Buses carrying residents and rebels leave Damascus suburb, as rebels prepare to cede control of area to Assad forces.
As a new round of Syria talks, aimed at consolidating a nationwide shaky ceasefire, begin in Kazakhstan’s capital, residents of the besieged East Ghouta say they will refuse any deals that would eventually lead to their “displacement” and the transfer of Eastern Ghouta to government hands.
“There is no human being in Eastern Ghouta who would accept packing up, leaving this city, and handing it over to the government, even if that means being killed,” Ward Mardini, a local journalist in Saqba, one of the 29 communities in Eastern Ghouta under opposition control for the past four years, told Al Jazeera.
Over the past year, Damascus has reached a series of local truce agreements in which rebels, the government refers to them as “terrorists”, agree to lay down heavy weapons and evacuate areas after years of bombardment and siege.
Despite talk of East Ghouta becoming the next east Aleppo, Daraya, Moadamiyat al-Sham or al-Waer, where government forces imposed airtight sieges until evacuation agreements were reached, residents say there is an internal effort to unify the opposition and civil society in hope of resisting any such deals.
“We are under pressure of being forcefully displaced. It is clear that the government may be using the same tactics it used in Aleppo,” Abu Salem al-Shami, an activist in Eastern Ghouta, told Al Jazeera.”The siege creates an internal psychological crisis being felt by everyone, and people want to get out of this crisis. Now, you suddenly have all these reconciliation projects that are coming up so that people will succumb and leave.”
“That’s why we are trying to pressurise the factions and the people here to unify so that we could produce a clear political outlook of our demands,” which, said al-Shami, was the downfall of the regime. “If we want to get rid of tyranny, then we need to do this.”
Last Monday, Syria’s state news agency that “a reconciliation will be reached within the coming few days in one of the East Ghouta regions and probably in several towns and villages”. “Members of the reconciliation committees confirmed that most Eastern Ghouta residents are in favour of reconciliation,” the statement said.
Though a Turkish and Russian brokered ceasefire came into effect earlier this month, fighting in the Damascus suburbs has not stopped. The truce was said to include all Syrian rebel groups except Jabhet Fateh al-Sham (previously al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed groups.
We are under pressure of being forcefully displaced. It is clear that the government may be using the same tactics it used in Aleppo.
In Eastern Ghouta, the main groups leading the fight are Faylaq al-Rahman (al-Rahman Corps), Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant), which works closely with Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, who have some fighters on the ground, as well.
The groups have often fought against one another, despite their joint aim of bringing down the Assad government, which has been in power for 17 years under Bashar al-Assad, and since 1971 under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.
“There used to be more than 150 rebel groups operating in Eastern Ghouta. Now there are four or five main ones, owing to our efforts to unify the groups. But they remain divided,” said al-Shami.
Despite the presence of hardline groups on the ground, residents say there is no place for the ideologies of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, which aim to create an Islamic state in Syria under Islamic law.
“We know that people on the outside are framing this as a war of ideology and wanting to build an Islamic state – but this no place for this kind of talk here. There is no way that residents here will give Ghouta away to such groups. There’s no way,” said al-Shami.
But in this fight, the civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict. With the government gaining the upper hand since Russia launched its campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in September 2015, civilians in areas under opposition control have been the prime victims.
In 2013, approximately 1,500 people were killed when rockets with poisonous gas heads were dropped on Eastern Ghouta. And, today, medical centres and hospitals say at least 20 to 30 people are being treated on a daily basis for wounds from the constant bombardment.
“Most people that come in have shrapnel wounds,” Abu Hussam, a doctor and head of media relations for the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in East Ghouta, told Al Jazeera. “Many of those who need complex surgeries have been finding ways to get out of the enclave to be treated in Damascus, which involves paying large sums of money.”
Mahmoud al-Sheikh, the administrative director of the bureau, which oversees all the medical facilities in East Ghouta, says there are about 55 medical centres remaining in the area. “Around 60 percent of the centres that we had before have been targeted by the regime,” said al-Sheikh.
“They are seen as points of strength and persistence – that is why they’re being targeted,” he said, adding that there is a huge deficiency in the needed medical supplies.
The siege has also severely restricted access to electricity, water, food and fuel, and the suffering of residents has been exacerbated by the winter cold. “Due to the high price of wood, people are forced to burn their old clothes and their furniture – anything they can burn, they burn it,” said Mardini.
“Every day, you see women and children collecting plastic or anything that is flammable to be able to keep themselves warm and to cook.”
East Ghouta, whose inhabitants number approximately 300,000, is only one of 39 besieged communities across Syria, according to a report by Siege Watch. The monitor, which is managed by the US-based Syria Institute research group and PAX, a Netherlands-based peace research team, says more than 1.3 million people remain trapped.
An additional 1.4 million face siege-linked conditions, the group says.
Despite the daily struggles, the area’s residents remain steadfast. “All we’re asking for is an end to this river of blood. We did not ask for this. We asked for freedom from a dictatorship,” said al-Sheikh.
“We want a transition of power, an end to the siege, and freedom for our prisoners.”
At least 400,000 civilians have been killed since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began as a largely unarmed uprising against the government, according to the United Nations.
More than 6 million Syrians, including 2.8 million children, have been internally displaced from their homes – the biggest internally displaced population in the world. An additional 4.8 million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
“If I wanted to send a message, it would be this: Before the revolution, Syria used to accept many refugees from several countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and even tourists,” said Mardini.
“We never treated anyone with a superior manner; we opened our homes and we were very good to them. But now, unfortunately, we have not found sympathy from anyone.”