For 26 days, Nivin Hotary, along with her young son and daughter, have been ensconced in an East Ghouta basement, sheltering from bombardment and airstrikes above.
As pro-government shelling keeps tens of thousands of residents holed up in bunkers in the opposition-held enclave east of Damascus, Hotary posts vignettes of daily life in underground seclusion to her personal Facebook account.
Her voice rising from beneath the rubble, Hotary is a unique and candid storyteller. She describes at turns the habits her children develop to cope with life under siege, her anger towards what she sees as the inaction of the international community and daily images of human resilience in the face of suffering.
On March 16, Hotary and her children were forced to leave their home and move to a new, undisclosed bunker.
“I am moving between towns and basements because of the bad conditions,” she tells Syria Direct’s Barrett Limoges. “Moving around is an enormous danger, but we are now forced to do this after the regime’s 24/7 shelling and ground invasion of Ghouta.”
Nivin’s stories of the siege have drawn thousands of shares on social media in recent weeks, and she has emerged as one of the most famous civilian faces of East Ghouta.
Nivin was invited on March 12 to address the United Nations Security Council from her underground shelter as a voice from the besieged enclave.
“Our existence in this basement gives us the feeling of the end of life. Everything, the smell of the earth, the darkness, the contrast between the shadows and light,” Hotary says via video. “And just through that door, the regime and Russia are shelling us.”
This is her diary.
[Ed.: Portions of Nivin’s entries have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.]
Judgment Day (March 16)
It’s like Judgment Day… people are running and screaming. People in their nightgowns and people barefoot. Cars loaded with people, speeding around at over 100 [km/h].
And I too am screaming, looking at what I see around me.
Usually these kinds of posts end with me waking up and realizing it was all just a nightmare. I wish it were a nightmare. But it’s not. Our days are worse than nightmares.
I’m running while holding my daughter’s hand, my eyes are on my son.
A five-year-old girl is crying out and yelling: “Tell them, tell them not to kill us!” But I don’t have any answer to calm her down.
There is a helicopter directly over our heads right now, and it seems to be spinning slowly as it showers the neighborhood with bombs. It’s so close it could be taken down with just a bullet from a gun. I hear bullets firing somewhere behind us, I don’t think they are firing at the helicopter.
We were trying to escape an hour ago into the streets, and that girl just kept repeating the same sentence: “Tell them to not kill us!”
Maya is pretending to be strong. “Mom, I didn’t cry, did I?” In fact, she was crying, but she wasn’t aware that she was crying. She keeps asking me, “How could you leave my son (her doll) in the basement? I want my pink bag, I love it.”
We were running, and I was assuring her that God would send her new toys, nicer toys. I was insisting and trying to assure her that I would buy her more beautiful things that she could choose herself. But she kept insisting, “I love my son…”
The door leading out of the basement to the street outside. Photo courtesy of Nivin Hotary.
The girl who was yelling not to kill us tells her mother, “If I pee myself in the night, please forgive me.” God only knows what thoughts are spinning in her head. She repeats it, over and over again.
In the darkness last night, a voice came from a small child while he was sleeping. “Wait for me, Mom. Please don’t leave me.” But how could we sleep anyway after all these things we saw during the day? They chase our kids even while they are dreaming.
We are a big crowd stuck in one little room. But the night never calms. The barrel bombs and cluster munitions keep falling.
We don’t know what is going to happen next in this world. Passage out of the city? Evacuation? Death?
If we don’t make the right move at precisely the right moment, it will mean a massacre. And in spite of all this, there is a silence, a media blackout. We are not all right.
Thank God at least all of you are safe.
The Sound of Elephants (March 9)
It’s really hard to describe the sound of rocket explosions or shelling.
Once, in the early days of the revolution, when I was still in my old house, my son and I were relaxing in the middle of the day when I heard the sound for the first time in my life, a sound like the sound of an elephant, a sound that leaves your heart in your throat.
It was Qusay’s first time hearing it. He was six years old. It was Maya’s first time, too. She was only an embryo, still inside me. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time we heard that sound.
Sometimes, the fear of hearing it is worse than the fear that comes when you have actually heard it.
