Beneath bombs, East Ghouta residents move from town to town ‘with only the clothes on our backs’

AMMAN: The humanitarian crisis resulting from hundreds of airstrikes over East Ghouta in recent months is intensifying as residents say they are moving from town to town with little more than the clothes on their backs to escape an amorphous frontline.

Syrian government and opposition forces are currently battling over a government-held armored vehicles base northeast of Damascus. The base sits almost completely surrounded by rebel territory in the encircled, rebel-held East Ghouta enclave. For East Ghouta residents living close to the base, ground battles and an accompanying onslaught of government airstrikes are pushing them to seek safety elsewhere.

One family fled their house in Harasta, a town immediately north of the base, after a government airstrike flattened their home near the frontline last week.

“We left with only the clothes on our backs,” Abd a-Rahman Kowki, a 51-year-old father of seven from the East Ghouta town of Harasta tells Syria Direct. The family left their hometown one week ago amid government airstrikes and nearby ground fighting. Their house, Kowki says, was “totally destroyed.”

For two days, the shoe store owner looked for an affordable new house while his wife and children squatted in a vacant shop several kilometers from their home.

Finally, he found one: a relatively cheap apartment on the third floor of a building in the rebel-held town of Misraba three kilometers east. There, he says, he now relies on charity groups for food “to survive.”

The only reason he can afford rent, Kowki says, is because of the apartment’s location on the third and highest floor of the building, where it is most exposed to bombs.

“In much of East Ghouta, the houses on upper floors just go unused,” he says.

Aftermath of airstrikes in Arbin, East Ghouta on Monday. Amer Almohibany/AFP.

Kowki is among thousands of other residents who fled Harasta over the past two weeks, after the Syrian government and rebel militias intensified a weeks-long battle over the armored vehicles base that began in November.

At least 900 families have fled from Kowki’s hometown of Harasta alone within the past 12 days, estimates Hussam al-Beiruti, president of the town’s local council. Harasta lies immediately north of the embattled armored vehicles base. As many as 85 airstrikes hit Harasta since Wednesday morning, according to statistics posted online by the Syrian Civil Defense.

East Ghouta, a collection of rebel-held suburbs immediately northeast of government-held Damascus proper, is included in the de-escalation deal brokered by Iran and Russia last May that establishes four ceasefire zones across the country.

But amid ongoing ground clashes, pro-government forces are unleashing a storm of airstrikes and artillery shells over East Ghouta, devastating the encircled enclave.

The impact of the bombardment, even outside Harasta, is catastrophic. The UN counts at least 85 people, including 30 children, killed by airstrikes and artillery fire across East Ghouta since December 31, according to a UNHCR statement published online Wednesday.

The enclave has been encircled by government forces since 2013. In recent months, however, the government has tightened the siege of East Ghouta by closing a key trade crossing and capturing of a network of smuggling tunnels that once brought in food and other supplies.

With the exception of some urgent medical cases, the government does not permit residents to leave East Ghouta for surrounding government territory. Instead, those hoping to flee the bombs can only move within the enclave—even as government and alleged Russian airstrikes pummel much of East Ghouta.

Neither Syrian state media outlet SANA nor Russian state news site TASS reported the bombings over the past week.  

Aid workers and local councils within East Ghouta are ill equipped to serve an influx of internally displaced families, Abu Ahmad Zain, head of Harasta’s pro-opposition media office, tells Syria Direct. Main roads are targets for bombing attacks, he says.

“Even if they do make it, there’s no shelter,” Zain says. “And when there is shelter, it’s too expensive.”

Among the thousands of displaced people now living with no shelter of their own is 38-year-old Abu Hussein a-Rifaai, a veterinarian from Harasta.

A-Rifaai fled Harasta for the nearby town of Misraba last week with his wife and three children, but, unlike Kowki, couldn’t find affordable housing.

Instead, he now shuffles from house to house, “between relatives and friends,” every day.

A veterinarian, his own house in Harasta is today destroyed, a-Rifaai tells Syria Direct, after a missile hit it last week. He left behind his job in Harasta, and has no money nor a place to store food and other necessities for his family.

“When you’re in your own house, you can save up supplies for hard times,” a-Rifaai says. “But all of that is gone after being displaced.”

“We’ve returned to zero.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.