“No one can answer if I ask why someone wants half a million people dead.”
Note: Some names below have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects and their extended family members.
Each evening at 8 p.m., Nihad Abdullah climbs to the roof of his home in Douma, Syria, just as his daily three-hour window of electricity is set to begin. Once he hears the buzzing and humming start, he approaches a water pump, grabs a lever, and fills as many containers as possible. In the living room below, his wife, Maysa, and five sons plug in their phones and computers. Nihad will soon join them to watch downloaded movies and catch up on the news. First, though, after more than twelve hours of work and chores, the fifty-six-year-old takes some time for himself to decompress.
Nihad walks over to the edge of his building and gazes out into the distance, toward Damascus. In the capital city, about ten kilometers southwest, a constellation of lights shines along a flat plane and slopes up Mount Qasioun, which, to Nihad, feels like a distant planet—one he can always see but never visit.
Nihad then peers over the ledge at the world he calls home. Nothing but the moon and the stars above can illuminate what he sees—rubble, hollowed-out dwellings, scattered garbage—and painful memories quickly return to mind.
From this view, after an early-autumn bombing, Nihad witnessed a dead man lying in the road, and a boy crying as his father’s corpse was being escorted out of sight. Just to his left stand the remains of his next-door neighbor’s house, which had recently been destroyed by a missile that obliterated Nihad’s car and filled his apartment with debris. When he received word that his five-year-old nephew Osama passed away due to a viral infection, one that would have been treatable had the local hospital been equipped with sufficient medicine, he attempted to process the news here—grief coursing through his body, a cool breeze washing over his face.
As he opened up about his quiet moments of nighttime contemplation, Nihad considered many questions: about the genocide taking place in front of him, about his family’s circumstances, about what the future may hold. None, it seems, can be sufficiently resolved. Not yet, at least.
“No one can answer if I ask why someone wants half a million people dead,” Nihad said. “They’re killing us here, day by day.”
Back on March 25, 2011, Nihad’s street is where the echoes of prayer bounced around as Douma’s first Arab Spring protest commenced in earnest. And it is where, in late 2013, people gathered to share the news that Bashar al-Assad’s government besieged their town, along with most of the eastern Ghouta suburbs, severing it from the rest of civilization.
According to the World Health Organization, up to 400,000 civilians are stuck inside eastern Ghouta with no safe means of escape. The Abdullahs, who have shared with me the details of their life for the last nine months, are intimately feeling the effects of this siege, which has tightened considerably since we first made contact.
At present, the biggest issue facing the Abdullahs is a lack of goods. Secret, underground tunnels that were used to smuggle food, medicine, and fuel had long been a crucial resource, but earlier this year, following regime victories in the Qaboun and Barzeh neighborhoods of Damascus, the clandestine passages were discovered and cut off. Most vital materials that now reach eastern Ghouta filter in through government checkpoints; subsequently, a dearth of supplies is entering Douma and its surrounding towns, and, in turn, the prices of what’s available have spiked—often beyond the means of an average family. This has pushed the region to the brink of famine.
“The biggest challenge that we face daily is how we get our main meal,” Muhannad, twenty-one, said. “People are dying from starvation. That is the big message we want to deliver.”
The Abdullahs almost never choose the food they buy; what is available within their budget is what they get. One day they could purchase only rice. The next, they might find reasonably-priced beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, or nothing at all. More often than not, their mornings begin without breakfast.
Soon after waking, the three youngest boys—Humam, sixteen; Ahmad, eleven; Muhammed, six—get ready for class. To find their school, one must know exactly where to look, for there is no building, no sign out front detailing upcoming events. Rather, it is located underground, to protect the children from air raids. Many days are spent learning in the dark: When the school’s generator isn’t working, the only light available comes from scattered bulbs using 12-volt batteries. The desks are far too cramped for students as big as Humam, now in 10th grade; the boards dangling at the front of the classrooms are far too small for the teachers’ likings.
Nihad, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in English literature in the ’80s, works as an English professor; Muhannad and his eldest sibling, Firas, twenty-four, are paid modest wages to serve in the communications department of the United Relief Office. Firas is a photographer and videographer; Muhannad, a graphic designer. To bring enough money home, Nihad works at multiple institutes, taking the teaching jobs he can find. Firas and Muhannad accept whatever freelance work is available.
Maysa, forty-five, who holds a degree in architecture, is tasked with taking care of the house. As a young girl, she listened to her grandparents tell stories about what their world was like in the early 1900s, and to her, the Abdullahs’ life feels like the one her ancestors once described. With little electricity, Maysa must use firewood to cook. She uses fire to warm up shower water, too, and has to wash everyone’s clothes by hand.
“It is a very hard mission,” Maysa said of her role. “We don’t have gas, we don’t have much power, I can’t make what we want to eat. We are back in the age of manual labor.”
