The oriental fable “Appointment in Samarra”, of the soldier rushing away from his destiny of death while indeed rushing into this very destiny (it is the theme of the song Samarcanda by Roberto Vecchioni) seems well suited to what Om Ahmad is telling us. Robust, flowered scarf on her head and black dress, sitting on the cushions that serve as a sofa in the bare apartment rented in Masaken Barzeh district, she explains that her husband, an auto mechanic, and their three sons lived in Douma, the most Islamist area of Eastern Ghouta. “Over five years ago, while several formations of musallahin – armed Islamist groups – were coming to the area, we closed the house and came here to Damascus, where we had friends”.
Her second child Rabee, now sixteen, is in a wheelchair. “One day, three years ago, he and my husband were in the mechanical workshop…. when it was hit by a missile that targeted Damascus, starting right from the area that we had left behind.” Rabee’s father died in the explosion, and the boy’s mangled legs had to be amputated.
Since then, they have survived with public and private aid and some work Ahmed, the first son, was able to find. Rabee is going to wear his artificial legs. With the prosthesis he can walk, but only the aided of a walker: the amputation occurred above the knees.
Ahmed shows us on the mobile phone their home in Douma and tells us “we were told it is now destroyed”, while his mother adds: “I have only one wish now: that my child can have the best prostheses”. It is probably the dream of 30,000 amputees of the war in Syria.
But what think the women who remained throughout in Douma, as they have lived the last months of bitter clashes between the Syrian army on one side and the other Islamist configurations? Where do they live now, because so many bombed buildings are uninhabitable? Our visit to Douma with Sulaf Maki, who is a young Syrian-Sudanese film student engaged in interviewing women around the country, was too brief. We could not speak to the dark figures on the streets under a scorching sun, in black robes that covered their face, head, neck, shoulders, sometimes the eyes.
Even the few nurses at a hospital did not want to talk, perhaps frightened by the camera. Perhaps many husbands and children of these mute figures were fighting with the Islamists. But now the government has reclaimed the area, and no one would admit this. Whoever is left would have agreed to lay down their arms in the so-called reconciliation agreement. Nevertheless, differences and mistrust remain.
Samar is among those 150,000-200,000 inhabitants (the million and a half before the war) to have never moved from eastern Ghouta, a large agricultural area. She lives in the town of Kafarbatna and is the wife of a farmer whose land has continued to produce fruit and vegetables and legumes during the war, while paying heavy bribes to the armed groups. Samar remembers the risks of the last months of the war: “There, there, they destroyed that building just across the street, it was occupied by musallahin, the air force bombed it. That day I had taken refuge in the basement, but we did not want to leave.” The Islamist groups that she calls “terrorist occupiers” left the population. “Once they left, it was discovered that they had warehouses full of food and medical aid that had arrived from outside Ghouta.” Now the people of the area and in the camps of the displaced have the same narrative, opposed to those who denounced a siege and indiscriminate shelling by the Syrian government. But in war the narrative is polarized.
For the video interview, Samar has worn the niqab, which leaves only the eyes visible. It is obvious to compare her to the woman behind the camera, Sulaf, who wears the hijab to cover the head and neck, over trousers and jacket, but who is entirely secular. “I wear the veil only because my mother forces me. But when I will be financially independent, I will remove it.”
Sulaf disapproves of both the “Saudi-style” of the Douma women (but we saw one also in a street of Damascus!) and of those girls in Damascus who put the hijab on hyper-adherent T-shirts with padded underwear and leggings. Funny combinations! Also some women who do not even do Ramadan (religious fasting from dawn to dusk, one month a year) wear the hijab and long black overcoats (in summer). Like Sarah el Hawi, baker in the Jaramana district of Damascus. She tells us that her family left the Deir ez-Zor area years ago to escape the arriving Islamist groups.
The same is true for women from liberal political groups: Rabab Sweid of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and in the Rock al din neighborhood in the Damascus heights, along with five thousand Palestinians who fled Yarmouk camp over the years, long controlled first by Islamists and then by the Islamic state cells. “But it seems indiscreet to talk of her clothes. Perhaps she needs to be accepted in a traditional community,” notes the young agrarian economist, Dima Hasan, who in her spare time is a volunteer with the displaced people. Twenty-nine, black hair and modest clothing, Dima lives alone in Damascus, in a basement in Bab Tuma neighborhood, populated by many Christians. “I was born and raised in the region of Tartous, in a seaside village; my first and basically only contact with the Islamists were the missiles launched from Ghouta and Jobar against Damascus and my area here; they targeted us from 2012 until a few months ago.”
But Dima is lucky. The war has impacted so many other women. Hayat Awad is the mother of a conscript killed years ago in Daraa. She lives in Homs. She accompanies us to the Khalidia neighborhood destroyed by the fighting, street dust on the black shirt and pants of her prolonged grief. We arrive in the street Share Zon, where the Jabour family returned home. They had left in February 2012, “because this building is on the corner of the so-called path of death, a kind of boundary between the Syria Army and the jihadists. See there the carcass of a tank exploded two days after our escape,” explained Norma and her daughter Victoria. The Jabour, for years displaced in the countryside, are now in the house of their grandparents, and are rebuilding the top of the house while camped on the ground floor. The roof is thankfully sound. They remember how suddenly the coexistence between Christian and Muslim neighbors was shattered. “Our house was later occupied by the musallahin, hence they were shooting at the army.” But now the family members are optimistic. Victoria studies pharmacy: “Syria was and will return to be a great producer of medicines with a good health service.”
The strength of women doggedly remaining in Syria is also seen in Naham, a medicine student recruit in a pediatric hospital because “at least 30% of the country’s doctors went abroad and those who are left must care for everyone.”
And what to say of Bushra Jawed, from Iraq’s Nasiriyah? Alone, in 2007, she left Iraq caught between the anvil of the US occupation and the hammer of growing Al Qaeda terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis indeed found refuge in the then quiet Damascus, in the Jaramana district where Bushra opened a small restaurant. After 2011, “this neighborhood has been targeted by terrorist missiles, I have seen people die,” she says calmly.
Meantime, in the narrow road, a tanker supplies water to the buildings.
The road to normality is still long.