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From a besieged Syrian suburb, tales of love, death and survival

From a besieged Syrian suburb, tales of love, death and survival
Samir Salim, who along with his three brothers are members of the White Helmets rescue forces, sits in the rubble of his home in the town of Medeira in Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area on Feb. 12, 2018. (ABDULMONAM EASSA / AFP/Getty Images)

A low thud reverberated in the background as Bayan Rehan spoke over a shaky WiFi connection from the rebel-held Syrian city of Douma.

“Can you hear the bombs?” asked the former schoolteacher, who heads a women’s affairs office there.

It was early Sunday, and the United Nations Security Council had just passed a resolution calling on the country’s warring sides to cease hostilities for a period of 30 days to allow delivery of desperately needed aid to war-torn communities and evacuation of the sick and wounded.

But warplanes were still flying over the region known as eastern Ghouta and releasing their payloads into terrified communities.

The region — which abuts Damascus and is home to nearly 400,000 people, according to the U.N. — has long been surrounded by pro-government forces. But last week saw some of the most intense bombardments in seven years of civil war.

More than 500 people were killed, many of them women and children, according to opposition activists.

From inside the besieged suburb, residents shared tales of love, death and survival.


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“I save people, mom, but I can’t save you” — Samir Salim, Syria Civil Defense

Samir Salim, 45, has been pulling friends and neighbors from bombed-out buildings in eastern Ghouta for four years. He and three brothers joined the opposition’s Syria Civil Defense rescue service, also known as the White Helmets, in 2013.

This month, Salim’s unit was racing to the scene of an airstrike in his hometown of Medeira when the streets started looking more and more familiar.

“That’s when I realized the strike had hit my own house,” he told the news agency Agence France-Presse, or AFP.

All that was left was a pile of cinder blocks and broken concrete. Salim started heaving away rubble in a frantic search for his relatives.

He found his brother’s wife, his 23-day-old nephew and his father. All of them were alive. But his mother, who had been in another room, was pinned under a collapsed wall, bloodied and motionless, he told AFP.

In a video he filmed on his cellphone, he can be heard weeping inconsolably over her body.

“I save people, Mom, but I can’t save you,” he says. “What do I do, Mom? May your soul rest in peace.”


Waiting out airstrikes in Syria's eastern Ghouta region.
Beyan Rehan, left, in a basement in eastern Ghouta. Beyan Rehan

“I want to have a life” — Bayan Rehan, women’s rights activist

Last week’s brutal aerial assault drove much of the population of eastern Ghouta underground. Rehan, 31, and her family had just two minutes to reach a makeshift shelter Friday before shells slammed into their street.

The shelter was already teeming with women and children, she wrote in a post on Facebook. Exhausted, she fell asleep against a wall but was soon jolted awake by the sound of “barrel bombs” — a crude weapon typically fashioned out of oil canisters that government forces push out of helicopters.

She started pacing the basement but couldn’t shake the feeling that she would suffocate there. So she said goodbye to her mother and told her that she would go up in search of food and news from the outside world.

She ran back home, where she could get an internet connection, and switched on her cellphone.

“Damn it, the Security Council session failed to agree on a decision to stop the massacres in Eastern #Ghouta,” she wrote on Facebook.

Messages started coming in from friends and relatives wanting to know if she was safe. She scrolled through them, looking for a message from her fiance that could “restore my faith in the importance of my life.”

“I found it,” she wrote. “Oh, how blissful that moment was.”

The couple met online just over a year ago, she told the Los Angeles Times. He too is an activist, but in the northwestern province of Idlib, another rebel enclave where residents are caught between pro-government forces and extremist groups, including a former Al Qaeda affiliate.

Although they have never met in person, the pair discovered they had much in common, not least a shared love of coffee. They exchange messages every day.

By the time Rehan made it back to the shelter, the children had started screaming, and their mothers were unable to calm them.

“I gathered all the girls together and started telling them stories from ‘Gone With the Wind,’” she wrote. Soon their mothers had also gathered round, “their eyes sparkling with curiosity,” Rehan said, as she told them about Scarlett O'Hara, “who was able to defeat the Northerners and return Tara’s glory.”

She asked the children about their hopes and dreams: “They told me they wanted to return to school, so I promised that we’d continue studying in the basement tomorrow if they slept quietly tonight.”

Rehan, too, has dreams.

“I think of the moment I will see him and touch his hand and kiss him,” she said of her fiance. “I have been a prisoner for seven years. I want to have a life.”


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“Some we help. Others we can’t.” — Dr. Hamza Hassan, Syrian American Medical Society

For the doctors and nurses who staff the region’s overwhelmed hospitals, each patient served is part of a calculus of who will live and who most likely will die.

“Some we help. Others we can’t,” said Dr. Hamza Hassan, a 35-year-old ear, nose and throat specialist in Arbin, a town about five miles northeast of Damascus’ Old Quarter.

The shelling was so intense last week that Hassan became convinced a plane was going to hit him as he tried to reach a number of medical points where patients were waiting.

“Any sound I hear near me makes me run for any kind of cover; this is your obsession now in the streets of Ghouta,” he said.

Every day, he wakes up to a deluge of calls and messages from patients. He scrambled to find something to eat Saturday, but even that was difficult.

“We have no gas, no electricity except for batteries,” he said. “So we have to use firewood.”

Prices for food have skyrocketed. A kilogram of rice costs nearly $8 — 10 times the price in the capital’s markets.

While preparing the food, he fielded more calls. One was from an operating theater: Does Hassan’s clinic have fuel to spare for generators? Another call was for medications.

He then tended to the wounded. One of them was the mother of an ambulance driver.

“She was swallowing blood and her lungs had taken in blood as well.… We had to give her three hours with the Ambu,” he said, referring to a manual resuscitator.

“In a real hospital we would have pure oxygen, controlled temperatures, medicines that you just don’t have” in eastern Ghouta, Hassan said.

With supplies so low, not everyone can be helped.

“You need to find a patient with a high chance of survival to give them medication,” he said.

To illustrate his point, he mentioned an elderly patient whose corpse was recently found under a destroyed house.

“He had leukemia, so it was perhaps a good thing he was killed,” Hassan said. “At least he didn’t suffer with no treatment here.”


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“They destroyed our house, but they didn’t destroy our memories” — Firas Abduallah, Ghouta Media Center

Firas Abdullah, 24, is part of a cadre of opposition media activists who have been documenting the Syrian government’s assault on eastern Ghouta.

As shells rained down on his city, Douma, he raced from one bomb site to the next, capturing images to share on social media.

This month, he filmed the aftermath of a strike on his childhood home. As he picked through piles of debris, memories came flooding back — of family meals with his grandparents and soccer games in the yard.

“They destroyed our house, but they didn’t destroy our memories,” he said.

Abdullah’s family had already moved out into an apartment in what they hoped would be a safer neighborhood. But they kept their chickens in the yard of their former home.

Three of them died in the strike, Abdullah said. But he found his favorite bird clucking beneath the rubble, unscathed.

Of all the bloodshed he has witnessed, he said the last week was the worst. The bombing was so intense that he couldn’t get home from work for two days.

“The bombs and strikes connect the night with the day and the day with the night,” he said.

When he can catch a few hours of rest, he said, “I sleep like the dead.”

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Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Twitter: @alexzavis

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