This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus.
Umm Hussam, a skinny woman in her fifties, bit her lips with frustration. Her son, who had just turned 22 and finished his fourth year of conscription squeezed her hand, urging her not to respond to the soldier standing at Douar al-Batikha on the outskirts of Yarmouk camp. Upon seeing her burst into tears, the soldier told her in a pronounced coastal accent, “It’s your fault. Why did you leave your houses? In the village, we resisted the terrorists and did not let them in.”
May 25 was the first time Umm Hussam came that close to Yarmouk camp. Military operations had ended and the regime army had expelled the armed opposition and the Islamic State (IS) from south Damascus just four days earlier.
For five years now, Umm Hussam has been away from the house her husband had built above his parent’s apartment 20 years ago. Although he mixed adobe with cement, she was the one who paid for building the ill-distributed rooms which she and her five children occupied. The rooms stood witness to the occasional beating she suffered from her unemployed husband who was jailed once for three years, before the Syrian incidents broke out. The reason was that he had fought with a soldier while he queued to receive a fuel oil voucher.
Although Umm Hussam had to visit her husband in Adra Central Prison at least once per week during his sentence, life was better without him home. Before Umm Hussam got married, she was a beautiful and vibrant young woman who went by her own name, Samar. She worked at a dairy factory and had a group of friends. They would roam the streets of the camp after work and keep abreast of the latest cheap fashion trends. Samar got married and quit her job. She had to tolerate her husband’s bad temper and his reckless decisions throughout their 25 years of marriage during which she had five children. Although her husband could not keep a job for more than two or three months, the moment she expressed her desire to find a job to support him and the kids, he beat her like there was no tomorrow, leaving bruises all over her body. A week later, he agreed that she find a job, but he did not apologize for the beating. Umm Hussam’s professional track picked up again, but this time, she cleaned houses.
Leaving dignity at the door
Umm Hussam formed a network of clients. She left her dignity at the door. She did not just clean floors and toilets; she also evoked the household owners’ sympathy whenever she could. She seized every opportunity that presented itself, be it distribution of zakat al-fitr [charity given to the poor at the end of Ramadan], an eidia [a gift given on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha] or any form of aid.
She would collect the things that the house owner threw away because they were old, defunct or expired. Year after the other, Umm Hussam managed to build a house and furnish it with old furniture and with help from the houses she cleaned. Once again, she would trample on any sense of dignity she felt when asking for financial or in-kind assistance. She thought she deserved much more than 300 Syrian Pounds (SYP) [$0.5] for cleaning the toilet of a brat who was afraid to break her nail while cleaning after herself.
What began as asking for help soon turned into theft. Umm Hussam lost several clients because of her untrustworthiness. Her stealing habit wouldn’t have led her to jail, as she just took small sums and insignificant objects. But, eventually, the house owners would discover the situation and dismiss her. Umm Hussam did not feel guilty or ashamed. She would always manage to find new clients. She was not religious although she and her three daughters were veiled. She was illiterate although she could spell some words. She would always find justification for what she did. She was a refugee without a country, supporting a family of seven. Her husband was an unemployed crook who beat her, as did his family. The owners of houses she cleaned insulted her if the windows weren’t sparkling or the dishwashing basin wasn’t empty. Who could blame her for stealing? Umm Hussam slept soundly every day after much introspection.
In 2013, the camp burned down, and the opposition factions took over the streets. Umm Hussam managed to escape, with difficulty, before the regime besieged the camp. She left with her two sons and her youngest daughter. Her two other daughters had gotten married a few years back. She ran out of the house without changing and without taking anything with her. She saw flames falling on the neighborhoods behind her. Her husband was visiting his relatives in one of the villages on Daraa road. Umm Hussam rented a slab house, without doors, windows or bathrooms, for her sons and herself. Meanwhile, her husband remained at his relatives’. In fact, that was the only silver lining in what had happened. It seems her husband decided to stay away and to leave matters to his wife. Umm Hussam broke down. She cried and beat herself and her kids. The next day, she went to work, and she had every reason to take what she could from the families that were still living safely and comfortably in Damascus.
Many of them sympathized with her and offered her financial and in-kind aid to furnish her house. She registered her name in every association she knew about to receive aid, and she sold the surplus. She searched for new clients and stole some food, utensils and money occasionally. One employer almost reported her, but then reconsidered and kicked her out after taking back what she had stolen.
