‘I feel I am living in a grave, forgotten’ — Life under bombardment in Syria’s Douma
White trucks of humanitarian aid rumbled through Damascus in a convoy stretching for half a kilometre, moving slowly on the highway and heading towards Douma in Eastern Ghouta. It was 15 March, the day the Syrian uprising started seven long years ago; the World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners were bringing life-saving food assistance to people trapped in the besieged town.
As we crossed the frontlines and into the buffer-zone area, a bearded man on a bicycle emerged out of heaps of rubble from a side road, like a ghost. There was a rifle hanging around his neck. I watched him with an equal mixture of trepidation and anticipation, as he turned and disappeared into the destruction that was once the outskirts of a bustling city.
"A bearded man on a bicycle emerged out of heaps of rubble from a side road, like a ghost."
Until recently, Douma's farmland helped residents to survive a six-year-long siege. But in just three months, over 40 percent of Douma has been destroyed. Today, going out to buy food could cost someone their life. Bombardment has forced most residents to live underground.
Yet driving in, it seemed that everyone in the city had come out into the open to watch us. Men stood by the road taking pictures with their cell phones, as children ran along the convoy to escort it. Veiled women came out to their balconies to watch the rolling trucks and UN flags fluttering in the wind.
Volunteers gathered to help offload the aid from the trucks, including WFP's wheat flour which the men were offloading into underground cellars. According to the local council, we learned that there were more than 200,000 people in Douma, many of them displaced from nearby villages and other areas within Eastern Ghouta, and all of them needing food and medicine.
Despite the intolerable living conditions, council members insisted that the people of Douma were staying strong and holding their ground. On the walls of the local council hung a large poster. It read: Douma, the Will of Stay — a literal translation from Arabic into English.
Leaving the devastation above, we took a long and narrow staircase deep into Douma's underworld: a network of basements that has become fertile ground for disease and infection.
"The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling."
Many residents are forced to live underground, crammed together in packed spaces to avoid airstrikes. Even the shopkeepers have set up their businesses underground. We found one such business, a small convenience store that doubled as a makeshift bakery. There we met Mustafa, a man in his twenties.
"The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling. I hope whoever is hungry gets help," he said. Because of the increasing demand for food and limited quantities allowed inside, residents of Douma have had to split the food assistance WFP delivered during an earlier convoy in order to reach as many people as possible.
"I feel I am living in a grave, forgotten," Mustafa said.
Back on the ground, volunteers continued to offload the aid, handing wheat flour bags down the aisle, sliding it down the ramp and into the cellars. Wheat flour particles hung in the air and so did the workers' tongue-in-cheek jokes and cheerful chatter.
Two young boys, Hamza and Anas, walked up to ask me a question that would repeat throughout the day-long convoy: "Are you here to take us out?" I pointed to the trucks lined up just to their right and said we were bringing in food for them and their families. "But can we go with you?" they pleaded.
"When will the road open? We want to go out!" a third boy asked. Words of comfort were not enough to soothe them, and it broke my heart to see the limits of a humanitarian mission where we fall short of our purpose to ease the suffering of those who languish in poverty. An hour into the offloading, I experienced first hand why our aid to this besieged city was not enough.
Gradually, we became dauntingly aware that the faint sounds of bombing and shelling in the distance were becoming stronger — and nearer. This escalation made everyone nervous. More volunteers, this time young boys and teenagers, appeared on scene to finish the job faster.
The chatting and joking stopped with everyone dead focused on the task. Wheat flour bags were now being frantically tossed about.
"Hurry hurry! Toss it faster!" yelled the lead volunteer as the sound of shelling neared. By now the wheat flour particles in the air covered the workers, with me and my camera in white from head to toe.
Suddenly it came. An airstrike hit less than 100 metres away from where we stood. The ground shook and everyone ran to take cover under the arched walls of the mosque's outer hallway. When the shelling finally stopped — it seemed to last a lifetime — people re-emerged to finish offloading. This time the atmosphere turned sombre and ominous.
One little boy, named Abdulla, stood by himself in the middle of the aftermath. He caught my attention because of the traumatized, vacant look in his eyes. I asked him if he was all right, but he couldn't speak for several minutes.
Some local men came and rested their hands on his shoulder. One of them turned to me and said: "This is the life we live every day."
The situation in Douma is increasingly and visibly desperate, and the local council has spelled out the city's humanitarian needs to WFP and the UN team and partners: food, health and sanitary items, medical kits, and equipment and nutritional supplies.
Later in the afternoon, as our team gathered to leave Douma, an older woman came up to me, begging for a way out. "Please, won't you take me and my daughter out? We are going to die here," she told me. "What is the point of food and drink if after it we will die?"
As I walked out of the city, so destroyed, I passed by Abdulla, who seemed to have regained his bearings. I asked him if there was anything I could get him.
All he wanted, he said, was to go out and run around with his friends without the fear of dying.