Virtually 'nobody is leaving' East Ghouta despite humanitarian corridor

AMMAN: A Russian-ordered humanitarian corridor leading out of East Ghouta opened three days ago, but virtually “nobody is leaving,” local sources say, due to ongoing bombings and fears of conscription or detention by government forces.

“Even if people do want to leave—how can they?” East Ghouta-based human rights activist Thaer Hijazi told Syria Direct. “Bombings are everywhere in East Ghouta.”

Russia, which supports the Assad government in Syria, unilaterally announced daily “humanitarian pauses” in East Ghouta earlier this week. Ceasefires scheduled from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm local time were meant to allow civilian residents to leave via a corridor in the northeast of the rebel enclave.  

The Russian ceasefire plan fell flat shortly after it went into effect on Tuesday, with pro-government bombardment continuing during the first five-hour window. Bombings occurred during the scheduled pauses on Wednesday and Thursday as well, local first responders and civilians told Syria Direct.

“There is no ceasefire,” said human rights activist Hijazi, who is the director of the East Ghouta-based and pro-opposition Center for Documenting Violations (CDV).

Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery shells killed at least 13 civilians on Thursday, the Civil Defense reported. The volunteer rescue group’s spokesman in East Ghouta told Syria Direct that nearly 200 airstrikes hit the rebel enclave this week alone.

“The regime has not adhered to the ceasefire for three days,” said Siraj Mahmoud. “They might lessen the bombing and shelling—but they continue,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Russian-ordered humanitarian corridor leading out of East Ghouta and into the nearby, government-held al-Wafideen camp has not seen civilians leaving.

As of Thursday afternoon, only two civilians—both Pakistani nationals who lived in East Ghouta since before the war began—had been evacuated through the crossing in coordination with their country’s embassy, local sources told Syria Direct. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) shared photos of the two Pakistani citizens on social media after they were evacuated on Wednesday.

Russian state media outlet TASS reported that rebel forces in East Ghouta shelled the humanitarian corridor on Thursday and accused them of preventing civilians from leaving.

Syrian state media reported that rebels shelled the al-Wafideen crossing and prevented civilians from exiting East Ghouta on Thursday, with rebel groups “detaining [civilians] and using them as human shields,” the report read.

Syria Direct reached out to the media offices of all major rebel factions present in East Ghouta on Thursday, but did not receive a response by time of publication. A rebel spokesman with the East Ghouta faction Failaq a-Rahman previously denied shelling the corridor in a conversation with Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Residents of Kafr Batna town in East Ghouta on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Khaled Akasha/Ghouta Media Center.

“The siege and bombardment is indescribable,” Samir Izzadin, a 31-year-old Douma resident, told Syria Direct on Thursday. “If the path to the corridor were safe, and people were not afraid of human rights violations by the regime, they would leave.”  

Izzadin and two other residents said that—even for those who wish to leave East Ghouta for government-controlled territory—incessant bombing as well as fear of later imprisonment and conscription are discouraging people from leaving.

“You can’t even walk a few steps from the shelter you live in,” said activist Hijazi. The continued bombardment of roads and the relative isolation of the al-Wafideen crossing makes movement a “challenge,” he told Syria Direct.

“How can someone go from Douma to the crossing when it’s 7km away?” said Hijazi. “Is he supposed to walk?”

Fears of conscription are another reason why some East Ghouta residents may not choose to leave. East Ghouta is home to “thousands” of young men wanted for mandatory military service with the Syrian Arab Army, said Douma resident Izzadin.

Following the battle of east Aleppo in December 2016, hundreds of military-aged men from former rebel districts were reportedly detained and conscripted.

For others residents possession of marriage certificates and civil documentation from rebel authorities could pose a risk to those returning to government territory, Syria Direct reported in January.

“This social and political crisis must be solved first,” said Izzadin. “After that, we can talk about leaving East Ghouta.”

With additional reporting by Waleed a-Noufal and Tariq Adely.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.