Russian roulette in eastern Ghouta
For a month, the people of eastern Ghouta were running for cover and sheltering in basements. Now, thousands are limping and staggering to whatever shelter they can find in regime-controlled central Damascus.
Evacuation though is not everyone's choice. If the UN's estimate of 393,000 civilians in the territory before the regime offensive began mid-February is to be believed, hundreds of thousands are still stuck and afraid to go out. The people of Ghouta are torn between staying or leaving and are weighing their options.
Tariq [name changed] is one of them. He is a resident of Douma, the largest city in rebel-held eastern Ghouta, cut-off and encircled by the Syrian army.
"Life in Douma feels like a game of Russian roulette," he said.
Tariq has two sons, both under three. For their sake, he must venture out daily in search of food. But the relentless bombing has turned a routine chore into a life-threatening task.
"I don't know which bomb, which missile has my name on it," Tariq said, a faint sound of explosions discernable in the background.
Read more: Eastern Ghouta tragedy pits neighbors against each other
I have been tracking Tariq's story over the last month. In phone calls, texts and voice messages, Tariq has related the suffering of his family. He is desperate to cover their basic needs as they hide from the hail of fire in an underground warehouse. Yet he refuses to leave.
"Leaving home means giving up everything I have ever built," he told me.
'Better under the rebels'
Before the uprising began in 2011, Tariq was a successful businessman. He imported construction material from Turkey and China and earned $5,000-7,000 (€4060-€5680) a month. A siege imposed by the Syrian government in May 2013 effectively imprisoned him in his city. Now, he works as an education consultant for the local council, which is funded by western countries through several aid programs. Tariq's salary has slumped to $70 a month, if he is paid at all.
Despite facing unprecedented financial hardship, a daily struggle to survive and the ever-present risk of death, Tariq still prefers life under the rebels to the regime.
"The rebels are better than the regime, only because the regime is killing everyone and will surely kill me, if I leave Douma," he says.
Those like Tariq who prefer the politics of the rebels and harbor a deep mistrust of President Bashar Assad are apprehensive they will be met with a harsh response from his Baath Party for daring to seek an alternative to its rule.
Even if he isn't executed, Tariq dreads ending up like his friends from Aleppo who were forcibly displaced and made to live in destitution after being moved to another rebel-held zone in Idlib province, merely to face the regime's bombs another day.
Read more: Which rebel groups are fighting in Syria's eastern Ghouta?
In 2016, the rebels, along with their families and their supporters, were bussed from Aleppo to Idlib under an evacuation deal. Despite a supposed ceasefire, Assad's forces have been bombing Idlib and apparently intend to try to take it back soon.
Confronting impossible odds, Tariq sees evacuation not as a promise of safety but as forced displacement.
Emergency evacuation vs. forced displacement
In Damascus, driving near the regime's front line with the rebels near the eastern Ghouta town of Jobar, Maher [name changed] told a different story.
Maher once lived in Jobar, a town in eastern Ghouta and a suburb of Damascus. In early 2012, Maher packed-up and moved to the capital to protect his family from becoming "collateral damage" in the fighting.
"We left in time but now a lot of people are unable to, because the rebels don't let them leave," he told me when I visited Damascus late last year.
The rebel groups back up their appeal for political change by pointing to Assad's excesses. Were the civilians to leave, the rebels fear their demands for international action would fall on deaf ears.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees agreed that this was one of several reasons why so many civilians hid instead of marching to Damascus when the bombing began.
There were other reasons too, spokeswoman Mysa Khalaf said, reeling off a list of concerns: "Prevention by armed groups, fear of reprisals in government-controlled areas, high security risks en route, concerns that they may not be allowed to return when the situation permits."
To Tariq it is clear that hundreds of thousands like him stayed home all the years of war, because they chose not to give up their homes and property at gunpoint. He sees a strategy behind the dual air and ground attacks, saying it is the regime's attempt to forcibly displace people under the name of emergency evacuations.
Sadly, he may not be left with the option to resist. With 80 percent of eastern Ghouta under government control, the outcome of the battle appears inevitable.
Nearly three weeks after the United Nations Security Council, including Russia, the regime's backer, agreed to a ceasefire, the death toll has continued to rise and Assad seems set to score yet another victory on the battlefield.
"I don't think the rebels stand a chance of winning," says Aron Lund, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation. "What would winning even mean – keeping control of their enclave for another year, then repeating the whole thing?"
In the absence of a greater vision for a Syrian peace, Ghouta's fate seems sealed. Tariq fears he faces a life of destitution with little to no chance of returning — or death.
He is still adamantly pushing his luck, hoping he might outrace the hovering jets showering destruction on his town. His last wish is international intervention. Tariq says, "If you don't believe me, send observers from Germany, Norway and neutral countries, and see what's happening here."
But he doesn't believe help will arrive and his resolve, it seems, is weakening.
"If the army enters Douma, I will have to leave, but either way, death seems more likely than safety and peace," he said on Monday.
He then rushed off, saying there was an emergency. That may have been the last I hear from Tariq.