Syrians evacuated from Ghouta fear for family left inside


Dweir (Syria) (AFP)

At a shelter outside Syria's battered Eastern Ghouta, civilians evacuated by the army from the rebel enclave are wracked with anguish over the loved ones they left behind.

Regime forces have advanced steadily inside Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of the capital since launching a deadly assault on the rebel enclave more than three weeks ago.

In the regime-controlled area of Dweir on Monday, Rima Sheikh said she was devastated to have left a daughter in Eastern Ghouta.

"I haven't seen my daughter for a month," said the 40-year-old, who was evacuated by the army with her husband and four of her other children.

"We went to try and find her in the cellar she was living in but she and her husband had already left," she said.

"I wasn't able to bring her with me or say goodbye," she said.

In Dweir, Sheikh's was one of 17 families -- 76 people -- to have arrived at the reception centre from Misraba since Saturday after the army retook the area.

The reception centre used to be a camping ground and sports centre before the Syrian conflict broke out seven years ago.

- 'Haven't heard anything' -

Each family is provided with a room, blankets, cooking equipment, as well as food and cleaning products in a box bearing the logo of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The 82 rooms have been set up on a covered sports pitch, divided by wooden panels, and those living there have access to shared bathrooms.

A rope tied around two trees serves as a makeshift washing line.

Ruwayda Abdelraheem, 45, said she had been unable to see her daughter or baby grandchild, who was born in the enclave's main town of Douma on the same day that the military bombardment of Eastern Ghouta began.

"I'm so happy to be out but I'm also sad because I can't get in touch with my daughter who gave birth," she said, as she wiped tears from her pale cheeks.

"I haven't heard anything from her."

Eastern Ghouta's estimated 400,000 inhabitants have lived under government siege since 2013, and have come under intense air strikes since February 18.

That was followed by a ground offensive that has taken back more than half the opposition stronghold and cut what remains of it in three separate parts.

A Britain-based monitor says that some 1,170 civilians have been killed by the three-week onslaught on the rebel enclave.

- 'It was agonising' -

In the shelter, Maysa Uyun, 32, prayed for the "release" of her mother and sister from areas in Eastern Ghouta still under rebel control.

"I pray God keeps them safe," she said, her eyes lifted to the skies.

Arafat Farhat, a man in his 40s, fled his home in another part of Ghouta to Misraba, before being ferried out.

"My children would come to me and say 'Daddy, we don't want to die' here," he said.

"It was agonising. I wished I could give my life for them. I can't believe we're still alive."

The former construction worker said he hoped to find work soon to "buy them everything they want".

"I have a child who doesn't know what a banana or an apple is," he said after years of living under siege with food in very short supply.

In Dweir, children dressed in bright clothes ran around the centre, while Red Crescent staff tended to those who are sick.

But Hasan Yahya, 72, said his heart was heavy as he left his family behind in Douma.

"I hope to return to my family and see them," said the elderly man who owns land in Eastern Ghouta and used to look after sheep there.

"At this age, can I live without my children?" he said.

"All I want is to see them. I want nothing else in the world."