Sep 6, 2013

The Ground View: Eastern Ghouta, Now Free of Fear

Today marks 181 days of siege here in eastern Ghouta, and 90 days without flour. For two months, bakeries have not opened. People have started to forget what real bread looks like.

For 180 days the regime banned any food from entering this neighborhood. Containers of cooking gas now cost more than 400 Syrian pounds ($4).

Despite all that, and even after the chemical attack, people here still smile at each other on the streets. You still hear laughter, while in Damascus, the mood is grim.

Take Abu Mohammed. He’s a father of three martyrs. The first one was 26 years old when he was tortured to death in 2012. The second was 22 when he was shot dead by a sniper bullet eight months ago, and the oldest son died while he was rescuing people in Zamalka after the Aug. 21 chemical attack.

Despite all of this, Abu Mohammed is almost always smiling. In eastern Ghouta, “we have experienced the taste of freedom,” he says. “My children did not die for me to mourn. They died so we can have a better life. They left one message behind: never give up. People are all going to die sooner or later, it’s just a matter of time. And there is no more glorious way to die than defending what you believe in. That makes me proud and leaves me with a smile of happiness and overwhelming pride.”

What has happened psychologically to people living in the middle of Syria’s increasingly violent conflict zone will take years to understand. But people here say that when you have nothing to lose, you become truly free of fear, and that is their real revolution.

“I don’t know what fear really is,” said six-year-old Smeer, who remembers nothing about Syria from before the revolution. His father was one of the first eight people to die in the revolution, on April 1, 2011, when he was only four years old.

“My dad didn’t die, he went to heaven,” he says. “What more would I want than that?”

Smeer’s oldest brother died while fighting with the rebels during Douma’s liberation on October 31, 2012. The only thing the young boy regrets is the dampening of the original protest movement. Towns in eastern Ghouta used to hold thousands-strong rallies, but since September 2012 the shelling and fighting has been so intense

“I love to sing and dance in the protests. That is something I miss,” Smeer says. “When I grow up I want to be an architect so I can rebuild my city.” Like others here, he has big dreams for a post-conflict Syria.

During a 20-minute electricity blackout in New York this year, thousands of robberies were reported. But in eastern Ghouta, where there has been no electricity for over eight months and guns are carried openly in the street, people sleep with their doors open. If someone screams for help, a crowd will gather. There is not much food, and people live only on the seasonal crops they manage to grow, but no one goes to sleep hungry.

Another local, Hisham, 25, has been working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent since 2010. “We cannot give up,” he says. “The blood of those who paid for our freedom with their lives has closed all the doors of escaping. They left us a dream to fulfill, and wishes of a better place to live in. When you overcome your fears, you can do anything.”

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