was written by Leila Sibai.