This letter from Moadamiya is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where international reporters cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The author is writing under a pseudonym for his own protection. Funding for the project was provided by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. Journalist Roy Gutman edited.
Moadamiya—It’s been just a year since this city southwest of Damascus gave up its rebellion and surrendered to the Syrian government. At that time, 3,000 rebels and their families boarded the green government buses for internal exile in Idlib province, about 200 miles north of here.
Surrenders of rebel-held towns have occurred so frequently since then—there have been a dozen over the past year—that no one takes notice of the mass movements to Idlib.
The government gave us the choice to surrender or starve. I’m one of the 6,500 rebels and rebel sympathizers who stayed behind and put my fate in the hands of the government.
The destruction is massive—every house can count at least one family member killed or imprisoned. But the rebuilding has begun. Seven of the 15 schools have reopened, and others have been partially rebuilt. Shops have reopened, but the crossings to Damascus remain closed, so prices are very high. The army still surrounds the city.
In some places, like Daraya, a few miles to our east, and Wadi Barada, west of Damascus, the government expelled the entire population, so there’s no one left to tell the story. But Moadamiya had a population of 41,000 when it surrendered. Those who remained were unwilling to leave their families, their homes, and the city where they grew up. But our story is seldom told.
Moadamiya is located in the region known as Western Ghouta. A farm town where one in three residents completed university before the war, it is surrounded by military garrisons. To the northeast, there is the Mezze military airport and the surrounding neighborhood, which is loyal to the regime. To the north, there are the Moadamiya mountains, where the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division is located, along with a housing complex for police. To the west, there is a base hosting the army’s chemical warfare department and the infantry squadrons of the army’s chemical department, which were set up by Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of President Bashar al-Assad. To the south, there is the notorious Palestine Intelligence Branch, which contains a big prison where Islamists were once held and tortured.
Moadamiya was one of the first Syrian cities to revolt against the regime—soon after Dera’a in the south, where the regime tortured children who wrote anti-Assad graffiti. It began here as a local protest demanding that the government return lands it had seized without compensation east of the city and in the mountainous areas that became home to the Fourth Division. But after security forces killed the first protester, the first chants calling for the fall of the regime began.
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Moadamiya became a national symbol of resistance. We have endured two full-scale invasions and occupations by the army. We were among the targets of the 2013 chemical-weapons attack. We’ve lived under siege. We’ve seen starvation and the regime’s scorched-earth tactics. We’ve surrendered twice. It was only when the regime destroyed Daraya that we finally gave up the fight.
The first time the army stormed Moadamiya was July 31, 2011. It was a barbarian invasion, a conquest that included killing, looting, and stealing. We never expected the army to burn people with acid, but it happened that day.
I wasn’t able to continue my studies because of the military campaign, so I took the path of the camera. I started to document developments as a media activist in 2012, when I was 18. I made contacts with Sham News Network and other revolutionary news outlets. I witnessed all the campaigns that targeted Moadamiya. There was a second invasion in August 2012, and then, a year later, the chemical-weapons massacre, when I played an important role in the media coverage.
When the 2012 assault happened, I fled to Daraya, and there I witnessed a great massacre by the army that same month, when I was staying at the al-Mustafa mosque. I fled to the town’s main post office and hid there for two days. Luckily, I had brought food with me. Then I moved to al-Shredi, a village close to Moadamiya.
I couldn’t enter Moadamiya because there were snipers at the city entrances. So, I bought food from shops in al-Shredi, and with the help of residents returned to the post office, one step ahead of the army. I saw buses full of soldiers entering the village, where they killed more than 40 people.
From a small window on the second floor of the post office, I watched the killing. On the Moadamiya-Daraya traffic circle, I saw a tank enter and kill some 20 civilians. When locals emerged from their houses to bury the dead, the tank returned and killed another eight.
I decided to leave the post office, but I was stuck until the campaign against Daraya, which lasted more than a week, ended. On the last day, the army entered the post-office compound with military vehicles and soldiers, but I made a miraculous escape: The troops didn’t enter the room where I was hiding. On the streets, I saw people dead in their cars and other vehicles smashed by tanks. I also saw regime military vehicles distributing bread to the survivors.
