Testimony: United Syrians from Ghouta to Idlib


The siege of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, lasted five years and one week. Mohammed Hmeidan and his family survived. Here he recounts the final brutal onslaught by regime forces that ended with the mass evacuation of fighters and residents to the northern province of Idlib.

04 September 2018

Arrival fo the first batch of evacuation buses to Arbin on 24/3/2018. Photo by Mohammed Hmeidan (©SyriaUntold)
Mohammed Hmeidan

Mohammed Hmeidan is a Syrian writer who survived the siege of Eastern Ghouta.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

Sunday, February 20, 2018, was just another day in Eastern Ghouta. Only a few bombs exploded here and there without causing any massacre worthy of a television news report. Only two men were killed that day. News editors no longer considered the wounded worthy of coverage –nothing new under the sun. Residents had forcibly grown accustomed to this lifestyle.

That day, I told my football teammates that we had to go train, because it could be the last time we got to play our favorite game together. Everyone knew that the regime, backed by Russian war planes, was imminently going to attack Ghouta. And it was, indeed, our last training.

As a friend of mine from Homs and I headed back home, I remember that 120 missiles exploded in the neighborhoods of Mesraba, Sakba and Kfar Batna with only a few minutes interval between them. Everything changed right then, right there. That day marked the start of the heaviest of attacks. We heard the roar of aircraft one moment, the loud thuds of rockets and missiles the next.

Reassuring my parents, who had been away from me for seven consecutive years, was the most important thing I did on a daily basis. My parents at the time were in the city of Idlib, having move there from Hama countryside. They had to migrate to Idlib because of the intensity of the shelling and the battles underway in their region. Then their house was destroyed, forcing them to extend their stay in Idlib. I had been in Ghouta since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011. I arrived at the age of 22 and didn’t leave until after my 29th birthday.

I had served in the army in Qatifa, near Damascus. During my service there, I cooperated with opposition members through my uncle who was a doctor in Zamalka, in Eastern Ghouta. I would always visit him until I defected from the army. After defecting, I preferred to stay Ghouta rather than head to opposition areas in the north or back to my hometown in Hama.

Even though I was the one living under the bombing and the siege, I found myself worrying more about my parents than my own chances of survival.  We were a few young people in the building where I lived in Zamalka. Neither the shelter of the building nor the surrounding basements were suitable for the women and children fleeing the scattered shards.

Survival strategies

I worked with the young men to open up the basements so that they would connect to each other in a bid to protect our families and make sure they could escape before the buildings collapsed over our heads. In the dead of winter, we collected all the carpets and blankets we owned and moved them to the basements that served as a collective house for us instead of our upper floor apartments.

As I mentioned just earlier, everything changed. Eating became a source of stress while sleeping turned into a luxury we could barely afford.

People lived in basements for 32 days, and getting news from the Internet or television  was quite risky. There was no sound signal or internet connection except on the highest floors. Assad's siege of Ghouta was total. In addition to strangling our food, medicine and fuel supplies, it sought to leave us in complete isolation. That night, we received news that a complete cease-fire would be implemented as of midnight. Everyone rejoiced and looked forward to sleeping in the houses that had miraculously escaped the bombardment. Shattered glass and doors are negligible damage, after all, so long as the walls are intact and the ceiling has not collapsed.

Ceasefire?

At midnight, the alleged ceasefire went into force. But, it only held for five minutes. After that, raids rained down on us, scaring strong men and sensitive women alike. We had hoped that Russia, which was guaranteeing the cease-fire, would stop the bombing and prevent the raids from resuming. They continued for six consecutive hours. I firmly believe that more than a thousand shells exploded in those hours. The next morning was calm, but no one dared go out, especially after the brutal blow they had been dealt overnight.

We subsequently received official news that those wishing to leave would be allowed to go to Idlib and those who did not would be under the rule of Assad and his army. Special committees were to start preparing lists of those wishing to leave.

