If I remain alive: The Ghouta diaries

On February 18, 2018, Syrian regime forces intensified their bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, an area home to almost 400,000 people that has escaped government control since 2012, been besieged almost ever since and is controlled by mostly Islamist and jihadist groups. So far the assault has killed more than 550 civilians, including around 140 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The bombardment was widely considered to be preparation for a government ground assault to retake an area which lies within mortar range of central Damascus.

Here it is as seen by Abdulmonam Eassa, a local photographer whose images for AFP of the death and destruction there you may have seen.

A Syrian man carries an infant rescued from the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

Monday February 19

Strikes on Eastern Ghouta leave 127 dead.

A strike hits very close today. I go to take a look. The whole area seems to have been burned. During the first few seconds, you think no-one is dead, you just see ashes and destruction. That’s because people hide as soon as they hear the sound of a rocket or a plane. But after a few seconds you see signs of life.

I see a woman coming out from a destroyed building with four children. They are screaming. One of the kids is carrying a notepad or a book, maybe a Koran, I can’t remember.

A Syrian woman and children run for cover amid the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

The Syria Civil Defence volunteers known as the "White Helmets" arrive and begin to dig through the rubble. I see one of them carrying an infant. I am shocked that someone so young has been hurt.

I keep taking pictures and look at the back of my camera to see how they came out. Suddenly I see one my brothers-in-law staring at me from one of the images. He is standing next to a door of a building, screaming for help. He is injured. I didn’t even realize it was him when I was shooting the scene, only after, when I quickly checked the photos. What should I do? Should I help him or continue to take pictures? It’s a question that I constantly ask myself.

I’m about to leave when I see a White Helmet carrying a child. I realize it’s the son of a friend. I hurry and take him and rush to the hospital. The boy holds on tight to me, he doesn’t want to let me go. When we get inside, I want to take a picture of him, but he doesn’t want to let go of my hand. I manage to free my hand, but he keeps holding his hand towards me. I can feel myself crying.

A Syrian child injured in government bombing cries as he receives treatment at make-shift hospital in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018.Eastern Ghouta, February 19, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

I leave a half hour later, heading home, which is about 700 meters away. After about 200 meters, I see that the area where I live has been shelled. I suddenly panic. My family lives there! What if one of them is dead?!

I hurry along and see that the building where my sisters and other relatives live has been hit. It's covered in dust and I can’t see anything. Fear spreads through me as I get closer. I leave my motorbike in the middle of the street and run into our house. I see one of my brothers. “Is Mum ok?” I ask. “Yes,” he answers. “Is everyone else all right?” “Yes,” he says. I am about to breathe a sigh of relief when I catch a figure lying on the ground out of the corner of my eye. It’s a friend of mine. He has a head injury.  He is dead. But we have to just leave his body there because there are wounded children and they have to be taken to the hospital. I can’t take pictures of scenes like this.

I take a look at the other side of the street. I see a woman wearing a prayer outfit. Her face is bleeding. I suddenly realize that it's one of my sisters.  Two other female relatives are standing next to her, also injured. I try to calm my sister down. She has no shoes, so I want to carry her, but she tells me not to worry, she will walk barefoot. I take her and the others to the hospital, then drop off my mother and other siblings in Daraya. Then I go back to take a look at our house.

The doors and windows are completely smashed. I take a look around and realize that I no longer care about death. There is a plane in the sky again, a strike can come at any moment, but I am not scared. I have been hurt to the point where I can hurt no more.

Syrian civilians look at the rubble following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

My family spends the night in another house. No-one really sleeps. As I record these words, I can hear planes in the sky. The building is shaking. Thoughts keep shooting through my mind. What if my loved ones die and I live? How will I bear the pain? I leave.

Tuesday, February 20

The attacks on Eastern Ghouta kill 128 civilians, including 29 children. Another hospital, Arbin, has been taken out of action.

 The UN children’s agency UNICEF issues a blank statement. “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones,” it says.

Members of the Syrian civil defence evacuate an injured civilian from an area hit by a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Saqba, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 20, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)
Members of the Syrian civil defence evacuate an injured civilian on a stretcher from an area hit by a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Saqba, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 2Eastern Ghouta, February 20, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

 

I go to the hospital because I know the situation there is terrible. No-one has eaten for a day. I walk into one room, it’s full of dead bodies. Some died yesterday, some died before that, but haven't been buried yet.

