GHOUTA, SYRIA (War report) — With the danger of a new artificial war in the Middle East looming, the whole world is talking about Syria. People in Damascus rejoice in the long-desired cessation of the heavy indiscriminate shelling of the capital, with the liberation of Douma, the last Eastern Ghouta town under control of the armed opposition, completed. Peace was made possible by a deal between the Syrian government and Jaysh al-Islam, the last remaining militant group in Eastern Ghouta, which stipulated the evacuation of the rebels and their few supporters to other parts of rebel-held Syria in exchange for the liberation of dozens of hostages held by Jaysh al-Islam. This, rather than the alleged use of chemical weapons, is what occupies the mind of most Syrians at the moment.
Yet aggression replaced arrogance when Israel took it one step further than the threatening rhetoric of Western and allied heads of state by bombing a Syrian airbase on Monday, killing at least 12 people. Although all these countries – the U.S., France, Britain and Israel chief among them – claim to do this in the name of the Syrian people, they somehow manage to completely ignore the opinions of those who have an actual say in all of this — i.e., the civilians in and around Damascus.
I was in Damascus from the moment the reciprocal bombardment of Douma and the capital resumed, after negotiations broke down on Friday, through the signing of the final deal, the release of hostages, and the start of the evacuation of the militants out of Douma. During my stay, I visited both the Eastern Ghouta town of Zamalka and al-Harjallah center for internally displaced Syrians, where I had the honor to talk to some of the civilians who have lived under the occupation of the jihadis.
This article tells their tragic and horrendous testimonies.
On Sunday, while the fighting was still ongoing, I had the chance to visit Zamalka, a town in Eastern Ghouta that was liberated close to three weeks ago. I was visiting the area on a tour organized by the Ministry of Information, the government agency that supervises foreign journalists. Not a lot of civilians were present because most of them had temporarily moved elsewhere owing to the immense destruction of the town.
We mainly walked around and took pictures of the neighborhood, including of multiple mortar launch pads that had been used over the past couple of years to kill and maim thousands of civilians in Damascus. Inside a house, an army officer showed us a number of heavy-arms, some of which, according to the officer, were of Israeli origin. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has recently found other Israeli-made weapons in Harasta and Douma, two additional Eastern Ghouta municipalities. Similar discoveries have been made in the last few years in rural Damascus and even in the ISIS-controlled areas of Mayadin and Deir Ezzor.
A rebel mortar launcher in Eastern Ghouta. The liberated district was used as a launching pad for the indiscriminate shelling of Damascus by rebel groups. (Photo: © Bas Spliet)
After having walked around a bit, I did manage to find some civilians to talk to. One man, aged around 60, was happy to answer some questions. When I asked him about the food aid that had been brought into Eastern Ghouta from outside, he made the startling remark that the militants kept 80 percent of it for themselves.
A while later, I asked another man the same question, and he went as far as to claim that all of it was kept by the militants. Although the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, this is baffling, especially because Western mass-media accounts have consistently attempted to blame the suffering of civilians from Eastern Ghouta on the siege the SAA imposed on the enclave, selectively drawing from comments by international aid organizations.
Yet, when I questioned Marwa Awad – a representative of the UN World Food Program (UNWFP), the organization that, together with Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), is actually responsible for the transport of aid into Eastern Ghouta – about the disturbing testimonies on Monday, she acknowledged that the aid was indeed “not equally distributed.” In order to try to extinguish this “war economy,” UNWFP put the sign “not for sale” on the aid boxes and divided the aid in small separated quantities.
This issue was extensively discussed internally according to Awad, and the UNWFP and SARC on multiple occasions pressed the local rebel councils to distribute the aid fairly. Not only did Western media ignore this stunning modus operandi, in which the jihadis strengthened their grip on the civilians by withholding and selling humanitarian aid, they relied on these exact same leaders to provide answers as to why civilians were suffering. The Guardian, for instance, gave the following reason for the premature departure of aid convoys out of Douma on March 5, 2018:
Iyad Abdelaziz, a member of the Douma Local Council, said nine aid trucks had to leave the area after government shelling and airstrikes intensified in the evening. Observers say the continuing offensive in Eastern Ghouta appears to be following similar tactics to those that Assad and his allies have used at other key points of war: laying siege to rebel-held areas, bombing them fiercely, launching a ground assault and offering passage out to civilians who flee and fighters who withdraw.
