This week marks another crime of forced displacement in Syria, another wave of thousands of families packing a few precious belongings and boarding buses, never to see their homes again. 130,000 people have already left Ghouta after surviving a month’s brutal assault and five years of siege, longer even than the siege of Leningrad. One by one we ask our friends about the heroes who have reported, photographed, fed families, treated patients, and rescued civilians from the rubble of this cruel and historic siege. “Is Bassam out?” “Where is Nivin now? “How about Badra?” “Has anyone been in touch with Um Samih?”
We can only be thankful for the safety of those who survived. This month of massacres took the lives of more than 1,400 civilians. Those leaving now have experienced the hell on earth of relentless Napalm attacks, hospital bombings, and attacks on schools and the basements they were hiding in. And that was just in recent weeks.
Over the past five years, Ghouta has faced terrible violence including the sarin gas chemical attack that took the lives of hundreds in their sleep. And despite it all they have taught the world a lesson in courage and resilience. When the regime lost control of Ghouta its people built new forms of local governance and held free elections for the first time in Syria’s history. When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques.
But after this latest, relentless onslaught, people were truly left with no choice. If they remained in Ghouta they risked being detained and tortured as the Syrian regime closed in, particularly the ones who decided to teach, treat the wounded, or post updates to Facebook. So now many are leaving behind everything they’ve ever known to go to a place that isn’t that much safer. The province of Idlib, home to more than two million, is also being struck from the air by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally.
Together we did everything we could to get the people and institutions with power to save Ghouta and stop the massacres. Thousands of us flooded the inboxes of UN Security Council members demanding they enforce their resolution for a ceasefire. We jammed the phone lines of Russian embassies, letting them know the world was watching and demanding an end to their massacres in Ghouta. We shared the stories of the women of Ghouta, their demands and their accounts of daily life under the assault, and we demanded action. And then, when protests weren’t enough to stop the killing, thousands of dollars were contributed to a grassroots fundraiser for Um Samih’s kitchen, to make sure she and her team could feed people living in underground shelters packed with women and children.
Though the powerful chose not to act, thousands of us across the world from all nationalities stood in unwavering solidarity with the people of Ghouta. And in Syria too of course. In Idlib, which faces its own economic challenges, we saw grocery shops, bakeries, and children’s toy shops put up signs addressed to the people of Ghouta to take anything they need for free.
Now as families from Ghouta arrive to Idlib, our campaigning and solidarity must continue. These families are only some of the thousands of people who have been moved there after surviving starvation sieges across the country. Idlib’s local initiatives do amazing work to educate and provide relief and they are striving to continue their work despite challenges from Western donors, bombing by the Syrian regime and Russian air forces, and extremist groups on the ground surrounding them. Over the next months it’ll be our job to support them as well as the civil society groups who have left Ghouta and other areas and want to continue their work in Idlib.
Ghouta has set the ultimate example of civil resistance and what a society can be when neighbour helps neighbour. It is up to all of us continue living by that example every day.
Photo credit: Mohammad Badra