Escape from war
Abdulmonam Eassa is a photographer who has been one of the key contributors to AFP’s coverage of the Syrian government’s offensive on Eastern Ghouta.
His last weeks in the enclave were spent going from town to town as regime forces advanced, cowering in basements from shelling and air strikes, and documenting as much as he could with photos, videos and text, before finally making it out to a new life and a new beginning.
Here’s his account.
Hama province, Syria -- Here, you start feeling like you can start all over. I went into a clothes shop, I bought new clothes. I immediately threw away the ones I had been wearing. Not because they were dirty, but because they held memories I’d rather forget. Bad memories.
It’s the end of March, slightly more than a month after the Syrian government began an intensive bombardment of my home, in the Eastern Ghouta region that has been under control of rebels since 2012.
For weeks, I had been going from one area to another in Eastern Ghouta, cowering in basements as I fled air strikes and the regime’s advance. I photographed as much as I could. But there were things that I just couldn’t capture with my camera. I had been wearing the same clothes for a month, hadn't shaved in two months, and hadn't had a shower in 10 days. And now I have reached this other area in Syria.
Everything here looks great compared to the death back in Ghouta.
March 7, 2018
Today is one of the hardest that I’ve ever lived through. After two weeks of bombardment, I am exhausted, but I leave the house nonetheless, telling myself: ‘‘I’ll just go out and see what’s happening in the neighbourhoods of Hammuriyeh.’ This is my hometown, the place where I grew up, the place where my family lives.
Ten minutes later, the bombing starts. I hop into an ambulance and head to the site of a strike. The airplane hits again. We turn into a street. We see a man and his son on the ground. They are on fire near their motorcycle. I have seen so much death and destruction, but I am shocked by this scene. I never thought I’d live through something like that, much less photograph it. It’s very, very hard. I take pictures, but it hurts. I help the members of the Civil Defence to put out the fire and move the two people. Later I come across one of the burned man’s brothers. He is heartbroken. I show him the pictures that I shot. Extreme sadness.
I end up spending seven hours in the ambulance that day, setting my camera aside so I can help.
Sixty percent of the houses in town are completely destroyed. There is nothing but destruction all around. People are gathering their belongings to get out of the area, but then they hear the sound of shelling and run and hide. The Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are sparing no one and nothing -- no mother, child, home, mosque or school. The regime is advancing, the battles are raging.
I get my family out of our house. I never thought I’d get to this point -- to get my family to safety because I am afraid they will be bombed.
We go to hide in a tunnel. The shelling is so intense that at some point, the flames from the resulting fires almost reach the tunnel. We try to leave and go somewhere else, but an air strike hits nearby. The kids are crying. My mother is crying. I don’t cry. I don’t know why. Maybe because I know crying won’t change anything.
We stay until 6:00 am. I manage to bring a car. We drive to an area near Hammuriyeh, where the shelling is not as bad. I am shocked by the level of destruction around us. Just fifteen days ago, the situation here was normal. Now everything is destroyed -- the houses, the shops. My house is destroyed. The neighbourhood where we used to play as kids is devastated. Nothing is open, there are no shopkeepers. Just people emerging with a bag in each hand stuffed with their belongings, fleeing.
I go back to my house and find everything exactly where it was, but broken. The room where we used to sleep is destroyed. The room where we used to have breakfast is destroyed.
In moments like that, you think there’s nothing left. The only thing left is that my family is safe.
March 10, 2018
There are barely any people left in this town. I have been photographing what has been happening in the area for weeks. The only thing that I haven’t been able to shoot is people fleeing their homes. Because I was getting my own parents out of our own house. I had no time to shoot. All I cared about was getting them out as fast as possible, after 24 hours of brutal bombing.
I wasn’t able to get pictures of people as they walked out between the destroyed homes -- because I was one of those people, leaving a destroyed home behind.
March 15, 2018
I have lost someone very close to my heart. His name is Ahmad Hamdan. We had known each other since we were young, but our friendship grew stronger during the war. The last few days that we spent in Hammuriyeh, we were together a lot. We used to walk around near our destroyed homes. One day he sat in a chair amid all the destruction.
Now I’m alone in Eastern Ghouta. I have no one left. My parents have left. I might live and I might die. I don’t know what will happen. Maybe I'll live and tell the story of what happened here, talk about the crimes committed against us, about the hard days we had, and the beautiful days. Maybe I'll stay here, and maybe I'll leave.
Everyone is so tired. There must be a solution for this region. The crimes that are happening here, even the great powers are unable to stop what’s happening. There are no more words.
March 22, 2018
I have been moving from one area to the next since March 15, when I left Hammuriyeh, my hometown. The bombing wasn’t even the main reason why I left -- it was the clashes and the regime’s advance. I spend most of my time cowering in basements.
