As Syrian government forces wreaked a devastating five-year siege and fired air strikes and artillery shells on Rateb Abu Yasser’s hometown northeast of Damascus (Eastern Ghouta), the 32-year-old nevertheless found time for his friends.
“We’d get together at night and play cards,” he recalls. Abu Yasser’s group of nine friends, men in their 20s and 30s, would light up arghileh water pipes and spend hours talking politics and current events.
Over the years, the group of nine shrank to six as friends were killed in bombings or fled Eastern Ghouta, he says.
An aid worker who helps traumatised children, Abu Yasser lives in the opposition-controlled Eastern Ghouta suburbs immediately northeast of government-held Damascus. The rebel enclave has been encircled by government forces since 2013.
Last year, the Syrian government tightened the siege of Eastern Ghouta by closing a key trade crossing and capturing of a network of smuggling tunnels that once brought in food and other supplies.
For Abu Yasser, life in Eastern Ghouta took on a predictable rhythm over five years of siege. Despite the everyday dangers, “there is a routine in everything,” he says. “The bombardment, the siege and our social lives.”
But an uptick in government bombings and artillery strikes over Eastern Ghouta that began in November is disrupting that routine, hemming in social life for Abu Yasser and other young Syrians within the enclave as they take cover from the onslaught.
Nights otherwise spent drinking coffee with friends or family until dawn are now spent in basement bomb shelters, five residents tell Syria Direct. Roads to visit friends in neighbouring towns are simply too dangerous. Local cafes are closed.
In Douma, Abu Yasser’s home city at the northern edge of Eastern Ghouta, his group of friends have not met to play cards for more than two weeks.
“I’ve been cut off,” says Abu Yasser of the latest round of bombings. “I haven’t been able to go out at night to see friends.”
Eastern Ghouta, home to an estimated 400,000 people, is included in the de-escalation deal brokered by Iran and Russia last May that establishes four ceasefire zones across the country.
Despite the deal, an ongoing storm of air strikes and artillery shells over Eastern Ghouta is devastating the already starved and besieged enclave.
The Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer first-responder organisation that operates in opposition territories, counts 177 East Ghouta residents killed by government bombardment since the start of 2018. Among the dead are 51 children and 34 women, the organisation reported on Sunday.
The latest wave of bombings began after a local rebel faction attacked a government-held armoured vehicles base on the eastern edge of Eastern Ghouta in late November. Though ground clashes between rebel and government forces have since slowed, the air strikes and artillery fire show no sign of abating.
For Muhannad al-Malik, a 26-year-old father in Douma, the bombardment means he rarely leaves the house to see friends, for fear of being hit. When asked if he still goes to late-night sahrah gatherings with friends and family – a staple of social life in Syria and other Arab countries – he laughed.
Even when he is able to meet with loved ones, “our sahrah consists mostly of running the kids down into the underground bomb shelter,” he told Syria Direct. “I swear, now we just hope for some sleep.”
The clothing store where al-Malik works – which is still open for business – is one of the few social outlets that remains for him.
Otherwise, he says, “we’re busy just securing food and firewood – even when we do get together at night, the conversation is about who died or who got bombed, or where the bombs landed yesterday.”
“We have no social life.”
‘I forgot how to play cards’
Before the war, 32-year-old elementary schoolteacher Ali Abu Yaseen got together with his friends twice a week for pickup soccer matches and card games. Sometimes, the group headed south to central Damascus for a day trip.
Now, he says, “we can’t leave due to the siege.”
Abu Yaseen lives in Douma and spends most of his day outside of the house, teaching at a local elementary school and working at a charity that provides social services. In the evenings, he studies for an accounting degree via an online university and writes lesson plans.
“There’s no time for visits,” he tells Syria Direct. “You’re just competing with time, and taking advantage of the moments where the bombing stops, so you can get work done and study.”
On the rare occasions when he has time for a sahrah with family, it’s not as it was in previous years. “The problem,” Abu Yaseen says, is that “even when we do get together the conversation is just about the price of sugar or rice.”
Basic items that were once a staple of any sahrah – tea, sugar, coffee – are luxuries, he says, memories from before the siege on Ghouta tightened last year.
“You can’t offer guests tea or coffee,” says the teacher. “Even if you just wanted to watch a movie together on TV, or watch a sports game, there’s no electricity.”
The latest round of bombardment means that even those limited gatherings are a memory. Abu Yaseen hasn’t visited any family or friends since late December, he says.
With government forces firing on residential districts and markets in his home city, he simply keeps up with his loved ones via WhatsApp, a popular mobile messaging service, “so I can make sure they’re doing okay.”
It has been so long since the pre-war days of carefree soccer and card games that for Abu Yaseen it feels as though “I’ve forgotten how to play soccer,” he says.
“I forgot how to play cards.”