Into the Light: Escape from Ghouta

Many of the civilians have suffered for 5 years of deprivation at the hands of their captors

They struggled with babies and suitcases while squinting at the bright Damascus sunshine.  Many of the civilians who have escaped Eastern Ghouta have been sheltering in basements underground, and have suffered for 5 years of deprivation at the hands of their captors: the armed fighters. Their stories came pouring out, one by one as they passed through the humanitarian safety corridor leading to freedom, where local TV reporters were asking the obvious question:”what was it like inside?”

After five weeks, the Syrian military now holds more than 90% of the area, since it began operations to liberate Eastern Ghouta. Along with the ground battles, the Russian Center for Reconciliation has been negotiating with the various armed groups, securing deals in which some of the fighters were safely transported to Idlib, and others were willing to surrender their arms and return to normal status as Syrian civilians, with their families. Major General Yuri Yevtushenk is chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation, whose main efforts are now focused on assistance to the refugees returning to their homes and evacuation of civilians from war zones, including peaceful evacuations of armed fighters.

The Syrian government took the decision to clear the area of armed fighters due to the almost daily barrage of missiles and mortars on the residential areas in Damascus, killing and maiming thousands. While the evacuation period brought more calm to Damascus, still there were occasional missiles fired from Eastern Ghouta, including one where a young Syrian footballer Samir Massoud, 12, was killed in rocket fire on a prominent Damascus sports club.

Feb 18: The Syrian military began its operation in Eastern Ghouta, and in the course of action Eastern Ghouta  was split into three separate zones. 

Feb 27: Safe corridor of al-Wafideen was set up by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in order to facilitate the safe escape of all civilians coming out of Eastern Ghouta.  The plan was for the evacuees to be received by the army, Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Damascus Countryside governorate before they were transported to makeshift centers, which were equipped with all basic services.

East Ghouta has been under the occupation of various Radical Islamic terrorist groups for the past 5 years.  They consist of variously named armed militias, and all of them are supported by foreign countries, such as: US, NATO, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Each group not only has a separate name, but individual leaders and alliances.  They are not unified in their attacks of the Syrian government and the Syrian population in safe areas, and they frequently have fought among themselves.  The common denominator has been their willingness to slaughter unarmed civilians in Damascus, through the firing of rockets, missiles and mortars indiscriminately fired from East Ghouta westward to the residential neighborhoods of Damascus. The majority of Syrian Opposition groups do not advocate targeting unarmed civilians, and this is why most of the Syrian Opposition groups do not refer to these fighters as rebels, but as terrorists.  However, the mainstream western media have consistently adopted the label of ‘rebel’ in describing them, though the BBC uses the term of ‘Islamist’, which has angered millions of Muslims worldwide, as they are insulted by the association of war crimes with the peaceful religion of Islam.

Over the past 5 years, the fighters have raided various areas nearby and have taken hostages, both civilians and SAA soldiers.  The hostages, if still alive, are in the thousands and are children, women and men.  The armed groups use civilians as human shields, as well as hostages which are held in strict captivity, for their own benefit: in order to delay military attacks on them, and in prisoner swaps.  The Islam Army famously captured hundreds of civilians, whole families, which had been working in factories in Adra, and they also held women and children variously in cages, reminiscent of circus cages.  The families of those hostages are awaiting word of their survival and exodus from captivity.

March 21: The Syrian Foreign Ministry announced that more than 40 tons of chemicals were found in al-Shifoniyeh in Eastern Ghouta  as the SAA liberated the area from armed fighters.  The SAA advanced into an area on March 14 which had been strictly held by armed groups for the last 5 years, and was inaccessible to the Army.  The large warehouse was photographed and fully documented and clearly was a chemical laboratory and warehouse. All of the chemicals were foreign products and labeled with their origins.  Igor Kirillov, the commander of Russia’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Forces, recalled the case of Khan Shaykhun; an alleged chemical attack which took place on April 4, 2017 in an area controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham , formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Pres. Donald Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired at the Shayrat Airbase.  Pres. Trump claimed that the airbase had been the site from which jets allegedly armed with the chemical took off.

However, no real investigation of the Khan Shaykhun incident was undertaken, citing security concerns.   Some experts believe that the chemical attack was staged by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in order to blame the Syrian government.  Since the beginning of the armed fighters presence in Syria, they have periodically used ‘false-flag’ tactics to their advantage, most famously with the sarin gas video made in August 2013, which almost culminated in a wholesale bombing campaign by the US military, under command of Pres. Obama; however, he called it off after receiving information that the sarin sample at the scene was not from the Syrian government.

The discovery at al-Shifoniyeh in Eastern Ghouta on March 14, recalls the claims of a chemical attack there on Feb 25.  In that alleged incident, victims in the town of al-Shifoniyeh had been seen with convulsions, difficulty breathing and irritation of the eyes and mouth, as reported by a health official working under the authority of the armed fighters occupying the area.

