She went to college to become an artist; it was her dream to be an art teacher and surround herself by beauty, creativity, and a vibrant imagination. “All of that is a distant memory — a memory that sometimes I feel did not even exist,” 48-year-old Raja told me from the basement of the only standing hospital in the rebel-held town of Zamalka, one of the clusters of settlements in Syria’s Ghouta enclave that since the early days of 2018 has endured some of the bloodiest days of the 8-year-long Syrian conflict.
Raja is among the millions of Syrian women who since the beginning of the crisis have endured mind-numbing loss, trauma, abuse, and displacement. These are women who despite the horrors of life beneath chemical attacks, bombardments, and road blocks have somehow managed to rise above adversities and become more resilient by the day.
Raja works as a midwife and a surgeon’s assistant in Zamalka’s only medical facility. She does not have any academic training as a nurse, but the ongoing massacre in Ghouta has left her no choice but to wake up each day, and without sufficient medicine and equipment be of service to her fellow Syrians — many of whom have lost an immediate family member or members in the war. According to the United Nations, there are over 400,000 people trapped in the town and villages of Eastern Ghouta, where regime forces are rapidly gaining ground.
“We are living life minute by minute.” She explained how there were already four air strikes since morning and that she expected more throughout the day. “We’ve been living in basements for weeks now. Every time I walk down the stairs I feel as if I’m walking into my grave.”
According to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 800 civilians have been killed by government bombings and shelling since the escalation of the crisis in early February. However, civilians and activists on the ground say that the death toll exceeds well into a thousand. Early in March, the United Nations Security Council put in place a 30-day countrywide ceasefire in an effort to halt the bloodshed and allow the entrance of humanitarian aid — both of which have been unsuccessful.
“We all feel like laboratory mice; I’ve seen weapons that I’ve heard about and weapons that I’ve never seen nor heard of in my life — it’s as if they everyone is testing their weapons and machines on us,” said the mother of two who’s originally from Latakia — a coastal city in northern Syria. “I lived in Zamalka for 23 years and I could not suddenly leave my community. I felt I have to stay here and be with them 'til the end.”
In the first few days of the ceasefire over 100 people died under Russian and regime-backed attacks, and the humanitarian aid convoy was cut short by government shelling earlier this week. While the Syrian regime argues that they are targeting terrorist groups in the rebel-held areas, what’s evident is the tragic impact of the conflict on Syrian civilians — civilians like Raja, her family, and other women who are holding on to their children and loved ones as though they may never see them again.
“Everyday I look at my daughter and son and try to take a long look into their eyes — a look that can last forever; I do that everyday because I may lose them at any time — there may not be a tomorrow.”
Over the years and recent months, Raja has witnessed horrific scenes. “Amputations, dying children, dying women with their babies still in their wombs, and parents burying their entire families. No one should see these things. We all sometimes wonder if the people in the world know about what’s happening to us — it’s as if we live on Mars.”
Raja’s daughter Walla is 23; she has a newborn son named Zaid. Raja’s son Mahmoud also has a 3-months-old baby named Firas. In her mind, both children are poignant reminders that underneath the concrete and rubble there may still be a glimpse of hope for the future — a future that for many Syrian women and mothers is a dark abyss. “Just this past week, my neighbor buried her three children — you know how that feels? Burying your three small children?”
Over the past few months, Raja said that there’s been a catastrophic shortage of medical and food supplies in Ghouta. “People skip meals and allow their children to eat while parents look into the eyes of their hungry kids. There is no meat, no rice; all we have is lentil,” said Raja, explaining a reality of life in a charnel house where women are being stripped away from any opportunity to enjoy life, motherhood, and any inherent desire of womanhood. “You know, as women we sometimes forget our femininity, we lose it and become like stones — the massacre and war dries up your feelings.”
The food shortage in Ghouta and other besieged Syrian towns is having a profoundly negative impact on pregnant women — women who amidst the chaos hope to experience what millions of other women outside of Syria are fortunate enough to celebrate in peace.
Farah is an 11-year-old girl who lives next door to Raja and her family. She and her family were also hiding in the same basement as Raja. Farah and many other children in Ghouta have been out of school for months. “If I could talk to other girls I’d let them know how much I want peace and how much I want to be able to go to school and not worry if my mom or dad will die.” She is a fourth-grader with dreams. When I asked her what she wants to do when she grows up she immediately said “a nurse or a doctor.” Somehow it was as if the devastation in her hometown has made her believe that doctors are perhaps the only saviors in the world.
Three other women, Esma, Eman, and Dalal joined Raja in the conversation — wanting to share their stories with other women outside their basement and war-torn neighborhood.
“I want to tell the women who live outside of Ghouta, outside of Syria, to understand that all I want when I go to sleep is to know that tomorrow I will wake up,” said Eman as she looked at Esma who is five months pregnant and fears the death of her unborn child amidst food shortage, air strikes, and lack of medication.
“My only dream is to give birth to my child,” said Esma.
Dalal is another restless mother from Hamurya in the East Ghouta enclave. Unlike Esma, she already has given birth to four children; but her 19-year-old son Haisam has gone missing since three weeks ago when airstrikes destroyed her entire house. “I don’t know if he is alive or dead, we don’t know where he is. My only dream to see the day, where me and my four children and husband can go above the ground and see the son.”
Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist who has has written, reported, and produced for CNN, CNN International, NBC Los Angeles, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, and Al Monitor. In 2016, she founded Art of Hope a non-profit 501(c)3 organization helping Syrian refugees overcome trauma, PTSD, and psychological wounds. She is currently working on her upcoming book on Iran. To read more of her reports, Click Here Now.
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