AMMAN: On January 28, Syrian state television aired images of regime soldiers hoisting the government’s flag above a snowy, rubble-strewn building.
“Praise God, there’s been victory over terrorism,” a top army colonel told pro-government journalists the following day, standing beside the downed girders and shattered glass of the capital’s primary water pumping station.
The station provided Damascus with 70 percent of its water supply. Last December, however, an unclaimed attack damaged the building’s machinery, precipitating a water crisis that continues to affect 5.5 million residents inside the capital and its environs. Rebels and the regime traded accusations over responsibility.
In late December, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied militias launched a campaign to wrest control of the station from rebel fighters. What ensued was an all-out war across Wadi Barada, a constellation of 10 opposition-controlled villages that surround the water pumping station, 15km northwest of Damascus.
For five bloody, grinding weeks, the SAA leaned heavily on its advantages in both manpower and firepower. A torrent of airstrikes, barrel bombs, tank shells, mortar fire and snipers overwhelmed opposition forces and left behind a wake of destruction and displacement. The regime bled opposition forces of both ammunition and dozens of fighters while pounding civilian infrastructure and maintaining an airtight encirclement to ensure that neither food nor medicine entered Wadi Barada.
Pro-Assad soldiers raise the regime flag in Ein al-Fijeh on January 28. Photo courtesy of the Wadi Barada Media Center.
The SAA’s campaign—its largest since the battle for Aleppo—bore all the same trappings: hundreds of casualties, mass civilian displacement and, ultimately, a regime victory.
The negotiated surrender in late January left tens of thousands of residents of Wadi Barada with two choices: leave and go to Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, under rebel control, or stay and accept amnesty under the protection of the regime.
A total of 2,100 Wadi Barada fighters and their family members boarded the government’s evacuation buses to leave, and, in all likelihood, never return to their homes.
For the estimated 30,000 people who decided to stay, the Assad regime promised a “return to normal life” and the assurance of “safety and security.” The reconciliation agreement reportedly guaranteed freedom of movement for Wadi Barada residents, an end to the airtight encirclement and reconstruction of the villages damaged over the course of the military campaign in “a determined period of time.”
One month after reconciliation, more than half a dozen humanitarian workers and civilians inside Wadi Barada tell Syria Direct that the regime is breaching the agreement by arbitrarily arresting residents, preventing families from returning to their homes and blocking medicine and fuel from entering the region.
‘There are no guarantees’
Among Syrians, Wadi Barada was best known as the home of the Ein al-Fijeh spring, which provides water to many of the capital’s neighborhoods, including Mezzeh and Malki, the wealthiest districts that count top regime officials and supporters among their residents. Dozens of shops and restaurants lined the spring, making it a once-popular weekend destination for thousands of Damascenes.
Today, the town of Ein al-Fijeh, which includes both the spring and the pumping station, is a bombed-out shell of its former self.
Over the course of the SAA’s five-week military campaign, at least “200 people” were killed, “400 more” reportedly injured and thousands of residents displaced from their homes, a group of Wadi Barada civil society organizations announced in a “distress call” posted on Facebook last month and confirmed to Syria Direct by multiple sources.
Syrian government forces inside Ein al-Fijeh on January 30. Photo courtesy of STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images.
During the fighting, doctors often resorted to amputations as first- and only-choice medical procedures due to their lack of emergency training and a shortage of resources. Basic supplies such as food, medicine and fuel could not enter the rebel-held pocket, and the regime surrounded the pocket with closely guarded checkpoints to ensure that few people could escape.
“This is what the regime does,” Ali, a 27-year-old former construction worker in Wadi Barada, told Syria Direct. “They encircle and starve people into submission, and, in the end, they achieve their goals.”
Another Wadi Barada resident says he left as a result of the “scorched earth” campaign.
“I don’t regret leaving,” one former Wadi Barada resident, injured during the fighting, told Syria Direct from his hospital bed in Idlib province on the condition of anonymity. “I would rather leave Wadi Barada with my wounds still bleeding, eaten by beasts, than live under this regime that killed and displaced our families and that occupies our land.”
So why did tens of thousands of people choose to stay, submit to the regime and effectively concede an end to their involvement in the revolution?
When asked, three Wadi Barada residents told Syria Direct of their high—and subsequently unrealized—hopes that the regime would abide by its promises outlined in the reconciliation agreement.
“The regime gave us its assurances…that things would be back up and running, roads would be opened and life in general would be getting better,” said Ali. One month after reconciliation, “we don’t have any confidence in the regime,” Ali added. “They don’t honor their word, they don’t have any humanity, and they know no mercy.”
On one hand, the regime is fulfilling certain tenets of its agreement: food is finally entering Wadi Barada, electricity is back up and running in some villages and movement between the towns is finally possible without the constant fear of sniping and bombardment.
