Card games, soap operas and dread as East Ghouta residents spend weeks waiting out bombs underground

Inside an Arbin basement shelter in January. Image courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

AMMAN: Zakwan Kahala went downstairs to his basement with his wife and one-year-old son 30 days ago, as Syrian government forces began a devastating airstrike and artillery campaign on his hometown outside Damascus.

He hasn’t come outside since, the 29-year-old says, except to find food and water for his family.

“As for my wife and son, most of their daytime hours are inside the shelter,” Kahala, an accountant for the local school system, tells Syria Direct.

As bombs fall above ground, Kahala’s family and their neighbors have spent the past month sheltering in the unfinished basement of their apartment building in the northeast Damascus suburb of Arbin. The town sits within the rebel-held East Ghouta enclave, encircled by government forces since 2013.

Hundreds of other residents are doing the same, local officials and civilians tell Syria Direct.

In unfinished basements across Arbin, families like Kahala’s huddle on dirt floors among debris and discarded furniture, passing the time by playing cards, talking about their fears or simply sitting in wait for the bombardment overhead to end.

Inside an Arbin basement shelter in January. Image courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

Despite years of Syrian government siege and bombings in East Ghouta, extended time underground is a relatively recent phenomenon in Arbin, three residents say.

Arbin lies just outside an armored vehicles base on the eastern edge of East Ghouta, where pro-government troops are battling rebel forces. Since the beginning of January, the Syrian government stepped up its bombing of East Ghouta in response to the fighting.

Residents living near the base, including in the town of Arbin, are facing the lion’s share of bombardment, the intensity of which has driven them underground.

“Now, everyone is using these shelters, because they’re afraid of the bombs,” says Siraj Mahmoud, a Civil Defense spokesman in East Ghouta.

For families choosing not to flee to nearby towns, makeshift basement and ground-level shelters provide a modicum of safety in a town where upper floor apartments sit exposed to bombs. Mortar shells and light artillery fire “can’t reach the shelters” for now, Mahmoud says.

‘Sitting and waiting’

In one of hundreds of makeshift basement shelters across Arbin, 20-year-old Samar al-Arbini sits with her parents and siblings.

Thursday marks her 28th day underground, in a shelter that “isn’t suitable for living,” she tells Syria Direct.

An elementary school teacher, al-Arbini hasn’t heard any news of her students or colleagues since local schools shut down several weeks ago, and she has no entertainment to take her mind off of the bombing outside.

“There’s nothing to do” in her building’s basement, al-Arbini says. “We’re just sitting and waiting, and we don’t even know if this shelter will protect us.”

A basement shelter in Arbin in January. Image courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

Beneath his own family’s apartment building, Kahala tells Syria Direct his neighbors are finding any way they can to pass time while trapped inside.

One one side of the basement, the building’s male residents play cards and chess, or simply play games on their mobile phones—pastimes that once took place in the town’s now long-dormant cafes. Generators and batteries are used to charge the devices. When they talk with one another, “it’s about politics, or whatever is going on around them.”

On the other side of the basement, Kahala’s female neighbors gather around a laptop, watching episodes via YouTube of the popular Turkish television drama Resurrection: Ertuğrul, set in Turkey at the dawn of the Ottoman Empire. When the internet goes out, “they talk about politics,” Kahala says, “or try to clean up the shelter.”

Though basements are a relatively calm—albeit uncomfortable—escape from the bombardment outside, a local council official and Civil Defense spokesman Mahmoud warns that they may not fully protect residents.

Among the weapons government forces reportedly fire on East Ghouta are dozens of surface-to-surface missiles per day, Mahmoud tells Syria Direct. “And the thing is, they aren’t targeting neighborhoods with just one or two missiles—they’re firing off 13 or 14 at a time,” he says.

In some cases, the bombs are flattening entire buildings, Mahmoud says, “making the building collapse over the heads of those inside.”

“It isn’t possible for any shelter to withstand that, unless they were actually well-equipped.”

Arbin local council member Akram Hashem estimates 700 homes across the town today are “destroyed” by the bombardment. The damage spans seven neighborhoods, he says, four of which are no longer “suitable for human life.”

Syrian state news outlet SANA has not reported on the government’s bombing of East Ghouta in recent weeks.

In one Arbin basement, 50-year-old Abu Saleh Mohammad says he is struggling with the physical and psychological toll of weeks spent underground.

The father of five first moved his family into their basement 25 days ago, alongside 14 other families. The shelter has no heating, and no proper plumbing.

“We’ve spent 25 days in despair from the cold,” he tells Syria Direct. “It smells foul, like trash, and people are not looking out for one another.”

One of Mohammad’s daughters is suffering from a chest infection that he believes was caused by poor conditions in the basement shelter. Her health is getting worse, and now he faces a difficult choice: keep his family relatively safe amid unhygienic conditions underground, or go outside to seek medical treatment at an operational local clinic.

But with airstrikes and artillery fire outside, the roads are a deadly gamble.

“We don’t know what to do,” Mohammad says. “My children can’t stand it anymore.”