The sound of female laughter and the cheerful beat of an Arabic goblet drum pierce the walls of a ground floor apartment in the rebel-held Syrian city of Douma.
Such sounds seem incongruous in the city, where food is scarce and bombing attacks routine, and in a region the United Nations envoy for Syria has described as an “epicenter for human suffering.”
Indeed, how to feed their children is just one of the extreme challenges faced daily by the women who gathered at the apartment recently to support one another and choose to be happy.
To carve out moments of joy for Douma’s women takes a unique brand of courage and creativity. Yet Sabah, a charismatic mother of five who hosted the recent gathering, has it in spades.
“We are the privileged ones,” says Sabah, who like others interviewed for this story spoke under a pseudonym out of concern for the safety of her family. “I am sad for the younger generation who were born during the siege and remember nothing but war. We have memories, and these memories give us strength.”
Sabah left behind a husband and a luxurious life in Abu Dhabi to join the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in her native Douma. She recalls a time when seaside trips were snap decisions taken with the morning coffee. Now she can barely find coffee at a premium price, and leaving town is not an option.
Douma, a conservative middle- and working-class city just 10 miles northeast of Damascus, has never been a base of enthusiastic support for Mr. Assad or his father and predecessor, Hafez. In 2011, the primarily Sunni community was at the forefront of weekly demonstrations calling at first for reform and then the ouster of the Assad regime. Forces loyal to Assad have laid siege to the rebel-held town since 2013, limiting the movement of people and the entry of food, fuel, humanitarian aid, and medical supplies.
Today, two Islamist armed groups vie for control of the area while maintaining an open front against the regime. Last summer Russia, Iran, and Turkey brokered a de-escalation deal that included Eastern Ghouta, where Douma is located and where an estimated 400,000 people remain trapped, but residents say that days without heavy artillery and aerial bombardment remain the exception.
Her own home reduced to rubble, Sabah converted her parents’ apartment in Douma into a safe haven for women, a place to gather and forget, even if just for a moment, the suffocating siege and seemingly endless war. She works with a charity supporting widows, divorcees, and single young women.
Women of all ages stream into her cozy living room at the recent gathering. Small coffee tables offer plates of cookies and popcorn. Carpets cover the floor in a bid to trap the heat emitted by a stove burning coal and dry wood.
The older women squeeze together onto wooden-based sofas, while the youngest stand to make room. They discuss political developments, fluctuating prices at the market, and swap recipes inspired by the limited produce of a city under siege.
And they worry about how to feed their children in the Syrian city with the highest rate of malnutrition. According to a UN survey, nearly 12 percent of children under age 5 in Eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished, about a third experience stunted growth, and mothers struggle to breastfeed.
The impossibly slender fingers of Shams drum away at the derbake.
She met the host back in 2011 while collecting medical supplies from Sabah. It was a year when the women of Eastern Ghouta came together to organize demonstrations, ferry medicine to field hospitals in their handbags, and distribute food aid to families in need.
Before that, says Shams with laughter, life had been “simple, with no action.” She lived with her parents and divided her days between social activities and making tablecloths. Politics did not concern her until she witnessed indiscriminate security raids in her neighborhood.
She describes as “good fortune” the night when a security officer turned a blind eye to her twin cousins – who lived in the same building and were old enough to be taken for military service – during a massive security sweep. Other young men were beaten and loaded into cars.
“At that point, I knew that they (the regime) are treating us not as humans, and we saw them for who they really are,” she says.
The indignities grew in scale and severity. A soldier setting up a machine gun at a checkpoint told her mother to run, warning that the weapon could “go off” by itself.
“Imagine telling just anybody you are a target,” Shams says via a messaging application, the means for interviewing the other women in this story. “You cannot bear this, nor can you bear the fact that these people are the ones ruling your life.”
Uncertainty as a constant
In between uplifting moments of song and dance, memories bitter and sweet, the women share their present fears. These range from going out for an errand and never coming back to, even worse, returning to a home that has collapsed and crushed their relatives inside.
