Vicken Cheterian

Siege of Ghouta

Have you ever lived in a city under siege? 

I did. It was long time ago, in the summer of 1982. As the weather became warmer, I remember how I was getting eager for that summer, the last days at school before summer vacation. Israeli warplanes interrupted that anticipation with daily attacks on our city. Soon tanks brought under siege the western part of Beirut. It meant we could not go to the sea, and we would spend the hot summer nights without electricity or running water. Most of my days I would spend in searching for a bakery still producing bread, and carrying gallons of water back home. Bombs fell on our besieged buildings night after night. I saw the last floor of a tall building on the ground, an airstrike with thermobaric bomb had flattened all the floors that once existed in between; no one from its two hundred inhabitants had survived. I saw the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas leaving the city, carrying their Kalashnikov rifles with them, and making “victory” signs. The siege culminated in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, the two Palestinian camps where after the Israeli Army besieged them Lebanese Phalangist militia had entered and during three days committed an abominable massacre.

During the last several years I often remembered the 1982 siege of Beirut. As the Syrian uprising turned into one of the most violent wars, a number of Damascus suburbs was brought under siege: Darayya and Muadamiyat al-Sham, Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Madaya and Zabadani west of Damascus near the border with Lebanon, and Eastern Ghouta, in the eastern countryside of the Syrian capital. As I follow the news, and personal stories of some of the inhabitants of those neighbourhoods through social media, I thought again and again how my experience in Beirut was too humble to enable me to understand the experience of the besieged people in Syrian towns, cities and villages. 

It was not just the fact that my siege experience lasted only the duration of the summer of 1982, compared with Darayya that lasted from late 2012 until August 2016, or that of East Ghouta neighbourhoods from late 2013 until March 2018: what kind of psychological transformation did the population of Ghouta went through during over four years of life under siege? But what frightens me the most is not the duration, but the nature of the conflict: in Beirut 1982 the besieger was the enemy, a foreign army coming from afar, from the other side of the “border”; in Syria the besieger is none other than the army of the nation, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies. What are the consequences of your own army besieging you, forbidding food and medication to reach you, bomb you to surrender? What is the price for such behaviour?

As the last rebel bastions of Ghouta are falling, it is the moment to remember the years of the siege and ask for answers. The rebel groups will bear huge responsibility for their choices and behaviour: whether the Jaysh ul-Islam (Army of Islam) or Faylaq al-Rahman – the two major groups that dominated East Ghouta – their divisions, inflight, and dependence on foreign funding ensured their doom. Their haughty behaviour and repressive policies made them resemble a military regime similar to the one they were fighting, rather than a revolutionary alternative to the Assad dynasty: the fate of lawyer and human right activist Razan Zaitouneh, who disappeared in Douma as the siege was closing in late 2013, with three of her companions, Samira al-Khalil, Nazem Hammadi, and Wael Hamadeh, probably by the Jaysh ul-Islam, is a symbol of this criminal behaviour.  

Yet, it is the Syrian regime that bears the major responsibility for this disaster. It has to answer to history for all the choices it took to fight by all available weapons against its own people, refusing to install even the minimum of a dialogue with those opposing the regime. The Syrian regime has to answer for putting hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens under siege; for bombing them; for the massacre of Darayya in August 2012; for the chemical bombing of several localities in East Ghouta in August 2013; for systematic bombing of hospitals; for deporting Syrians and making them refugees in their own country; for inviting the armies of the world to fight co-citizens instead of establishing dialogue with them in search for a peaceful solution. 

There is nothing to celebrate in the fall of East Ghouta. International estimates put the number of the besieged population there over 400’000, and Reuters reported on March 24 that 105’000 people had already left their homes for an unknown future. They are leaving behind the entire belt around Damascus in ruins, a population martyrized, hundreds of thousands of orphans, to join a population of refugees within their own country. The Syrians have become a refugee people much like the Palestinians of past wars. Don’t mistake this for victory!

As the ruler of Damascus and his allies are celebrating their success, we should remember the long siege of Ghouta and the human suffering it caused. We should remember that this madness is the outcome of man-made choices, of political choices, and ask for answers. We should ask for answers from the international political order that was supposed to protect civilians and could not, or did not, do the minimum of their responsibility. Mostly, we should not forget those left behind so that they do not disappear in the underground prisons of Baathism. 

Nations are not eternal. They are born, they live their life, and at some point they die. Some nations die a natural life, while the trajectory of others is interrupted through violent crimes. The siege of Ghouta could very much be one such crime that interrupted the life of a young and tragic nation.