I heard that sound several days ago, when I was standing by the cellar door trying to get cellphone reception. A cluster bomb fell and there were explosions all around me. One explosion was only about a meter from the cellar door. I saw a big fire and heard a deafening sound. I ran down the steps, and the fire followed me.
Again and again and again, death comes by for a visit and then leaves. And again and again, we resolve not to let our hope die. On a night not long ago, rockets fell somewhere nearby. The pressure of exploding iron spins you around.
Even if they destroy all of Syria, she will remain ours. She will belong neither to the house of Assad, nor to Russia. If only Assad’s supporters could understand this.
[Syria belongs to] the free people of Damascus and the surrounding areas, the free people of Aleppo and Homs and Hama and Idlib, of Latakia and Tartus, of Deir e-Zor, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, the free people of Daraa. To the free people of Syria no matter their faith, their mullah [Ed.: school of thought], their dialect, their language.
Today, I don’t know how long we have been in this cellar. I recall we came down here on a Sunday, but I don’t know which Sunday. Today is a Friday. Which Friday, we don’t know.
Women’s Day (March 8)
This might be my last post. The catastrophic situation is now well known to all. We have said it all!
A criminal regime kills its own people with the approval and support of other countries.
Yesterday was indescribable: chlorine and cluster bombs, barrel bombs and rocket fire. They tried everything to bury us alive in the basements.
Nothing is left to say. Humanity is dead within the hearts of those who are watching silently.
Nivin Hotary addresses the United Nations Security Council virtually from her underground shelter in East Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Nivin Hotary.
The last thing I want to say to all people everywhere is that our regime is criminal, and one day it will answer to all of its horrific acts, but your governments are even more criminal. They are watching in silence and not lifting a finger to help.
They accuse us of being terrorists and Islamists to relieve their conscience! The Syrian regime might kill us all. How would you ever find peace after that?
I salute all women of the world on International Women’s Day, and I extend my condolences to our women for such a shameful world.
Silent Revolutions (March 6)
I don’t know when the revolution began, and nobody can point to a concrete moment.
A silent revolution existed in the heart of every student who was denied a place in school, only to be replaced by a student who was related to someone in the regime.
A silent revolution existed within every person who wished to start a business but saw themself forced to pay off people with ties to the regime.
A silent revolution existed in the heart of every mother whose husband, son or brother was imprisoned by the regime for dozens of years and was forced to bear it silently since they were political prisoners.
A silent revolution existed in the heart of every child who feared that the walls were listening.
It is not important for us to know the day, the place or the exact person who began the revolution.
All that matters is that it doesn’t stop, because if it does, generations will come to live without dignity, unable to lift their heads.
Everybody carried with them a small seed of revolution, planted there by corruption and suffering. Today, it is our turn to defend our dignity.
Russia, Iran and the regime know that if they are able to crush the revolutionaries of East Ghouta, the rest of the revolution will fade away with time.
The revolution is inside of you, wherever you are… Do not extinguish it.
Send letters, gather in the name of the revolution, keep holding on.
We live with the revolution and we celebrate its future triumph, or we leave the dream to die forever.
Eleven Days in the Basement (March 1)
I’ve seen it so many times in series and films… Detained or stranded on some island, they scratch away lines to remember what the date is.
Today, I began to understand what it means to live isolated from the world.
Today, I became certain that if we didn’t mark every passing day on the wall, we would certainly forget how many days we have been below. It would mean feeling absolutely lost beneath the regime, Russia and our hidden shepherd, the United Nations.
I have found two goals in my life: First, to obtain the freedom that we have demanded through seven years of torture, displacement and the killing of our people, the demolition of our country by its ruler and the countries that support him.
Second, to tell the whole world that we have spoken.
We are people living beneath the most unjust, corrupt and despotic regime. [Before,] nobody ever objected or resisted because that ended in nothing more than detention and death.
There are political detainees who have been missing for more than 10 years. Some are still alive, refusing to die under torture.
Nivin Hotary and her family track the days since they fled underground. Photo courtesy of Nivin Hotary.
Our government passes from father to son, even though we supposedly live in a presidential republic.
In 2011, a group of civilians decided to ask for their freedom of expression… and the right to choose a government that represents them… and an end to corruption.