The Russian Defence Ministry accused the armed fighters, some who were linked to al Qaeda, executing the the attack on civilians held by them in order to blame the Syrian military. This would be yet another example of the ‘false flag’ tactic used by the armed groups.

The liberation of Eastern Ghouta has been likened to the liberation of Eastern Aleppo in Dec 2016.  CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen was embedded along with the SAA as they liberated areas which had previously been under strictly armed fighter occupation for many years.  Fred was shown a newly liberated chemical weapons warehouse and he stood among the various barrels and containers, which were kept in a former elementary school.

March 25: - A second batch of militants and their families departed from Jobar, Ein Tarma, Zamalka and Erbin to Idleb. Syrian TV journalist Jafar Younis boarded one of the buses bound for Idlib and had a conversation with some of the armed fighters. They confirm food hoarding by the armed groups.

18 buses carrying 1,101 people including 238 armed fighters gathered near the Erbin corridor in preparation for transporting them to Idleb.

The SAA discovered a tunnel network in Hazza in Eastern Ghouta.  The tunnels are many and well done, using civilians and soldiers held as prisoners by the armed fighters to dig.  In some cases the tunnels are large enough to drive a small vehicle through, thus being used as the main supply line into the armed fighters.  Foreign supporters of the groups would use criminal merchants in the Damascus countryside to keep the armed groups supplied with all needs.

March 26: Nearly 6,800 members of the Faylaq al-Rahman militant group and their family members left the Arbil settlement in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta.  This group is supported by Qatar, and is part of the global network called “The Muslim Brotherhood”, which is an outlawed organization in Egypt, Russia and Syria but is fully supported with offices in every major city across USA and UK.

"In the past three days, a total of 13,190 militants and their family members were taken to the Idlib province from the Arbil settlement," the Russian Defense Ministry said, based on agreements reached by the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the opposing sides in Syria.

The security of the departing armed fighters, and their families, on buses going to Idlib in the north, was secured by Syrian police, and further supervised by officers from the Russian Center for Reconciliation and representatives of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Additionally, 26SAA soldiers and civilian hostages were freed from the captivity of the Faylaq al-Rahman.

Russian Center for Reconciliation had offered the option to civilians  to stay in Zamalka and Arbin as the area came under Syrian control.

The engineering units of the SAA have removed mines and explosive devices planted by the armed fighters among the houses of the civilians and main roads to prevent the civilians from escaping through the safe corridors.

March 27: More than 500 civilians evacuated from Eastern Ghouta via the safe corridor of al-Wafideen. Eight of the evacuated persons were in critical situation and were transferred to a hospital in Damascus for treatment.

7,000 armed fighters departed Eastern Ghouta to Idlib, under a deal arranged by the Russian Center for Reconciliation.  About 100 buses left Eastern Ghouta at around 3 a.m. local time carrying fighter and, their families from the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka, bringing the total number of fighter leaving the area to 13,190.

28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin were freed as the SAA advanced into occupied areas.

Douma is the last town to be liberated. It is occupied by Jaish al-Islam, who are supported by The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The armed group entered into talks with the Russian Center for Reconciliation, but has rejected the idea of being bused to Idlib. There is grave concern for the thousands of civilians who are being held captive there, and are prevented from leaving by threat of death.

March 28: The negotiations with Jaish al-Islam have failed.  Now the SAA has amassed troops and heavy artillery around Douma, in preparation for an imminent attack.  Even though the unarmed civilians of Douma marched in the street demanding their freedom from the armed fighters, the leader of Jaish al-Islam refused.  Meanwhile, in other areas, civilians continue to pour out to safety, and many armed fighters have agreed to lay down arms and surrender to the SAA.  One such group were processed by the SAA as they were given a hot meal and registered.  They will be expected to serve their national duty in the SAA as part of their return to normal citizen status, without retribution.

Eastern Ghouta may soon be a secure though devastated area.  Just as the thousands of evacuees from East Aleppo have returned home and are building new lives since Dec. 2016; now a repeat performance is playing out on the stage.  The final act is ready to begin, and all eyes are focused on Douma as the curtain closes on Jaish al-Islam.

Steven Sahiounie

Steven was born in Fresno, California. His parents moved with him to Latakia, Syria as a very small child, which was the birthplace of his father.

He attended both private and public schools in Latakia from 1st grade to 12th grade. He took his American High School diploma, from the state of Maine, GED, while studying at home and taking the exams at AMIDEAST in Beirut, Lebanon. Steven is currently enrolled in a Lebanese University, studying English Literature. Steven is proficient in both Arabic and English.

Steven began writing political analysis and commentary during the Syrian war, which began in March 2011. He has published several articles, and has been affiliated with numerous media. He has been interviewed by US, Canadian and German media.