The writer and his neighbors have packed up all their belongings (© SyriaUntold)

We all had mixed feelings. We could no longer bear the possibility of a new disappointment and another round of suffering, but could I leave my home and land? How could I leave my friend’s grave before watering the soil above it and placing aromatic basil atop it? How could I leave a land I sacrificed my soul for during the liberation [uprising]? I guess God wanted me to stay alive and wanted others to water the soil with their blood. They shall always remain in our memory.

Only one possible choice

But I took a firm decision. Yes, I had to leave all of this, as I could not live under Assad’s rule. I could not be humiliated after all the sacrifices that had been made for us to live free.

How could I live with a person who murdered my own friend? How could I live with those who used bombs containing white phosphorus to target Ghouta’s children hiding inside a small basement? I had no choice but to leave.

A song of sorrow

I still remember some of the words I wrote with sorrow and asked my friend to recite. You must have heard the singer Abu Maher Saleh bid Ghouta farewell with the following words:

Ghouta is overcome with grief
Weeping over those who passed away .

Those buried in its land
shall be resting in peace

But what has become of us?
Our hearts are full of agony.

Our souls cannot rest
unless we are buried in our land.

Leaving Ghouta behind

On March 23, I told my mother that I was heading north aboard one of those buses.

Once again, everything had changed!

People gathered in streets filled with rubble, smelling of gunpowder. Goods that were previously sold at the most expensive prices were now very cheap. Monopolists took out the stock they had previously hidden from the poor.

But the most terrible thing was seeing the wounded suffer in hospitals and mosques. Hundreds of wounded people were lying on the ground. Hospitals were overcrowded and could no longer receive more patients. Some lost their arms, others had their leg amputated and still others were bleeding nonstop. It was like the pain of the universe was incarnated in a wounded person who lost hope and wished to die just to end his suffering.

The next day, the first convoy of buses entered Arbin and gathered in a neighborhood that one would say witnessed a Hiroshima-like bomb explosion. The buses were supposed to transfer the wounded, but only a few made it to the gathering location. Others rushed into the buses for fear the deal would face obstacles. They just could not afford another day of hell.

Every day, a convoy of buses would enter and forcibly transport the displaced. Thousands would gather. Some of them would manage to make it out of the area, while others would fail to secure a spot on the bus, and consequently waited for another day.

Waiting for the bus

I personally had to wait until the last wounded person lying on the floor of the hospital I worked for was evacuated. I had partnered with the founding of a medical establishment that later became the most important medical center in Ghouta. I worked as a manager (I also worked in media and relief), and I sometimes took part in creating simple medicines, as I had majored in chemistry and gained experience during my work at Arak Pharma for Pharmaceutical Industries in Aleppo when I was a university student.

Red Crescent convoys were entering to evacuate the wounded on a daily basis, but they said they could no longer enter, as they were blocked by gunmen. We had to take out the wounded. We managed to secure cars capable of transporting them to the bus gathering location, and we all got ready to leave at once. When we got on the buses, Assad’s officers and his army did not dare block our way before the eyes of Russian officers. All they did was try to convince some of us to return to the regime-controlled area all the while reassuring and promising us that nothing was to happen to whoever returns.

The daughter of the author aboard a bus during the evacuation of Eastern Ghouta. Hmeidan says she is laughing because she can no longer hear the roar of war planes and the boom of explosions. And she is too young to realise the difficulties of displacement. Photo by Mohammed Hmeidan. (© SyriaUntold)

Our convoy moved at sunset. It was as if the sun of freedom was setting in Eastern Ghouta. We arrived at Masaken al-Dobat area in Barzeh. There were children cursing us and pointing at us in the most disgraceful way. They were taught to hate us. But little did we care. We were actually honored and proud, for Assad failed to defeat us, and we only got out with the help of a superpower [Russia] that enjoys great strength but is despicable when it comes to principles. This superpower kills the innocent and destroys cities and neighborhoods.

The revolution lives

On the third morning, when we arrived at the Qalat al-Madiq crossing, we felt the enormity of the revolution. We felt we were among our own people. It was as though we had known them for a long time. They had everything prepared to receive their brethren. That hospitality and wonderful welcoming of theirs proved to us that when they once shouted that the Syrian people were one, they meant it. All those who were hostile to Syrian people were not actually Syrians, even if their identity cards showed otherwise.

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