The Boy on the Bicycle

After the Syrian regime attacked a rebel-controlled part of Damascus with sarin gas in August 2013, I smuggled my way in to report on life in the besieged area

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The Boy on the Bicycle
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines.

On a clear day in early October 2013, I stood outside the walls of Old Damascus and waited for a smuggler to sneak me into besieged Ghouta, located less than an hour’s drive away. Our rendezvous point was a busy intersection, kitty-corner from an ice cream shop where Damascenes sometimes queued up for a soft-serve on a sugar cone. A few weeks had passed since the regime’s notorious chemical attack on Ghouta — the world’s worst in a quarter of a century — carried out in the early hours of Aug. 21, killing over 1,400 men, women and children, many of them as they hid inside their homes.

In my childhood, when we lived in Damascus, we used to pack a picnic and go to Ghouta on weekends. There, my cousins and I played in the orchards and meandered for hours through endless dirt roads, picking wild figs and eating them until they made us sick. Over the years, urban sprawl took over orchards and asphalt paved over dirt roads. But Ghouta remained a pivotal source of food for greater Damascus — until the war.

Prior to the chemical attack in 2013, the government forces had besieged Ghouta for several months, leaving over a million civilians with little food and medicine. Stories were starting to trickle out about a slow but debilitating starvation; people supplementing their diet with grass and using straw in bread flour — all while enduring regime shelling and aerial bombardment. There were stories about wheat fields getting torched just before harvest, about cattle being targeted by snipers and chicken coups by shelling. Regime forces called this their “starvation until submission” campaign. In Arabic, the phrase rhymes and has an eerie ring: al joo’ hatta al rokoo’. Sometimes you saw it written in graffiti at regime checkpoints.

The regime denied using starvation as a weapon and tried to control the story by not allowing independent observers to enter into besieged areas, which were proliferating across Syria. It is for this reason that I needed a smuggler to help me breach the siege of Ghouta, where I aimed to report on daily life in the aftermath of the chemical attack.

The journey ahead was risky. Regime checkpoints could be unforgiving if they suspected you were someone other than who you said, which in my case was a flimsy cover story about visiting fictional relatives who lived inside Ghouta. (My real friends and relatives had long fled the area.) If all went well, I would be in Ghouta for at least two or three days, maybe longer if the road shut down due to fighting and I became stranded there. As I waited for my smuggler, I began to wonder about another aspect of the journey ahead: What would I eat once inside? The locals would insist on sharing their meager food supplies with me, and I hated the idea of showing up empty-handed. On impulse, I bought a box of dates, hoping the smuggler would know how to sneak it through the siege.

The smuggler finally arrived. I recognized him from the brown Russian Lada that he had told me he would be driving. We verified each other’s identities, and off we went toward Ghouta. On the way there, he stopped at a bakery and picked up some bread, then a pharmacy and picked up insulin, baby milk and cough syrup. I showed him the box of dates, and he fretted over it for a bit before agreeing to hide it with his contraband.

The rest of the way went smoothly until we arrived at the final regime checkpoint, the one in charge of enforcing the siege before you crossed into Ghouta. There, we found armed guards diligently searching every car and person, choking the flow of traffic. In front of us, over a hundred vehicles stood idle and waited their turn, forming a line that bent with the road and crawled in between the urban sprawl of Jaramana, concrete homes with unfinished paint and sandwich shops that flashed neon signs, advertising fresh shawarma and falafel.

My smuggler, who went in and out of Ghouta regularly and had a system in place, drove our car over the curb and circumvented the idling traffic. We snaked ahead through the cars until we found ourselves facing the checkpoint. “Go inside for a body search. When you come out, show your ID to that guy over there. Then cross over on foot. I’ll be waiting on the other side,” he told me.

