Approaching the outskirts of Douma city with two of his four sons in the car earlier this month, Samir al-Hamwi was both thrilled and terrified of what awaited him in his hometown on the other side of the military checkpoints.
“I started sweating a lot, feeling things that I can’t even describe,” he recalls.
Al-Hamwi left Douma for the government-held suburbs of Damascus with his wife and children in 2012, leaving behind friends, family and his business. For the next six years, he did not return, watching as rebels consolidated control over his former hometown. Government forces besieged Douna in 2013 and finally recaptured it following a violent military campaign earlier this year.
Weeks after government forces retook control, displaced residents such as al-Hamwi were allowed back, he says, to check on their homes in the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs.
Driving through his battered hometown, al-Hamwi saw “rubble left and right,” he tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou, “to the extent that I couldn’t tell one area from another or compare it to what was there before 2011.”
Since al-Hamwi’s first visit, he has returned to the city four more times. He has found old friends and relatives in Douma, reuniting “with tears of joy,” though only briefly. He has seen “children who were nothing but skin and bones” slowly returning to life, nourished by the return of food, fruit and other staples to the markets.
Al-Hamwi asked to use a false last name as he fears repercussions for expressing his opinion of the government siege of Ghouta.
Years of siege and bombardment caused massive displacement of the population of Douma and the rest of East Ghouta, leaving only 70,000 people in the city in mid-April as the Syrian government took control, the United Nations estimates.
A man walks down a street in Douma city on April 20. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP.
Now, under a reconciliation agreement struck when rebels surrendered, the displaced residents of Douma and the rest of East Ghouta are reportedly scheduled to return gradually to their homes. Last week, the Syrian government facilitated the return of thousands of displaced women and children from state-run shelter in the Damascus countryside, Syria Direct reported at the time.
For now, however, displaced persons residing outside of the shelters, such as al-Hamwi, must make do with brief visits lasting no longer than 24 hours.
Even so, visiting home “was as though I was in paradise,” recalls al-Hamwi. “I got out of the car and knelt to thank God.”
Q: Can you describe your first visit back to Douma this month?
I went in my own car with two of my sons. When we set out, I started sweating a lot—out of terror and happiness—and feeling things that I can’t even describe. It was forbidden to enter Douma by car, but I paid one of the guards at a checkpoint and he let us in.
I entered from the side of the military hospital of Harasta and when I reached the first residential area in Douma, despite all of the destruction and the collapsed buildings, it was as though I was in paradise. I got out of the car and knelt to thank God before continuing.
Driving through the city, I saw rubble left and right, to the extent that I couldn’t tell one area from another or compare it to what was there before 2011.
Q: How did you to find and meet old friends and relatives in Douma?
Although I owned a business in Douma and knew many people in the city, I didn’t recognize any of the people around me [at first].
I found the first person I knew—a guy I worked with before 2011—when I reached the Douma market, at the center of the city. It was an incredible scene, with tears of joy. Even the people who saw us started crying. This person became my guide in the city. I asked him about my family, where they lived and how [our] friends were doing.
I visited my cousin and his mother, in an indescribable meeting. Over the past six years, even talking over social media was limited, since I was in a government controlled area and [my cousin] was in the opposition-controlled areas, which could have resulted in security problems for my cousin.
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Residents walking the streets of Douma on April 20. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: How did you find the people of the city, when you visited?
God must have given them extraordinary strength. Just 25 days after the bombing stopped and aid entered, people showed high morale and initiative.
We saw children who were nothing but skin and bones because of the siege and the lack of food and medicine, but between my first and fifth visit to Douma I noticed a clear difference in the build of their bodies. It was as if every day was a year for them.
I noticed people’s goodwill, [which was] more than one could imagine. The people of Douma were known for their generosity even before 2011, and this continues. Despite all of the poverty, the need and oppression that the city has lived through for years, people welcomed me with great hospitality, [even though] they had nothing.
Q: Did you talk to people about the siege? What did you hear from them?
Based on my conversations with residents and my acquaintances in Douma, and from what I have seen with my own eyes, I don’t think that any area has been subjected to what happened in East Ghouta. People in Douma are comparing their siege to the siege of Gaza.
I don’t think that any populated city in the world has been subjected to the same degree of destruction as Douma.
Q: How are Douma residents spending their time these days?
These are among the most strange—and pleasant—scenes that I’ve seen during my visits. If not for the destruction and rubble in the streets, I would have thought that I was in a city that never witnessed war.
There are people everywhere in the city. Some are planting flowers in front of their homes. Others are cleaning. People aren’t waiting for the municipality to come and remove the debris. You see them removing rubble from in front of their homes in plastic bags.
Once, while I was walking down one street, I found some people I knew [gathering rubble] and I asked what they were doing. One of them said: ‘We’re working to clear the rubble and the remains of homes, and to put it to use by recycling it.’ They are cleaning bricks and reworking iron for re-sale and use in reconstruction operations. The workers are getting SP1,500 [approx. $3 USD] per day. The wage is the same as it was during the siege, but whereas just months ago that sum was not enough for one meal, now it’s enough for a worker to eat and drink well.
Q: What have you seen of the markets in the city? Are people able to buy things?
Many items—food and fruit—have returned to the markets after being absent during the years of siege. The prices during the siege were dozens of times more than the current prices. For example, a bag of bread in Douma costs SP50 [approx. $0.10 USD] right now, whereas in the final days of the siege—two months ago—it cost about SP1,000 [approx $2 USD].
During one visit to Douma, I gave a member of my family SP20,000 [approx. $39 USD] to one member of my family, and he told me that the sum would have been equal to SP200,000 [approx. $390] in buying power during the siege, even though the exchange rate between the lira and the dollar has not changed. This relative provides for his wife, children and grandchildren. His daughters’ husbands died, so he provides for them and their children also.