Too poor to flee, residents are left behind in frontline east Damascus suburb: 'No one hears our cries'

AMMAN: Two thousand of the poorest residents of a bombed-out east Damascus suburb are staying in their frontline homes despite “disastrous” conditions on Thursday, as pro-regime forces pummel the district with artillery fire for a fifth week.

Fewer than half of the original 4,800 residents remain in the Ain Tarma suburb, just east of the regime-held capital city, a citizen journalist on the ground told Syria Direct. Thousands fled in recent weeks after finding themselves along a brutal, new frontline between opposition and pro-regime forces.

The residents who remain are those living in abject poverty. They have no family members to move in with outside the embattled district, said Adnan a-Shami, who works as a citizen journalist inside Ain Tarma.

“They have no money for rent anywhere else,” a-Shami said.

The 25-year-old is among an estimated 2,000 residents left behind in the district due to a lack of finances, after the cell phone store that employed him went out of business last month. Before that, his father’s clothing store was flattened by an “indiscriminate” regime airstrike, leaving the family in dire financial straits.

Even if he wanted to leave, a-Shami said, “we’d have a tough time getting out of town.”

Here, “no one hears our cries," a father of five in Ain Tarma tells Syria Direct. Photo courtesy of Syrian War Media Network.

Though the latest round of airstrikes on the East Ghouta town began in June, bombings—including surface-to-surface missiles—became “continuous and systemic” last month, Siraj Mahmoud, a Civil Defense spokesman in Outer Damascus, told Syria Direct at the time.

Thursday saw dozens of regime surface-to-surface missiles hit Ain Tarma, causing considerable material damage in the district, the Syrian Civil Defense reported.

Regime forces reportedly used chemical weapons at least twice in the district last month, amid battles with rebel militias along the Ain Tarma frontline, according to a report released this week by the monitoring group Syrian Network for Human Rights.

‘We feel the loss of everything’

The impact of the ground fighting, coupled with regime airstrikes and artillery fire on Ain Tarma, is nothing less than devastating for the 2,000 residents left behind.

Life in the district “used to be good,” a-Shami, the citizen journalist, said. “It was close to Damascus, so civil services were decent.”

As popular revolution broke out across Syria in 2011, Ain Tarma’s residents—mostly blue-collar construction workers and farmers—joined the anti-government protests. “The demonstrations were peaceful, especially after residents saw the oppression others were experiencing in other cities,” a-Shami recalled.

But where it was once known for its residential developments, newly-built souqs and leather manufacturing just seven years ago, Ain Tarma is now a near ghost town of obliterated city blocks comparable to the largely demolished eastern half of Aleppo after its capture by pro-regime forces last December.

“We feel the loss of everything here,” Abu Mohammad, a 40-year-old father of five told Syria Direct from his home in Ain Tarma on Thursday. “My town was once one of the most beautiful places before the war, in my eyes.”

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Ain Tarma on July 19. Photo courtesy of Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images.

Like others in his neighborhood, he once owned a small farm on Ain Tarma’s outskirts. But today Abu Mohammad’s farm plot sits beneath Free Syrian Army-affiliated Failaq a-Rahman fighters and pro-Assad militias fighting over a deadly frontline.

He can’t find work elsewhere, he says, as business in Ain Tarma is at a standstill due to the clashes.

A broken ceasefire

The violence comes less than a month after an Egyptian- and Russian-brokered de-escalation deal between the Syrian government and rebel fighters in the East Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus went into effect.

The terms of the ceasefire in East Ghouta include opening checkpoints in and out of the starved, encircled rebel enclave and facilitating shipments of humanitarian aid into East Ghouta, according to a statement by Russian press agency TASS last month.

The battle for Ain Tarma is tied to a larger campaign by regime forces to capture neighboring Jobar, a strategically located, bombed-out district just two kilometers from the Old City of Damascus.

Jobar, currently split between areas of regime and rebel control, is the western gate to the besieged, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The district has been the focus of battles since rebels launched a ground offensive from it this past March, Syria Direct reported at the time.

But in early June, bombardment and ground fighting broke out again, with clashes now focused not on Jobar, but on neighboring Ain Tarma, immediately to the south.

Capturing Ain Tarma would give pro-Assad forces an entry point into Jobar, the target of the offensive, Wael Alwan, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated militia Failaq a-Rahman told Syria Direct last month. His group is involved in the fighting against pro-regime forces.

Caught trying to survive amid the battles, Abu Mohammad, the father of five, ventures out of Ain Tarma every “three or four days” to buy food for his wife and children. But, with dwindling cash on hand, he often comes home empty handed.

Fleeing the district is not an option for him “because I don’t have enough money to pay rent for a house to shelter my family and me,” Abu Mohammad said.

He has no relatives outside of Ain Tarma, in any of the towns and villages within encircled East Ghouta, who can take him into their homes.

In the regime-held capital of Damascus, once just minutes away from Ain Tarma via car before the war, Damascenes under Assad’s rule are still living relatively normal—albeit expensive, restricted—lives removed from the East Ghouta frontlines. The Old City of Damascus is only three kilometers away from Abu Mohammad.

“Here [in Ain Tarma], we live a disastrous life,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s like we’re on our own planet, separate from this world."

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.