Letter from Ghouta: The fear of coming home to nothing

A resident of Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta recounts the daily anxieties of waiting for bombs to fall.

Syrian houses
Norran K's street was struck by regime missiles in early December [Norran K/Al Jazeera]

On the outskirts of Damascus lies the rich, aspen-tree-laden land of eastern Ghouta. The area, meaning “oasis” in Arabic, was once considered a lifeline to the Syrian capital of Damascus, supplying its inhabitants with produce, cereals and dairy, and even offering protection, with its thick brush surrounding the capital. But today, thousands of residents are trapped inside, amid a siege that has been going on since 2013.

The site of the 2013 chemical attacks, eastern Ghouta has also been pulverised by near daily air attacks by the Syrian regime. Norran K, 20, who was born and raised in the town of Saqba, told her story to Al Jazeera’s Malak Alkassir.

We used to run in fear every time a regime plane soared overhead, bombs falling on to no one in particular, but with a vengeance. When the bombs strike, even if they’re several kilometres away, entire buildings rumble and our windows shatter.

Smoke rises from a residential building in Saqba, in the outskirts of Damascus [Norran K/Al Jazeera]
Smoke rises from a residential building in Saqba, in the outskirts of Damascus [Norran K/Al Jazeera]

On these nights, I can’t put my daughter to sleep in her room – I worry that the windows will shatter over her tiny, shrouded, sleeping body. As soon as we hear the planes coming (more often than not, without warning; one minute we’re in the sitting room, dipping our sesame kaak in our tea, and the next, the engines are roaring and whistling overhead), I take her on to my lap and hold my hands against the sides of her little head, protecting her ears from the harshness that has become our norm.

She is only five months old. She was born in the midst of our “revolution”, and this is the only Syria she has ever known.

It’s the noise that frightens us the most – the anticipation of the bang causes the hair to rise on the back of our necks, our shoulders to tense and our stomachs to churn. The noise of humming engines and explosions overhead is not something I can ever get used to, even though this has been going on for such a long time.

We never know where they’ll hit next. It could be my house; it could be my parents’ or one of my sisters’. Last week, it was my husband’s sister, who lives just down the street from us. She took pictures of the destruction to show me, and the only thing I could think of was how strange it was that it hit her home and not mine – that this time, again, we were spared.

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The worst is when the planes are overhead when we’re outside, trying to go about our lives. A sense of dread takes over and we don’t know where to turn or where to hide. We dart in the direction in which everyone else is running. We hide in strangers’ houses, under stairwells, inside shops – anywhere that’s not out in the open.

I’m fortunate to live near my family, unlike many others, who I sometimes see wandering aimlessly in desperation each time a bomb hits a building, not knowing if their family members are alive or injured. I can usually make my way towards my mother’s home within minutes, and that’s where I usually find my sisters with their children in tow, running into the warmth of our mother’s home, the only place that is still reminiscent of the days that have passed.

The front door already stands open before I get there, and my mother peeks out from behind it. I kiss her hand and touch it to my forehead as I dart inside, my child in my arms. We know the routine – down into the basement, below the stairs. Quietly in line, my nieces and nephews go to a basket stacked with crayons, drawing pads and some toys left behind from the last time we were down here.

Civilian homes are a common target for the Bashar al-Assad regime's air strikes [Norran K/Al Jazeera]
Civilian homes are a common target for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s air strikes [Norran K/Al Jazeera]

When it’s over, we warily make our way upstairs. Overlooking the city from the balcony, we see young men picking up their shovels, others digging with their hands, listening for voices underneath the rubble. Children and women run to those gathered around: “So-and-so’s house was hit – hurry!” Sometimes there is that distinct voice, its desperation conveying that it is a mother: “I cannot find him. Where’s my child?”

We have no choice but to get used to this. We don’t know when it will end – if it will ever end – and life has to go on.

Each day, I am awake by early morning to catch the dawn prayers before sunrise. I wake my husband and we drink our coffee made on a wood-burning stove that doubles as a heater in the cold winter months.

I send him to get me everything I need for the week early in the day when the regime strikes are less likely. He goes to work; I begin my chores. I sometimes have guests over: my friends, my sisters, anyone who needs a distraction from the torturous routine of sending husbands and children out there, never knowing if they’ll come back, or if they’ll come back to nothing.

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Each morning, as my husband dresses, I wonder the same: Will he come back to find us alive? I wonder what his face would look like if he found our house disintegrated into a pile of rubble, with us buried underneath, as has happened to so many of the houses around us. I lose myself in my thoughts, but find comfort in the idea that we’re likely to be safe if we’ve made it this long.

Pulverised roads and buildings are a common sight in the eastern Ghouta area in the outskirts of Damascus [Norran K/Al Jazeera]
Pulverised roads and buildings are a common sight in the eastern Ghouta area in the outskirts of Damascus [Norran K/Al Jazeera]

I don’t go out as much now, and when I do, I take a look around the rooms, knowing there’s a very real possibility that I won’t stand between these walls again.

And that’s what happened last week: the bombs fell, we took shelter, and in the streets I heard people say my street had been hit. I went to my mother’s, knowing I’d need at least an hour before the smoke and dust settled.

When I finally went back later that evening, the windows were shattered, walls had fallen over, closets and cabinets had crashed to the floor, and the dull, grey, powdered concrete covered every crevice of the home.

“Alhamdulillah, bil maal wa moo bil ‘iyaal,” everyone would echo. Thank God, it was just the property and not the family. 

I began picking up the bits and pieces that remained, knowing that life would go on.

Source: Al Jazeera