However, despite guarantees made by regime negotiators, displaced residents from four battle-torn Wadi Barada towns—Ein al-Fijeh, Baseema, Ifra and Hureira—are unable to return to their homes, which are now located in off-limits, government-controlled military zones.
"The regime has not lived up to its promise to allow people to go back to their homes,” said Ali. “We’re not hearing any particular timeline as to when they can go back, and we’ve got no real reason to believe that they’ll ever be allowed to return.”
From neighboring villages, explosions can reportedly be heard and smoke seen billowing up from the town of Ein al-Fijeh, home to the contested spring, eyewitness sources told Syria Direct. Residential homes are being “intentionally destroyed,” in order to “expand the site around the spring,” said Abu Ayman, a Wadi Barada resident and father of three.
Syrian state media quoted Damascus Countryside Governor Ala’a Ibrahim as saying that “repairs will be accomplished as soon as possible,” to the water pumping station, but has made no comment on the reported destruction of homes within Ein al-Fijeh.
Civilians prepare to accept the regime’s amnesty and leave Wadi Barada on January 11. Photo courtesy of SANA/AFP/Getty Images.
Multiple sources tell Syria Direct that the regime is circulating leaflets throughout Wadi Barada claiming it will allow families to return to their villages if fighting-aged men volunteer with the SAA’s Fifth Division, a group tasked with fighting in Daraa city.
“People are genuinely scared,” said Ali, who notes that even passing between villages inside Wadi Barada now poses challenges for residents who face the constant threat of arrest. “The regime is arresting civilians even though they pledged that they would not do this.”
“We’ve received no explanation at all from them, and when we do [ask for one], all the regime does is stall and avoid the question altogether,” he added.
Sources said that as many as “20 people—men, women and teenagers” are arrested each week at various government checkpoints between villages. When a regime officer makes an arrest, often without any explanation, “nobody knows what will happen to these people; they’re taken away to an undisclosed location,” Abu Ahmed, a Wadi Barada resident, told Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity.
“What we’re seeing is a clear violation of the agreement that the rebels and the regime reached, and there’s absolutely nothing that we can do to keep the regime from doing what they’re doing,” he added.
“There are no guarantees here.”
‘I regret staying’
With displaced Wadi Barada residents seemingly barred from returning to now government-controlled villages, tens of thousands of people are living in a handful of overcrowded and under-served towns, to which neither the United Nations nor the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been permitted to deliver humanitarian assistance since the January agreement.
“Up to 17,500 people have been displaced from Wadi Barada to neighboring villages since fighting began on December 23, 2016,” Linda Tom, a spokeswoman with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told Syria Direct from Damascus. “Despite the signing of local [agreements], lack of cooperation among the parties continues to impede humanitarian access to people in need.”
The last UN aid delivery to reach Wadi Barada was in 2014, and a UN access request made in January 2017 was “denied by the government,” said Tom. A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy did, however, reach residents in Wadi Barada on February 12.
While the regime is once again permitting food to slowly trickle in to Wadi Barada, critical supplies such as fuel, medicine and medical equipment are reportedly blocked altogether.
“Rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian aid is essential,” Ingy Sedky, a Damascus-based ICRC spokeswoman, told Syria Direct.
SARC employees distribute food aid in Wadi Barada on February 12. Photo courtesy of SARC Rural Damascus
Wadi Barada residents say that they face unfair treatment with regard to safe and affordable access to clean drinking water. As maintenance work continues at the Ein al-Fijeh spring, “there’s emergency pumping to districts in Damascus and Outer Damascus, but water still hasn’t returned to Wadi Barada,” said Ali.
As a result, Wadi Barada residents are facing a “shortage of drinking water,” Malene Jensen, a Middle East spokeswoman with UNICEF, told Syria Direct.
The villages of Wadi Barada “were usually provided with water from wells connected to the main network. Now, with lack of electricity and fuel needed to operate the wells—in addition to the damage caused by the recent fighting to the Barada pipeline that crosses these villages—the drinking water supply to these villages has drastically decreased,” Jensen said.
Complete restoration of the Ein al-Fijeh water pumping station is expected “to take up to the end of 2017,” she said, noting that a UNICEF facilitator “entered the area and participated technically in the damage-assessment process.”
One month after reconciliation, residents now turn to unregulated private wells that risk spreading disease due to potential contamination of the water supply.
The hope and optimism of a “return to normal life” that Wadi Barada residents interviewed for this article once shared has faded, they say. There is anger—over broken promises, misplaced expectations, even remorse over not leaving for Idlib when there was the chance. And there is little evidence that the regime will honor all terms of the agreement.
“No one dares to ask the regime’s forces why their promises haven’t been kept,” said Abu Ayman. “If things keep going as they’ve been going, I don’t think we’ll be able to bear the pain of this oppression.”
“I regret staying,” he added.
“Sleeping in the streets of Idlib would have been more dignified than seeing our country disgraced and destroyed in an instant without ever being able to say anything about it.”