Residents of Syria's Douma breathe fresh air after weeks in hiding

Douma (Syria) (AFP) –


After two months of hiding underground in Syria's Douma, Leena Karkura has finally dared to venture out into the sunshine and walk around her devastated hometown with her daughter.

Syria's army announced on Saturday it had retaken the town and surrounding region of Eastern Ghouta from rebels after a Russia-backed military offensive that lasted almost two months.

"I decided to take my daughter out for a stroll after she insisted and cried," the woman in her forties told AFP on a tour of the town organised by the Syrian army for foreign media.

She said her nine-year-old daughter was desperate to venture outdoors and breathe some fresh air after weeks hiding from air strikes and bombardments in a cellar with her family.

"Children lived in terror, they didn't have a childhood," Karkura said, clutching the hand of her daughter dressed up for her walk in a red tracksuit.

"I told her it was safe again and nothing would happen to her," she said, as she looked at the rubble around her.

"We're breathing a sigh of relief."

Eastern Ghouta had been the last rebel bastion on the capital's doorstep before the army launched a blistering assault on the region in mid-February that, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed some 1,700 civilians.

Its main town of Douma was the final holdout in the offensive, and was retaken after thousands of rebels and civilians were bussed out under a Russia-brokered evacuation deal.

The deal was reached after rescuers and medics said more than 40 people died in the town in an alleged chemical attack on April 7.

The United States, France and Britain carried out air strikes on Syria early Saturday in response to the purported toxic weapons attack.

The government and its Russian ally have rejected the accusations as "fabrications" and invited experts to the town to investigate the claims.

- Bread flung into a crowd -

But the team from Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has not yet entered Douma.

Since Saturday, Russian and Syrian military police have been deployed across the town, where shops stand shuttered by the sides of a main road.

In the middle of the road, Haitham Badran, 40, chatted with friends, hand-in-hand with his 10-year-old son Omar.

Now the fighting had stopped, Badran said he dreamt of taking his son to see Damascus.

"I want to show him his country," he said.

"He hasn't seen anything of the world and was even prevented from learning" in school.

Omar has known food shortages for a large part of his young life, after the government imposed a siege on Eastern Ghouta in 2013 a year after rebels seized control of the region.

In the town on Monday, men on the back of a truck flung bags of flat bread down into a crowd of men and boys, who stretched out their arms to receive some.

In front of a building where the roof had completely collapsed, a woman wearing a black face veil pushed a man in a wheelchair with a boy on his knees.

Not far off, 55-year-old Basma al-Sayyid walked slowly examining her battered surroundings.

"I was cooped up in a cellar for so long with my grandchildren," she told AFP, flipping up her black face veil to speak.

"There are no words to describe my happiness."

More than 350,000 people have been killed and more than half the population displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

On top of those who left Douma under an evacuation deal, thousands more fled the fighting into regime-held areas where they have been living in government-run shelters.

But Sayyid said she was never going to move away from Douma.

"I haven't left since I was born, and I've never considered it," she said.