What Bashar Assad’s victory looks like in Ghouta Syria
- Syrian government forces, backed by Russian troops, retook Ghouta in April 2018, after pummeling the city for years.
- On the ground in Ghouta, Bashar Assad’s forces have reveled in their victory, which came at the cost of destroying much of the city and forcing many of its inhabitants out.
“Is that a warplane over us?” a doctor asks.
“Yes, it is,” says another, as an airstrike rumbles overhead. “Don’t look so frightened. It will be alright.”
“Don’t worry dear,” a different doctor tells one of his patients. “We don’t have anesthesia, but we have music.”
They are in a town outside Damascus in the midst of a five-year military siege. Their makeshift hospital is underground, in a series of tunnels and basement shelters below the devastated streets of eastern Ghouta, pummeled by the Syrian army, including with chemical weapons, and by Russian bombers.
These scenes are captured in “The Cave,” a new documentary by Syrian director Feras Fayyad, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his previous documentary, “Last Men in Aleppo.” (He was denied a visa to come to the United States to attend the Academy Awards.)
Fayyad currently lives in Denmark, having fled Syria after being imprisoned for more than a year as the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. When he was released, Syria had erupted into full-fledged civil war.
Since he couldn’t reenter the country, he relied on three different cinematographers in Ghouta to film “The Cave.” They either uploaded their footage to the internet or smuggled it out on flash drives.
“We had almost 100 hours of documentation,” Fayyad told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, including of a 2018 chemical attack in Ghouta—five years after the Assad regime apparently agreed to turn over its arsenal of chemical weapons to international inspectors. “As far as we know through the material, it was a mix between chlorine and a kind of nerve gas,” he said in another interview.
The doctor at the center of the film is a 30-year-old pediatrician, Amani Ballor, who oversees the underground hospital and is described as the first woman to run any hospital in Syrian history.
“She told me that my camera should not stop her from doing what she does, and she has to continue to save lives,” Fayyad told another interviewer, adding that the documentary is “not a movie, it’s a testimony of war crimes.” Dr. Amani, as her patients knew her, has since left Syria.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian troops, retook Ghouta in April 2018. The sprawling district on the eastern edges of Damascus includes several towns that had been held both by rebel groups and Islamist extremists for years. When Ghouta fell, Russia helped broker a so-called evacuation deal, in which as many as 50,000 people, including militants, were transferred to rebel-controlled territory in northern Syria, many on government-arranged buses.
Like similar deals in Homs and Aleppo, it ended the fighting by essentially changing some of Syria’s demographics. As part of the agreement, Russia reportedly demanded that rebel fighters hand over the plans to Ghouta’s network of tunnels, some of which were reinforced with metal rods and were wide enough for a car.
Assad’s forces celebrated the retaking of Ghouta as a sweeping victory, even though the area was a vast landscape of rubble emptied of many of its inhabitants. State media presented Ghouta—like similar parts of Aleppo and Homs—as vanquished territory.
It was another sign of how the regime portrays this stage of the war in its own propaganda, exulting in conquest as it reestablishes control over more of the country, even though the conflict rumbles on.
The regime’s message is “totally and utterly triumphalist,” as Amr al-Azm, a Syrian archaeologist from Damascus and a professor of history and anthropology at Shawnee State University, in Ohio, told me earlier this year.
“There’s no disguising it. Not even a fig leaf of an effort to try and somehow suggest post-conflict reconciliation, stabilization, unity. Nothing. ‘We won. We won everything.’ And everything is all about reinforcing the ‘great victory,'” he added, including the regime’s actions in Ghouta after the fighting ended.
With Ghouta back in their hands, the authorities opened up many of the tunnels, which had been used for everything from smuggling food to a starved population to moving militants, in addition to serving as shelters. “This network of tunnels is a real spider’s web,” a Syrian army official told a group of journalists he escorted on a visit to Ghouta in early April 2018.
According to the AFP, the official said the tunnels “connected ammunition warehouses under buildings, places difficult to identify for the Syrian air force.” The state-run SANA news agency added that the military also “found two underground field hospitals, equipped with medical equipment and medicine.”
But perhaps most revealingly, the authorities then set about turning these tunnels—which had helped a besieged civilian population survive, as “The Cave” reminds viewers—into set pieces for regime propaganda. Syrian soldiers and artists carved sculptures and painted murals in the tunnels of Assad and his late father, Hafez, who ruled Syria just as brutally for 30 years. State media called it a “sculpture gallery,” but it looks like something more sinister amid the ruins of Ghouta: a symbol of the regime’s victory on its terms.
“These tunnels essentially represented the lifeline for people living under siege for years,” Azm said. As shown in “The Cave,” the field hospitals that were able to operate in some of those tunnels even treated civilians who had been gassed in a chlorine attack just last year.
“The regime went in and carved these friezes in the bedrock, demonstrating ‘the great victory.’ So now the tunnels have become a showcase and testament to Assad’s victorious armies.” It was “sickening,” he added. “Total triumphalism.”