I did as instructed and walked across the landing. The tiny gravel beneath my feet scrunched into the hard dirt, making a soft crunchy sound, amplified by footsteps of the many people around me. Some of them meandered, others scurried; some were armed regime henchmen in civilian clothing, but mostly they were families who hailed from Ghouta and were returning home after time spent in regime-controlled Damascus, where they tended to all manner of things — paid work, medical care or personal business — and hoped to clear the checkpoint before dark, still hours away.

Up ahead, a female guard patted down a large, elderly woman. The guard’s hands pressed around the woman’s belly, fingers spidered around the waist and climbed over the woman’s coat, crawling in-between the seams. “She’s clear,” the female guard shouted to a soldier, then allowed the elderly woman, who wobbled as she walked, onto the public minivan that was headed into Ghouta. “It’s all flab. Nothing else,” the guard added to her colleague. They both chuckled, then she made a rude gesture normally reserved for describing the fat tail on Arabian sheep. In those days, I often heard humans likening other humans to animals. The guard laughed at her own mockery and complained that too many women tried to smuggle bread. “They hide the loaves and pretend to be pregnant,” she said, holding her arm around an imaginary belly and making a face.

The coat I wore that day fit me snugly. Any hidden food on my person would have formed a guilty bulge and given me away instantly. The smuggler had concealed my box of dates inside a cavity beneath the backseat of our Lada, where it would remain undetected while he greased palms. But there was no way to circumvent the guard who was searching me. She made no eye contact or conversation. She circled around me and probed my back, poking her fingers into my ribs as if prodding for meat. She towered over me and examined my hair, walking her fingers through my scalp as if inspecting for fleas. I made a mental note not to smuggle anything on my way out of Ghouta. (Covering the war in Syria came with many professional hazards for journalists, but for me in particular — because I was reporting undercover, without permission from the Information Ministry — there were additional risks. Things like written notes, photos or audio recordings of my interviews with people could have disappeared me and others inside the dungeons of the regime. I couldn’t even use my phone to snap my own photos to accompany the stories that I filed without a byline because regime checkpoints often searched phones for telltale photos.)

The guard finally cleared me, and I crossed the siege line on foot as my smuggler had instructed. My shoes pressed tiny gravel into the hard dirt, and this time I could hear the sound because hardly anyone was near. Several meters away, a sniper sat at ease on his perch and watched me cross. I spotted the Lada and hurried toward it. My smuggler had left it unlocked for me, so I sat shotgun and rolled down my window and waited for him to finish his business. I watched the line at the body search area grow longer and longer until it formed a human chain that coiled into the landing area and around the bend. Women stood with flushed cheeks, babies slept on shoulders, and small children fell behind in step. A breeze blew and cooled the stuffy air inside the Lada. It was temperate and sunny, and if it weren’t for the dust and exhaust fumes and the general misery around me, I would have called it a beautiful day.

Then, an unexpected scene unfolded before me. A tall, chiseled soldier with a deep tan and sweaty forehead became upset and raised his voice. The object of his ire was a 12-year-old boy who teetered on an oversized bicycle. The boy carried a few loaves of Syrian flatbreads that folded and dangled over the steering rod. He had probably been sent out by his family to try his luck at smuggling some bread back into Ghouta. People who lived under siege could walk up to the checkpoint that I cleared, look down the busy streets of Jaramana and see endless choices of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and bread. Once out, they ate whatever they could afford, but they couldn’t bring any food back into Ghouta. And they would have to stand in the long line and risk the caprice of regime guards who may refuse them entry, detain them for questioning or disappear them altogether. So it was easier to send young children, anyone under 14 years, the age at which Syrians must produce their government-issued ID card on demand.

The boy riding the oversized bicycle was struggling for balance. His wheels twisted and turned and circled around the soldier. Despite the precariousness of the situation, the boy’s flatbreads stayed draped on the steering rod. The soldier shouted at the boy that no bread was allowed beyond the checkpoint. The boy begged for “just one.”

