Men and boys line up for food outside the kitchen of the Harjala camp for internally displaced persons, some of them wearing cooking pots on their heads for some protection against a scorching sun.
“I used to eat once a day,” says 13-year-old Mohammed Abed, recalling his time in formerly besieged Eastern Ghouta.
“Wow, that’s great! I only ate once every three days,” says 14-year-old Abdullah Jamal.
As they wait for their daily meal – a pot consisting mainly of potatoes – the boys compete lightheartedly about who had it worse in the formerly rebel-held enclave.
CNN, which is in the country with the permission of the Syrian government, asked several former inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta how they sustained themselves in previous weeks, when government forces began their final push into the area, tightening the noose of a six-year besiegement. The answer: “Barley.”
In the government-run Harjala camp, which has already seen about 21,000 civilians from Eastern Ghouta pass through, piles of bread are laid out to dry in the sun because the inhabitants cannot bring themselves to throw any food away. Children play on rooftops – after weeks of being holed up in basements, they say they want to be as high up as possible.
It’s a glimpse into the lives of the nearly 400,000 people who until two weeks ago had been trapped in the Damascus suburb, all but cut off from the outside world.
Around 130,000 people have left Eastern Ghouta in the past month, according to the United Nations. Of these, 83,000 went to eight collective shelters in government-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus.
Their movements were restricted and their communications stifled, the camp’s residents say.
“We saw everything. We saw the worst things you could possibly imagine,” says 12-year-old Mohammed Abed.
The incessant airstrikes over the past month and a half meant many could not risk leaving their basements. Since February 18, more than 1,000 people have been killed in a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive on Eastern Ghouta, which UN Secretary General António Guterres called “hell on earth.”
But the rebels, the camp’s inhabitants say, were also to blame. Abdel Rahman al Khatib, the chief of the municipality in which the camp is located, is always within earshot of the interviews, and residents appear keen to loudly broadcast their poor opinions of the armed groups opposing the government.
“Six years in Eastern Ghouta was like a really bad film,” says Ahmad Shamas, 42.
They complain that Eastern Ghouta’s rebels hoarded food, that anyone who objected to rebel rule risked public decapitation. Some of the displaced say they took up arms and joined the ranks of the rebel groups – a shocking admission to make from inside a camp where Syrian government forces guard the entrances. The former fighters say they had “little choice” but to join the government’s most wanted groups, so they could maximize their family’s access to food and secure a paltry income.
None of the three former rebel fighters CNN interviewed admitted to engaging in battle with Syrian government forces.
“We had to do it. There was no other way to survive,” says Marwan Khaled, 60. He acknowledges being a former member of Jaish al-Islam, Eastern Ghouta’s last remaining rebel group.
He describes the rebel group’s leadership as shrouded in mystery.
“We didn’t know their names. We weren’t allowed to know their names,” he says. The leadership comprised several foreigners unknown to the people they ruled over, according to the residents CNN spoke to, and the rebels operated largely from an elaborate underground network.
Syria’s official news agency recently showed footage of a “kilometers-long” series of tunnels that government forces say they uncovered in recaptured parts of Eastern Ghouta.
The government’s Syrian Arab Army and its allies have recaptured all of the Damascus suburb except for its largest town, Douma, where Jaish al-Islam has been in phased evacuations since Monday.
The fighters and their families are being transferred to Jarablus, a rebel-held city in northern Syria where Turkey provides some administrative support.
Last month, CNN spoke to an official who said she witnessed armed groups preventing a 16-year-old boy from leaving, even though he was slated for medical evacuation.
The Syrian and Russian governments have repeatedly accused rebels of stopping people from exiting Eastern Ghouta and rendering useless a humanitarian corridor ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rebels and activists have denied the charges and accused government forces of repeatedly violating a UN-ordered ceasefire.
“The scariest thing were the strikes,” says 10-year-old Mohammed Mezze, who fled Eastern Ghouta two weeks ago.
‘Back to life’
The Harjala camp bustles with activity. In the kitchen, women gather around large pots cleaning potatoes. A Syrian Red Crescent mobile clinic passes around the camp handing out medicine to the sick. Volunteers from Syria’s family planning agency entertain children with games. At the center of the camp, an open-air barber shaves off the beards of the men. Wearing an Islamist-style beard was fashionable in the formerly rebel-held enclave – not so much in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
“Moving from Eastern Ghouta to this camp was like going from hell to paradise, like bringing life to a dead body,” says Khatib, who runs the camp.
He then turns to a crowd of displaced Eastern Ghouta residents who have gathered around him.
“Am I right?” he asks.
They nod obediently.
Khatib says that aside from providing the displaced with medical, social and relief services, camp officials have worked to put Eastern Ghouta’s residents on a path to official citizenship. He shows CNN the identification documents that rebels gave to residents: a laminated red book issued by the “legal committee for Damascus and its countryside.” To Syria’s government, the documents are worthless. More than 6,000 children in his camp alone have no legal registration, according to Khatib. Over 4,000 marriages are also unregistered.
At the northern tip of the camp, hundreds of children gather, waiting for a Syrian soldier to let them through to the adjacent village. They are about to go to school – for the first time in years, some say.
When the soldier signals that they can pass, the children flood across the bridge, cheering and holding up V signs. “We’re going to school. Victory, victory!” says one child as he squeezes past.
Waiting for word
Many of Eastern Ghouta’s displaced fled through the Wafideen humanitarian corridor Putin established east of Damascus. Buses continue to move through the crossing, mostly carrying rebel fighters and their families. The nearby frontline is silent, and a dozen or so people are waiting quietly outside a checkpoint.
Walaa Mahmoud, 23, says she’ll wait day and night for her mother and brother – and her sister’s corpse – to emerge from the corridor.
Mahmoud and the other civilians at the crossing are waiting for relatives who they say were kidnapped years ago by the rebels at the nearby industrial city of Adra.
Mahmoud escaped captivity at the hand of the rebels a year and a half ago, and says she feels “victorious,” no matter how her vigil turns out.
“Even if my relatives are the last to appear here, even if the Syrian Arab Army soldiers came out before them, I’d still be happy – I’m full of hope,” says Mahmoud.
Syria’s disappeared are a legacy to a war that many in Damascus believe has already ended.
Over 75,000 people have disappeared— many of them aid workers and peaceful activists – since Syria’s crisis began in 2011, according to Amnesty International. Both the government and rebel rarmed groups are blamed by rights groups for forced disappearances.
One man at the crossing, who won’t give his name, is hoping he’ll get some word of his brother.
“I’ve been sitting on this sidewalk from morning to night since yesterday,” he says. “I feel my joints are falling apart.”
It’s a scene that marks the end of the Syrian capital’s long war with the rebels on its outskirts. But there is no fanfare here, only the recounting of poignant memories, the unanswered questions and the sense of a murky future.
“I just want to know if my brother is alive or dead,” the man says.
“I want to know if I should say Allah Yirhamo (may he rest in peace) or to live in hope.”