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Trapped in Eastern Ghouta

Syrian rebels and government forces are both preventing civilians fleeing the bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, according to a teacher who has been trying to get his family out.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Ghafour, 43, a teacher of Arabic, spoke of their abortive attempt to escape.

“I live in Douma [in the north of Eastern Ghouta] and have three children who are all under 15,” he says. “I tried to send my family out, but the opposition militants prevent all families leaving.” He adds that even the extensive networks of independent smugglers, who used to bring goods secretly into Eastern Ghouta and sometimes smuggle people out, would not help him because they work with the rebel movements in control of Eastern Ghouta.

“I tried but in vain,” he recalls, describing how one of the rebel local commanders, probably from the Army of Islam that controls this part of the besieged enclave, caught Ghafour and his family last Thursday when they were trying to move from Douma to another opposition held-district further west called Harasta. “He shouted at me and said, ‘You should stay here and support our fight against the regime, and you should not even send your wife and children away. If we send our families out, our morale will go down and we will lose.”’

Ghafour returned home with his family and says that they expect to be killed at any moment. Even so, he is sympathetic to the rebels who are stopping him and his family escaping. “I am not fighting myself, but I go and see the fighters nearby and offer help in case it is needed,” he says. He is fearful of government reprisals, saying that it is dangerous even to use the Syriatel mobile network because “calls are recorded by the regime”. “A friend of mine was arrested last month because of some calls he made in Douma before moving from there to regime-held areas,” he adds.

He says that it has now become impossible to cross from Harasta or Douma to government-held territory, as had previously been possible, because “the regime will not let them go to its areas”. As a result, he and his family remain in their house, terrified and confused about what will happen next after a week of continual shelling and bombing. “I lost two friends of mine in Shafouniya yesterday in an air strike,” he says.

Ghafour was speaking just as the UN Security Council passed its resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, which has led to some easing of the bombing and shelling that has already killed 500 people in Eastern Ghouta over the last week. This was also before allegations that Syrian government forces had been using chlorine gas.

What does emerge is that the armed opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta as well as the government have been stopping people leaving. This is confirmed by a UN-backed report called Reach, which says: “Women of all ages, and children, reportedly continued to be forbidden by local armed groups from leaving the area for security reasons.” This has been the pattern in all the many sieges in Syria conducted by all sides who do not want their own enclaves depopulated and wish to retain as much of the civilian population as possible as human shields.

But Ghafour is right in thinking that he and his family would have a great deal to be frightened of even if they did manage to make their way to government lines. Men of military age, in particular, are likely to be detained because they are suspected of being rebel fighters or because they are liable to be conscripted into the Syrian army. Detention might be immediate or happen later at any one of the thousands of government checkpoints. These often act like border crossings and ill-paid soldiers and police will look for a bribe, especially from those who come originally from rebel-held areas.

But there is another reason why people fleeing Eastern Ghouta might be in danger in government held-Damascus. Seven years of civil war has ensured that Syrians on different sides, many of whom will have lost relatives in the violence, regard each other with undiluted hatred. In Damascus, the shellfire and bombing are largely by the government into rebel areas, but there is also outgoing fire from Eastern Ghouta, mostly from mortars, into government-controlled districts.

Rania, 22, a fourth-year student of English literature at Damascus University, explained to The Independent what had happened in her area and what was the local reaction to it. She lives in the Dwel’a neighbourhood, which is a government-held area but located between two opposition-controlled zones, Ayn Tarma to the north and Mukhayyam Al Yarmouk to the south.

“Our neighbourhood has been shelled once or twice a week by opposition militants since last year, but since last week the shelling has intensified and is happening every day,” she says. She and her friends have been stranded in their houses for a week and cannot even go out to buy food. The army, and local young men willing to take the risk, have been supplying them.

“People are being killed every day in our neighbourhood,” Rania says. “Yesterday, a shell hit the balcony of our neighbour’s house and killed his daughter who was a university student.”

There are similar incidents every day. One house near to Rania’s was hit by a rocket and a mother and her three-year-old child were killed.

As a result of this, Rania says that people in her district speak about “what is happening in Ghouta in a very negative way”. This means they are all in favour of the use of maximum force against it. She says that “a shopkeeper in our locality lost his son in Ghouta. He was serving in the Syrian army and, while he and his unit were trying to break into Eastern Ghouta, he was killed along with several others soldiers. The shopkeeper and many who lost their sons say that even the children of Ghouta should be killed because ‘if they grow up, they will be terrorists as well’.”

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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