 

Graphic images

The bodies of civilians who were killed in Syrian army bombardment on the town of Hamouria in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta are seen lying on the ground at a make-shift morgue the morning after the attacks on February 20, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)


I manage to sleep for a few hours at the hospital. I know in a few hours it's going to be the same routine -- planes, strikes, barrel bombs, wounded civilians, horror, recognising loved ones wounded or dead. But I am still strong. I can still go out and take pictures. I don’t know how…. But I can.

A picture taken on February 20, 2018 shows a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-34 fighter jet flying over the sky in the rebel-held town of Arbin, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)
A picture taken on February 20, 2018 shows smoke plumes rising following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

 

 

Wednesday, February 21

UN chief Antonio Guterres describes what’s happening in Eastern Ghouta as “hell on earth.” Barrel bombs are dropped on the area.

We go into the Saqba neighbourhood after a barrel bomb strike. A woman and her children are crying. A man is stuck between two walls of a destroyed building. While we’re here, a second barrel bomb hits, two streets away. I can’t focus. It feels like there is a huge cloud above my head…

After a while, I head back to my neighbourhood. A Russian plane had hit it. People are screaming. People don’t know how to deal with a situation like this. I know a little because I follow death and destruction for my work. I get closer to a building. A boy and a girl are stuck between two walls of a collapsed building. I see their legs dangling. I inspect the area to make sure it’s safe. Then I pull out the boy. Then the girl.

 I climb to the rooftop to get a better view. Everything is burning. It seems like everywhere was shelled -- Saqba, Misraba, Douma, Kafr Batna… it seems like the whole area is burning.

Smoke and dust are seen following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 21, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

My neighbours scream that there are more children under the rubble. I put away my camera and head to where they’re pointing. Sometimes I take pictures and sometimes I help pull people out. I don’t have a set formula for when I do what. I just go with my gut. The Civil Defense volunteers say there is one child still stuck, but we find a child and a father. The father has suffocated to death, the child has survived.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrians rescue a child following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 21, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

Thursday, February 22

German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls for an end to “massacre” in Syria. The UN Security Council fails to adopt a resolution on a ceasefire over objections from Russia, an ally of Syria President Bashar al-Assad, who has been helping him militarily.

I wake up at 6:00 am. It’s quiet. There is destruction everywhere. People start to emerge, to check the damage and to try to get some food. A half hour later there is that dreaded sound -- a plane in the sky. It starts shelling. People run back to their shelters. It’s been four days now that the bombing hasn’t stopped. Everyone is scared. 

Later I see White Helmets giving first aid to a man. “Where is my bag of flour?! I need it!” he keeps crying. Seems he was wounded getting food.

There are many people missing. Everyone seems to be searching for their relatives. Some are dead, some are just hiding, but communication is hard.

Syrian children stand amidst debris in Hamouria, in the rebel-held besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 22, 2018.Eastern Ghouta, February 22, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

I don’t have any electricity. I worry about being able to recharge my cameras and my computer. I need them, I can’t work without them.

The number of martyrs has now risen to more than 300. Hospitals can’t count the number of dead and injured. Some people are still stuck under the rubble. The Civil Defence volunteers are trying their best, but they just can’t reach some areas because of the bombardment. The situation is so bad. God help us.

It’s 3:00 pm as I record this and the planes haven’t stopped bombing. Not one area has been spared. The White Helmets are really struggling. Many of their vehicles are damaged. It’s very difficult.

 

A Syrian man checks the site of Syrian government bombardments in Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 22, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

 

Friday, February 23

The UN Security Council postpones a vote on a truce in Eastern Ghouta.

People are cowering in shelters. Everyone is in shock. We can’t understand anything. Everything is out of service. I can’t believe the difference four days of bombardment has made. The whole area has been changed, erased. The streets aren’t there anymore. They’re full of dust, rubble. Only ambulances use them.

A civil Defence volunteer, known as the White Helmets, checks the site of a regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Saqba, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 23, 2018.Eastern Ghouta, February 23, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

Maybe crying doesn’t help, but today I cry. I can’t say anything else. Please, someone stop the carnage. Please, someone has to stop what is happening here!

But life goes on. Today we take out four children from underneath a fully destroyed building. The things that I have witnessed here, I will never forget. If I remain alive.

On Saturday, February 24, the UN Security Council approved a ceasefire resolution, which calls for a ceasefire “without delay” to allow aid into the area. But air strikes continued and claimed more lives. On Monday Russia announced a five-hour daily "humanitarian pause" and corridors for civilians to leave.

This blog was written with Samar Hazboun in Nicosia and Yana Dlugy in Paris.

A picture shows the scene following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 21, 2018.Hamouria, in Eastern Ghouta, on February 23, 2018. (AFP / Abdulmonam Eassa)

 

Abdulmonam Eassa