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Crawling Through Trenches to Safety in Syria

Civilians narrowly escape capture or death as they evade a government checkpoint.
By Lubna Mohammad

When Eastern Ghouta was liberated, we were overjoyed, yet not a day went by without us worrying.

The regime retaliated for the loss of territory in various ways – we were hit by air raids and mortar fire on a daily basis, and checkpoints were built to separate us from Damascus.

Food and medicine were not allowed across the checkpoints. Foodstuffs were confiscated and piled up to rot on the ground. People trying to smuggle medicines through checkpoints would be taken to some security agency, never to be seen again.

Regardless of these hardships, and despite my mother remonstrating with us every day, my elder sister Isra and I continued to commute from our home in Douma to university in Damascus every day.

A commute that once took us 15 minutes now lasted three hours. We’d leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, exhausted and tense after being stopped for questioning at numerous checkpoints.

Late in the evening of February 26, 2013, my sister and I were on our way home when we heard that al-Wafidin checkpoint – the last one between Damascus and Douma – was not allowing residents of Eastern Ghouta to return to their homes.

We had nowhere to spend the night in Damascus, and we didn’t want to worry our family, so we continued our journey towards Douma. We had no choice.

We prayed to God that the soldiers manning the checkpoint wouldn’t notice us, or would mistake us for refugees from the camp at al-Wafidin.

As I held Isra’s hand in my own sweaty, trembling one, I found my head was spinning with questions. “What do we say if a soldier asks us where we’re from? Do we tell the truth or lie? Should we beg to be allowed to return to our family, or retain our dignity? Where can we spend the night if we aren’t allowed across? How long will we be separated from our parents?”

These questions overwhelmed me so that I could barely breathe.

When we reached the checkpoint, a soldier looked into our bus and scanned the faces of those on board. He paused when he looked at my sister and me, and asked, “Where are you from, ladies? Show me your IDs.”

I was overcome with fear and I froze, but my sister quickly said, “We’re from Douma.”

“Get off the bus, both of you. Now!” the soldier said. “You can’t cross this checkpoint today. Go back to wherever you came from.”

We got off the bus with a big group of other passengers and stood there not knowing what to do. Some of them decided to go back to Damascus, while others begged the soldier to let them through.

A young man called Mohammed who had been on the bus with us pointed discreetly towards a large trench, and suggested that we use it to sneak through. It was a very wide trench, stretching right across the highway so that people had no choice but to use the checkpoint.

At first we refused, as it seemed such a crazy idea. But when we couldn’t come up with another plan, we reluctantly agreed.

We crawled into the trench along with another girl and her mother, Mohammed and another man. We helped one another cross to the other side, and then crept up among the trees until we finally reached a small path, which we started walking along.

Suddenly we heard a voice calling, “People from Douma! People from Douma!” Someone had spotted us from a balcony and was shouting to get the soldiers’ attention.

We broke into a run. We could hear gunshots and the voices of soldiers shouting, “Stop, all of you! Stop!”

I was crying as we ran, and screamed when I heard bullets flying over our heads. Isra kept hold of my hand and pulled me along, urging me to keep running. We knew we’d be thrown in prison if they got hold of us.

We heard a car hooting, and it pulled over next to us. The driver said he was from Douma and told us to get in. We didn’t know whether to trust him or not – he might have been be a security officer trying to trick us. But Mohammed said he recognised him, so we climbed in.

The man drove us to a Free Syrian Army checkpoint where we finally felt safe. When Isra and I finally got home, we chose not to mention our ordeal to our parents.

Al-Wafidin checkpoint remained closed for 15 days, and when it reopened, stricter rules were imposed on people crossing it. Nevertheless, my sister and I resumed our daily commute to university, and luckily we never ran into the soldiers who had shot at us.

I still can’t believe we managed to slip through the clutches of the shabiha [paramilitary forces], and I’ll never forget the thoughts that swam through my head when I got home that day – “I want to live longer so as to get to spend more time with those I love. I want to experience everything I haven’t yet experienced. I want to stay up all night; I want to travel the world; I want to live life in all its bitter sweetness.” 

Lubna Mohammad is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor in Syria.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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