A man rides a motorcycle in an East Ghouta neighborhood on October 8, 2018.
AMMAN: Last month, Fawaz al-Muhammad’s 65-year-old father-in-law showed up unexpectedly on his doorstep in a rebel-held section of Syria’s Aleppo province.
The pair had not seen one another in almost a year, since the last time they were both living in East Ghouta when it was still a rebel-controlled pocket just east of Damascus. When the Syrian army and its allies captured the entire area—a sprawl of working-class suburbs—last spring, al-Muhammad left for northern Syria while his father-in-law, Abu Khalil, chose to remain behind.
It was a decision Abu Khalil would come to regret.
Less than a year into the Syrian government’s return to East Ghouta, the country’s notorious security services have once again asserted themselves over the population, al-Muhammad says.
It’s what made Abu Khalil begin fearing that the government would soon knock on his door and investigate him. In the end, he paid his way out—smugglers led him from the outskirts of Damascus some 300 kilometers away to Aleppo province, where his daughter and al-Muhammad now live following their displacement from East Ghouta last year.
East Ghouta was among the last remaining urban rebel strongholds in Syria when the Syrian government and its allies launched a final push to root out mostly Islamist factions in December 2017. For years, warplanes regularly pummeled East Ghouta, while ground assaults slowly chipped away at remaining rebel territory. Some 400,000 East Ghouta residents meanwhile fell under a paralyzing siege as food and supplies gradually dwindled.
When East Ghouta did collapse in April of last year, more than a thousand civilians were dead following months of bombardment and siege. Rebels surrendered the entirety of Damascus’ eastern suburbs to the government. Some 80,000 people—including fighters, activists and civilians who preferred evacuation rather than life back under Damascus’ rule—boarded buses and departed for rebel-held sections of northwestern Syria.
The estimated 300,000 people who stayed behind did so on the condition that they would regularize their status with the Syrian government through an ambiguous, largely opaque process known as taswiyye, or “reconciliation.” Residents would be given a six-month grace period to visit one of the area’s reconciliation centers for an investigation by security forces.
Afterwards, all military-age men would be required to serve in the Syrian army. Anyone who failed to reconcile within that timeframe would subsequently be sought out by the state, meaning expensive fines or possible detention at the hands of Syria’s notorious security apparatus.
Yet some four months after the grace period ended, many of those who filed their taswiyye papers are still waiting to hear a response from Damascus, unsure of whether they’ve been welcomed back into the “nation’s embrace” or are now wanted by the state.
Abu Khalil, now far from East Ghouta, reconciled with the government shortly after rebels fled his city. And yet weeks after the reconciliation deadline, he still hadn’t received his papers.
“He started to get afraid that the regime would come and interrogate him,” his son-in-law, al-Muhammad, tells Syria Direct. “He’s 65 years’ old—he has no one left.”
The elderly man’s adult sons had all refused taswiyye in favor of departing for Syria’s northwest, while many of his loved ones are now deceased—killed in almost half a decade of fighting and bombardment, al-Muhammad explains. Before joining his daughter’s husband in Aleppo, only Abu Khalil was left in his East Ghouta home.
According to testimonies from residents still inside the former rebel stronghold, as well as their relatives displaced northwards last year, civilians in East Ghouta live in uneasy silence, in fear of both the authorities as well as members of the local community. And as arrests and disappearances continue across the sprawling east Damascus suburbs, many wonder if they or their loved ones could be next.
Many of East Ghouta’s remaining residents are hesitant to speak about living conditions, let alone political issues—even amongst themselves, as Syria Direct previously reported. Syria Direct has withheld the real names of all sources inside East Ghouta for this report to protect their identities.
‘Nobody knows anything’
Just weeks after rebels surrendered the East Ghouta city of Douma in April, resident Omar a-Shami remembers, government reconciliation committees tasked with counting and investigating residents effectively “split Douma into pieces.”
“Everyone did their taswiyye,” a-Shami says, including himself and his family. “[And] we were supposed to get documents back by the end of the six-month deadline.”
But even now, months after the grace period ended, a-Shami has yet to receive any word from the government—let alone any form of paperwork from the reconciliation committees. As a result, his family is essentially trapped in East Ghouta. While he can pass through local checkpoints within the former rebel pocket, he can’t travel to nearby Damascus. Without that paperwork, he is constantly at risk of being detained.