A year later, Moadamiya came under chemical weapons attack.
It was 4:45 am on August 21, 2013. I was being treated at a field hospital for an earlier injury and was saying the dawn prayer when a small child entered the hospital and shouted in horror, “They are striking us with chemicals!” I asked him, “If they are striking with chemicals, how can you still be alive?” I had hardly finished my sentence when the first victims were brought to the hospital.
Moadamiya was one of up to a dozen areas hit by chemical weapons that day, in both Western and Eastern Ghouta, which is east of Damascus. The scene in Moadamiya was horrific. I took out my camera, snapped some shots, and hurried to the media office to upload them onto social media. I saw people fall on the ground. People were shouting all over the city. A woman who was crying stopped me in the street and asked me, “What happened, my son? Why are people shouting and car horns honking?” I responded, “They’ve struck us with chemicals. Go home and check for your sons.” In the panic of the moment I didn’t realize the woman was my mother.
I went to the area that was targeted and found a family—two parents and their two little children—dying in their beds. It was like doomsday; everywhere you walked, you could see people lying on the ground, dying.
The attack didn’t break the rebellion. Instead, it awakened our defiance. That same day, at 7 am, the regime began a ground offensive from all directions. But the rebels were even more determined to resist. Many who had never fought the regime before took up weapons and joined the resistance. The number of rebel fighters was so huge that day that some of us thought the angels were fighting with us. The army couldn’t advance a foot.
The regime besieged the city from all sides and tried to starve us. “Kneel or starve” was its motto, and the ones who suffered most were children and the elderly. Since the beginning of the rebellion, we have had more than 100 cases of extreme malnutrition and 22 deaths from starvation. The city’s population dwindled that fall, but it would rebound by the following year.
At the end of 2013, Moadamiya reached a settlement with the regime. We had no choice. No one in the world would intervene to help us. The sole crossing into Damascus reopened—a great relief for the population, and life came back to our city, but it was also a pressure point that the regime could apply at will. Under the agreement, the road to Damascus was open for food, medicine, and fuel. Civilians imprisoned for protesting the regime or for encouraging protest were to be set free.
In return, the Syrian flag was to be flown from the highest spot in the city, and rebels had to hand over regime prisoners and all their heavy weapons. Rebels had to close off all the smuggling tunnels and remove the defensive trenches and barricades that crisscrossed the city. Finally, residents were to allow state television to enter Moadamiya and film a report inside the city to show that it was back under government rule. But the report was more like an intelligence production, for it defamed a number of residents and gave a distorted picture of the city.
The regime wasn’t true to its word. When the report was broadcast, it closed the only crossing into the city from Damascus. It didn’t release political prisoners; it arrested more. The flow of food slowed, and the regime found excuses to close the road. Looking for a pretext, its first demand was that we stop traffic to and from Daraya. If a soldier defected from anywhere to Moadamiya, the regime would accuse the population of hiding him—and close the road. The regime used food as a weapon to bring pressure on us. Finally, it demanded that armed rebels leave the city and hand their weapons over. In return, the regime promised to allow access in order to supply all the basic needs of the population, including government services.
The regime had always accused Moadamiya of being in league with Daraya, a town it couldn’t defeat. We never closed the road to Daraya, because we shared their suffering. So the regime used scorched-earth tactics on the southern side of Moadamiya, which connects to Daraya, reducing the houses to stone and rubble. Helicopters dropped barrel bombs indiscriminately, moving from one neighborhood to the next. We also faced Russian artillery, which our local rebel defenders could not counter.
At the end of 2014, the bombs rained down on us day and night, including more than 80 shells in one 24-hour period. Many Moadamiya residents and rebel fighters died from the barrel bombs. A single one could kill dozens. But it was worse in Daraya, where 9,000 barrel bombs were dropped through the end of August, according to the count kept by Daraya activists.
