I don’t know whether writing this is a good idea. I’m not sure whether anything I say will ever be heard – and even if my words do reach the outside world, I have no reason to believe that anything will change. But I will share my story anyway, for it is the story of every man, woman and child who once lived in this land.
I was born in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, into a family who has lived here for generations. My father owns a grocery shop, which he inherited from his father before him. Family here is everything.
Seven years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that one day people would die of hunger in Ghouta – Syria’s green-belt which enjoys endless sun and the richest soil in the region. People used to say that ‘nobody starves in Damascus, while the sun is shining on its gardens’.
These memories are a distant reality now, a tempting dream.
When unrest erupted, I can confidently say that nobody knew where this road was going to lead, or the scale of terror that would be unleashed.
At the beginning, almost every aspect of normal life ground to a halt. But this didn’t last long – we found ways to carry on living, to adapt.
When schools closed, students continued learning in basements, and when hospitals were bombed, doctors performed surgery in their own homes.
Everyone had a purpose, and I soon found mine – I started working in a hospital as a student doctor.
It was in the emergency room (ER) that I first witnessed the cost of this war. I have seen the effect of every type of weapon on the human body, from bullets and bombs, to chemical attacks.
Some days I saw a sniper’s casualties arrive one by one, and other days whole neighbourhoods or families arrived together.
Sometimes there would be dozens of injured patients bleeding on the floor, waiting for us to help them. We would run between them, trying to save several at once, always trying to assess who has a chance of survival, who we should help first.
When children were brought into the ER, this is where the sorrow becomes limitless.
A child would be brought to hospital, small and clinging to a life that he has barely started living. He has already lost family members, even though he hasn’t yet learnt to say their names.
He has lost a house he will not remember. He doesn’t understand why he’s there, why the pain is not going away, why his mother is not beside him.
I’ve seen children like this every day.
I remember them all, and I know them by name. There was Nour who had both of his legs amputated, and would stare at where his legs should have been, and cry. There was Abdul, who lost an arm at just eighteen months old. These are the cases that break me.
I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve seen mothers crying for their lost babies, fathers collapsing at their child’s cold feet, children refusing to let go of their lifeless sibling’s hand, and people who died in anonymity with nobody to mourn them in their final moments.
And yet children’s resilience and strength has always left me speechless. Children as young as seven would ask to leave the hospital after being treated, so that they can find food for their families – they would be worried that their siblings would go hungry without them.
These children are sometimes photographed, with their faces covered with blood, dust and fear. They appear on the front pages of the world’s newspapers for a few days, and then are forgotten.
The siege began in 2013. At the time, we didn’t understand what that meant. We could not yet imagine that we would become prisoners in our own homes, or that food and water would become scarce, whilst disease became rife. A new Stone Age was forced upon us.
Soon, everyone was starving, terrified and exhausted. People would farm what was left of their land and wait hungrily for the harvest season – only for the fields to be scorched by planes just before they could harvest it.
We’ve seen days when the only food available to eat was the grass we used to feed our cows. Many didn’t even have that.
We’ve had to endure unrelenting attacks including bombs in populated areas, the destruction of our schools and hospitals, and a devastating chemical attack that killed hundreds.
Our children have been forced to abandon their childhoods. Many carry the burden of trying to make a living for their families, or having to beg on the street to bring home a piece of bread. It is a common sight to see children rummaging through rubbish, looking for something to eat.
They think it’s normal to spend their lives dodging bombs, losing their homes and loved ones, or being scared and hungry. Some have gone their entire lives without going for a picnic with their family, or playing in a park, or watching cartoons.
On the rare occasions that fresh fruit and biscuits reached the markets, it wasn’t a treat, but a painful reminder of everything we have lost. Our children who knew nothing but life under siege didn’t know how to peel a banana, or what chocolate tastes like.
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The war has changed everyone and everything in Eastern Ghouta. Things we thought we could never live without proved to be unimportant, and all our priorities have changed.
Now, the first priority is to survive, and the second is to stay sane. The first is out of our control, and the second is a game of chance.
But in our darkest days, we support each other. Whenever someone falls, many hands reach down to help them stand up again.
In Eastern Ghouta, we have all been pushed to our limits. Everyone has lost something, or someone. And yet, everyone still clings to a precious thread of hope, as we know it is the only reason to take another breath.
So we have looked after this hope the way we used to look after our olive trees – it is our last and most valuable currency.
The author has chosen to withhold his real name to protect his identity