Displaced Douma residents begin to return home from government shelters

AMMAN: For the first time since East Ghouta’s capture by government forces in March, displaced families began returning en masse from state-run shelters to their homes in the formerly rebel-held Damascus suburbs this week.

A convoy of five buses arrived in Douma on Tuesday night, witnesses in the East Ghouta city said, loaded with passengers who have been living for months in government-run shelters scattered throughout the Damascus countryside. Another 10 buses were preparing to return “dozens” of families to East Ghouta late Wednesday afternoon, a medical doctor in Douma with knowledge of the operations told Syria Direct.

Pro-government media also reported the return on Monday of an undisclosed number of families from shelters in Adra to their homes in the East Ghouta city of Saqba. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the report.

Zaher al-Masri, a Douma native who has been in a government shelter in the a-Dweir region since fleeing rebel-held territory this past March, described scenes of euphoric tears as families were called to give their names and begin preparing for their anxious homecomings.

“There were moments of joy and weeping,” he told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “My God, in spite of everything that has happened to us . . . you hear the families crying that they are returning to their communities, to their homes. It’s a feeling you can’t describe.”

East Ghouta families leaving a shelter in al-Arjala on May 16. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Al-Masri said he was not permitted to return to Douma, as he is alone in the shelter and only families were invited to register and board buses on Tuesday.

During fighting to recapture East Ghouta earlier this year, heavy bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces, and repeated chemical weapons use, drew widespread international condemnation. In late February, Moscow declared short, daily pauses in bombing and opened humanitarian corridors to allow residents to leave rebel-held territory.

More than 25,000 people took advantage of these sporadic humanitarian corridors, exiting Douma city into government-held territory through the al-Wafideen crossing. The majority of those fleeing were then funneled into nine government-run IDP centers scattered throughout the Damascus countryside.

According the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than 158,000 people fled or were evacuated from their homes in East Ghouta between March 9 and April 15, and when the city fell to government forces last month, an evacuation agreement saw an additional exodus of civilians and armed fighters.

When Syrian troops entered the last holdout neighborhoods in April, about one quarter of East Ghouta’s original population of approximately 400,000 remained.

As of the beginning of May, some 44,000 people were still living and receiving basic aid at government-run shelters for displaced people from East Ghouta. UNOCHA reported at the time that many of these cramped centers were operating at twice their holding capacity.

While dozens of families reportedly began boarding government buses this week, the doors remained closed for many, who will remain in the centers. Single men, such as Douma resident al-Masri, and people wanted for military service have not been permitted to return, sources in the shelters told Syria Direct.

One humanitarian worker in Douma, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of government repercussions, told Syria Direct that returnees had been thoroughly questioned and those with any suspected connection to the opposition had been held back in the shelters.

“Families are being asked about every family member,” he said, about “what work they have been doing over the past years, whether they completed military service and whether they took part in any armed action.”

The latest civilian returns also come amidst reports that government officials are arresting and detaining dozens of young men in East Ghouta who failed to register for military service during the five-year siege.

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.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.