Wael Alwan, the spokesman for one of the main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, Failaq al-Rahman, said Russia was ‘insisting on military escalation and imposing forced displacement’ on the people of Eastern Ghouta, which he called ‘a crime.’” [emphasis added]
Residents of the war-torn district of Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta. (Photo: © Bas Spliet)
However disturbing the revelations to that point, the worst had yet to come. After hearing these few testimonies, I decided to visit al-Harjallah shelter on Tuesday. Located south of Damascus, the center has temporarily accommodated around 150,000 internally displaced Syrians from all over the country since it started operations in 2016, according to Abdulrahman al-Khatib, the mayor of al-Harjallah town and main administrator of the shelter.
Over 21.000 civilians from Eastern Ghouta had arrived in the shelter over the last three weeks, and 53 babies had been born since. All food and medical aid and expenses are completely free of charge, being supplied for 80 percent by the Syrian government and 20 percent by international NGOs. The inhabitants of the center themselves volunteer in the preparation of the food as well as in the general organization of the camp, so they essentially help themselves in their own assistance. There are schools as well and, according to al-Khatib, a strategy is currently being discussed along with UNICEF to expand the educational part of the center’s operations. Last but not least, I personally witnessed a quite spontaneous form of entertainment for the children, as volunteers successfully encouraged them to sing along and dance to songs.
During my stay, I had the chance to talk to one of the doctors of the two medical centers in al-Harjallah. Dr. Jamilah al-Naemah related that the center she was working in alone provided medical assistance to 250 to 300 people every day. According to her experience, most of the Eastern Ghouta civilians were very weak and ill upon arrival, mainly owing to malnutrition, but generally got better soon after receiving help in al-Harjallah. I asked a family with a child who was sick with the flu, and could not have been older than the war, whether there was a contrast between the help and aid they received respectively in al-Harjallah and back home in Eastern Ghouta. The father replied, stating that they had received food aid only once – one time in seven years of occupation, that is. What did they collect precisely? Seven kilograms of rice.
Dr. Jamilah al-Naemah treats a child sick with the flu at a medical center in al-Harjallah, Eastern Ghouta. (Photo: © Bas Spliet)
At this moment, I realized that in order to get a real sense of what life must have been like in Eastern Ghouta over the last few years, I had to conduct an extensive interview with a family in al-Harjallah. It should be emphasized here that the following testimony is a random selection of just a few of the 150,000 civilians who have left Eastern Ghouta, where they had lived under the rule of these so-called rebels for seven years.
I was just walking down the street with my translator and an official from the center, and I asked the latter whether I could talk to a family, whereupon we entered the first house we passed by and asked whether I could pose some questions, to which the inhabitants responded affirmatively. The small bungalow housed a number of families, with ostensibly more children than adults, from the Hamouriyyah suburb.
A 30-year-old pregnant woman broke the silence, saying that the lack of food was so bad that children had died of starvation in her town. This was not a result the SAA’s siege, however. Confirming what I had been told before, she maintained that there was enough food aid coming in, but that it remained in the hands of the militants. This she knew, because she saw plenty of food stocks when she hid with her relatives in a rebel-operated basement during a chaotic moment of the fighting.
Other people in the room confirmed this policy of withholding food. Additional large stockpiles also existed in Douma, where civilians finally seized them the same day as I conducted the interview. Next, she talked about the rudimentary medical procedures during the occupation. Even when it was not necessary, the jihadi-affiliated doctors, many of whom were not properly trained, cut off body parts “like a butcher.” Finally, she proclaimed that, in a similar vein, some women had died after having given birth.
Because I did not know what to say for a moment, silence again fell across the room. Suddenly, a woman in her mid-twenties by the name of Maha cleared her throat and said that she wanted to tell some things she had been through, but without the men in the house. After all the males had left together with most of the children, she testified that the rebels had put her in an improvised jail for one year and a month after she refused to “give herself.”
Many other women were imprisoned for the same reason; yet they were still regularly raped, not necessarily by the militants but, according to Maha, by the doctors themselves. In the makeshift prison, she also saw plenty of food, all the while children were dying of starvation outside. Finally, the extremists even killed children and women inside this prison. Not only did the perpetrators escape justice, though; these thieves, rapists and murderers remained untouched because they were “VIP” and “higher in the hierarchy.”
Bearing all of this in mind makes it easier to understand why many Syrians cringe at hearing the words “moderate” and “rebel” in the same sentence. Most Syrians, as opposed to news consumers in the West, have had to live (and die) through this hell the jihadis have imposed on them. That’s why, when you go to Syria, people consistently talk about “terrorists” rather than militants, for they rarely differentiate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), al-Qaeda and ISIS. On the other hand, these two ladies, like so many of their fellow citizens, praise President Bashar al-Assad and the SAA for their successful fight against terrorism.
