The basement; Story of Life in Underground Camp
Enab Baladi Issue # 70 – Sunday June 27, 2013
A whole virtual city grows over what was once a garage. More than seventy families, most of them are Darayan (name of people from Daraya, a town in Damascus Suburbs, Syria), take refuge in this place where smells of rot and humidity spread through the hazy narrow entrance out and bring in nausea. With difficulty, we went down the stairs, which were still under construction. Kids and moms stood on the doorstep trying to get some air, away from the increasing crowds inside. All we could see as we passed through them was a sea of pale tough faces brimming with agony.
Inside, the basement is divided into sectors with hanging sheets, tents they called them. Each tent contains a couple of pillows, and thin mattresses made of sponge, in addition to several carton boxes used to stow belongings. Some tents contain a closet or a bed that reduces humidity and covers the dusty floor.
Abou Khalid, a male in his fifties, spent the first few days of displacement in a mosque in Damascus before one of his friends referred him to the basement. “I could not secure a place for my family but this basement”, said Abou Khalid overcame with fatigue and exhaustion, “there is no autonomy whatsoever. I can’t share a private conversation with my family at all! It would be easily heard by other nearby tents; we speak in whispers most of the time”. “We can’t sleep soundly because of the constant noise and the various sleep-wake schedules; voices are nonstop in here. Besides, the different habits and tempers of the residents, and the dire circumstances they have been through charge the atmosphere; it is always tense and fraught. Differences and disagreements occur; however, the basement owner tries to reconcile the families and resolve the problems”, he added. “Where are we supposed to live if we don’t have enough money to rent a house?!” concluded Abou Khalid in overwhelming distress, “in tents and in streets”.
All what these families have is the memories they are clinging to after losing their homes and their loved ones. Every night they gather and recall the memories of the city they were forced to leave, laughing sometimes and crying at others.
Huda has left Daraya along with her two children; she lost her husband in Daraya Massacre during which more than 800 people were killed. When we entered her tent, her little girl was sitting next to her weaving wool. Huda began to relate her story to us “I’ve never imagined myself homeless! After my husband’s death I was left alone; his family is still in Daraya and my only brother has been in detention for almost a year and a half; we haven’t heard about him since”. Huda has been living in this basement for five months now, however, she has not been able to adapt yet. “Every day I pack my things determined to leave and go back to Daraya… this is a life of degradation”. She paused in tears, and then continued “I can’t secure a better place for my children than this tent. I feel sorry for them; my girl lost a lot of weight due to the deteriorating health situation here”. Here the little girl interrupted with childlike innocence, “I weave clothes to sell them and help Mama with family expenses”.
Rania and her fiancé, who have been engaged for three years, decided to stop postponing their wedding and to get married. The woman in the basement gave Rania a simple wedding party; the basement owner brought her the wedding dress and offered the party food. The men formed “Aarada”, a traditional procession for the groom. Then the bride was given away to her groom who lives in the same basement as well.
“I miss Daraya and I wish I could go back there”, the 18-year-old bride said. “It has only been a week since my wedding, yet I don’t enjoy the feeling of happiness a bride is supposed to have. How can I feel any joy while my family members are either martyrs, detainees or missing”, she added, “My youngest sister was sniped in front of us, my paternal cousin was killed a few days before my wedding, and my maternal cousin is a detainee… happiness no longer fills my heart”. “We shall live despite all the suffering… life must go on”, added Rania with great determination and perseverance.
During our tour in the basement, Om Muhammad, the supervisor at the basement, showed us how work is divided among families, and briefed us about the female initiatives such as the weaving workshop and Ramadan kitchen. Om Muhammad noted that the women will be able to cook and sell home-made food. In the basement there are two bathrooms and a laundry room that contains three washing machines. The families are grouped to use them once a week. Daily tasks are done according to work schedule; four families are assigned to cleaning the basement each day. Inside the basement there is a woman who sells cookies to children; at the entrance, one of the basement’s residents makes and sells Falafel on a street cart.
These families dream every day of returning to the houses they were expelled from; while it seems imminent for some, others see it distant. However, all are thinking about the same big persisting question: How would we return after the massive destruction in the city? How would we rebuild what has been destroyed?