EASTERN GHOUTA, Syria – Hunkered near one of Syria’s hottest front lines for seven years, the eastern Ghouta district of Ein Terma sustained more damage than most areas in the conflict.
Its markets are now full and children throng the streets where shells were falling a year ago. But for the people who have returned to live there, the recovery is gradual.
As the eighth anniversary of the civil war arrives this week, Ein Terma’s battered streets attest to the long road ahead for Syria’s war-smashed towns and cities.
Many inhabitants have lost neighbours, friends or relatives as the population scattered through years of conflict. Despite government work, rubble still clogs many streets and the water and electricity supply is only partial.
Jobs are scarce, and for people who stayed in the area when it was controlled by the rebels, family paperwork for births and deaths in that period must be done anew.
Samiha Fares and her five children left their home in 2012, early in the war, as rebels gained control over the district.
She had been working for the Ein Terma municipal government and the rebels threatened her children and installed rockets on the roof of her house, she said.
The family quickly moved to Jormana, a district located just across the front line from their old home in Ein Terma. When government forces recaptured the area at the end of March last year, Fares returned with her children.
Their house was empty and scorched by fire. “My children calmed me. At least our house was still there and we could live in it,” she said. She found an old carpet and mattresses and blankets to sleep on. But the financial situation was difficult.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces retook eastern Ghouta during a fierce offensive under massive bombardment.
As the rebels surrendered, people who did not want to come back under government control left to opposition-held Idlib in Syria’s far northwest.
According to the United Nations commission of inquiry on Syria, up to 50,000 people were “evacuated” in this way to the northwest.
The Syrian war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, has driven around half of Syria’s pre-war population from their homes, 5.7 million of them living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Fares’ own income went on necessities for the family. During the fighting, she pulled her oldest son out of university so he could contribute, working to help pay the rent.
She was divorced so they had no other adult income and she renovated their war-damaged house with money paid as compensation to her daughter from a car accident.
But the once tight-knit neighbourhood has changed. “I don’t know any of the neighbours. They’re all strangers. They all came from somewhere else, from other villages,” said Fares. Their relationship is limited to superficial greetings, she said.
However, the upstairs neighbour came back to see the house and may now renovate it and return there. “Everybody is waiting for the summer to come back,” Fares said hopefully.
Hisham al-Zaqawi is also finding things difficult. He was a jeweller and confectioner before the war, and he stayed in Ein Terma throughout the fighting when it was under rebel control.
He says he distrusted the opposition, but when the army retook eastern Ghouta, his two brothers chose not to come back under government control and joined the exodus to Idlib.
During the years of siege, food became so expensive that he had to sell his business and even his own wife’s jewellery. There are more job opportunities now, he said, but he struggles for work.
His two older children were born before or early in the crisis, but his three-year old daughter Sham must be registered with the government. The procedure is straightforward, but the fee is expensive, he said.
“Currently I don’t have a good job. I’m sitting without one. If there was a job in renovating or anything like that I wouldn’t say no. I’d work.”