For the past three weeks, Maram, a young Syrian mother, has been living in an underground shelter with her 3-year-old son, Ahmad, and his 8-month-old brother, Omar.
Like other underground shelters around their neighborhood in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, this one is filled to capacity. They eat and sleep and wait out the days alongside 150 people as bombs fall overhead, reducing everything to rubble. They hardly see daylight and can’t get enough food. When they get a chance to peek outside, they can hardly recognize their own homes and streets.
“The regime is trying to reach here. They are trying to reach here to kill us all,” 24-year-old Maram told PRI through WhatsApp. "We are afraid from the chemical [weapons]. The poisonous gases are dangerous, especially if we are in the shelters.”
Maram asked to be identified only by her first name, since she — and so many other Syrians — fears the Russia-backed Syrian regime, which is behind most of the attacks.
More than 860 people have been killed since the onslaught in Eastern Ghouta began late last month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Some 400,000 people have been trapped in the rebel-held enclave for years, facing severe food and medicine shortages. The latest bombardment is among the fiercest since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
The Syrian government recaptured half of Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday. Meanwhile, an international aid convoy that attempted to reach Ghouta earlier this week had to retreat without fully unloading due to heavy shelling. United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Wednesday called Ghouta “hell on earth” and accused Syria and its foreign allies of already planning their next “apocalypse.”
That’s indeed how it feels for people like Maram and her family.
“We don't know why they are targeting us,” she said of the Syrian regime. “The buildings — it’s all residential. It's not for any kind of weapons or warehouses — it's for living, it's for just children, women.”
“The rebels, all of them, they are from our area,” she continued. “They are our relatives, our cousins. They are not from other countries. They are trying to defend us.”
All she can do is try to keep her boys from crying. “We are still alive. Until now I don't know what is going to happen to us next.”
Others in the area have turned to social media in hopes that international attention will lead to help for themselves and others living under bombardment.
Eleven-year-old Noor and her 8-year-old sister, Alaa, made a video plea to Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. In near-perfect English, Noor describes the 200 attacks on Ghouta that day alone and asks Haley to “save Ghouta please.”
PRI reached their mother on a shaky line to ask how her children were coping.
“Oh my God, you can't imagine how they are feeling now. They are very scared all the time and crying and sitting under the blanket,” said Shams, who also asked to be identified only by her first name.
Asked how she would respond to those who say she is exploiting her children by putting them before a camera — which some critics are calling propaganda — Shams explained they were simply using the tools available to them to show the world the truth.
“We don’t lie. This is the situation here in East Ghouta,” she said. “This is our life. We need [to] reach our voice to the world to help us.”
They couldn’t leave if they tried. The Syrian army “would kill us,” she said.
Loubna Mrie, a Syrian photographer and writer in New York, is in touch with many other civilians in Eastern Ghouta.
“Every time they hear a bombing or every time they hear a shelling, they feel like this is their last minute,” Mrie said. “In 10 years if the world stopped and asked, ‘Ok, why we didn't do anything to stop this insanity?’ No one could say, ‘Oh well, we didn't know about it.’ No. You knew. And this is the biggest problem in the world that everyone knows what is going on, but no one is able to stop it, sadly.”
The fighting won’t end anytime soon, she adds, because the residents refuse to surrender or leave their hometown.
“This is their city after all,” Mrie said. “It was built by these people, and it’s mainly farmers, and they don't want to go. And for many of them dying their way is better than being sent to a completely new place.”