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Silence, paranoia in decimated East Ghouta suburbs one year after government recapture

Together, the grainy photos—selfies sent over a messaging app—tell the story of one life in East Ghouta, and how it has changed drastically since a year ago.

11 April 2019

AMMAN: Together, the grainy photos—selfies sent over a messaging app—tell the story of one life in East Ghouta, and how it has changed drastically since a year ago.

The first two images were sent to Syria Direct last summer, some time after the Syrian government and its allies seized the last opposition pockets of Damascus’ sprawling East Ghouta suburbs following months of bombardment and years of siege.

The before-and-after pair of self portraits were sent without explanation by one straight-faced East Ghouta resident, when Syria Direct asked how his life was changing since government takeover. In the first, he sports a full beard and keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head, in the familiar style of East Ghouta’s rebel fighters and apparently indicative of his support for the opposition.

The second, taken several months after the government seized his hometown and a tense silence descended over the area, shows him with cleanly trimmed facial hair, smoking an arghileh water pipe.

But then, earlier this month, he sent a third photo.

In it, he’s wearing a Syrian army uniform.

His experiences reflect one of the more extreme cases of how life in East Ghouta has taken a drastic turn since one year ago, when the last rebel fighters still holding on to the pocket made their exit towards the northwest in April 2018.

Terms had been drawn up, and an evacuation agreement announced. Tens of thousands of people boarded buses north. Years of crippling siege and bombings that had sent residents hiding for weeks at a time in makeshift basement shelters were over.

In the ensuing months, the cities and towns that form these working-class suburbs fell silent. Those who stayed behind now live under renewed government authority. Many fear speaking publicly about politics, and rumors abound of government informants walking the streets. At the same time, communication with family and friends who boarded the government’s evacuation buses last year is extremely limited.

“All of my friends and acquaintances [who stayed behind] are afraid to be in contact with me,” one former East Ghouta resident told Syria Direct last month from exile in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province.

“I can only get news from the papers now.”

For journalists, reporting on the East Ghouta suburbs has become a complex endeavor. Few remaining residents are willing to speak with press. Those who do often avoid speaking directly about politics.

And yet, conversations with several residents still living in East Ghouta point to a blurry situation in which many are confused over the actual implementation of the terms of surrender, and over the laws and decrees that now govern their lives.

When pro-government forces officially seized the once sprawling suburbs from rebel fighters last year, a deal reached just days before stipulated that Jaish al-Islam, the remaining opposition faction, would evacuate north in the government’s buses alongside civilians who also wanted to leave.

In turn, Russian military police would enter the pocket, wielding unspecified authority over local security for an unknown period of time.

Details of the Russian police force’s exact role still remain veiled in obscurity to tens of thousands of Syrians living out their daily lives between its patrols through the East Ghouta suburbs, residents tell Syria Direct.

One resident, Hassan*, says he sees Russian military vehicles make “daily” loops through the streets of Douma, as viewed from the small convenience store he owns.

Douma has long been the most important city within the agricultural pocket.

However, the 42-year-old says, “as everyday people, we don’t have any relation to [the Russian military police],” adding that he and other residents remain unsure what the force’s exact relationship is to the Syrian security apparatus.  

Rubble, informants, then silence

Hassan’s hometown remains the epicenter of the Syrian government’s security presence in East Ghouta.

Reports of arrests, disappearances and military conscription at the hands of government security personnel are common—despite the presence of Russian military police, who appear to be distributed unevenly throughout the area.

Security branches including Air Force Intelligence meanwhile lord over a cityscape still devastated by the war. East Ghouta saw some of the heaviest bombardment of the Syrian conflict.

Years’ worth of bombed-out rubble still tower over the streets, uncollected. Intermittent power outages are a regular feature of life. Concrete apartment blocks lie flattened on top of one another, the ruins of an urban frontline between rebel and government forces.

Other neighborhoods still have not received regular water supply and other vital services.

Ramzi, one former resident, managed not to witness the siege and devastating bombardment firsthand. Instead, the 45-year-old waited out those years in relative safety in central Damascus.

A community administrator before the war, Ramzi left his home in Hammouriyeh, a town in East Ghouta’s southwestern reaches, as rebel forces took over after 2011.

The town would become an epicenter of pro-government bombing on East Ghouta, in the final days before the opposition’s defeat.

Since the guns fell silent last year, Ramzi says, he now visits Hammouriyeh once a week to make repairs on his family’s house.

He too says he still sees Russian military police patrolling the streets one year on.

“But according to what I’ve seen, they have a bigger presence in Douma, in the main cities in Ghouta,” Ramzi claims. “In the [smaller] villages, their presence is very small.”

“If not for them,” he says sarcastically, “God, the people of Ghouta would be seeing something even [worse] than the reality they are seeing right now.”

That reality is already harsh. East Ghoutans now living in exile speak of countless recent stories of military-aged men back home conscripted into the Syrian army’s ranks.

Other residents have simply vanished into the government’s vast prison networks. Some have gone into hiding, fearing the watchful eyes of informants.

But it is the routine hardships that residents often speak of the most. They include crossing into central Damascus—a necessary trip if they hope to study in university, get a new passport or deal with legal processes for which there is still no infrastructure in place in the capital’s decimated suburbs. Some electronics and other supplies are still only available via a bus ride into Damascus’ main shopping districts.

That means navigating an often opaque bureaucracy, and obtaining papers to visit a city that was once a short trip away via bus or shared servees taxi before the war. It means crossing barely visible lines of separation that, nevertheless, mean East Ghouta still exists in a vastly different world than the city it borders.

“When you go to Damascus, you have to have an [official] request, or a letter with you,” says Uthman, a father of three in Douma. “But these letters only have limited period of time that they’re valid.”

He wouldn’t say his own reasons for visiting the capital.

“When that request is rejected, you feel like your movement is restricted.”

Those trips are now more complex than ever, Uthman says, as what once simply required a “routine” visit to the local police office now must go through the mukhabarat, or intelligence, center in Douma.

Then there is a checkpoint, and a short stretch of highway.

Beyond is a city that once lay on the other side of a deadly frontline in the battles that destroyed his hometown.

* Syria Direct has changed the names of all sources quoted in this report to protect their safety.

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