Allah ykhaleik — may God keep you — just one. Just one. Please, just one,” the boy said again and again. His feet couldn’t reach the ground, so he peddled a little and twisted his front wheel a little and tried to stay mounted on his seat. He pestered and whined, and it was clear this was how he got his way with the elders at home. But on this day he was begging a troubled man with strict orders; a soldier who knew his superior officer was watching every move from the outpost that stood meters away, next to the sniper’s perch, where the sandbags lay one on top of the other and a desert-beige canopy provided shade. If the soldier failed to enforce the siege, there would be consequences. Yet he continued to address the boy as “shab” — young man — a term reserved for those with at least some facial hair; a term of not-yet-acquired respect for the boy. For the soldier, this might have been the most he could offer.

Ya shab,” the soldier shouted, his jugular vein bulging. “I’M TELLING YOU. NO BREAD ENTERS GHOUTA. THERE ARE EYES ON ME!”

The boy didn’t stop. He rode round and round and kept begging, making awkward shapes in the gravel that roughly resembled a figure eight. It would not have been uncustomary for the soldier to hit the boy or call him a son-of-a-dog, a brother-of-a-whore. He could have kicked him to the ground and dragged him to the brig, or spat on him — all familiar scenes at checkpoints. But instead, the soldier kept calling the boy ya shab. And although he called him this with a roar that would frighten any child into submission, it was the soldier who appeared on the verge of breaking.

And so here they were: a soldier balancing cruelty and insubordination, a boy struggling with a bicycle made for bigger men. The boy swallowed his tears and straightened his wheels and headed off into Ghouta, without the bread. The soldier had taken it all away and thrown it into a cardboard box with dozens of other confiscated loaves and canned food.

Moments later, my smuggler returned and we drove off into besieged Ghouta, passing the boy on the bicycle.

Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines.

Inside Ghouta, my smuggler dropped me off at the meeting point with my host, a local activist who went by the nom de guerre Salahdin. Barely 23, Salahdin resembled any clean-shaven, well-mannered college kid in Damascus, which is what he would have been if it weren’t for the war. He was conscripted into the Syrian army just before the uprising. When Syria’s protests began in March 2011, and the regime swiftly met them with live bullets, Salahdin defected and joined his family in Ghouta, where locals were starting to take up arms against the government. “You picked a good day to come,” Salahdin told me, beaming with pride. No international journalist had been able to report from besieged Ghouta, so he was thrilled to be hosting someone who writes for Reuters. “I just fixed up an apartment in our building and you can stay there all by yourself.”

We transferred my overnight bag and the box of dates into Salahdin’s car, and agreed to meet my smuggler again in a few days. Salahdin would take me to the site of the sarin gas attack first thing in the morning, but for now I wanted to see Ghouta at large and get a sense of what had become of it. It bore no resemblance to the Ghouta I visited a few years earlier, in peacetime, when my newlywed friends had moved there for the affordable schools and housing. Regime aerial bombardment had reduced the area to a grey monochrome of rubble, smashed concrete and twisted columns of iron and steel. During my drive with Salahdin, I saw multi-story buildings sliced in half from top to bottom, their innards exposed, revealing a glimpse of the life they had once sheltered inside: a kitchen with cabinets, a closet with a washing machine, a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, the embroidered bedcover still neatly tucked in, dust and small debris lain on top of it. A toilet sat suspended on a middle floor, its drainage exposed. A plastic doll lay decapitated in a heap of dust. One of the afflicted apartments used to be Salahdin’s, before he and his family moved farther into Ghouta, overtaking an abandoned building and making it livable.

“The air raids happen with less frequency nowadays,” Salahdin told me, “so we don’t endure damage like this anymore, thank God.” The balance in the asymmetric war between regime forces and rebels was always shifting. The rebels had acquired grenade launchers that shot down at least one of the low-flying helicopters that was dropping crude barrel bombs on them, so the regime scrambled warplanes and bombed Ghouta from higher altitudes that were unreachable by the rebels’ light weapons. But warplanes were expensive to operate and, anyway, they were needed elsewhere in the country’s civil war, like in the vast provinces of Homs and Aleppo, so Ghouta was largely spared further aerial attacks.

