Douma: 'Even the corpses cannot rest in this city'

Douma: 'Even the corpses cannot rest in this city'
Feature: This Syrian town used to be a thriving hub of 700,000 people. Now its inhabitants are veterans of chemical weapons attacks, barrel bombs and airstrikes.
5 min read
12 February, 2015
Much of Douma's landscape is now strewn with rubble [AFP/Getty]
It was in Douma that the late Syrian president Taj al-Din al-Hussein famously refused to meet the French general, Gouraud. For Douma was the city that embraced the Syrian revolt against the French colonial masters until 1946.

Today, Douma is at the centre of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Its people are mostly farmers, stubborn and fond of tradition and of their religion - there are more than 80 mosques in the city.

For those reasons, Douma still stands as a beacon of the original revolution - the city has withstood two years of siege by the regime, and refused to allow foreign fighters to take over from locals.

The Islamic Front, an umbrella organisation which opposes both the regime and foreign fighters, is active in Douma. Most rebels are from the city, and fiercely defend their home turf.

"The geographical location of Douma, the threat it poses being close to the capital Damascus, and the nature of its people have haunted the regime and prompted it for two years to spare no means trying to enter it," an Islamic Front commander told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Syrian regime steps up aerial assault on Douma. Click here to read the latest.

Douma is a strategic gateway to Eastern Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus. It is around 10km to the north-east of Damascus and is considered the centre of the Damascus Countryside governorate.

The city was among the first to erupt against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Its central Grand Mosque hosted the first sit-ins of the revolution, and many protesters were killed as Syrian forces moved in to break them up.

In late October 2012, a number of armed factions emerged in Douma, mostly among people who defected from the regime alongside locals. They soon declared the liberation of the city - and so began the tight siege imposed by the Assad regime.

For more than two years, the people have lived in fear, hunger, and with little hope.

Douma is believed to have lost half a million people from its pre-war population of 700,000, and many of its buildings are now piles of rubble comparable to scenes from Chechnya's Grozny after it was pummelled by the Russians.

Safi al-Dimashqi, a local council member, tries to describe the situation in the city:

"The people of Douma have endured unbelievable suffering in the past two years. They know the meaning of real hunger, especially last year with shortages of food, soaring prices, and the collapse of farms. Dozens died from starvation. Water is gone, and the people rely on well-water, which is often filthy.

"They were forced to cut down the last remaining trees, and burned their furniture when fuel began to run out.

"Even corpses cannot rest in this city. The dead are buried quickly in shallow graves. Then, starving dogs dig them out for food, and disease spreads across the city."

Even corpses cannot rest. The dead are buried quickly in shallow graves. Then starving dogs dig them out for food.
- Safi al-Dimashqi, council member

There have been too many massacres in Douma for all to be remembered, but the "the day of quiet death" is one that no one forgets.

On 21 August, 2013, chemical weapons were fired into areas including Eastern Ghouta, Zamlaka and Douma. UN investigations later said that high-grade Sarin, which only the regime could access, had been used.

Yasser al-Khalidi, a paramedic in Rif Dimashq province, recounts that terrible day:

"We were in a small field hospital when we received the news of the chemical attack at 2.30am, and a group of paramedics and activists set off for Douma to help.

"What we found was horrific. I can't get out of my head the image of the dead bodies scattered everywhere - inside houses, outside houses, in basements, on doorsteps, lying in the middle of the street. We did not find many survivors."

He said the gas was so powerful that paramedics with charcoal filtered gas masks were being poisoned, even in the aftermath.

But that was nothing compared to scenes the day after, says Khalidi.

"The bodies were packed together and wrapped in shrouds. Each body had a number either on the shroud or the forehead. There were hundreds of them, and when you looked at them you noticed most were small - they were all children."

No accountability, no punishment

No one has been held accountable for this massacre, which killed 1,400 people. The US came within inches of launching attacks on the regime before Assad agreed to give up its chemical arsenal under a Russian-brokered deal, but has never admitted it carried out the attack.

Many armed rebel factions have formed in Douma - but the main formation is Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, which has thousands of fighters in Eastern Ghouta.

Its Douma-born leader, Zahran Alloush, is blamed by the Syrian regime for firing on civilian areas of Damascus earlier this month. Assad's officials used this action to begin its latest assaults on Douma.

In the past ten days, Douma has witnessed more than 150 airstrikes, involving 1,000 bombs. More than 120 civilians have been killed, and 400 injured.

Sources inside the city say the regime has used thermobaric bombs, internationally prohibited weapons that suck oxygen from the air to fuel their explosions, which suffocate those not killed in the initial blast. 

Dozens of civilians have been killed or injured, and many residential buildings have been destroyed.

It seems that for Douma, the Grozny of our time, which has suffered years of pain, there is still much more to come.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.