Sarah, an unmarried 27-year-old teacher, works at a local elementary school, which, like much of the rest of the city, gets underway early to get as much done as possible before warplanes hit the skies.
Lessons start as early as 6 a.m. In her class of 30 first-graders, some are so traumatized that they have learning and speech difficulties. An alarm system has been developed so that the children and teachers can shelter underground when there is shelling or air strikes near the school.
“I go to work not knowing if I will come back or, even worse, if I will find my house standing and my brothers alive if I do make it back,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor. “When the bombardments happen at school, my anxiety is double. It is terrifying because we worry about the safety of the children and how they will get home.”
Before the war, she says, it would never have crossed her mind to live away from her father. Society in Douma is relatively conservative, with most women wearing the headscarf and girls living with their parents until they marry. While the new millennium brought with it increased educational and employment opportunities, few strayed beyond nearby Damascus to work or study.
Sarah could have carried on teaching and living in relative safety in Damascus with her elderly father. Instead, she chose to live with her two brothers in Douma and care for the youngest, who was seriously wounded by shrapnel.
Sarah says the lack of empathy among people in the government-controlled capital for those suffering in Douma, her hometown, contributed to her decision to move back in 2015.
“Here we are home,” she says. “The people around me feel my pain, because we are all living the same conditions.”
Navigating life under siege
These friends could talk for days about their shared traumas: the first time their home was raided, the first time they crossed a checkpoint or saw someone shot by a sniper, or how they took tunnels to get out of Douma to bring supplies or visit loved ones, before the underground passages were destroyed by the regime.
They’ve learned how to navigate life under siege. Sabah says half-jokingly that the strength and resilience of women in Douma is the outcome of dealing with stubborn and hardheaded men on the home front. It is also the outcome of being an integral part of the local economy. In the past, when Douma was mostly farmland, women tilled the land alongside men and made textiles when it wasn’t harvest season. Today, despite the siege, they are just as active.
Sabah feels privileged for having access to generators that are strong enough to keep the lights on and electronic devices charging at night, even if they are too weak to keep a refrigerator going.
Fuel might be scarce and costly, but Sabah doesn’t hesitate for a second to dedicate the little she has to power speakers and a phone to play songs that get the women dancing. She knows that good memories are not enough to sustain them. They must also make new ones.
“If Sabah tells me right now that there is a gathering at her place, I will go over there immediately,” says Sarah speaking over the sound of bombing. “Life must go on.”
Bombardment, siege, loss, and death, she adds, became “normal.”
A 'right' moment to be happy?
Her favorite memory of life under siege is the wedding of Lama, Sabah’s daughter, which took place last year on a day of intensive shelling and aerial bombardment.
As the bride did her hair, first responders put out a fire sparked when a missile hit the building next door. Warplanes screeched overhead as Lama was driven to the wedding venue. A flat tire created further delays. Lama thought she would never make it but was overwhelmed with emotion when she reached the wedding hall and found it packed with people.
Al-Hesba, a committee that oversees the application of Sharia law as Islamist rebel factions are the dominant force in town, did not permit the groom and his friends to join the celebration in the hall. They only allowed them to be at the main entrance. Undeterred, the men and women crammed into the designated space and broke out in song.
“It was amazing!” recounts Lama in a later interview. “We danced and they sang for us. We had balloons filled with glitter, and they popped the balloons so all of us were sparkling.”
Each in their own words, the women explain how if they wait for the “right” moment to be happy there will be none. The future does not carry with it the promise of immediate relief. Death is always at their doorstep with the regime closing in.
Sabah, who is a regular participant in public meetings about negotiations between the regime and opposition, remains defiant and says there is no turning back. “There is no way we can accept Assad as the president anymore or to be back under the control of the security forces.”
The women had a fright early one morning last week in what appears to have been another chemical attack. Half asleep and unaware of what had happened, Sabah opened her bedroom window, letting in toxic fumes. Her friends had to rush her to hospital for oxygen treatment, but she is now on the mend.