Those in power made the decision to stop this movement for freedom at all costs.
But the truly strange thing is the silence of all the nations about the genocide that is happening to us.
We are civilians trapped in East Ghouta, trapped in a complete, crushing siege for the past five years.
The regime doesn’t stop shelling us with all types of weapons on earth, even those forbidden by the international community… yes, even after the ceasefire was decided. They do not stop committing these crimes, every day there are more dead… and wounded.
To everyone reading my words, if demanding freedom is not a crime… work together, daily, in front of the United Nations headquarters. Beg them to move, with the gravest urgency, to stop them from shelling us… and to end this siege.
Tell them we do not want to leave our homes. We don’t want to be refugees. We love our country, and we can never leave it. Show them the massacres that the regime and Russia are committing against us.
Do not be silent. Your silence means the end of us.
I beg you, don’t be participants in our death.
Eleven days in the basement.
Detained (February 22)
Detained in this prison, under house arrest, we consider ourselves blessed if we get the chance to eat once a day. Most houses are destroyed. Even before that, we couldn’t store any food. The streets are dead, no stores or markets are open.
Detained… the nights and the days are one. Here, in the darkness, we are banished from existence. The days are dark, and the nights see hundreds of suns falling on our city.
Detained… we know that our crime is that we called for freedom, but we don’t know the sentence.
Detained… we are tortured in so many ways. For example, rest. For so many people in this tiny basement, sleep is forbidden. The regime’s rockets fall every ten minutes, ensuring that nobody is allowed to sleep.
Detained… even the simplest tasks are a challenge, like washing our hands. We always end up waiting until the bombing quiets down a little. This basement is not equipped to be a shelter. We sleep and sit on piles of rocks and dirt.
A window looking up to the street from Hotary’s basement. Photo courtesy of Nivin Hotary.
Detained… we all have our nice clothes on. We are here with families we don’t know, and we thought, if we died, we wanted to look nice when they found us.
Detained… we try to sleep, but it’s so crowded we lay on top of each other. We keep each other warm this way. It’s so cold, and we do not have enough blankets. Down here, we are not allowed any visits, and we can’t go out either, not even to the next building.
If I spent my whole life talking about this basement, it wouldn’t be enough. All the basements in East Ghouta have turned into concentration camps.
With all this happening, we still manage to laugh and live… even if for no reason. We want the world to know that a thousand prisons are easier than leaving, for us.
Find a way to stop this forced displacement.
The Window (February 22)
From a small window in my group prison cell, the basement, I look at the world!
The sky is so far away and hard to see, blocked by fighter-jets, MiGs, Sukhoi warplanes, and bombers.
Our weather forecast is filled with barrel bombs and rockets, with a heavy hail of shrapnel.
From this small window, we know that there is a new dawn, and that there will be some relief after this crisis.
We laugh at things that are not funny, we remember sweet things we lived. We laugh, and we cry. We fear, and then our eyes look back at this window.
From this window we get air to breathe, and dust and shrapnel from the offensive.
Time passes, and my eyes are on it. A lot of children around me are looking at it. A four-year-old child reads the same prayer over and over in his innocent childlike way: “God protect us from them.” He puts his small hands on his ears every time the sounds of bombardment are on. The sounds don’t stop, and his tiny fingers don’t move.
I saw him when he fell asleep, exhausted, still hiding his ears with his hands. When he slept, his hands dropped down, unconsciously.
Then a barrel bomb woke him up with the sound of horror.
Nivin Hotary’s shattered window in besieged East Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Nivin Hotary.
Another little girl shifts in her seat every time she hears the sounds, waving her arms like a little bird. I can’t explain why she does that, and she doesn’t know either. Maybe this is how she feels safe!
Maya is stuck on one question that she repeats dozens of times every hour: “Mama, do you love me?”
Maybe she is interpreting this unjust attack by the regime as hatred for her, so she seeks assurance that she is loved by me.
Qusay is growing up before his time. He watches fear and refuses to express it.
A spiritual connection has developed between me and this window, even though before this offensive it was just a window, hidden and facing the side street. Many people passed by it, but never took note of it. I fear this will be our fate! People will pass by us, but never stop…