For 24-year-old photojournalist Youssef Hommos, last Friday was likely his final chance to get out of his hometown in the besieged, starved and bombed-out rebel districts east of Damascus.
The way out would be one of the single remaining tunnels of what was once a vast underground smuggling network that, until recently, brought food, medicine and fighters into encircled East Ghouta. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have closed most of the dozens of tunnels linking the besieged suburbs to the outside world since launching a full-scale war to strangle Ghouta in March.
The Syrian government had not yet discovered the tunnel Hommes would leave from. On one end was Hommos’s hometown inside East Ghouta where regime airstrikes and a tightening siege were making life unbearable for him.
On the other was a convoy of buses waiting to evacuate thousands of residents and opposition fighters.
They were headed north to Idlib province, Syria’s opposition bastion, under the terms of a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal reached earlier this month. Fighters and willing residents in the Damascus suburbs of Barzeh and Tishreen would evacuate their homes as regime forces reestablished their authority over the two districts. A similar deal was reached last week in the adjacent neighborhood of Qaboun.
A tunnel beneath Damascus’ Qaboun district on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images.
The three neighborhoods of Barzeh, Tishreen and Qaboun once formed a small rebel-run enclave separate from East Ghouta, but connected to its larger regional neighbor via a series of underground tunnels.
Hommos and his older brother took their chance last Friday, leaving through the tunnel alongside hundreds of other East Ghoutans. They boarded the evacuation buses, and arrived in Idlib on Saturday.
“This was my last beacon of hope before getting trapped in the hell that is creeping up on East Ghouta,” Hommos tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from Idlib province.
Q: The tunnel you took was likely one of the last remaining crossing points out of East Ghouta. Why did you decide to leave when you did?
There is no reason for me to stay in East Ghouta—rather, everything is telling me to uproot myself from it.
I, and many others, are tired of the siege, bombs and hunger, and constant infighting between the rebel factions there.
Ghouta has lived the past five years under horrible living conditions and massacres, and its residents have remained steadfast throughout everything.
But the latest round of internal infighting and the surrender of most areas of rural Damascus have been a blow to our morale and our confidence in the [rebel] factions.
So people chose to leave before East Ghouta faces a bombing campaign, massacres and homelessness; a repeat of what happened in east Aleppo.
Q: Since March, government forces have been able to retake control over most of the tunnels between East Ghouta and nearby, formerly rebel-held neighborhoods. Bearing this in mind, how were you able to escape East Ghouta via tunnel?
This was the last remaining tunnel, and it ran from Arbin [a town in East Ghouta] to Qaboun [a Damascus suburb now under renewed regime control].
[Ed.: It is possible that a handful of tunnels do remain, and have yet to be discovered and shut down by regime forces.]
In this tunnel, I found my last opportunity to leave and be done with my suffering. It was my last beacon of hope before getting trapped in the hell that is creeping up on East Ghouta.
The tunnel I used was built by rebels for use only by fighters. But when the regime reached an agreement in Barzeh and Tishreen—and, afterward, Qaboun—some of the families and fighters from those neighborhoods chose exile in East Ghouta [rather than in Idlib or Jarablus, the two choices given to them under the evacuation deal].
Boarding the evacuation buses in Damascus’ Barzeh district last Friday. Photo courtesy of Barzeh Media Office.
So, Failaq a-Rahman, the rebel militia that controls this tunnel, allowed those civilians and fighters to leave [via the tunnel to East Ghouta]. Meanwhile, a large number of families from East Ghouta also left through the tunnel, [choosing to leave for Qaboun].
Now that the regime has entered Qaboun and announced its total control over the neighborhood, the tunnel is closed to everybody.
Q: Last week’s evacuation agreement did not include residents of East Ghouta. As someone from there, how were you able to board the buses without being arrested?
When I boarded the bus, I provided a fake name to the regime, but I did tell them that I was from Ghouta. [Being from Ghouta] didn’t pose a huge danger to me, as many of the fighters in Qaboun were originally from Ghouta and were evacuated among the convoys. But I didn’t tell them my real name, out of caution.
Q: Aside from your older brother, did your family join you through the tunnel to the evacuation buses? What was their rationale?
My family has been against leaving East Ghouta since the beginning of the war. They are holding onto their homes, and they prefer death [in Ghouta] over life somewhere else.
I tried convincing them to leave, but it was impossible. All seven of them stayed in East Ghouta to face an unknown future.
What hurts me the most is not knowing whether I will see them again, or whether they will be shown mercy at the hands of the regime’s bombs.