The road to eastern Ghouta arches north of Damascus instead of running directly into the city's countryside.
Visitors to corridors evacuating fighters and civilians from the besieged towns and villages east of the capital must skirt still forbidden territory previously held by four radical fundamentalist groups. The last stretch is along the Damascus-Homs highway, which has been closed for five years by insurgents.
Syria’s roadmap is filled with detours around no-go cities, towns and rural areas. Detours disappear as the government reasserts control. We turn off and wend our way on a rough track past the abandoned insane asylum and the Adra prison, symbols of seven years of war.
At the entrance to al-Wafideen, a couple of Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint wave us into the former camp for refugees from Syria's Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967: war is a never-ending presence in this ancient land. Several green buses overflowing with weary civilians are parked alongside the road.
The face of an old man, his nose flattened, appears pressed against a window. A Syrian soldier cradling a baby wrapped in a pink blanket stands beside one bus. The green bus, luxury craft delivered just before the conflict began, are omnipresent at evacuations and have become a symbol of defeat for men who have taken up arms against the government and of deliverance for sorry civilians caught in a crossfire.
Since March 9th, 80,000 people have fled eastern Ghouta, according to the UN, where artillery fire and aerial bombardment by government forces have routed thousands of radical fundamentalist fighters who have held the region since 2013, sporadically invading and shelling the capital. An estimated 1,600, both fighters and civilians, have died in the region in the government’s five-week campaign.
Al-Wafideen is a township in eastern Ghouta of bullet-pocked breeze-block structures with tin roofs sprouting rusted satellite dishes, rutted streets, and a couple of shabby shops selling potato crisps and cheap plastic goods. A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) ambulance is parked on the roadside. There is no UN or Russian presence, only the Syrian army and Sarc.
The latest arrivals are from Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta. Inside the walled government school, a long line of women, children and a sprinkling of men stretches from the front veranda across the basketball court where clumps of luggage await their owners after they register.
Most women wear long black coats, their heads covered with black scarves. Some have drawn scarves across their lower faces. Douma is a deeply conservative town, home to Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi-sponsored coalition of harsh jihadis who continue to hold out but have been compelled to let civilians leave ahead of a renewed army offensive to recapture the 10 per cent of the region remaining under the armed groups.
The towns of Harasta, Zamalka, and Irbin have fallen to the army and civilians have returned to Saqba, where shops have reopened.
Women refuse to speak about their ordeal – in general, people are too traumatised to talk about the recent bombing campaign – but a handsome man on crutches, Subhi Marhoum (43), says he is relieved to leave. “I sold chickens before the war. Life was good. I travelled to Deraa [in the south], to Latakia [on the coast] to buy chickens. At the beginning of the war, I tried to leave and take out my possessions but somebody stole my luggage. There are no police inside . . . we could not go out.”
He had an accident five years ago but could not get the treatment he needs. Now he will go to hospital and find a job. He has a brother in Berlin but seems content to remain in Syria. His son Khaled (11), a smiling, slender boy, and pretty daughter Razan (12), in a bright pink headscarf, will go to school. His wife moves ahead in the queue as we talk.
Enveloped completely in black, her eyes bright behind glasses, Lotfia Ajwa (67) says it took her 15 minutes to reach the checkpoint on the Douma side and 15 minutes to arrive at the school. Her son is still in Douma. “They [the fighters] arrested him and prevented him from going out. There are many foreigners inside.”
By "foreigners" she means militants from outside Ghouta – from Homs and east Aleppo – as well as non-Syrians. Her daughter and granddaughter are with her. "We lived on humanitarian aid. The armed groups would sometimes give us food but there was little in the markets. If we found something it would be very expensive. We will go to al-Tel near Damascus to live with family."
Sarc team head Abu Khaled says that since evacuations began,“we have taken 300 people to government hospitals in Damascus, mostly amputees, many of them children. A parent goes with them in the ambulance.”
One new shoe off, one on, an old lady sits in a wheelchair waiting to depart. A bright blue dress shows as her black cloak has slipped aside. She has come in her party best. An officer dispatches a soldier to buy her comfortable slippers at a nearby shop.
The tail of the line disappears into the school and we rush to the corridor to greet 400 civilians coming from the army checkpoint through the narrow corridor, flanked by buildings. Here snipers have killed escapees on earlier occasions. A white van comes first, then civilians on foot, some supported by Sarc volunteers in red jumpsuits, soldiers on one side.
Water and sandwiches
Walking from the hell they know into the unknown. Brave souls, for they have been told the army will mistreat them. Instead, the troops receive them with bottled water and sandwiches. They don’t know what will happen later.
The exodus ends with a luggage van, a Sarc man clinging to the back to keep suitcases from falling off.
Harjallah is an hour’s drive to the south. The displaced centre, built for 9,000, now houses 18,500 and more arrive daily. People squat on the kerb, spill out of one- and two-room bungalows, shelter under awnings strung up to ward off the sun. Men and children swarm round us, hoping we are relief workers, as women remain seated.
A fire engine is parked near the office where we meet mayor Abdel Karim al-Khatib, who ushers us into his bare-bones office for cups of Turkish coffee.
“Fifteen per cent are men, 20 per cent women, and 65 per cent children,” he says. “Thirty-five women help with the cooking in a large communal kitchen. The government and Harjallah provide everything. Men and women live separately. Half have identity papers, half do not.”
He shows us documents issued by jihadis who occupied the region: colour-coded green, red and pink for each fiefdom.
He introduces us to two women who have horrifying stories of life under Faylaq al-Rahman, the Legion of the Beneficient. A handsome woman, with a sorrowful expression to match her grey dress, Marak More’e (20) has been married three times and divorced twice.
When her third husband wanted to share her favours with comrades and she refused, he sent her to the women’s prison for 120 days. There women were regularly raped. She and her two sons are shunned by her father, who is in Harjallah, and other relatives. “We are alone,” she says.
The indominable Maida Droubi, a widow with five children from Kafr Batna, introduces us to her six-year-old son, Maher, who was lured by a neighbour into his house and raped until his screams alerted passersby.
Silent and withdrawn
“He was Faylaq al-Rahman,” she says. “Nothing could be done.” Maher is eager to become a first-grader when the family reaches the Jaramana suburb of Damascus to stay with family once registration is completed in Harjallah.
Maher is silent and withdrawn during the telling of his story, but perks up to tease his little sister afterwards. Faylaq al-Rahman has been designated as “moderate” by western outsiders.
A two-room bungalow with a kitchenette and toilet shelters 30 women, pre-school children, and babies from Arbin and Hamoriyah. Sana al-Shami says her husband and whole family have escaped eastern Ghouta. Conditions here, however crowded and difficult, are “better than inside”.
They have mattresses, two blankets each, and boxes of dried and tinned food and other supplies provided by the UN. “In Ghouta we stayed at home all the time; our children missed school. Now our husbands can work and our children can go to nursery school.”
Just over a week ago they abandoned their homes for this camp where 72 new units are going up to house newcomers and families living in tents. Neither the UN nor Sarc have a presence here. Both were in Harjallah when The Irish Times visited soon after the Damascus suburb of Daraya was evacuated in 2016 and civilians came to the newly minted settlement, built with funding from UN development programme.
Since then the town has sprouted new streets, two- and three-storey blocks of flats, and a tent quarter now filled with hapless victims of this terrible war.