FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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’.”

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail