In Syria's Ghouta, hard-hit but home again

Rim Haddad
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Syrians walk in a destroyed street in the Eastern Ghouta town of Saqba on March 18, 2018 as civilians return to the area after regime forces took control of the southern pocket held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group

Talal Sadek clutched his elderly mother's hand, helping her navigate the piles of rubble that snaked up to their front door in the battered town of Saqba, outside Syria's capital.

They were among hundreds of residents who returned Monday to the town's rubble-strewn streets, days after Syrian government troops rolled through the area as part of a month-old assault on rebels in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

"My mother and I are returning to our hometown. Thank God it ended early," Sadek told AFP, grinning through his exhaustion.

As soldiers advanced on the town, they opened an escape route for civilians who were stuck there and Sadek, 50, rushed out with his family, convinced it would long be too dangerous to return.

But two days later, he was back.

"We left the town on Friday, then they told us that the people of Saqba could come back to their homes. We thought we would never come back," he said.

Gutted buildings lined Saqba's dusty streets, where hundreds of men, women and children could be seen returning to their homes on foot or on bicycles.

Some carried suitcases stuffed with household items. One man pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair and another was seen trying to start a car stuffed with suitcases and blankets.

They trudged past tanks and soldiers taking a break from nearby fronts.

- 'Bombing was intense' -

On one side street, Hilal Abdulbaset squatted on the ground, cooking rice over a woodstove.

"The bombing was intense. It was hard but thank God, it turned out all right," said the Saqba resident in his fifties.

He too fled as the Syrian army advanced, but as soon as his family heard that clashes in the town had subsided, they hurried back.

"They told us it was all clear, so we packed our things and came back quickly. Here we are now, amongst our friends and neighbours," Abdulbaset told AFP.

Syria's army has captured more than 80 percent of Ghouta, splitting the rest of the rebel-held enclave into three isolated pockets, each controlled by a separate group.

Saqba lies in a southern pocket held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and targeted most heavily in recent days by regime forces.

Tens of thousands of people have streamed out of the area. Some rebels even surrendered, a military source told AFP.

"Part of the armed factions handed themselves in, and another part fled to neighbouring areas," the source said.

"It became possible for the civilians that were trapped in basements to go back to their normal lives -- it's a new life."

For now, Saqba remains virtually uninhabitable. There is no electricity or water and mountains of rubble still block the roads.

- 'See the sun' -

Nonetheless, 35-year-old Moaz held out hope he would soon return to work as a carpenter.

Pointing to the shuttered workshops around him, he said: "We want to build the town so these shops can open again. We will restore it through the power of its people."

His wife Basma, 28, stood nearby and watched over their young children.

Many Saqba residents expressed relief they could simply be outside again.

Bassem Hammudeh, 67, stayed alone in Saqba after his wife and children fled several years ago to Damascus.

"The days that passed were hard -- darker than soot," he told AFP, donning a wool cap despite the day's warmth.

Hammudeh recalled spending days in Ghouta searching for medicine, after a crippling five-year siege made food, fuel, and health supplies almost impossible to access or afford.

"If you die, you rest. But if you get sick without medicine, what do you do? You die every single minute," he said.

His green eyes shone as he talked about what he could do now that he was no longer under siege: "Now we can visit our children, travel, smell fresh air."

Samya, 54, emerged from a nearby cellar that she and several families shared for weeks as shells rained down.

"We never left our town -- we stayed in the shelter for more than a month, during which we didn't see sunlight," she said.

"Now, we can finally see the sun."