“We saw children who were nothing but skin and bones because of the siege”

Last month pro-Assad forces, after sustained conventional and chemical attacks and enabled by Russian airpower, retook the East Ghouta area near Damascus, which had been held by the opposition since 2012.

The Assad regime, as with all cases of recaptured territory, has been proclaiming the return of happy residents. Some are able to come back — although others, especially single men of military age, are being kept in regime-controlled comps — to see if they still have homes.

Samir al-Hamwi is one of those who has returned. He left Douma for regime-held suburbs of Damascus with his wife and four sons in 2012, leaving behind friends, other family, and his business.

This is his account to Ammar Hamou and Alice al-Maleh of Syria Direct:

Can you describe your first visit back to Douma this month?

I went in my own car with two of my sons. When we set out, I started sweating a lot—out of terror and happiness—and feeling things that I can’t even describe. It was forbidden to enter Douma by car, but I paid one of the guards at a checkpoint and he let us in.

I entered from the side of the military hospital of Harasta and when I reached the first residential area in Douma, despite all of the destruction and the collapsed buildings, it was as though I was in paradise. I got out of the car and knelt to thank God before continuing.

Driving through the city, I saw rubble left and right, to the extent that I couldn’t tell one area from another or compare it to what was there before 2011.

How did you to find and meet old friends and relatives in Douma?

Although I owned a business in Douma and knew many people in the city, I didn’t recognize any of the people around me.

I found the first person I knew — a guy I worked with before 2011 — when I reached the Douma market, at the center of the city. It was an incredible scene, with tears of joy. Even the people who saw us started crying. This person became my guide in the city. I asked him about my family, where they lived and how [our] friends were doing.

I visited my cousin and his mother, in an indescribable meeting. Over the past six years, even talking over social media was limited, since I was in a government-controlled area and [my cousin] was in the opposition-controlled areas, which could have resulted in security problems for my cousin.

How did you find the people of the city, when you visited?

God must have given them extraordinary strength. Just 25 days after the bombing stopped and aid entered, people showed high morale and initiative.

We saw children who were nothing but skin and bones because of the siege and the lack of food and medicine, but between my first and fifth visit to Douma I noticed a clear difference in the build of their bodies. It was as if every day was a year for them.

I noticed people’s goodwill, [which was] more than one could imagine. The people of Douma were known for their generosity even before 2011, and this continues. Despite all of the poverty, the need and oppression that the city has lived through for years, people welcomed me with great hospitality, [even though] they had nothing.

Did you talk to people about the siege? What did you hear from them?

Based on my conversations with residents and my acquaintances in Douma, and from what I have seen with my own eyes, I don’t think that any area has been subjected to what happened in East Ghouta. People in Douma are comparing their siege to the siege of Gaza.

I don’t think that any populated city in the world has been subjected to the same degree of destruction as Douma.

Q: How are Douma residents spending their time these days?

These are among the most strange — and pleasant — scenes that I’ve seen during my visits. If not for the destruction and rubble in the streets, I would have thought that I was in a city that never witnessed war.

There are people everywhere in the city. Some are planting flowers in front of their homes. Others are cleaning. People aren’t waiting for the municipality to come and remove the debris. You see them removing rubble from in front of their homes in plastic bags.

Once, while I was walking down one street, I found some people I knew [gathering rubble] and I asked what they were doing. One of them said: “We’re working to clear the rubble and the remains of homes, and to put it to use by recycling it.” They are cleaning bricks and reworking iron for re-sale and use in reconstruction operations. The workers are getting SP1,500 [approx. $3 USD] per day. The wage is the same as it was during the siege, but whereas just months ago that sum was not enough for one meal, now it’s enough for a worker to eat and drink well.

Q: What have you seen of the markets in the city? Are people able to buy things?

Many items — food and fruit — have returned to the markets after being absent during the years of siege. The prices during the siege were dozens of times more than the current prices. For example, a bag of bread in Douma costs SP50 [approx. $0.10 USD] right now, whereas in the final days of the siege — two months ago — it cost about SP1,000 [approx $2 USD].

During one visit to Douma, I gave a member of my family SP20,000 [approx. $39 USD] to one member of my family, and he told me that the sum would have been equal to SP200,000 [approx. $390] in buying power during the siege, even though the exchange rate between the lira and the dollar has not changed. This relative provides for his wife, children and grandchildren. His daughters’ husbands died, so he provides for them and their children also.