With games and riddles, residents in East Ghouta’s underground shelters try to distract children from the war above

AMMAN: In the corner of a basement just east of Damascus, a group of children gathers around a whiteboard.

The sound of nearby artillery shelling echoes through the dark space—once a warehouse for a local health organization, now a makeshift bomb shelter—as a young girl approaches the board, marker in hand, and begins to draw.

With an audience of young faces watching eagerly behind her, she outlines a head, two eyes, a nose and mouth. Then, she steps away from the board and returns moments later with a blindfold draped over her eyes.

She tries to repeat the same drawing, but this time an eye ends up where the mouth belongs, and a mouth sits in the place of a forehead. The other children laugh as she removes her blindfold and, smiling, passes the marker to the next amateur artist.

“We’re trying to create a fun environment out of nothing,” says Obeida a-Dibis, an East Ghouta resident who regularly leads games and activities for the twelve children staying in his shelter in Douma city, the de facto capital of the rebel-held suburbs and home to approximately 130,000 people.

A-Dibis, the director of an educational institute in Douma, moved underground with his family after the Syrian government intensified shelling and airstrikes over East Ghouta last month. Thousands of other residents did the same, hoping to survive the deadly assault in the damp basements, cellars and tunnels underneath the enclave’s cities and towns.  

Children stand at the entrance to a basement shelter in Douma city on March 8. Photo by Hamza al-Ajweh/AFP.

Warplanes now roar through the skies over East Ghouta on a daily basis as shells rain down from government positions on the outskirts of the pocket. Bombings have killed more than 1,100 civilians and injured more than 4,000 over the past month alone. Sources inside the enclave accuse government forces of using chlorine gas and incendiary munitions in East Ghouta’s cities and towns.

Earlier this week, government forces cleaved East Ghouta into three isolated sections, further tightening a siege that began in 2013, when pro-government forces first encircled the opposition-held suburbs.

But underground, in the depths of Douma city, a-Dibis and two other activists tell Syria Direct they are trying to distract East Ghouta’s youngest residents from both the bombing outside their shelters and the boredom within.

With games, jokes and a few sweets, the volunteers say they aim to create a positive atmosphere that helps children escape—at least briefly—from the war above them.

‘People aren’t leaving the shelters’

Despite years of government siege and bombings over East Ghouta, spending extended time in the pocket’s underground spaces is a relatively recent phenomenon among the estimated 400,000 residents, half of whom are children.

Residents began moving underground earlier this year, Syria Direct reported, after government forces launched their latest campaign on the enclave in late December.

Then, in mid-February, pro-Assad forces dramatically escalated their bombardment of East Ghouta, leading to some of the deadliest days in the pocket since the beginning of the war.

The unprecedented air campaign drove East Ghouta residents to descend “suddenly and en masse” to makeshift underground shelters, recalls Muhammad Yahya Delwan, a Douma resident and school principal who is now living in an underground cellar. Delwan says he shares the 150-square-meter space with approximately 80 people, 31 of whom are children younger than ten.

Today, “you barely see civilians living on the ground or upper floors,” the school principal says. “People aren’t leaving the shelters.”

East Ghouta’s makeshift shelters often lack electricity, heat, running water and sanitation systems. A lack of ventilation underground leaves children especially vulnerable to illness, Save the Children reported in February, and to access an already devastated medical system, residents risk facing airstrikes and shelling above ground.

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East Ghouta residents sit around a stove in a makeshift shelter on February 27. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/AFP/Getty Images.

Delwan says there are periods when shells or missiles fall near his shelter multiple times each hour. The explosions shake the shelter, he says, and the sound of the explosion is amplified within their concrete walls.

“Everytime a missile falls,” he says, “the children begin to scream.”

“They can’t judge the extent of the catastrophe,” adds Delwan. Instead, children see shock and worry on the faces around them and “learn fear from their surroundings.”

‘One goal’

Amid daily bombardment, Delwan and others are focusing their efforts on entertaining the children in the shelters, some of whom have now spent weeks without going outside or moving around freely.

“The children are trying to fill their time,” says Bayan Rehan, a civil society activist and former member of Douma’s Local Council. “One minute they’re fighting among each other, the next they are crying or worrying.”

Unlike the other activists Syria Direct spoke to, Rehan, 31, stays in an underground shelter only when the bombing is most intense. But regardless of where she spends the night, Rehan says she tries to visit two or three nearby shelters every morning to spend time with the children there.

“Our biggest challenge is to get them out of the mood they’re in,” says Rehan, who is also a member of The Day After, a Syrian civil society organization focused on transitional justice.

Adults in the shelters use whatever supplies they can find to conduct simple activities—recreational and educational—for the children.

“We don’t have any [typical] means of entertainment,” says educational institute director a-Dibis, “so we create games and activities with the materials available.”

In school principal Delwan’s shelter, dozens of children huddle in a corner designated as a play area, he says. There, they exchange riddles and hold informal competitions.  

When they can, adults distribute sweets made in the shelters—a rare treat in a place where “some children haven’t eaten for two or three days,” according to Delwan. Last November, the United Nations reported that nearly 12 percent of children East Ghouta were malnourished.

In another Douma shelter, activist Rehan describes a group of women taking turns leading movement games, telling stories and teaching children using schoolbooks and the Qur’an.

She and Delwan say some of the city’s teachers are holding classes on an individual basis in their own shelters, in an attempt to continue education in the enclave, where schools shut down in January.

Sometimes, Rehan says, an everyday conversation is all it takes to distract a child from the bombs above.

“I ask the children about their dreams for the future, TV shows they like to watch and their favorite foods,” she says.

“In the end, there’s one goal,” she adds, “which is to help the child forget what’s happening outside the shelter—the bombing, destruction and death.”

Ammar Hamou

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

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.