I remember once being in one of the suburbs with my friends when a helicopter passed overhead. I suggested we take shelter in a building that we thought could withstand barrel bombs, but we were able to leave the area instead. Later we heard that the building was barrel-bombed, and five people were killed in the basement we had planned to hide in.
The fall of Daraya at the end of August 2016 was the final blow, after which Moadamiya surrendered for the second time. The two cities were one entity; the fall of the one meant the fall of the second. Those who decided to leave Moadamiya for Idlib departed 45 days after the fall of Daraya.
Once our brothers departed for Idlib, Moadamiya came completely under regime control. Those remaining behind signed “reconciliation” papers with the regime. Locals formed committees to protect the city. Those who were wanted for military service were granted a six-month grace period before they had to report for duty. Altogether, 2,700 youths are wanted for military service, myself included. We don’t know what will happen to us. We are still wanted. Every day we hear rumors that we will be given another six months’ delay.
The defectors are another story. They came under immediate pressure from the regime, so they are already back on the frontlines. There is a third group, who are wanted for the reserves. They include many who are over 30. Their situation is like ours now; they face a very grim future.
Everyone is afraid of the draft. Now 23, I attend school. I completed my secondary-school exams in June—at Mezze, inside Damascus. I and my colleagues are taken by the government to the exam center via what we call here tarfiq, or armed escort, which is like a moving prison.
The ones who left for Idlib refused to sign the agreement with the regime. The fighters worried that if they stayed, the regime would arrest them sooner or later. Some thought life in Idlib would be better than in Moadamiya. And some believed that if they remained in the city, they would be on the side of the oppressor—that is, the regime.
The days before the departure saw a kind of psychological warfare. Many wanted to leave but found it difficult to separate from their families. Some tried to convince their families to leave with them. The majority of my friends left. We were all torn about whether to go. The will of God and my own circumstances prevented me from leaving. I finally decided to stay because I saw tears in the eyes of my mother—two of my brothers are already in exile. I also knew that the unknown awaited us in Idlib.
I am trying to study now, but it is getting very expensive. The majority of young men want to be at university not for education but to postpone their obligatory military service.
I spoke with members of the group who decided to go to Idlib two times after they left. In one of those conversations, I told a friend I thought he’d made the right decision. But he said life in Idlib was even more difficult than in Moadamiya. He had to work long hours, and he felt like a complete outsider. Then I cut all my old connections. Now I only hear their news from their families.
Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own town. We are a family of nine. I am son number three (my two elder brothers left the country at the beginning of the war). Our financial situation is difficult. My father’s salary is at most $50 a month, hardly enough for the first ten days of the month.
Life is very difficult now for people like me. I’m an old revolutionary, so people avoid me and fear me even if they were my friend or a friend of my family. They worry that I could be a source of trouble for them or that I could bring harm to them. So I spend most of the time at home. I rarely leave my house. I don’t know what Damascus looks like anymore, since I have been in this situation for the past six years.
People abroad have stopped talking to me. Even the Syrian Opposition Coalition kicked me off a WhatsApp chatroom, because they thought I was no longer relevant. I’m in despair, and I feel like a stranger in the city that I risked my life to defend. Many of my friends have died or have left. I sometimes tell myself, “What a long way I have walked.” I live alone and never take part in public debates.
The people of Moadamiya and Daraya were once a legend of the resistance, but today, we feel like we’ve been forgotten by the world. The humanitarian NGOs have forgotten about us, even though our suffering continues. The families of regime prisoners still wait for their release. Getting food is a hardship, when it’s available at all. What’s the use of seeing vegetables if you can’t afford to buy one kilo?
But some things are looking up. Almost all of Moadamiya’s services have been restored. Most of the families that had fled to Damascus have returned. Some 80,000 people live here today. The prices are very high, but I’m still here, still alive. I haven’t given up hope.
Correction: Because of a miscommunication between the author and the editor, the second major assault on Moadamiya was originally given in the wrong year. It occurred in 2012, not 2014. The mistake has been corrected, and that episode, including the author’s flight to Daraya and his witness of army killings there, has been moved up so that the story is told in chronological order.