Has Assad Really Liberated East Ghouta? - Ahmad Dimashqi

The Assads' pictures at the entrance to a children's playground  in Douma

"All the terrorists have left Douma, the last of their strongholds in eastern Ghouta," announced the official state-run Syrian news agency SANA in 2018, quoting an army spokesperson, who used the term “terrorists” in the regime way to refer to rebels and dissidents. Eastern Ghouta had been "completely eradicated of terrorism," added the spokesman in a statement broadcast on television.

The reality is very different; according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the heavy fighting and devastating bombing in Douma killed more than 1,700 civilians.

In 2017, the UN condemned the regime’s “deliberate starvation of civilians” used as a tactic of war, after the publication of “shocking” photos of skeletal children in eastern Ghouta. At the start of the conflict, the rebels gathered under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), though this gradually gave way to a myriad of different factions, ranging from rebels without any religious affiliation to Islamist groups.

Bashar al-Assad's regime is now banking on what it calls “reconciliation” agreements, which result in combatants and their families being evacuated - or exiled - to rebel areas in the north of the country, in exchange for the end of years-long regime bombing and sieges. There are also thousands of civilians who simply flee and abandon everything, unable to bring themselves to submit to the Assad regime after years of suffering.

Since the start of the Russian military intervention at the end of September 2015, the regime, which was then in bad shape, has managed to achieve a string of pyrrhic victories, taking back more than half of the territory of the country ravaged by a war that has killed more than 600,000 people since March 2011.

I was one of those civilians who decided to abandon everything I knew, with a lot of hope and also a lot of pain - because we do not know if we’ll be able to return, and when we’ll be able to see our homes again and even whether it will one day be possible to see our loved ones and friends, those who made the choice to remain, exhausted by years of war and deprivation.

The months have passed slowly since these evacuations in April 2018, and contact with those who remained is still very difficult. The law of fear reigns. After two years, I cannot ask my loved ones to send me pictures of the interior of the city, as it would be risky for them and could be classified by the regime as treason and an act of terrorism, even though it very obviously isn’t. The simple act of phoning a loved one who’s been evacuated to the north also remains a real danger; it is difficult to get exact figures at this stage, but at least hundreds of civilians have been arrested for the simple act of communication with someone in the north of the country; the regime classifies this as maintaining contact with "terrorists", thus mothers and sisters have been arrested, for speaking with sons or brothers who went to the north, for a simple act of love and concern for their children and siblings.

Many young men, myself included, left for the north to avoid compulsory military service; we refused to kill innocent people or to do to others what we had experienced ourselves, simply because it was impossible for many of us to kill innocent people, and to be part of this army led by a criminal. Many of the evacuees are civilians who’ve never touched a weapon. As for me, I was a just a civilian, nothing more than it, who can’t live or breathe under Assad’s crushing rule

So what does this city that I miss so terribly look like, and what’s life like there now, for those who stayed, with the regime’s usual telephone tapping, monitoring of social networks and constant surveillance? I’ve managed to find out some information on what things are like there now.

I’ve noticed at first hand that the little contact I can maintain is punctuated by incessant power cuts. A few weeks ago, a friend still in Douma, told me tearfully, “Nothing’s going well here. We only have electricity for two hours a day, the water isn’t drinkable, and you were right to leave - if I could leave now, I would do.”

The other news that I’ve received is that nobody talks publicly about life there, it’s simply too dangerous to do. There are regular reports on social media of young men being rounded up and forcibly conscripted into the army despite agreements with Russian guarantors who vowed that there would be no compulsory military service after the regime resumed control. Thus, there are many roadblocks, and checkpoints, and those people who survived five years of crippling siege must always provide justification for travelling outside the city.

The law of silence about these years of hell inflicted by the regime is always in force. You won’t see anyone in Eastern Ghouta saying publicly that they suffered years of relentless siege, starvation and bombing by Assad. The children have been able to return to school, always reminded of their duty to greet the photo of Bashar al Assad each morning as if he were a God. Children are conditioned to revere him, with his photo everywhere.

Ghouta has never been liberated.

There is no freedom, but everyone knows that this photo found everywhere is an ever-present threat, a reminder that anyone can be arrested at any moment for a word, a look, a thought out of place: "Just stay quiet, say you love Assad, and maybe you will survive."

Title and content edited at author's request on June 18, 2020