Amid these circumstances, her middle son enlisted, as her eldest son had a disability that exempted him from conscription. Umm Hussam’s worries increased. The Palestinian Liberation Army was throwing its members to the frontlines to fight terrorists under the pretext that they were more dangerous than Israel. When the Eastern Ghouta battle broke out, her son was among the militants. But, he knew how to avoid the direct fighting. He would pay the supervising officer to keep him away from danger and to give him leaves to return to his mother’s arms. Umm Hussam loved her children more than anything, and she would give her son money to cover his expenses and to eat well because army food caused him constipation.
The dream to return to the camp, not to Palestine, rekindled her hopes sometimes and sparked her fear other times. She would sometimes feel disappointed and angry, especially after rumors about a possible solution and reconciliation in Yarmouk camp went up in smoke. She was still in touch with the other inhabitants, though, who told her that her house was still livable and that her neighbors visit it occasionally to take some provisions when food runs out. After the latest Ghouta battle early 2018, Umm Hussam and all the camp’s displaced felt the time to return was imminent.
But, their hopes soon gave way to state of panic, as they were almost certain that the military campaign would wreak absolute havoc. It did not take much for Umm Hussam to realize that the house she had built from the ground up and that had weathered street battles in the past five years would not stand a chance in the face of Russian and Iranian heavy weapons.
After Damascus was declared a buffer zone, Umm Hussam stood with the inhabitants several times at Douar al-Batikha— one foot in the field and another in the camp. Civilians were not allowed to enter the area yet. She saw cars and motorcycles carrying furniture, wood and electrical appliances. She was almost sure on board was a used fan that an old lady whose house she had cleaned gave it to her. She cried and slapped herself. She always did that when she was angry or sad. A soldier tried to calm her down, telling her, “Why are you slapping yourself? We are all in this together.”
On the third day, civilians entered the city, as did Umm Hussam. She could barely make her way home, as the roads were unrecognizable. Stones and ruins were scattered everywhere. It was as though an atomic bomb had exploded and erased dozens of streets. Small cargo cars and motorcycles transported people’s belongings that had survived.Settings
Laboriously, Umm Hussam finally made it home — the house that was built above her in-laws’ three-story house. The walls had disappeared, and she could not fathom how the ceiling and floor were still standing on the pillars. She climbed the stairs that had become completely exposed. The house resembled a broken child’s toy. She arrived to her house which the thieves of war did not get to. In the middle stood a perforated and worn-out metal reservoir. She remembered the reservoir had been on the roof of her neighbour’s house facing hers. Perhaps the intense shelling had displaced it.
Two days later, Umm Hussam’s son who was in the army visited the camp for a brief visit, so she took him along to try to save what she could from the belongings of her ravaged house. She was about to enter the city while muttering, in tears, when the soldier at the checkpoint blamed her and the other citizens who had fled for what had happened.
Umm Hussam thought to herself while stumbling on the ruins and stones and holding on to her son’s arm, “Resist? Resist with what? With the stones left here?”
As soon as she reached the house, she saw a young man wearing a dirty military uniform and carrying her mattresses.
"Where do you think you’re going with these?" she asked.
He replied: "Are these yours? I apologize. I am just a servant taking orders.
"Even if you are, why would you steal?" she insisted. "Is it worth it? The mattresses are worn-out, for God’s sake! You want to take these too?
The soldier did not answer and continued walking. Her son did not object. Only yesterday, thieves from the army killed a young man who objected to the theft of his house furniture. He had no idea the military uniform would not protect him.
At home, the mother and her son dismantled the generator of the fridge and collected some spoons and plates from the kitchen. Not much was left unscathed. Umm Hussam found the used fan, but it was also damaged.
At the other end of the street, some neighbors found a better way to avoid theft. They just destroyed what was left. A man broke the door of his own fridge with a stick. Women threw plates, glasses and utensils. It was easier for the citizens to damage their belongings rather than see them stolen, but it was harder to move their belongings than leave them vulnerable to theft. Umm Hussam and her son had to pay the checkpoints to let them go through peacefully. The cargo reached home. Umm Hussam lay on the ground exhausted, thinking about her huge loss. The sight of her belongings being stolen broke her heart.