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Families Go Underground to Survive Syrian Regime’s Bombs

Families Go Underground to Survive Syrian Regime’s Bombs

Thousands of women, children and men have taken cover underground in unfinished basements, bunkers and tunnels to survive the Syrian government’s bombing campaign on the rebel-held district of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.

By – Nour Alakraa and Raja Abdulrahim

Food is scarce, privacy and hygiene nearly absent. Bathrooms are typically a corner of the room, roped off with curtains.

The stress is taking a toll, especially on Eastern Ghouta’s children. “We adults can bear the hunger, but kids keep crying until they fall asleep,” said Sidra, a woman who was hunkered down with her family in a basement in the town of Saqba and didn’t want her last name used. “I would rather die from a mortar than watch kids cry because of hunger and fear.”

Despite a United Nations resolution for a 30-day nationwide cease-fireon Feb. 24, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has persisted with its bombing campaign while also maintaining an effective blockade on an area with nearly 400,000 people. In the first 72 hours after the resolution was passed, 107 civilians—including 34 children—were killed, according to the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In total, according to Doctors Without Borders, which supports several hospitals in the district, the air campaign killed 770 people in Eastern Ghouta between Feb. 18 and Feb. 27.

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The Assad regime accuses opposition rebels in the district of being terrorists and blames them for launching mortar shells on Damascus neighborhoods in recent weeks, killing and injuring dozens.

Russia has said it wouldn’t implement the 30-day cease-fire, which it approved in the U.N. Security Council, alleging that the enclave contains fighters linked with al Qaeda. It said it has instead created humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, but locals say they don’t trust their safety in these corridors as attacks persist.

Without a respite in the bombing, humanitarian aid convoys have struggled to get in. In only the second delivery this year, buses on Monday made their way into the district, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs office, but the organization said it wasn’t clear if the convoy had even been unloaded or its contents distributed.

Unable to get out, Eastern Ghouta residents are now hunkered down underground.

Two days after the regime launched its offensive, Sidra and her husband took their 13-year-old daughter, their cell phones and the little food—mostly dried greens—left in their apartment and ran to the only underground shelter in their neighborhood in Saqba. Days after they fled, a barrage of rockets struck near their building and damaged their home.

The dusty basement they now shared with 14 other families was once used as a warehouse by a furniture merchant. After removing useless furniture, they laid out mattresses and hung up curtains for a bathroom. The men tried to fortify the basement with sandbags meant to help absorb the blasts or shrapnel from barrel bombs.

Across Eastern Ghouta, which contains three cities and 14 towns including Saqba, residents worry whether their underground shelters will be sturdy enough to protect them and whether they will have enough to eat. Sidra says her daughter fainted twice in the past week from hunger and panic.

The continuing assault has sharpened international criticism of Syria and its allies, Russia and Iran—as well as of the U.N. for failing to secure the cease-fire.

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But for those sheltering underground in Eastern Ghouta, whose number local doctors and activists estimate in the tens of thousands, none of the international condemnation has brought any relief.

Mohammad Abu Alaa helped prepare his neighborhood’s bunker, a dirt-floored basement that now houses more than 100 people, mostly women and children. They hung curtains in the 650-square-foot room to divide it into women’s and men’s sections and a third area for a wooden stove, even though there isn’t much food to cook.

There is no bathroom and no heat. The only time people venture above ground is to look for food, cow’s milk for the babies or to use the bathroom.

“When the strikes simmer down we go to the nearest house in order to use the bathrooms,” Mr. Abu Alaa said. “But because of the never-ending shelling some kids are too afraid to go out to the bathroom. Sometimes they just pee on themselves because they panic from shelling.”

Bayan Rehan, a councilwoman in Douma, eastern Ghouta’s largest city, tried sticking it out in her home at first but was forced to leave after missiles struck her building on the fifth day of the regime’s assault. Amid intense shelling, she and her extended family fled to a nearby basement.

“We had two minutes to run 150 meters towards the nearest shelter for women and children,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “And we couldn’t take anything; we simply wanted to survive the hellfire raining on us.”

Once inside, she wrote, she looked around at the frightened faces around her and was reminded of her time spent in one of the regime’s notorious prisons.

To calm the screaming children that night, she gathered them around her and told them stories about Moses—considered a prophet in Islam—and snippets of “Gone With the Wind,” which she said she chose because it is about the importance of home.

In Sidra’s shelter adults tell stories about heaven, in part to lessen children’s fear about dying as they hear the pounding overhead.

“We tell them there are biscuits, fruits and bread [in heaven],” she said. “Some children then ask us, ‘When are we going to heaven?’”

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