Eastern Ghouta students: It’s suicide if we leave our basements

Three students explain what life is like in rebel-held besieged enclave, as they try to keep up with their studies.

A man walks on a damaged street in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus
A man walks on a damaged street in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 25, 2018 [Bassam Khabieh/Reuters]

It has been nearly five years since Syrian government forces imposed a siege on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta.

The past month has been one of the deadliest in the enclave, with more 1,200 civilians killed since the aerial and ground bombardment began on February 18. 

As the campaign against Eastern Ghouta continues, schools and universities have either been destroyed or shut down, leaving students with few options for continuing their education. 

Some have enrolled in online universities, while others have joined new, start-up medical academies to address the extreme shortage of medical staff in the area. 

Three students spoke to Al Jazeera about the obstacles they face as they try to continue their education in Eastern Ghouta.

Majed Daas, 22, computer science student

Ever since 2013 [start of the siege], I began searching for a way to continue my studies, but it was difficult because of the siege and we frequently have no fuel, internet or electricity.

So I sat down with some of my friends who are older than me, have already graduated or studied computer science and I started to learn how to run computer programs and software with them.

It was tough at the beginning, very complicated, but computer science has always been my obsession. After training with my friends, I completed my high school exam and did quite well.

Before the campaign started [against Eastern Ghouta], I was going to an internet shop to study, which cost a lot – nearly $3 per session every day. The books that I had to print cost me a fortune. I earn only $150 a month and printing a book costs about $30. 

Studying on my laptop was challenging too. We never have electricity so I have to pay $5 a week to get electricity for a few hours and sometimes it doesn’t work properly because of the attacks. 

Two months ago, I applied at the University of the People [an American online institution] and signed up for two courses only, but I couldn’t continue because of the intense attacks. Sadly, I had to withdraw since I can’t complete the courses under these circumstances.

Our days now are horrifying; I just can’t describe it. As I am talking to [you] right now [by phone] seven air strikes have struck around me. We stay all day in basements; sometimes I go outside to use the internet to talk with friends and family.

A photo of what is left of Majed Daas' home that was destroyed last week [Courtesy of Majed Daas]
A photo of what is left of Majed Daas’ home that was destroyed last week [Courtesy of Majed Daas]

Warplanes, helicopters, mortar attacks – everything that you can imagine is being dropped on us by Russian forces and the [Bashar al-Assad] regime. We are expecting something like [the atomic bombings of] Hiroshima and Nagasaki to happen so they can kill us all and finish us off.

We have spent the last three weeks underground sleeping, waiting, going up and down, helping to bring some water and whatever we can to women and old, sick people who are struggling to death in these tombs or so-called basements. 

Bassam Yousef, 22, physiotherapy student

The crowds of injured people and the shortage of medical staff in Eastern Ghouta is what drove me to continue my studies. With Sham Medical Academy, I found what I needed and it opened many doors for me to continue my studies. The academy opened to support the liberated areas with properly trained medical staff who don’t have medical certificates.

For sure, studying in Ghouta is very different. We had class interrupted countless times because of the relentless shelling campaign these last years, especially in Jobar area, close to me.

In each of these shelling campaigns, medical checkpoints and hospitals have been drowning with patients. Where I work, we were targeted more than three times, and it affected me badly in my studies as I was conducting medical research with Sham Medical Academy.

Since three months ago, we’ve been suffering from a lack of materials and supplies, food and fuel prices have increased gradually, schools have closed after many massacres and directed attacks against them. Education has come to a halt in all of Eastern Ghouta. I want to continue my Masters in psychological sciences at the academy, but can’t because of the intense campaign against Ghouta. 

We have been living in the basement for the last few weeks. We hardly have any food supplies and water. There are roughly 200 people in each basement. The continuous attacks have prevented us from leaving it for hours sometimes; it’s quite stinky and humid.

Bassam Yousef helps a patient at a medical checkpoint in Eastern Ghouta [Courtesy of Bassam Yousef]
Bassam Yousef helps a patient at a medical checkpoint in Eastern Ghouta [Courtesy of Bassam Yousef]

Can you imagine the amount of people held in a small place, breathing heavily and struggling with lung illnesses and other diseases? We are being hit right now as we speak [over the phone]. We will be hit by regime forces until we die or they force us to leave the city.

Mohammed Nizar Arbash, 22, computer science student

When the siege hit the city, we weren’t able to go out or get any supplies. I couldn’t find any way to study so I started working on some computer programs for video editing and was developing these skills with help from friends. I learned how to do many things like app programming.

I worked during this time with the civil defence team, helping them with video editing in their media office, which helped me to develop my computer knowledge.

By the beginning of 2016, I enrolled at the virtual University of the People in computer science. It was [a] hard decision to make as I couldn’t give up working, which my family and I depend on in order to survive and I had to pay the university’s expenses as well. [The university charges an assessment fee of $100 per course.]

Before studying at the virtual university, I studied computer science for two years in Eastern Ghouta, which was supported by the temporary government of the opposition, but my certificate wasn’t recognised by international universities because the university didn’t belong to the regime.

Mohammed Nizar Arbash says 'the virtual option has been the best solution' for obtaining an education in Eastern Ghouta [Courtesy of Mohammed Nizar Arbash] 
Mohammed Nizar Arbash says ‘the virtual option has been the best solution’ for obtaining an education in Eastern Ghouta [Courtesy of Mohammed Nizar Arbash] 

The certificate that I received was practically useless and I had to start from scratch all over again. To complete my studies and get a masters degree, I registered in the virtual university as I knew I would otherwise face difficulties in continuing my higher studies.

But this semester I withdrew from all of my courses because of the ongoing extermination war that we are under now.

These days I go out to bring water for people, bring some batteries to light the shelter or go out to find a medic or anything the elderly urgently need. It’s suicide every time we leave our basements, but if we don’t leave it for some time we’ll suffocate from the bad smell. It’s more like prisons that we’re living in, stuck under the shelling of Assad’s forces and its allies.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Source: Al Jazeera