DEIR EZZOR – After months trapped indoors by fighting in his native Deir Ezzor, 90-year-old Abu Mahmud saw the sun for the first time Monday from a stretcher carried by Syrian rescue workers.
His body had grown so frail it barely made a bump under a pink blanket as Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff carefully carried him down a dim, narrow stairwell and into the bombed-out street below.
Rescue workers found Abu Mahmud and his family cowering inside in their first-floor apartment in Deir Ezzor, days after Syrian troops ousted the Islamic State group from the city.
While ferocious clashes raged around them in the Al-Sheikh Yassin neighbourhood, the elderly man, his 80-year-old wife, and their two daughters stayed at home.
“Our family didn’t support Daesh — but we stayed in our home because I’m sick and couldn’t move,” Abu Mahmud said weakly, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Much of Deir Ezzor has been ravaged in a months-long assault by Syria’s army, which announced Friday it had fully recaptured the eastern city from IS.
With military operations over, the Red Crescent set to work locating civilians who remained at home throughout the fighting.
A source in the Red Crescent’s Deir Ezzor branch said that they had rescued an estimated 150 trapped civilians since Friday.
The relief workers often received tips from Syrian soldiers who had come across residents as they searched buildings across the city for IS fighters.
– Secret news broadcasts –
After one such tip, Red Crescent workers clambered over debris to the three-storey building where Abu Mahmud and his family remained.
Inside, his two unmarried daughters prepared to leave their dark apartment for the first time in months so that their parents could get medical care.
“We couldn’t sleep at night because of the clashes and bombing. We used to stay in the house and never go outside,” said Rania, 35, wearing a blue hooded sweater.
They eked out a living on boiled lentils, chickpeas and rice that they had stockpiled in anticipation of the army’s fierce offensive.
They kept up hope, the sisters said, by watching news broadcasts in secret to keep an eye on the Syrian army’s advance towards Deir Ezzor.
“Satellite dishes were banned under IS, so we hid ours,” Rania said.
“We would set it up in a part of the building that’s like a balcony so we could watch the news, then take it back down,” she added.
Her 38-year-old sister Madawi said they monitored the army’s advance across the Syrian desert as they retook the key cities of Palmyra, then Al-Sukhnah in August.
Syrian troops broke into Deir Ezzor city in September, ending a nearly three-year IS siege on government-held parts of the provincial capital.
“The Syrian army entering the city was like a new birth for us,” Madawi said, her dark hair pulled back and wearing flower stud earrings.
“Just like Christians celebrate the resurrection, Syria has risen — truly risen — after finishing off with Daesh.”
– ‘If only, if only’ –
In the nearby neighbourhood of Al-Qusur, a traditional Arabic-style house had been turned into a temporary shelter for residents whose homes had been destroyed.
Flies hovered over a group of young children sitting on a stoop in the house’s courtyard, where older women picked through bags of donated clothing.
“We went down into the cellars of our buildings to escape the gunfire and shelling,” said Abu Khaled, 58.
“We lived really difficult days, with little food or drink, before the Syrian army arrived, rescued us, and brought us to the Red Crescent which gave us shelter, food, and medical care.”
Wearing a thick black robe and cream-coloured headscarf, 55-year-old Umm Omar recalled the agonising wait for an end to the fighting in her native city.
“Every second, every minute, we were just waiting and saying, ‘if only, if only, if only someone would come save us from this life,” she said.