Damascus—On April 8, the city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta fell into government hands after a six-year-long siege. Dozens of buses carrying people—mostly fighters and their families—out of the city are now heading north toward Jarabulus in rural Aleppo.
Just a few short weeks ago, I was at the Wafideen Camp checkpoint waiting to enter Douma on what turned out to be the last humanitarian aid convoy to Eastern Ghouta’s largest municipality. It was March 15, the day the Syrian uprising started seven long years ago. The World Food Programme (WFP) was bringing in life-saving food to people trapped in Douma. White trucks of humanitarian aid slowly inched their way into the city.
As we crossed the front lines into the buffer zone, a bearded man on a bicycle emerged, ghost-like, from a side road out of mounds of rubble. A rifle dangled from his neck. I watched him with an equal mixture of trepidation and anticipation, as he turned and disappeared into the destruction that was once the outskirts of a bustling city.
Until recently, the farms around Douma enabled residents to survive the long siege. But in just three months, most of the farmland has been captured and over 40 percent of Douma destroyed. Today, going out to buy food is a life-threatening exercise. Bombardment compels most residents to live underground.
Yet, as we drove through Douma’s war-scarred streets, it seemed that everyone in the city had come out into the open to watch us. Men stood by the road taking pictures with cell phones. Children ran along the convoy to escort us. Veiled women appeared on balconies to watch the rolling trucks and UN flags fluttering in the wind.
Volunteers gathered to offload aid from the trucks, including WFP’s wheat flour, which the men were taking into underground cellars. According to the local council, we learned that more than 200,000 people remained in Douma, many of them displaced from nearby villages, all of them needing food and medicine.
Despite the intolerable living conditions, council members insisted that the people of Douma were staying strong and holding their ground. On the walls of the local council hung a large poster that read “Douma, the Will of Stay ”—a literal translation from Arabic into English.
Leaving the devastation on the ground, we descended a long and narrow staircase deep into Douma’s underworld: a network of basements that, while providing shelter, breeds disease and infection.
Inhabitants are crammed together in packed spaces to avoid airstrikes. Even the shopkeepers have set up their businesses underground. We found one such business, a small convenience store that doubled as a makeshift bakery. There we met Mustafa, a man in his 20s.
“The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling. I hope whoever is hungry gets help,” he said. Because of the increasing demand for food and limited quantities allowed inside, residents of Douma have had to split the food assistance WFP delivered during an earlier convoy in order to reach as many people as possible.