As thousands flee Douma for government-controlled Damascus, one father faces a difficult choice

Alone in Douma, Hassan Abdelrahman is weighing his options. The 37-year-old grocery store owner’s wife and three children left the rebel-held East Ghouta city for government-held Damascus this week, and he is struggling to decide whether or not to follow them.

“I am afraid to stay in Douma and face a new massacre,” Abdelrahman tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou, “but I am afraid to leave for government areas and face the security risks.”

Abdelrahman is not alone in his decision. For Douma residents like him, deciding whether or not to take advantage of a Russian-established humanitarian corridor north of the city means choosing between airstrikes in East Ghouta and an uncertain future in government territory.

More than 25,000 civilians, including Abdelrahman’s family, have left Douma through the nearby al-Wafideen crossing over the past month, the Russian Ministry of Reconciliation reported on Monday.

Pictures that circulated on pro-government social media in recent days appear to show hundreds of Syrians—mostly women and children—inside government-established shelters outside the rebel enclave.

But after spending seven years in opposition-held Douma, Abdelrahman worries he could be arrested by government forces or taken for military reserve duty if he goes to Damascus. Conflicting rumors about the fates of men who left Douma in recent days leave him “struggling” to decide what to do.

Civilians evacuate the city of Arbin in East Ghouta on Sunday. Photo by Amer Almohibany/AFP.

While Abdelrahman continues to grapple with his decision, his wife and three children are now staying with relatives in Damascus following a brief stay in a government-run shelter. He does not know when he will see them again.

“At least she and the children are far from the bombing and fighting,” he says.

Q: What is it like in Douma today?

The past week or so has been calm in terms of bombings, with the exception of airstrikes yesterday that injured some civilians.

The situation for civilians inside the city is turbulent. We don’t know what the future holds. We are living in the ruins of a destroyed city, waiting for an unknown fate.

Q: As a civilian, what have you been hearing about negotiations?

We don’t know who is negotiating or what they are negotiating. We hear talk of under-the-table negotiations, reconciliation and a settlement with the government, but nobody in Douma can answer this question. All we know is that Jaish al-Islam [Douma’s dominant rebel faction] announced they refused a settlement to leave, and that they are insisting they will stay even if it means more military operations.

The fogginess surrounding the details [of ongoing negotiations] is confusing to us as civilians. The result of the negotiations will affect my family, my business and myself. I have to take steps to minimize any potential losses.

For this reason, I sent my wife and children out [to government territory] a few days ago. I’m trying to convince my mother, father and sisters to leave but they haven’t gone yet.

I am afraid to stay in Douma and face a new massacre, with no other opposition-controlled areas left in East Ghouta. But I am afraid to leave for government areas and face the security risks that entails.

Q: You said earlier that you sent your wife out of East Ghouta and stayed behind. Why?

It feels as though the ground is shifting under our feet, and we don’t know what’s happening.

About a week ago I went through a major internal struggle. Should I leave for regime territory with my wife and children? What might happen to us? If I choose for us to stay in Douma, will I be the reason that my children are bombed or hurt in some way? Should I stay behind alone? All of these questioned swirled inside my mind dozens of times every day.

Ultimately, I decided my wife and children should leave through al-Wafideen to stay with my wife’s family, who live in Damascus. Afterwards, I’d decide whether to leave or stay.

My wife is with her family now. She says she feels uncomfortable in Damascus, but at least she and the children are far from the bombing and fighting that will likely take place in the coming days.

Q: Were you in contact with your wife after she left? What did she tell you about the Syrian government shelters for people leaving East Ghouta?

I have remained in contact with her, of course. She was at a shelter in the city of Adra for less than 24 hours, just long enough for her to settle her status with the regime and prepare to leave the shelter.

Most of the women who have children with them have an easier time leaving the shelters [than men], but some procedures are required. Women cannot leave the center unless they have a relative in Damascus or a sponsor who can come, sign some paperwork and pick them up. My wife’s father came to the Adra center and signed them out.

Q: To your knowledge, are you wanted by the government? And if not, are you considering following your wife?

I don’t think that I am wanted. I finished my military service years before the revolution, and never took up arms or worked with any civilian or military opposition group. Of course, I oppose the regime and participated in peaceful demonstrations all throughout the past years.

Anything is possible from the regime. I might be taken for military reserve duty, or just the fact that I have been in an opposition area all this time could be enough for them to accuse me [of a crime].

I’m trying to find out how the regime is dealing with people in the shelters, hoping to meet up with my wife and family. That would be a better option, in my opinion, than being displaced to the north and leaving my land and home behind.

But since my wife left, I’ve been struggling even more [with the decision] because of conflicting rumors about what happens to the men who leave. Some people say that there is a resolution to recruit them [by the military], others say they are subject to arrest and torture.

Until now, I don’t know any men who have left the shelters and gone to Damascus. My wife and a lot of people whose families left are saying that none of the men have left the shelters.

With additional reporting by Alice Al Maleh.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.