I spent the rest of my first day in Ghouta trying to sift through remnants of civility amid the chaos and wreckage of war and besiegement — not yet aware of the hunger pangs that were starting to wear me down. Ghouta’s schools and hospitals had long been destroyed in aerial attacks, but they continued underground. Educators set up kindergartens and elementary schools in basements, and sometimes they kept the children overnight to protect them from the indiscriminate regime shelling. Local medical staff set up field hospitals that operated on low ground, offering service free-of-charge to anyone who could get to them. Inside one underground clinic, an obstetrician explained that he could still provide his patients with birth control pills if they wanted, but could do little to curtail the high rate of miscarriages and other pregnancy complications. “And mothers keep losing their breast milk,” he said. “We do our best for the newborns, but formula milk is near-impossible to find in Ghouta.” A pediatrician said she had a robust supply of childhood vaccines to administer to the local kids, but “we’re seeing signs of malnourishment and a failure to thrive, and there’s little we can do for them.”

In a triage center, a teenage boy sat upright on a gurney, his eyes dazed, his head just bandaged, a fresh stain of iodine still visible through the white gauze. He had been injured earlier in the day during the ongoing regime shelling at the frontline, located 15 minutes to the south. (Missiles from regime forces often reached civilians who lived beyond the frontline, as did the mortar shells fired by rebels into regime-controlled Damascus in a tit-for-tat war game.) I thought the boy on the gurney, who gave his name as Faris, was barely older than the boy on the bicycle that I had seen earlier. But I was discovering that children in Ghouta appeared small and immature for their age. Faris was in fact 16 and a survivor of the sarin gas attack.

During my stay in Ghouta, I would hear locals describe the sarin attack as “a night like Armageddon”; a blurry cauchemar punctured by moments of lucidity. Chemical rockets fell during a night of shelling so fierce it killed the first-responders on site and kept people who lived in as far away as Damascus up all night. Bombs pounded the ground so hard that the graveyard gave up its dead. It took the people of Ghouta 16 hours to bury — and rebury — the bodies, among whom were the living, mistaken for dead, saved by a movement of the head or by the faint sound of moaning. There were devastated animals — goats, sheep and cats, and a tree under which lay 300 birds, as one survivor recalled.

For Faris, the memories from that night were coming back in flashes, slowly helping him put together all that had been lost. “For example, today they were telling me that one of my neighbors, Abu Leila, had died in the chemical attack. And after they told me, I remembered that I had seen his body that morning when I arrived at the field hospital,” he said.

At nightfall, we returned to Salahdin’s building, to the empty apartment he had prepared for me on the fourth floor. Ghouta had been cut off from the government electricity grid for a year, so there was no power. By candlelight, Salahdin popped in and out of the kitchen and produced a bowl of olives sitting in olive oil. I produced the box of dates. It was all there was for dinner, so we sat down and ate, careful to save some dates and olives for breakfast so Salahdin wouldn’t have to bring me more food from his family’s scant pantry. Matchsticks and candles were plentiful, so Salahdin left me a bunch and returned to his family. I finished writing my notes then made my way to bed.

A few days would pass before the smuggler returned me safely to regime-controlled Damascus, to the busy intersection outside the old city, kitty-corner from the ice cream shop. The siege of Ghouta would last until 2018 — 10 times longer than the notorious siege of Stalingrad — making it one of the worst war crimes of the 21st century.

As for the boy on the bicycle, I never saw him again, at least not in the flesh. But that night in Ghouta, as sleep came to me in waves, I saw him in a dream. He was still riding his bicycle, somewhere amid the faint motif of shelling that I could hear in the distance and the rumbling of my own empty stomach.

Rasha Elass was the only international journalist reporting in Syria from both regime-controlled and besieged areas. Small segments of this piece were first published in the original Reuters report and have been edited for this article.

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