Damascus’ shelters for Ghouta’s displaced: A new kind of prison

For over 100,000 civilians expelled from Eastern Ghouta, their new homes in official shelters bear striking resemblance to the regime’s fearsome detention centers.

[Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series of four originally published in Arabic by Al-Jumhuriya during the siege and bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, Damascus Province, and the subsequent forced displacement of over 100,000 of its residents. The first and second in the series may be read here and here. The original Arabic version of this article, published on 9 April, 2018, may be read here. The four articles have been translated in cooperation with The Ghouta Campaign.]

For those who have left the Syrian regime’s numerous detention centers; who have spent days, weeks, months, and perhaps years in the most infamous prisons over the past seven years; there are memories unlike any others. Syria’s detention centers have their own terminology, symbolism, rituals, and secrets. All of these create a common bond between the people who have had this particular experience. This is, of course, not to mention the cruelty, which justifies many otherwise unthinkable acts. These acts of submission and subjugation that lead to humiliation and begging, as well as acts of extreme selfishness and alienation, all serve as a sort of refuge from a bleak and unknown future, and from ongoing, imminent violence.

Herein lies a paradox: whoever visits, hears, or reads about the shelter centers prepared by the Syrian government in the outskirts of Damascus, which are designed to receive those who have escaped from Eastern Ghouta, will find it easy to picture these Syrian detention centers. Shelters, detention centers; call them what you will. There may be various euphemisms and differing conditions, but the simple fact is all these places are reserved for those who disobey the ruler. Those who survived death might not escape arrest, and those who survived siege have another siege waiting for them.

“Al-Duwayr,” “Adra Electricity,” “Harjalla,” Al-Fayhaa,” “State Security,” “Political Security,” “Military Security,” “Air Force Intelligence:” all these names will forever be linked in the memories of those who have experienced life inside them with the various instruments of oppression that the Syrian regime uses against its opponents, and against their popular base, and anyone who once had the courage to say “no.”

The beginning

A few days after the military campaign in Eastern Ghouta began in mid-February (a campaign which would later be described as the most severe attack the Syrian regime had waged on the region outside of its control since 2012), Russia announced the opening of al-Wafideen Camp crossing near the city of Douma, for those wishing to leave for Damascus, which was dubbed “the humanitarian crossing for the civilians detained as human shields by the terrorists.”

Days passed with no new arrivals, as the people of Ghouta, who had been besieged for years, feared reprisals from the Syrian regime’s fighters and supporters. The bombardment and ground attacks escalated, and the area held by opposition fighters—where more than 350,000 civilians were seeking shelter—diminished with the advance of the Syrian army and the militias by its side, and the widespread destruction left by the shelling and air strikes, alongside hundreds of dead and injured.

It was only a matter of days before the first groups of civilians began leaving through a new “humanitarian” crossing, opened from the town of Hamouriya. Pictures proliferated revealing the horror of what was happening: tens of thousands of people fleeing a death machine that had taken hundreds of lives in Ghouta, making their way to a potential safe haven in Damascus. Men and women, children and infants, and the wounded and the elderly alike traveled several kilometers on foot, carrying such belongings as they could, escaping a certain hell to another whose magnitude they didn’t know yet, but to which they were driven by the possibility of it being less cruel; perhaps offering them and their children a better life, or at least a slower death.

The sheer numbers of escapees surprised everyone. According to the Russian defense ministry, which publishes statistics on social media on a daily basis, they totaled more than 100,000 by the beginning of April. In Damascus, the regime and humanitarian workers alike had no choice but to create shelters that would provide the necessary services for the citizens of Eastern Ghouta. This is where the story began, for humanitarian work in government-held areas is subject to the regime’s mood, whims, and commands. What follows is taken from the testimony of volunteers who visit these shelters almost daily, detailing how these tens of thousands of people live and receive basic services within them; a testimony that, to one extent or another, echoes the experience of the Syrian regime’s detention centers.

Getting to know the shelters

These centers began to proliferate with the first large movements of displaced people that were witnessed in Syrian cities and villages targeted by the regime’s military operations. In mid-2012, Damascus began to see the creation of shelters in many neighborhoods and suburbs, primarily in schools, meant to accommodate the thousands of displaced people coming from the Damascus countryside and other Syrian cities. Many of the shelter-seekers received humanitarian relief and social services, and were usually free to leave, work, and move, albeit with the same restrictions imposed on anyone carrying an ID from an area opposed to the regime.

Over the following years, these centers in Damascus witnessed increases and decreases in their numbers of residents, depending on the ebb and flow of military operations in their respective areas. By the end of last year, there were approximately six thousand residents, which prompted the Relief Committee in Damascus to close some unnecessary centers. At the same time, activists spoke of the emptying of some of the centers and the forcing of residents to either return to their homes in the newly “liberated” areas or to move to remote shelters on the outskirts of Damascus, such as al-Duwayr, in the eastern countryside, and Harjalla, in the western countryside; the latter being the dedicated center for families displaced from Darayya in August 2016, in what was the first forced displacement in the environs of the capital.

The centers that sheltered the people of Eastern Ghouta, however, have another story.

Is comparison possible?

All of those leaving through Eastern Ghouta’s crossings were moved to several shelters in Damascus and its surroundings, most notably the centers of Harjalla, al-Duwayr, Adra, and al-Fayhaa Hall, in each of which thousands lived depending on their absorption capacities. The Adra Electricity center hosted about ten thousand people, while Harjalla held over twenty thousand, according to official Syrian estimates.

