Douma: Exodus of a story

Will there still be lemons on the tree of our house in Douma next year? wonders this displaced resident. If so, who will eat them?

[Editor’s note: This article is the fourth 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, second, and third in the series may be read here, here, and here. The original Arabic version of this article, published on 11 April, 2018, may be read here. The four articles have been translated in cooperation with The Ghouta Campaign.]

At the end of 2015, after a lot of thinking, I decided it was time to get out of my city, Douma, in Eastern Ghouta. At that point, the city had been under a state of siege for over two years. I was spending a lot of time at that period ruminating about what drove me to leave my family and my university and enter a besieged area beset by terrible conditions. I was also wondering what made me decide to take a journey fraught with dangers, and filled with sadness about leaving behind my younger brother, who had been injured several times during the revolution, as well as my brethren from other parents with whom I shared not only hardships and dark days, but also dreams of the delicious food, abundant cigarettes, and beautiful women outside the besieged area.

On my way out of Douma, heading towards Irbin, I gazed at the streets of the city, certain that I was seeing them for the last time. I went to our house to say goodbye to its walls. Perhaps those walls would remember me... why wouldn’t they, after they’d witnessed my fights with my brother for years, and so many late nights with my mother and father? I carefully ran my fingers over my mother's sewing machine, the one I used to play with, hearing her voice shouting from afar, “Leave it alone! You’ll break it!” You left it alone, mother... You left it, and I wish I could still play with it today, and sew shrouds for the children who died suffocating in their sleep.

My friend Muhammad always reminds me of an anecdote we used to share. I would always warn my friends not to pick the last lemon from the tree in front of our house, because I knew there’d be no fruit the following season if they did. I ask myself now, did the last lemon fall? Will our tree bear lemons next year? And, if so, who will eat them?

At the start of the revolution, the city was a space for self-expression, and I began to feel I belonged to these humble and loyal people. Every time I participated in a demonstration in our city’s streets I would study the faces of the residents, watching them chanting on behalf of other cities, anger in their eyes for the martyrs of Daraa and Homs. With each strike that we went on for the sake of those who’d died, I felt proud, honored to belong to such a city. Today I wonder, does everyone feel what I feel? Or do we alone love our city and feel our hearts dance when its name is mentioned in any news bulletin or public forum?

During my two years in besieged Douma I used to spend evenings walking through the streets and alleyways. Thirsty to understand how people think, I wanted to overhear voices from inside the houses. I wanted to know how they spent their days, and how they managed to maintain their livelihood with the inflation being what it was. I should also admit that one of the reasons I left the besieged area was because I was working for a civil society organization that paid me a decent monthly salary. This made the siege less severe for me, but I would always feel guilty; “why am I getting paid and not them?” Or, “why do I go buy a kilo of sugar, hide it in a black bag, and sneak into my house like a thief?”

Yes, at the time I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being a thief, which made me think I was different from those under siege. And I was one who thought for a long time I was doing something I believed in, and was my duty. I will continue to remember this revolution in the most positive way. I consider it the best thing that has happened in my life—no, it is my life itself. Today I can’t remember what I was before the revolution broke out; all I remember is a shallow, inexperienced person who had not been tested by life.

The other reason for my departure was the Army of Islam, the most powerful rebel group in the city.

After the kidnapping of the four activists of the Violations Documentation Center in Douma (Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamade, and Nazem Hamadi), I was afraid I would suffer the same fate, because of my close ties with them and the fact we worked in the same office. I was not afraid for my personal safety, which was threatened every day by missiles and rockets. Instead I was afraid for who I would become after being arrested. I feared they would turn me into a man angry at the revolution; that I would come out and start calling the people of Douma pseudo-Muslim shabbiha1 who arrest civil activists. I was afraid to lose my love for the city. I preferred to leave and work from outside the country, to die with its people and suffocate from the chlorine they were being gassed with. I preferred to be displaced today with its people, and for the page to be turned on a city amazing in its peacefulness and civil action; in the diversity of its people; in its sweetness and bitterness.

Today, we who heard the first cry of freedom ringing out from the courtyard of this city’s grand mosque on 25 March, 2011; we who lived through every moment; we who ate animals’ feed on account of our starvation from the food shortages; we whose pupils dilated from the darkness of nights without electricity; we are asked to be “normal.” We who have left our souls to roam its streets, and water the graves of our loved ones, and keep asking after our detainees; we are being asked to move on from the past for the sake of the future, any future.

Perhaps those who eat our lemons in the coming years will taste the bitterness of past years. Perhaps grandmothers’ stories will fill the world with recollections of how the residents of this city tried; how some did wrong and others did right; and how one day they left in order to complete the “victory” of the butcher over us.

Today not much remains of the city except my family and friends. I was overjoyed for their safety when they arrived to the north of Syria. They are the witnesses of what happened in Douma. Just the idea of survival on its own is amazing, and is a triumph over this dark blackness that covers our world.

These survivors will tell stories about what happened.

And it was as if this ending was predestined, for the city was made famous during its peaceful demonstrations for a handwritten sign that read: “the one who sees is not like the one who hears.” This here is the mouthpiece of the forcibly displaced, telling the same stories, saying that what you saw on your computers and phone screens is only a small portion of the truth. For we did not see the exhausted faces, and we will not see the tears that fell as people bid farewell to their loved ones and homes.

The people themselves shall remain the story.

  • 1. A Syrian slang term for pro-Assad thugs.