Diaries of the Siege

Muzna Duried of the Syrian Political Feminist Movement writes about her friend Bayan Rehan, head of the Women’s Office at the Douma Local Council in Ghouta

Svetlana Alexievich wrote in her book ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’:

“Thousands of wars have occurred, short and long. We knew the details of some, and other details were lost among the bodies of the victims. Many wrote, but men always wrote about men. All we knew about the war, we knew it through the “voice of the man”. We are all captives of “men” and their feelings of war, prisoners of the words of men. Women have chosen silence.”

On February 26 I woke up to a message from Bayan Rehan from Douma to a WhatsApp group I had created to convey siege diaries to CNN International journalists. Bayan wrote: “Good morning. I am very tired. I tried to write today’s diary but I feel it’s not cohesive. I will try to get some food then get back to it.”

Two days later, Bayan sent the words below to the journalist along with this picture.

Today was my first day in the basement. I ran down after missiles struck our house at night. In under two minutes, my family and I crossed 150 meters to the nearest shelter for women and children. We had no time to take any of our belongings with us. We simply wanted to survive the hellfire raining on us.
This isn’t just my fate. Most of the residents of my town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta have taken to poorly equipped makeshift shelters underground. The basements offer some respite from a week-long Syrian regime assault that has claimed over 500 lives.
Underground, we were welcomed by those who had arrived before us. I couldn’t wrap my head around the scene. Sitting against a wall, I scanned people’s frightened faces. I was reminded of only one thing: my cell in the 215th branch of Damascus’s Kafr Sousa detention facility, where the regime-employed jail keeper used torture methods that could kill you.
I suddenly found myself sound asleep — I hadn’t had a chance to doze off for the past 72 hours except for a few stolen moments. The sound of bombs nearby woke me up shortly after.
I started pacing around the basement, trying to acquaint myself with everyone who sought refuge here. They were all homemakers and children who had only the faintest idea about what was happening outside, their only concern was for the shelling to stop so that they could stick their heads overground and find food.
I’d only been there for six hours when I began to feel suffocated. The humidity made my breathing labored. The fact that I’d lost contact with the outside world intensified the feeling.
The walls echoed with children’s shouts and screams. The women had all but given up on controlling their kids, each taking to a corner to cook. We didn’t have any wood, so the women were tearing shreds of their own clothing, using them to light fires.
Each family ate the little food they had alone.
We began to feel pangs of hunger, so the six women of my family banded together to concoct a plan to secure some food. We decided that our best bet would be to meet our male relatives at the men’s shelter.
I looked for a message from my fiancé. Just a picture of him could put my mind at ease and fill me with hope so difficult to find in this carnage.
Back at the basement, the children were working up a storm and the mothers were split into those who were cleaning up after their kids and those were trying to calm the down.
Um Faris we decided would be the lady of the basement. She was the queen of hygiene, and so she was in charge of tidiness as well as securing water and overseeing the cleaning efforts. She even allotted my family a spot in the basement, a three-square meter sub-unit that would be exclusively ours.
I, on the other hand, assumed the role of keeping the kids entertained. I had the children gather around and told them stories. I started with Gone with the Wind because I wanted the kids to be inspired by the heroine Scarlett’s courage. I told them about how she had been through her own war and came out of it safely. I regaled them with stories about how she rebuilt her life over the rubble of America’s civil war.
Their eyes sparkled with curiosity especially when I regaled them with stories of Scarlett’s ill-fated romance.
I asked the children about their dreams. They told me they wanted to return to school, so I promised that we’d study in the basement tomorrow if they slept quietly.
The women offered me a cup of coffee as a token of thanks for keeping their kids behaved, if only for an hour.
Amid the relative quiet of this night, the hopelessness of our situation sets in again and my mind goes back to my last meeting with a United Nations delegation.
They had come to Douma last November with just around 4,010 baskets for the town’s 28,000 families. I remember distinctly what I told them, as head of the city’s Women’s Council, and it still holds today.
Back in November, on a long table where the town’s civil society leaders were speaking to members of the delegation, I told a delegate that the amount they had given us was completely insufficient. I said that the aid convoy carried with it a message: that the population of Douma would be reduced to suit the aid that the UN was providing.
If a convoy were to arrive again today, I would remind them of what I said and I would tell them that they are partners in the regime and Russia’s crimes. Unlike those around the world who have put humanity first and who have tried to stop the killing of innocents with their fundraising and demonstrations in solidarity with Eastern Ghouta.
And I would tell the international community that if they have decided, with Bashar al Assad, to kill us all then please have mercy on us and speed it up. Because we’re tired of waiting our turn on death row.
I would tell the international community to please burn the charters and treaties of the United Nations with regards to protecting human beings and their rights, which chief among them is the right to life.

Bayan Rehan is not only a friend from a revolution that is still present despite the siege, the bombing, and all the exhaustion. She is a historian and a witness of the feminist struggle against the ugliness surrounding us and a world that has awarded the murderer with injustice. The tragedy is both personal and collective. The women of Ghouta are grieving for their fallen family members, for the homes they lost and for a country that is no longer theirs. Some of them are overwhelmed with sadness and bitterness, but all are changed by all that has happened. There is personal pain, collective pain, and a revolution until salvation from the tyrant.

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