When Maysa and Nihad have especially tough days, their love for their children keeps them going. Though it’s unclear when the Syrian conflict will end, or what opportunities will be available when that day comes, they are determined to prepare their kids for an enriching post-war life—one that would allow them to use their education, unique perspectives, and family values to make a positive difference within and beyond the walls of eastern Ghouta.
“Being a parent means responsibility,” Nihad said. “I am really worried about my sons’ futures. I can be helpful and support them now, but I don’t trust our governors. I don’t trust that they have plans for us.”
Nihad continued, “I used to be Firas’ partner at the first protests—sometimes because I have the same revolutionary spirit, and sometimes because I was trying to be at his side to protect him when the regime used to attack. That was about five years ago. Now, he is old and experienced enough for me to feel confident that he is doing the right thing. He is defending freedom, which we feel we have. When we suffer from danger and hunger, our feeling of freedom is the greatest pleasure. We can’t abandon it as a family.”
Maysa understands the risks associated with letting her kids walk out the door each time she hugs them goodbye and watches them turn the corner, out of sight. As Firas says, “Whenever we leave, we realize we might not make it back.” While this thought is painful for a mother to cope with, Maysa believes it is important for her sons to enjoy some parts of their childhood and early adult years, even if that leads to added danger and anxiety.
“I’m proud of them,” Maysa says about her boys, “and I have faith that they are on the right track, and doing the right thing to spread our story all over the world. I have hope that the efforts of these young men with their friends here can make positive changes to our situation.”
As clips shot by Firas and other residents illustrate, Douma endures frequent aerial assaults from Syrian and Russian forces—even when the sparring factions have agreed to a ceasefire. The sounds of jets roaring across the sky, metal cylinders whistling through the air, and missiles crashing into the ground are commonly heard from the Abdullahs’ home. Nihad and Maysa have witnessed these attacks murder all kinds of people—children, fellow parents, elderly women—and through his work as a media activist, Firas has seen a lot of violence as well. He periodically rushes to the scene of a bombing to document the fallout with his Nikon D7100—a perilous endeavor, given the regime’s penchant for attacking the same location twice, a strategy known as “double-tapping.” In 2015, Firas sprinted to the site of an attack when a second missile crashed down meters away from him. He accepted his death in that moment, he told me later, but thanks to a wall that was unmoored by the first strike, he was protected from the blast and left mostly unscathed.
“Each time, I feel it’s the end,” Firas said. “I hear the sound of the warplanes or cannons, then according to its tone, I predict its direction. It’s like the sound of death coming toward us from the sky. These countable seconds are like minutes. Then the bomb strikes the earth. You are stuck between ashes and debris and everything around you is completely gray with shrapnel rain. Then you start to hear neighbors screaming.”
Because of the intermittent barrages and the looming specter of more to come, Firas and Muhannad once tried to smuggle their parents and three younger brothers out of Douma, ideally to Turkey. Knowing the cost of that service would be astronomical, they were prepared to stay put if it meant getting the others to a safe location. But the rate per head was too high to move anyone, let alone two adults and three children. So they stick together, a nucleus of seven, praying constantly for God to keep them out of harm’s way.
“When a bomb hits, I am always thinking of my family and how can I save them from this hell,” Firas said. “I feel like missiles pick people here one by one and group by group. Sometimes I feel like it’s a queue we are in.”
On November 12, representatives from the United Nations, Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and the International Committee of the Red Cross were permitted to enter eastern Ghouta to speak with residents about their worsening humanitarian crisis. Firas attended for work and produced an eight-minute video.
Along with his camera, he brought a photo of an emaciated baby who recently died of malnutrition. While taking a break from filming, he approached some of the visitors, showed them the image, and used that opportunity to describe his family’s situation, as well as the horrors he has seen.
“The most important thing I want the world to know is we are human,” Firas told a woman in a Red Cross vest. “We have the right to live in peace with freedom, justice, and dignity, just like all people should live. That is what we have been fighting for, for seven years. The world can help us by making Assad leave our home.”
After hours of meetings and informal discussions, the visitors said their goodbyes and, with the help of security personnel, safely exited eastern Ghouta as Firas and hundreds of others looked on. With plenty of new photos and film saved to his SD card, Firas returned home and placed his equipment down as the sun set outside the Abdullahs’ front windows. He and his parents gathered in the dark and discussed whether this effort would make a difference. They agreed, as they frequently do, that any significant resolution was unlikely to unfold.
Firas nonetheless felt obligated to upload media from the day’s events, so he grabbed his computer, put on a pair of headphones, and logged onto his various social media channels. Maysa went to the kitchen to light firewood and scrape together what food they had. Nihad made his way for the roof.