Armed groups in the besieged rural area around Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta have started allowing many residents to use their military tunnels, at no cost, to escape or get what they need.
With the world focused on the widespread starvation in Madaya, Bashar al-Assad’s government has reportedly tightened its blockades of other areas, including Eastern Ghouta.
There, armed groups have built an intricate network of tunnels over the past two years, mainly to smuggle weapons, ammunition, food and fighters past the blockade, according to residents.
Until recently, the groups would rent out their tunnels to residents who wanted to escape, charging about 150,000 Syrian pounds (around US$380) per person for a one-way trip. Sometimes the groups also let desperate residents, including the wounded and people with urgent medical conditions, use the tunnels for free.
Since the government tightened its grip on the area and escalated military operations in Eastern Ghouta, the armed groups have changed their policy, and are allowing most people to access the tunnels at no cost.
The exception is men between 17 and 40 years old, whom they fear could join a pro-Assad militia called the “Loyalty Army” made up of defectors from armed opposition fighters in Eastern Ghouta.
One of those who escaped using such a tunnel was Abu Ali, 47, who recently left the region’s main city of Douma with his wife and two children. Abu Ali said he used a tunnel built by the main armed opposition group fighting the government, Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam.
The process of applying to use the tunnel, he said, was strangely bureaucratic for such a risky method of escape: He submitted an official request at a Jaish al-Islam office and was informed two weeks later that it had been granted.
“I secretly sold cigarettes, but Jaish al-Islam prohibits smoking in Douma. Therefore, my wife and I decided to relocate to a regime-controlled area before they could discover the nature of my work and punish me for it,” he said.
He said that he and three other families granted access to the tunnel started their journey on a bus from the city of Hamouriyya.
“The bus took us to the city of Arbin. In Arbin, the bus took side streets, so that we wouldn’t be noticed. We finally arrived at a house where our identification cards were checked, and our luggage was searched. We were told that we had to be very careful, so no one would discover where the tunnel was,” he said.
The tunnel “was very tight – there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side and it was about two meters in height. In addition to lights, the tunnel had turbines for ventilation purposes.”
As of June 2015, some 163,000 people remained in Eastern Ghouta, surviving under a siege that has progressively tightened since it was first put in place in early 2013.
According to Abu Ali, there are other tunnels that are “bigger and better equipped, but are used only for military purposes like transporting weapons and fighters. These tunnels are not open for civilians, unless they have very high connections.”
Joumana, 33, made the same difficult journey to seek medical treatment for her two children aged seven and nine, who both suffer from a skin condition.
“The tunnel was very long. It felt like it was endless,” she said, explaining that it took them about 45 minutes and that no one from Jaish al-Islam escorted them. “I carried my son most of the time. The stony ground was very hard to walk on, especially for children.”
She said she was scared the whole time: “We heard that the regime had bombed tunnels while civilians were crossing, and I was very worried that they would discover the tunnel and bomb it.”
Their journey ended in Barzeh, a neighborhood to the north of Damascus that remains relatively peaceful due to a truce between the armed opposition forces who control the area, including al-Nusra Front, and the Syrian government.
“The tunnel ended at a house in Barzeh, and we were then transported to a nearby mosque that I could not recognize in the darkness,” Joumana said.
The next morning, the families were allowed to go wherever they wanted.
Joumana said she intends to return to Douma after her children are treated and resume running her small dairy products business. “I do not want to take the risk and stay in a regime-controlled area. They might discover where I am from and arrest me. I do not want to end up in the regime’s prisons. The most horrifying things happen there,” she said.
Abu Ali, however, will not go back to Eastern Ghouta before the war ends.
He is currently staying with a friend in Barzeh but will soon relocate to Jaramana, in southern Syria.
“We have to make up for all the things we have missed – from education for our children, to work for me, and providing my family with a reasonable life. Our life back there was very hard,” he said. “I would be much happier if the war were over, and we did not have to leave our homes and the place where we were born and raised.”
Top image: Syrian government forces speak to a U.N. observer in the Damascus suburb of Douma, Syria, Sunday, May 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)