One needs only to do a summary search on the internet to find these terrifying stories confirmed in other accounts. A reporter for the Irish Times, for instance, visited al-Harjallah shelter some two weeks before me. Interestingly, the witnesses he interviewed talked specifically about fighters from Faylaq al-Rahman, which the media has painted as the most moderate among the rebels in Eastern Ghouta over the last few weeks:
[The shelter’s main administrator Abdulrahman al-Khatib] introduced us to two women who have horrifying stories of life under Faylaq al-Rahman, the Legion of the Beneficent. A handsome woman, with a sorrowful expression to match her grey dress, Marak More’e (20) has been married three times and divorced twice. When her husband wanted to share her favours with comrades and she refused, he sent her to the women’s prison for 120 days. There women were regularly raped. She and her two sons are shunned by her father, who is in Harjallah, and other relatives. ‘We are alone,’ she says.
The indomitable Maida Droubi, a widow with five children from Kafr Batna, introduces us to her six-year-old son, Maher, who was lured by a neighbour into his house and raped until his screams alerted passersby. ‘He was Faylaq al-Rahman,’ she says. ‘Nothing could be done.’ Maher is eager to become a first-grader when the family reaches the Jaramana suburb of Damascus to stay with family once registration is completed in Harjallah.”
This is far from the first time that the myth of an armed opposition being anywhere close to “moderate” has been demolished. In Aleppo, just to take one example, I extensively documented myself that the exact same script as in Eastern Ghouta played itself out a year and a half ago.
First, insurgents invaded Eastern Aleppo from the north when Aleppans refused to take up arms against the government in 2012. Second, the media painted the jihadi occupiers as heroes throughout the occupation, even though there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. Third, they completely ignored the over 10,000 civilians killed by indiscriminate rebel shelling of the western part of the city. Fourth, the propaganda machine went into full gear when the SAA started to liberate the area — as Western media was flooded by largely false stories originating exclusively from al-Qaeda-embedded “activists,” “journalists,” and “doctors.” Finally, when civilians fled from Eastern Aleppo, ready to testify, the same media outlets, which had been crying crocodile tears as they issued pleas to “save” the people trapped in Aleppo from the SAA’s advances, went completely dark.
Similar to my visit to al-Harjallah, a British Anglican priest named Andrew Ashdown visited the Jibreen center of internally displaced Syrians amidst the massive exodus of Syrians coming out of east Aleppo in December 2016. My experience feels like a reprise of the picture he painted back then:
The sense of relief amongst the thousands of refugees is palpable. All were keen to talk [and] all said the same thing. They said that they had been living in fear. They reported that the fighters have been telling everyone that the Syrian Army would kill anyone who fled to the West, but had killed many themselves who tried to leave – men, women and children.
One woman broke down in tears as she told how one of her sons was killed by the rebels a few days ago, and another kidnapped. They also killed anyone who showed signs of supporting the Government. The refugees said that the ‘rebels’ told them that only those who support them are ‘true Muslims’, and that everyone else are ‘infidels’ and deserve to die. They told us that they had been given very little food: that any aid that reached the area was mostly refused to them or sold at exorbitant prices. Likewise, most had been given no medical treatment. […]
Most refugees said they had had members of their families killed by the rebels and consistently spoke of widespread murder, torture, rape and kidnap by the rebels. […] They all said they were glad to be out and to be free. All the refugees … were visibly, without exception, clearly profoundly relieved and happy to be free.”
How many times must the long-abused Syrian people go through this? An undercover documentary shot by a TV channel from the United Arab Emirates, which would otherwise never deviate from the government line, has already shown horrible scenes from al-Qaeda-controlled Idlib, the largest area that is still in control of the armed opposition. With dangerous rhetoric and military moves omnipresent the last few days, are Western leaders willing to risk a global war that will only benefit extremist Islamists? Without exception, no Syrians I have met during my journey through Syria are waiting for President Trump to come and save them. Perhaps it is time to finally leave them alone?
Top Photo | Civilians from Eastern Ghouta wait in line to receive free food from the al-Harjallah centre. (Photo: © Bas Spliet)
Bas Spliet is a Belgian journalist covering Syria from the ground in Damascus. He has written extensively on Syria, formerly for NewsBud and on his personal blog, Scrutinised Minds.
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