“There’s nothing happening right now,” al-Shami tells Syria Direct, adding that no one even knows who to ask about the process.
“If it’s an electricity issue, or a problem with services, you go to the municipality. But who do you ask when it’s a security issue?”
“It’s not clear,” a-Shami adds. “Nobody knows anything.”
Muhammad a-Sheikh doesn’t know where to begin asking about his father.
While the 30-year-old former Douma resident evacuated to Aleppo’s rebel-held western countryside last year, his father stayed behind. And at the beginning of this month, he heard through relatives that his father had been arrested. A-Sheikh has yet to learn why.
“My father is an old man, he’s 55 years old,” a-Sheikh tells Syria Direct from the Aleppo countryside. “He never did anything at all in the past few years [when rebel groups controlled Douma].”
While a-Sheikh decided to evacuate north in April, his father stayed behind in Douma. The 55-year-old reconciled his status with the government shortly afterwards, but then in the months following never received any paperwork from the authorities in Douma, his son says. He can’t know for sure whether that lack of paperwork was why his father was taken in by security forces.
“If you don’t get the paperwork there’s no point to taswiyye,” a-Sheikh says. “It’s just empty words.”
Still, even with official reconciliation paperwork from the government, Syrians can sometimes find themselves later being investigated by security forces or mukhabarat (intelligence) branches, according to human rights activist Muhammad a-Thaer, himself originally from East Ghouta.
“Someone can reconcile and receive his paperwork, but if personal charges are pressed against you, or if someone has made a report about you, you’ll get taken to a security branch immediately,” al-Thaer tells Syria Direct.
It’s a concern repeated by nearly every East Ghoutan Syria Direct spoke with during the course of this report: that a personal claim filed against someone—regardless of whether the accused is guilty or not—could easily place someone in harm’s way.
Fears of being reported—by security branches, or even one’s neighbors—are ever-present for many of the East Ghoutans who spoke with Syria Direct.
Some of those most at risk of arrest without taswiyye papers are military-age males, according to Zakaria al-Hussein, a native of the East Ghouta city of Arbeen.
“People are waiting for a taswiyye paper to postpone serving in the army,” the 48-year-old father tells Syria Direct. “They’re afraid they’ll be taken away.”
That fear hits close to home for al-Hussein—his oldest son is military age and just finishing his last year of high school for the second time. The first time, three years ago, al-Hussein’s son graduated with a diploma issued by local opposition-backed authorities that once ran Ghouta’s school system. But since Damascus only recognizes degrees issued by its education system, and refused to accept opposition-era documents, he has no choice but to repeat his final year of high school.
“[My son] has to postpone his service now,” al-Hussein says. “We keep trying to, but it isn’t working for us.”
Al-Hussein and his family have little choice but to wait for a response from government authorities about whether their reconciliation was accepted or not. Who to reach out to for help isn’t clear and, according to al-Hussein, even the number of people who’ve actually succeeded are few and far between.
Until then, he cannot leave Douma without taswiyye papers—he and his son are barred from visiting nearby Damascus, and he fears that his military-age son could be taken away at a checkpoint.
“You can’t go to Damascus unless you can guarantee you’re not wanted for military service and you don’t have a security file,” explains al-Hussein. “There’s no freedom of movement.”
One of the few options left is to pay someone to get you out of Ghouta, as Abu Khalil did.
Just a few days after the new year began, Muhammad a-Thaer went to visit a young man in a rebel-controlled area of western Aleppo province.
The young man, originally from the East Ghouta, had smuggled himself all the way from a military outpost in a government-held area near the Mediterranean Sea towards the country’s opposition-held northern reaches.
“He was taken [from Ghouta] to Latakia for military service,” a-Thaer tells Syria Direct. While stationed in the coastal region, someone filed a report about him and he was taken away by security forces. After a few days in detention, the young man quickly got hold of a smuggler to guide him towards Aleppo’s rebel-controlled western countryside.
“There are a lot of people coming from the south to the north,” a-Thaer says. Some of those smuggled northwards come from East Ghouta, while even more come from Syria’s Daraa province, where residents are also expected to reconcile with Damascus after the government captured the province last summer.
As the government clamps down on recently captured former opposition strongholds, a-Thaer adds, “their numbers are growing.”