Syrians displaced near capital surmount years of deprivation
Regime forces had laid siege to Eastern Ghouta since 2013, enforcing their tactics of starve-to-conquer
Thousands of Syrians displaced by the battle for the once-lush suburbs of Damascus now find themselves in a crowded settlement, where for the first time in recent memory they have enough to eat.
The rows of pre-fabricated shelters are home to some 18,000 people displaced by the offensive that drove rebels out of Eastern Ghouta. On Saturday, the Syrian government announced the capture of Douma, the last rebel holdout in Eastern Ghouta and the site of an alleged chemical attack that prompted a Western missile strike.
Government forces had laid siege to eastern Ghouta since 2013, and late last year they tightened the noose, causing food prices to soar in the farming region that once served as a breadbasket for the capital.
Alia Bakkar sold all her belongings so that she and her three children could survive. The 35-year-old widow described how they used to walk by restaurants in their town of Kfar Batna, smelling grilled chicken and beef without being able to afford it. After selling all their belongings and running out of money, the family survived on small amounts of barley bread.
“I sold my wedding ring for 10,000 pounds ($20, Dh73) in order to feed my children,” she said.
They are now living with other displaced people in the cramped settlement in Horjelli, where there are no paved roads and sewage pours into a canal.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that closely monitors the conflict, says 177,000 people have fled Eastern Ghouta since February, with around 120,000 going to government-held areas and the rest — including about 12,000 fighters — relocating to the northern rebel-held Idlib province.
Many had their houses destroyed during the massive government offensive in February and March, when Syrian and Russian warplanes pounded the towns of eastern Ghouta, forcing residents to shelter underground.
Packed like sardines
Now the displaced are packing into housing units in which more than 20 people share two rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.
Many are ill. More than a dozen people were lined up last week awaiting treatment at an aid station set up by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Paramedics say they treat between 800 and 1,000 patients a day, mainly for fever and diarrhoea.
A collective kitchen cooks up three tonnes of food every day, distributing it to residents who line up with their own pots. On a recent day they received rice and lentils cooked in gravy as well as french fries, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Displaced residents of Eastern Ghouta wait to receive food from the main kitchen at a shelter for the displaced in Horjelli in the Damascus countryside on Friday.
A girl from Eastern Ghouta at a shelter for the displaced in Horjelli on Friday.