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.