‘They’re not letting us leave’: Residents in east Damascus suburbs trapped as government renews military offensive

On February 18, Umm Mohannad looked outside the window of her east Damascus home and saw a missile racing towards a nearby building.

Seconds later, her house shook, her two young granddaughters screamed and a dazed Umm Mohannad grabbed her family and hit the streets, running, she tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

The same day, the Syrian Arab Army began a “large military operation” to “expel the terrorists” from three rebel neighborhoods in east Damascus—al-Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh—pro-regime Al-Masdar news reported on February 18.

The campaign appears to be an attempt to recapture the three districts, which served as an entry point for smuggling food and supplies into blockaded, opposition-held East Ghouta.

Today, Tishreen and al-Qaboun, the latter home to Umm Mohannad, are virtually destroyed and nearly empty of residents due to the army’s aerial and ground assault.

Thousands of residents, including Umm Mohannad and her family, fled to the mosques, fields and streets of neighboring Barzeh, where they are now stuck.

“Regime forces surrounded Barzeh and they’re not letting us leave,” she says. “They’re the reason I’m still inside, living in the shadow of bombs and death.”

Umm Mohannad, 48, fled al-Qaboun for Barzeh on February 18 with her daughter and two grandchildren.

Q: Describe the day you left al-Qaboun. What made you leave?

We fled for Barzeh because of Assad’s surprise attack on al-Qaboun that began on February 18.

We ran and left our destroyed homes behind.

That day, I was sitting at home with my daughter and two granddaughters when a surface-to-surface missile struck meters from our home. We could see it from our window. The house shook violently, and we were terrified.

My grandchildren buried themselves into our arms, crying out 'Mama, hide us!' and 'Grandma, help us!' But my daughter and I were powerless, crippled by fear. We grabbed the girls and hid inside the kitchen. At that moment, another missile struck, draining any ounce of strength I had left. The second missile stunned me, and I fell in and out of consciousness. I mustered up the strength to open the door that led to the garden, so we could escape this nightmare.

Outside, dozens of residents were running in the streets, screaming. My daughter and I each grabbed the hand of a granddaughter before we took off running. We left with the clothes on our back.

I don’t want to think about that day—it was a nightmare, a real-life horror film. May God punish them for what they’ve done to us.

What scares me the most is the fate of my son. I have no idea where he is, whether he’s dead or alive. He was visiting his friend when the bombing started. I keep asking people in Barzeh if they’ve seen him. I still have hope that he’s somewhere in al-Qaboun, alive.

 A battered building in Barzeh neighborhood, March 13. Photo courtesy of Damascus Star. 

Q: Why did you flee to Barzeh? Why didn’t you try to go to Damascus?

I wanted to go to Damascus, but regime officials at the Barzeh checkpoint prevented us from leaving the neighborhood. They don’t care about their fellow Syrians—the women, children and unarmed civilians who are supposed to be shielded from the conflict.

Since then, I’ve tried again to leave for Damascus, but officers at the checkpoints are demanding that residents pay them bribes in order to leave. I can’t afford to do that.

[Ed.: Checkpoint officials are asking residents to pay $100 to $200 per person to leave Barzeh, Enab Baladi reported in February.]

When I went to the checkpoint, I explained that I suffer from rheumatism, especially in my knees. It’s difficult to move, and I shouldn’t be living in a military zone.

But they refused to let me leave without paying, which made me resent this criminal, inhumane regime even more. It’s the reason I’m still inside Barzeh, living in the shadow of bombs and death.

I used to follow Palestine on the news and be moved with sorrow. But there’s no comparison with what the regime is doing to us now. Even Israel didn’t treat the Palestinians in Gaza this way.

The regime displaced us and tore apart our families. May God deprive them of any blessing.

Q: Where are you staying in Barzeh?

Right now we’re staying in a mosque, just waiting to die. Residents are donating food, but it neither nourishes nor satisfies our hunger.

[Ed.: Umm Mohannad is quoting Surat al-Ghashiya, verse 7 in the Quran, which reads: “Which will neither nourish nor satisfy hunger.”]

We live with other displaced families from al-Qaboun. Each family receives a plate of cooked food, but they have to split 2kg of bread with five other families. My daughter and I don’t eat too much of the food since we want to save it for the girls.

In addition to the food scarcity, missiles are being dropped on Barzeh 24/7. The bombing is terrifying my grandchildren. How long will things stay like this?

Regime forces surround Barzeh, and they’re not letting us leave. It’s as though they want to annihilate us all. Right now, our lives consist of bombing, hunger and thirst. We don’t have the most basic necessities.

The government doesn’t distinguish between civilians or fighters—it loathes everyone in opposition areas.

Q: In late February, ceasefire talks between the regime and rebels in al-Qaboun came to a halt, opposition media reported. Do you support a ceasefire with the regime?

After I witnessed the filthy behavior of checkpoint officials and after seeing the regime indiscriminately bomb things—people, trees and even stones—I became convinced that we must fight this government to the very end.

We can’t live under the rule of this dirty regime. It’ll kill us, even if we reconcile with it. Our lives won’t get better, the regime will oppress us even more—this is what’s happening in the towns that reconciled with the government.

In addition, post-reconciliation, the army is putting our men on the front lines to kill their brothers in opposition areas. I’m afraid that this will happen to my son in the future—if he’s even alive, that is.

Q: Do you expect to return to al-Qaboun in the future?

God permitting, we will return. I’m putting all of my hope in God to free al-Qaboun and deliver us from the tyrannical rule that denied every person in every corner of this country the joy of living.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Ruwaida Jamal

Ruwaida studied Law at Damascus University and was a practicing lawyer in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2013. Ruwaida joined Syria Direct to shed light on the humanitarian situation in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.