Miriam graduated from Damascus University in December with a degree in computer science. Last month, she left the relative quiet of the Syrian capital to return to her home in encircled East Ghouta.
The 23-year-old was a sophomore when in 2013, regime forces surrounded the East Ghouta suburbs, an enclave of rebel-held towns just east of Damascus.
As Miriam studied a few miles to the west, her family, now in East Ghouta’s de facto capital of Douma, lived through airstrikes and shelling.
Last month, Miriam went home for the first time in five years. She got there through the network of tunnels joining East Ghouta to the outside world. Residents can enter and exit the rebel-held eastern suburbs through extended tunnels controlled by rebels at one end and the regime at the other.
“There’s a sadness in returning to it, in the eyes of its people and its children, in its destroyed streets,” Miriam tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from Douma.
Q: Why did you return? Did you think about remaining in Damascus, considering the shelling and destruction in East Ghouta?
I returned to Ghouta because of the traditions and customs that govern our society. I’m an unmarried woman and can’t live alone in Damascus. It was my family’s decision that I return.
Yes, I thought about staying and continuing to study instead of returning to East Ghouta, but my situation in Damascus was difficult. There were constant security searches everywhere I went. The security officers would see my ID, that East Ghouta was my place of birth, and tell me, “You’re from those terrorist towns.” I felt like a stranger in my own country.
But I’m a part of my town and its people, which meant I had to return to share their fate. I had to remain faithful to Ghouta and its residents.
Q: How were you able to return to East Ghouta? Tell me about how you felt after you were reunited with your family and your city?
I entered through a tunnel that extends from Barzeh to East Ghouta. The regime allows passage through the tunnels after some strict screening measures.
[Ed.: Barzeh, located 1km west of opposition-controlled East Ghouta, contains the entrance to one of several extended tunnels which connect rebel- and regime-held areas in the eastern Damascus suburbs.]
I had to present my ID to show I was a Ghouta resident. Then began a thorough search of my security record.
The last time I saw East Ghouta was the summer of 2012. It doesn’t look the same. There’s a sadness in returning to it, in the eyes of its people and its children, in its destroyed streets. The smile that I once saw before the revolution is gone.
As for the reunion, it was a confusing mix of feelings, crying and hugging my mother and father who I had not seen for a long time.
Q: Tell me about your time in Damascus. What were those five years like?
I started out living with four of my classmates in a house we rented. After the siege took its toll on my family’s financial situation, they couldn’t keep sending me money. So I moved to a university dorm closer to campus, so I could save the money I was using for transportation. Every now and again, my brother in Jordan would send me SP25,000 [$23] so I could cover my basic needs until I returned to Ghouta.
It was tough to live in Damascus. I would check on my family every day. Knowing they were living through bombardment and siege, the fear never left me. I knew the truth, but I couldn't stand up for it.
I remained with my town, but in secret.
Q: How did you feel living in Damascus while East Ghouta was exposed to daily bombardment?
I was torn in two directions. Part of me wanted to complete my studies and return to East Ghouta. But I also felt a connection to the people who were killing and bombing my family.
There were days when I had to evade questions that had to do with the revolution. Some students would say that residents of East Ghouta were terrorists. I had to keep silent. I couldn’t defend my family or the residents living there. That silence is what killed me.