Women of Syria's Eastern Ghouta tell of life under siege

As women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, Eastern Ghouta’s women and children are marking this holiday trapped underground [Activists/Al Jazeera]

Under shelling and mounds of rubble, Um Diab moves between underground shelters, where thousands of Syrians live to escape the constant bombardment in Eastern Ghouta.

Um Diab embodies one of the many roles that women have embraced during the war in Syria. As she walks through the shelters, she helps the wounded and the sick.

As women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, Eastern Ghouta’s women are marking the day trapped underground, as they have been for the past 18 days.

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, has been under control of the armed opposition since 2013. For more than five years, Syrian government forces have laid siege to the area in an attempt to drain the rebels.

With the help of Russia‘s aerial campaign, Syrian forces have intensified their push since February 18, with the area being one of the last remaining strongholds of rebels aiming to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Over the past three weeks, more than 900 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta, home to about 400,000 Syrians. 

Dubbed “Ghouta’s nurse”, Um Diab, a woman in her forties, lost her children to Syrian government shelling. Her ordeal, however, has pushed her to embrace and help those suffering around her in this doomed corner of Syria.

During her journeys between underground shelters, she carries a small bag filled with basic medical supplies.

“I’m in a ghost town – you can only see rubble and death everywhere,” she says in a recent video circulated on social media. 

Laila Bakri

“Currently, women in Eastern Ghouta have the biggest role, as men of the families are either imprisoned, missing, killed or are on the front lines,” Laila Bakri, an activist in Eastern Ghouta, tells Al Jazeera.

“There are women involved in providing aid; women helping out medically; and there are those who move between the basements, helping out whoever they can.”

Bakri says the other missions undertaken by the women of Eastern Ghouta include “psychological relief sessions” for children, and teaching people how to react when struck by chemical weapons.

Speaking about her own experience, Bakri says that what she finds hardest is trying to keep her two-year-old daughter calm.

“I try to soothe her and tell her that the sound of the shelling and the warplanes will not hurt her, but I know it is hurting her. I try to dispel her fears while I myself am afraid,” she says.

Asked what her message to the world would be on International Women’s Day, Bakri said: “We are human beings – we have ambitions and a life that we want to live. We are still young. We need to express ourselves, continue our studies and live like other people.

“Our children, who were born during the war, know nothing about what normal life would look like. They do not know the different types of fruits. My daughter has never tasted bananas – she can only distinguish between the sound of warplanes and bombs.”

Nivine Hotary

Using her Facebook account as a tool to expose the daily realities of life in Eastern Ghouta, Nivine Hotary has become one of the enclave’s most vocal women.

“Women in Ghouta bear a larger burden than they can carry. In the absence of her husband, she plays the role of both mother and father,” Hotary, a mother of two, tells Al Jazeera.

“She is forced to help her husband and her family with their daily expenses, because the burden of the siege has produced devastating living conditions, particularly for women.

“We all need psychological support – sometimes we get it from our children when we try to relieve them of the trauma.”

When asked what her message to the world would be on International Women’s Day, Hotary says: “Women of Eastern Ghouta are fighters.

“Our only crime is that we asked for freedom of expression, only to be punished with arrests, shelling and a siege.

“If you support our right to freedom, then stand by us and deliver our message to the decision-makers in your countries”.