The siege that forced a suburb underground
Updated 1:34 PM ET, Wed April 11, 2018
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Eastern Ghouta, Syria (CNN)Not a building in Eastern Ghouta has emerged unscathed after six years of war.
The people who remained have carved out livable space within the destruction. Along the side of a road, a boy sat on a burnt barrel atop a mound of debris. Two toddlers played inside a blown-up truck. A barber went about his business inside his ravaged shop.
CNN visited the shattered suburb last week in the company of the Syrian military and saw the vestiges of the Damascus suburb's double life, above and below ground.
"It's so good to see you!" said 65-year-old Abu Yasmina as we walked on the dusty road next to his ruined house. "We've missed seeing strangers around here after all this time. Welcome!"
Eastern Ghouta's residents dispatched a battery of adjectives to describe life in the former rebel enclave, besieged by government forces for six years: "a nightmare;" "a tragedy;" "beyond description."
Many buildings have lost their facades, exposing apartments to the outside world. They offer a glimpse of what life might have been like before a siege all but ended in March following a fierce two-month offensive by the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad.
International observers said that offensive killed well over 1,000 people in the process of driving out rebel fighters. Scores more died in Saturday's attack on Douma, which Western governments and rebels say involved the use of a chemical agent. They blame the Assad regime for that horrific attack, but the Syrian government and its Russian allies have denied using gas there.
Russia says it welcomes an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
But beneath the landscape of devastation lies an underworld that kept many of the civilians and the rebels who ruled over them alive. A network of tunnels crisscrosses the former rebel enclave, subterranean spaces that served as a means of transport as well as weapons warehouses and factories. And then there were the basements that served as people's homes for weeks on end as the Assad regime offensive continued.
Some tunnels were still under construction by the ousted rebels as bombs pounded the enclave. On CNN's tour of Eastern Ghouta, shovels lay near an incomplete underground pathway. It would have been the second passage connected to the Irbeen Hospital; the other one was used to ferry the wounded from one medical facility to another.
The hospital was in tatters, suggesting the impromptu escape of fighters. Bowls of rice near hospital beds collecting mold, syringes covered the blood-spattered floors, dirty dishes spilled out of sinks. But while parts of the walls were pockmarked, the underground hospital was largely intact - the tunnels even more so.
Syria's military told us that the subterranean networks connected the suburb's towns with one another - one of the tunnels CNN walked through was 400 meters long.
"(The tunnel's) size is horrifying and it's planning is big. As you saw, there's a really long distance from one hospital to another," said a military officer who declined to give his name in line with Syrian military rules.
"All of Ghouta is connected by tunnels," he added.
The underground pathways, the army said, were used exclusively by armed groups.
At the entrance to one stood a whiteboard scrawled with what appears to be the rebels' parting message:
"From here you move east to a black cloud ... what happens next? I don't know!!! All I know is that righteousness can neither be diminished nor conquered by the spiteful."
Every resident that CNN spoke to during our time in Syria - with the permission of the government - said that they spent most of the two months of the offensive in basements. Footage released during the bombing campaign showed residents living in squalor underground, with urine and excrement on the floor and the drinking water contaminated.
Residents said each family was given a different part of the basement. They evoked a picture of micro-communities underground -- the people were assigned various roles, including entertaining rowdy children, cleaning the floors and securing food from above ground.
Meanwhile, rebels kept weapon stockpiles and factories in their own basements. A variety of weapons lay in disarray at the warehouse that the Syrian army presented to the team of journalists. Some apparently rebel-made -- mostly grenades and mortars; others apparently stolen from the Syrian army, such as a Russian-manufactured surface-to-air missile.
Nearby, state TV journalist Rabih Deeb showed us another weapons factory. From amid barrels of liquid substances, an acrid smell hanging in the air, he held up a notebook detailing instructions for concocting white phosphorus and incendiary weapons. He said the book was left behind by the rebels and is proof of the rebels' wrongdoing.
"May God curse them," Deeb said under his breath.
Both weapons facilities were in the middle of residential areas, tucked underneath alleyways between houses.
The Syrian regime has long accused rebel groups of launching chemical attacks in the country. Syria's activists have repeatedly accused government forces of killing hundreds in gas attacks over the years.
"I'm happy the place has been cleansed of the rebels," said Yasser el Hajj, 35. "What do I care about the destroyed houses? All that matters is that my kids and my family are safe."
Many residents say they reserve their resentment for the rebels. Public criticism of the government that bombed their homes could bring the tragedy-ridden lives of Eastern Ghouta's residents further anguish. Syria's government has jailed tens of thousands of peaceful dissidents over the decades, according to numerous rights groups and first-hand accounts.
The Syrian government said the need to expel Islamist rebels, whom they dub "terrorists," made the brutal offensive necessary. It aimed to bring an end to a torrent of rebel rockets that struck various parts of the capital over the years, claiming scores of lives in the past month alone.
Over 8,000 people in the Syrian capital have been killed by mortar strikes from Eastern Ghouta since 2012, regime officials said.
To help prove the regime's contention that the Islamist rebels are extremists, the army showed the group of journalists a church whose contents were set on fire by the rebels, the crucifix yanked off. But it was not clear who might have been behind the damage to the church.
Officials also argued that the death toll in Eastern Ghouta would not have been so high had the rebels not used civilians as "human shields," and if the fighters had allowed people to leave through a humanitarian corridor.
Former residents, one of whom remains in opposition territory, as well as an official who was on the ground, corroborated the claim that rebels prevented civilians from leaving.
But many analysts argued that it would have been virtually impossible for civilians to leave amid the incessant airstrikes. Residents said that between the regime's airstrikes and the tyranny that they said characterized rebel rule, they were caught between a rock and a hard place. The rebels deny they held people as human shields.
Normal life proves elusive
Officials say it's time for the residents of the former rebel-enclave to resume life under the Syrian government. Even former rebel fighters who have laid down their arms roamed freely among civilians in refugee camps, and said they hoped to enter the fold of the state soon.
It was unclear, though, how normalcy might come to pass. "I'm not so sure how we're going to go on. I hope God opens up a better life for us," said Abu Jowhar as he shoveled rubble outside a damaged building. He and his workmate, Abu el Fowz, said they move from one semi-destroyed house to another, depending on where they get employed to clear the wreckage.
On one of Eastern Ghouta's streets, an open-air market had already sprung to life. Vendors sold food from the back of a truck. A group of men sipped tea on the remains of a balcony.
Mohammed Dowara had turned a burnt barrel, a plastic basket and three blocks of concrete into a makeshift shop offering cans of tuna, chocolate and some packs of cigarettes.
"We just have to make do," said Dowara, who owned a shoe shop before the war.
Only a handful of people continue to live in Eastern Ghouta, scrounging semi-livable destroyed houses to take shelter in. Outside the southern entrance of the suburb, hundreds of the displaced had gathered, chanting support for Assad.
In interviews with the media, they praised the army's victory, but it's nearly always followed by a desperate plea: "I can't tell you how full of feeling I am right now," said Um Jawhar, a middle-aged woman with two sons in the army. "I just don't know what happens from here, do you?"