Upon entry to any center, the new residents are stripped of their IDs, which become in effect deposits held by the regime for the purpose of a security audit. This may be the first indicator that these places have become large concentration camps, within which residents wait to be released.

This release can happen in several different ways: those with relatives on the outside can leave using the so-called “hosting” process. This is available only to women, children, and men over the age of 52, and it requires that the hosting relatives register their address and copies of their identity papers. It also requires, of course, that they be cleared of any security charges that can follow those who leave the center. For most, this necessitates going through clearance and carrying out reconciliation procedures. Those who are not fortunate enough to have a host that can get them out have to wait for either a release decision or for permission to return to Ghouta.

Men between the ages of 18 and 52, i.e., the draft age, have to wait for name scanning (tafyeesh in Syrian slang), to determine whether or not they’re required to perform mandatory military service or join the reserve forces. If so, there is talk of giving them papers for a six-month postponement, after which they will be drafted; this is according to certain statements, but has not yet been officially confirmed.

Many will not mind being drafted. After all, what other options do they have? They can stay in Ghouta and die, or they can leave for Idlib and face a completely unknown fate, especially given the almost-complete closure of the Turkish borders and the high cost of human smuggling. At present, being drafted may be the least costly, and safest, option for many men and their families.

Security clearances and auditing are carried out daily, as are “hosting” proceedings. The names of the “released” are broadcast via loudspeakers, sending people running around in search of the place that might mean their freedom. Everyone is eager to hear their names, in the same way as detainees’ hearts beat faster whenever they hear footsteps approaching their cell doors. What does the warden want? Will he say one of our names? Is it an interrogation, a release, or a transfer?

In prison, release for emergency treatment requires several rounds of approvals. This is also true of the shelters. In one center, someone fell to the ground unconscious after a heart attack, and it took more than two hours to get security clearance for him to be taken to a hospital in Damascus.

Another incident involved a mother who wanted to take her daughter out for treatment, and whose two-year-old son was not allowed to leave with them, as he required security clearance. The mother went with her daughter, leaving the boy alone. This disastrous state of affairs, which unites relatives, neighbors, and strangers, made it possible for another mother to take care of him until the “leisure” trip to the hospital was concluded.

Security aside, the people of Ghouta live in previously-made rooms, buildings, or tents, which vary from one center to another. Naturally, the rooms and tents are overcrowded, with rooms no larger than twenty square meters in size hosting more than thirty people. This, too, resembles the detention cells, where detainees are often forced to sleep sitting or standing—or, in the best-case scenario, lying on their sides—trying to occupy as little space as possible in a process called “swording.”

The service and humanitarian situation in these centers is worst of all. Several humanitarian organizations work in the centers, most notably the Red Crescent, the Red Cross, and the Syria Trust for Development, founded by Asma al-Assad, the first lady of the Syrian regime. In addition, there are some UN agencies and local associations and initiatives operating within the centers. The main feature of their work and all of their attempts at offering aid is an absolute and undoubtedly intentional randomness.

In recent weeks, each family has been asked repeatedly for its personal information. Each organization that enters the center carries out a census that is specific to its database and objectives. The head of the family is responsible for providing information regarding its members’ numbers, genders, full names, ages, and sizes. What do they get in return? Perhaps some clothes, or underwear, or plastic shoes. These may or not come in the correct sizes, and it does not matter whether the residents have a chance to shower before wearing their new clothes. Most centers are not yet equipped with water, or sufficient bathrooms and heating.

“What’s your shoe size? Forty? Sorry, we only have forty-four. Can you manage with that?”

“You don’t know your size? You’ve lost a lot of weight during the siege, and haven’t bought new clothes for years? No matter. Let's assume your size is forty. Yes, forty is good.”

The important thing is that the aid get distributed, and the names of the beneficiaries and family members are recorded on a small paper or a laptop, indicating that they received clothes or shoes. Taking photos in these situations is also useful for documenting distributions, but not everyone is allowed to have a photo shoot. The staff of the Syria Trust for Development can take selfies with the children, while the staff of most other associations cannot. If they do, they might be punished by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, which supervises these shelters from top to bottom.

Clothes are also distributed in some prisons. In one of the security branches, detainees can buy towels and shoes with their own money. The branch is not a place to shop, so they may not get the right size, but they try to choose the size closest to their own. In other branches, used clothes may be distributed, if winter arrives and certain detainees had come in during the summer. Again, the size doesn’t matter. The important thing is distribution, and no pictures.

Perhaps one of the most memorable images engraved in the minds of those who saw it in the shelters is that of a woman who tried to get a box of child’s milk. She says she used to get one every five days inside Ghouta, but after fifteen days in the center, she still hadn’t been able to secure a single box. Another image was children running behind a small ice cream truck, and those who reach it getting their faces covered in sugary goo after devouring the whole ice cream in one bite, all while being chased by cameras.

Another woman shouts amidst the crowds waiting for aid to be distributed: “God save Bashar al-Assad.” It’s impossible to know what her real motive is. Perhaps she actually does support Bashar al-Assad, or maybe she thinks this proclamation will bring her extra goods; perhaps shoes that nearly fit her feet.