Ghouta, Syria, might be a world away, but Ghouta.com is bringing Ghouta to the world. The website documents the Syrian regime’s siege of Eastern Ghouta from the end of 2013 until the present. There are tallies of people awaiting medical evacuation and people who have died while waiting for transport. The days under siege are also tracked. The latest reports challenge the imagination, leaving one searching for words.
More than 700 Syrians have been killed in aerial assaults that began Feb. 18. More than 4,000 were injured Feb. 18-27, according to international medical organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, which supported 13 local medical facilities, all of which have been hit in attacks. Residents suffer daily from barrel bombs dropped from helicopters along with missile strikes and ground offensives. Activists in Eastern Ghouta described the sky as the “biggest killer in Syria,” sending residents looking for shelter underground.
A suspected chlorine gas attack was reported the day after the UN Security Council unanimously called for a 30-day nationwide cease-fire. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its local and international allies have ignored the call, as has Turkey in Afrin. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, more than 465,000 people have died, and over 1 million have been injured.
During the last few months, determined individuals and organizations have worked to inform the outside world about daily life in besieged Eastern Ghouta. These include local activists, some of them working in local councils, as well as citizen journalists collaborating with local media centers and international outlets, together with civil society organizations concerned with women's empowerment, child care, relief and skills training.
“The idea of the [Ghouta.com] website and campaign was born in October 2017 as the siege intensified and the frequency of aerial bombings increased,” said Marcel Shehwaro, an activist from Aleppo speaking to Al-Monitor via Skype on behalf of the campaign. “The main goal was to gather all the information about Eastern Ghouta, make it easier for people to find details about the siege and the attacks, select articles, reports, photos, statistics. Another main purpose was to break the language barrier since most of the information circulating from inside the siege was only in Arabic.”
The group managing the website consists of some 10 volunteers based in Ghouta and a few living in Turkey. They took advantage of Skype in establishing the platform and deciding how to proceed, especially the roles to be played by the people outside the siege possessing the requisite language and communication skills and, of primary importance, stable internet connections.
One of the eight infographics on the website provides information about transportation and communication: “The regime cut off all kinds of communication including telephone, cellphone and the internet. People depend on local internet providers who, in turn, depend on satellite internet. Sometimes people manage to receive a signal from the cell towers in regime-controlled areas nearby Ghouta and use the cellular network for internet.” The other infographics concern water, electricity, food, health, the siege, general information about the population in Ghouta and local administration and civil society.
Shehwaro described what it is like communicating with people in Ghouta: “Most of the team is inside Ghouta, and we try to carefully choose the content to publish — articles, reports and statistics from other websites. Bombardments in the background. During a meeting, someone might say, ‘Sorry, 2% charge guys’ or ‘Sorry, the generator was bombed yesterday.’ Our web designer from Ghouta hates basements, and so we are always worried about his safety.”
One page of the website is “Ten Ways to Help the People of Eastern Ghouta.” The first point, “Stay informed,” links to reports, statements and articles so people can do just that. “We keep being asked about ways to help,” Shehwaro said. “We are being contacted by nice people from around the world who want to do something, so we created the list to make it easier to find a way to show solidarity.”
The Ghouta.com activists organized a 24-hour event, “Anything You Want to Know About Eastern Ghouta,” during which people could submit questions via Facebook. They have also called on people to take action for Ghouta by writing local and national leaders and politicians to amplify the voices of the besieged and put Eastern Ghouta in the headlines. They ask people to march in the streets, organizing protests and candlelight vigils, displaying the infographics and artwork from the website. They encourage journalists and artists to dedicate pieces to those under siege and urge creative and other people to offer their time and skills, including helping with translations, design, video editing and research.
On Valentine’s Day, the website published “Love Is: Five Love Stories From Eastern Ghouta,” featuring real stories of love amid the brutal siege and its constant bombing. The goal was to focus on an aspect of ordinary life that is not typically touched on in stories coming out of Syria.
“We asked different people to share their love stories, and artist Dima Nachawi illustrated them,” Shehwaro said. “It was a way to honor their love in such difficult conditions. But we were all shocked when we realized that one of the women died at the same moment we were sharing her love story on social media.”
“Love is to hold your partner close until the last breath,” the text of one vignette states. Another story, about a smuggled Christmas tree decorated with handmade lights run by a generator, is captioned, “Love is to smuggle joy for your beloved ones.”
With the siege intensifying, on March 3 the website published “Open Letter: The World Must Act Now on Syria,” signed by more than 200 Syrian writers and intellectuals, most of them in exile. On March 5, the first aid convoys in weeks entered Ghouta, but the Syrian military did not allow medical supplies to be brought in.
Peace still looks far from Syria’s horizon.