Eastern Ghouta: A ghetto of hunger and fear
"It's water for breakfast and water for lunch, but we're able to have something solid for dinner." He tells me that he and his friends jokingly call this the "Ghouta diet", but the situation in this suburb of Damascus - under siege by Assad regime forces four years - is no laughing matter.
Approximately 400,000 of the residents face starvation. Food has literally run out to the point that one meal-per-day is now the norm. People must eat whatever they can, including, as a new report has detailed, animal fodder, expired food and refuse. Nothing edible can afford be wasted.
The impenetrable siege imposed on the area by Assad has restricted resources to the point of making life as hard as it gets for human beings in this world - for others, it's fatally unbearable. The weakest of course have it worst.
According to a conservative estimate by UNICEF, over 1,100 children suffer from potentially fatal malnutrition, while in October images of skeletal babies starving to death aroused fleeting condemnation from some of the international community.
It's slightly surreal then, when Abdelmalik Abod, a 22-year-old activist from the besieged area of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, reels off the statistics to me.
Surreal not because he seems to repeat the statistics as if they're indelibly burned into his mind, but because his entire life has been shaped and continues to be shaped daily by the war and the siege - experiences that the statistics can't ever pick up.
No one except for people like Abdelmalik who live with this, can ever understand what it's really like to exist in one of the most precarious places in the world. As well as consuming most of his adult life, Abdelmalik lost his mother due to the siege. The Assad regime blocks all kinds of medical equipment from getting into the area, including surgical equipment and medicines. Abdelmalik tells me of "helplessly watching" as his mother died of a neurological condition that was worsened by, as he puts it, "the constant fear of nearby bombing".
|Assad's tactic is to destroy as much of the civil infrastructure as possible
And fear is as prevalent as hunger in Eastern Ghouta. As Abdelmalik reminds me, the precarity of their lives is determined not just by Assad's brutal siege that holds the area in a death grip, but also because of Assad and Russia's "daily bombardment of the areas outside of their control" including, as he knows only too well, "using all types of illegal weapons".
Abdelmalik has an intimate knowledge of the kind of weaponry Assad and Russia use against residents in Eastern Ghouta. His first proper job, aged just 17, was as a volunteer in one of the impromptu rescue services better known as the White Helmets, in Douma.
As he puts it: "At the beginning of the revolution, young people had two choices, either to be with the FSA or to be a paramedic for civilians - I chose to rescue people."
But it was also part of his job to know what kind of attack happened and the munitions involved. He mentions cluster bombs to me perhaps only because these officially outlawed and particularly vicious weapons have been a favourite of Russia since their intervention in 2015, but it has been a veritable free for all in Eastern Ghouta when it comes to the method of slaughter used by Assad and his allies.
International law has absolutely no substance in the face of Assad's infamously deadly use of sarin gas on Eastern Ghouta in 2013, leaving as many as 1,429 people dead.
In a recent attack on Douma, Assad targeted White Helmet volunteers and killed three of them - the regime has perpetrated attacks on rescuers with ferocious consistency in Ghouta. It's something Abdelmalik knows only too well, explaining "in the many rescue operations I participated in, I lost many friends".
And this reveals the brutal reality of Assad's endgame when it comes to Eastern Ghouta. As with other areas of Syria, the tactic is to destroy as much of the civil infrastructure as possible - to make the every day functioning of normal life impossible.
This is reflected on the targets of the attacks. As well as suffering depleted resources, many of Eastern Ghouta's hospitals have been destroyed or damaged, while schools have faced the same fate.
For Abdelmalik, schools are a particularly affecting subject, as before the war he had started a diploma in teaching, but was forced give up when the revolution broke out. "There are 52,000 children studying in semi-destroyed schools, while the regime has completely destroyed 37 schools". He tells me of the situation in Eastern Ghouta now, "children have to write on old newspapers because they can't even get access to blank paper."
There ought to be no doubt what Assad's purpose is in Eastern Ghouta, and Abdelmalik puts it as succinctly as possible, "Assad is seeking to pressure the civilian population of Eastern Ghouta to the point that we submit to him and then leave for Idlib."
This is exactly what we've seen in other areas such as Homs or Aleppo that have been besieged or bombarded by Assad; populations in rebel-held or rebel-supporting areas "cleansed" by the regime, often in the name of "de-escalation".
Read more: Lifting Syria's regime siege requires more than just words
When I bring up the term "ethnic cleansing", Abdelmalik immediately says "yes, that is what he wants, to eliminate all revolutionaries and keep his murderous gang in power".
Assad might be prospering in Syria due to the raw power of Russia and Iran, but he still faces the fundamental of contradiction of being opposed by vast swathes of pro-revolution civilian populations. It's these civilian populations that are the bedrock of the revolution, and the reason Assad and his allies have opted to cleanse them.
While Assad remains in power due to foreign intervention, the revolution is a solely Syrian phenomenon rooted in the communities like Eastern Ghouta's. Abdelmalik knows precisely the nature of the vultures that circle the area, telling me,
|It has been a veritable free for all in Eastern Ghouta when it comes to the method of slaughter used by Assad and his allies
"We've seen Iran's militias play a crucial role in supporting Assad to besiege and kill the people of Eastern Ghouta… they direct the military campaigns against the rebels, using their own forces and Lebanese Hizballah mercenaries, as well as Iraqis and Afghans."
It's easy for an outsider to look at the situation in Eastern Ghouta and completely lose hope that anything good could emerge from Syria. With the international community and former allies abandoning anti-Assad Syrians, things have never looked so dire.
As the everyday brutalities in Eastern Ghouta play out, Assad was seen swanning around Sochi with his veritable master Vladimir Putin, who has sought endorsement from Donald Trump to bring the Syrian war to an end on Russian and Iranian terms.
But hope lies with people like Abdelmalik. In the face of daily brutality, and the knowledge that the raw power of Assad, Iran and Russia want him and his fellow residents of Eastern Ghouta dead or cleansed, he does not hesitate in vowing "to remain steadfast against Assad and his gang". "We will not accept expulsion from our land and we will continue to struggle for freedom and dignity and the fall of Assad," he states bluntly.
It might sound like sloganeering, but coming from someone who has lived most of his teenage and early adult life in the grip of such a vicious war, you can tell he means every word. The outside world often forgets, but Syrians know who the main enemy is.
Despite the sheer scale of Assad's brutality and the sectarianisation of the conflict, Abdelmalik remains merciful and resolutely opposed to the kind of sectarianism upon which Assad has thrived. "Assad and his gang should be given a fair trial for their crimes… we are not a people who love murder and killing - we want a Syria that enjoys freedom, democracy and equality for all its people," he says.
This is precisely why Assad fears him and the people of Eastern Ghouta.
Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.