AMMAN: From his life of exile in rebel-held Idlib province, Muhammad al-Hassan clings to any news that slips through the state security net back home in East Ghouta.
One year ago, he was one of tens of thousands of Syrians from the bombed-out East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to flee northwest on evacuation buses rather than stay behind and return to life under Syrian government control.
His hometown, Saqba, capitulated in the last days of March 2018.
But one year on, and the Saqba native is still living in the dark about what’s left of the home he left behind.
As security forces have tightened their grip over the ruined cityscape in recent months, he says that whole areas of his neighborhood have simply gone dark. People stopped talking.
Not even his closest friends who stayed behind will speak to him. Terrified of watchful eyes, they all blocked him on social media months ago.
“I can only get news from the papers now,” al-Hassan says. “All of my friends and acquaintances are afraid to be in contact with me.”
“Every person has chosen a path, and now they must follow [it],” he adds, saying he understands former friends’ fears about communicating with people on the outside.
As the one-year anniversary of the fall of East Ghouta draws near, a blanket of secrecy has settled over the daily life of these once-bustling suburbs.
While the bombs may have gone long silent, almost more deafening these days is the silence that now hangs over those who stayed behind: with hundreds of thousands of residents living among a new reality of arrests, disappearances and widespread campaigns of forced military conscription.
The past year has shattered former residents’ faith in a series of reconciliation agreements, struck between pro-Assad forces and opposition groups, presented as an assurance meant to ease thousands of civilians back into the government’s fold.
Despite promises of protection and legal immunity from authorities there, testimonies from people on the ground tell a story of betrayal—one that may foretell danger for those considering return.
“My decision is not to return,” al-Hassan says. “I’ll remain here, moving from one liberated area to another, rather than return to the regime-held areas.”
The long road north
After years of crushing siege, the final days of last year’s pro-government offensive saw flows of food, medicine and virtually all other vital supplies into East Ghouta cease. The blitzkrieg campaign of bombing and ground advances that intensified in February 2018 would result in some of the worst months of bloodshed since the Syrian conflict began.
Months of nearly non-stop bombardment and encroaching pro-government forces around the peripheries of the besieged enclave would ultimately result in over 1,700 deaths as well as an abundance of war crimes allegations—including the use of prohibited chemical weapons that reportedly killed dozens of civilians in the neighborhood of Kafr Batna.
Virtually the entire population of East Ghouta was forced to leave their homes in the weeks following the collapse of the opposition pocket, with many crossing into government-held areas. Most eventually chose to reconcile with authorities in Damascus, spending weeks dispersed among displacement camps in government-held territory rather than risk an uncertain journey north into possibly permanent displacement.
Others, fearing for their lives and suspicious of reassurances from reconciliation officials, accepted deals to evacuate northward aboard government buses.
In the first two weeks of April 2018, more than 50,000 people from East Ghouta were bussed out on the long road north towards rebel-held Idlib province and Turkish-occupied areas of the Aleppo countryside.
Nour a-Din a-Shami was one among the thousands who accepted evacuation. On March 27, as the opposition crumbled, he decided that the risk of arrest or forced disappearance for him and his family was simply too high to consider staying.
Now displaced and working as a schoolteacher in the Turkish-occupied city of al-Bab, in northern Aleppo province, a-Shami does not regret his decision. Staying behind, he believes, could have meant signing his own life away.
“I chose to leave, fearing that I would fall into the hands of the regime,” he tells Syria Direct. “They weren’t able to reassure me, regardless of their promises that there would be no prosecutions.”
According to Samar Abd al-Hamid, the disregard for human life that she witnessed during her time under siege provided all the evidence she needed to distrust any deal from Syrian authorities.
In the wake of the last chemical attack on East Ghouta, al-Hamid was determined to leave with her husband and four children. Having endured months of shelling and bombardment on all sides, she was certain that there was no future for them in East Ghouta.
“Our own house was even hit in the bombing, and partially destroyed,” she says.
A city of rubble
Also displaced to al-Bab, al-Hamid has heard countless stories of people back home who disappeared into the shadows—imprisoned by security forces or vanished into an underground world of government prison networks.
“I know one person related to my husband, around 50 years old, who returned three months ago…and [was] arrested.”
“We are ‘terrorists’ [to them],” she adds. “We can’t go back.”
Much of the city still lies in ruins, with regular power cuts leaving pockets of Ghouta in the dark. Water has not been reinstated in several neighborhoods. The urban landscape remains crushed in many areas, criss-crossed by avenues of rubble resulting from years of government bombardment.
In neighborhoods like Ain Tarma, which saw especially intense aerial bombardment during last year’s offensive, as much as 70 percent of the infrastructure was classified as destroyed or damaged.
Despite the widespread destruction and nearly complete lack of services in many sectors, hundreds of thousands ultimately decided to stay after the fall of East Ghouta.
Samer al-Hassan is among them.
Life hasn’t been easy under the ever-suspicious gaze of security forces, he says—with threats of arrest and forced conscription ever present. It’s a danger that al-Hassan has barely managed to dodge himself.
After avoiding conscription himself once in the immediate aftermath of the government take over, he says, he was able to escape military service with the help of a well-connected friend.
However, soon afterwards, a second call out went out for him to report to security forces to register for the draft.
Now in hiding, al-Hassan dreams only of escape.
“I can’t go to any government office, which means I can’t even get a passport,” he says. “Where am I supposed to go in this world?”