I am walking in a neighbourhood of Ain Terma. The road is very narrow and there is a woman and her child walking near me. A shell hits. It’s three or four metres away from me, but very close to the woman and the child. I don’t feel anything for several minutes. Then I feel a massive shock. I look around. The child is on the ground, crying. I pick him up. There is no one else around. His mother is on the ground. She is dead. I pick him up and run to the entrance of a nearby building. Another shell hits. I put the kid on the ground. His foot is almost detached. I try to hold it in place.
I pick him up and run with him through the streets. They are truly the streets of death. But when you have a kid in front of you, you have to do everything to save him. God Almighty gave me this responsibility -- there is no one else in the area and so you have to take the kid to the hospital, where doctors will treat him.
That child was the last wounded person I saw in Ghouta. Shelling resumed two hours later and then an agreement was announced -- a ceasefire and the transfer of civilians and rebels outside of Eastern Ghouta.
I feel happy that there is a halt to the fighting and the killing of people. Maybe we finally won’t see any more dead bodies or wounded people in the streets. Maybe people won’t be wounded and trapped in places where no one can get to them.
At the same time, I’m sad that we’re going to leave. But I just want to get to a place where I can get some new clothes, find a place to shower, shave. So I guess I’m not sad. This was God Almighty’s plan for us. We have lived through very tough circumstances, but we survived, we are still alive. And God willing, we’ll carry on with this life. This hard life.
March 25, 2018
There is a point when exhaustion takes over your mind and your body. I decide to leave. To get on a bus that will drive us out of Eastern Ghouta. We get on and we sit inside for seven hours, without it moving. Seven hours feels like a lifetime. It’s a very long wait. Especially when you’re leaving your birthplace, the place where you have spent days both beautiful and hard. Especially when you have no idea whether you’ll ever return.
We sit inside for seven hours and finally our bus, along with the others in the convoy, starts moving toward the north. Along the road, there are lot of people who look at us; we look back at them through the bus windows.
Some have weird looks, as if they’re thinking “Where are these people going?” As if they know nothing about us.
Some people show us what Syrian-on-Syrian hatred looks like. There is one guy who is cursing and another who is saying really offensive things. One woman spits at us.
I sit and think why is it like this? What did we do wrong, having lived in an area where there was opposition to the regime, and then there was fighting and ‘insurgents’? That was our fate. That was just the place where we lived.
Why would another Syrian do that to us or talk about us like that?
Then I started thinking, maybe he lost a father. Maybe he lost a son. But we have lost people too, to the same forces, fighting in our neighbourhoods. You can’t describe the psychological exhaustion that we have had. We had no way to cope. Maybe what we have lived through -- the bombing, the death, the destruction -- maybe it has made us a little more conscious of reality.
The bus stops for about two hours at some point, and I get out. To my right are farm fields, to my left was the sea. The first time I saw the sea was eight years ago. It was a beautiful view. I look out at the sea now. I realize that you start missing a region, the smell of it, as soon as you leave.
When the bus gets to Qalaat al-Madiq, in the Hama province in northern Syria, there are lots of people waiting for me. Some are journalist colleagues. I leave with my colleague Omar and we drive around the area. It’s the first time I am in this area. It’s such a good feeling, compared to the situation inside Ghouta, the shelling and death. Here, life is different. There is bombing, but not as intense. There is everything -- I see foods that I haven’t seen in two and a half, maybe three years. Like roasted chicken -- I haven’t had roasted chicken in a year and a half. Or strawberries -- I haven’t seen strawberries in four years! In Ghouta, all we could find were the seasonal fruits that grew there.
I didn’t expect this region to be like this. I expected it to be worse. It’s beautiful here, the people are very nice. They don’t treat anyone badly. They try to help everyone.
I buy new clothes, new shoes, I take a shower and shave. You could really tell what I had been living through. I go back to normal. I sleep a night without hearing the sound of shelling. It’s the first time I sleep like that in two months. I can't describe it -- it's a new life.
I’m going to miss my city, the city I was born in, lived in, grew up in. Everything here looks great compared to the death back in Ghouta. I am someone who has left an area where there was a lot of death and came to an area where there is life. Maybe it would have been different if there wasn’t so much heavy shelling. But the intensity of the shelling made us hate is there. We just wanted to leave, to be done with it, we didn’t want anything anymore.
Now I am in a new area. I am separated from my family. But I’m glad that I could rest and change a bit. That’s what God Almighty wanted -- for us to get out of the place we were living in, the place where we were born. But this is the same place. I mean, this is also Syria and if I could go everywhere in Syria, I would.
But now I’m thinking of leaving Syria. I want to see what life is like outside. Are people different? Is it only in Syria where there is war? I’ll try to escape the reality that I’m living in. Maybe I’ll rest, maybe I won’t. Life is really hard when you’re living in war. It’s hard in other circumstances too, of course. But you just can’t compare.
This blog was written with Layal Abou Rahal and Maya Gebeily in Beirut and Yana Dlugy in Paris.