They were frightened – traumatised might be our medical definition – but the civilians from Douma in Eastern Ghouta were alive. Sat quietly on the government bus that had brought them to the Arbeen crossing were the children with their mothers, the old men, watchful, the younger men – there were not so many of them – looking out of the windows. When we climbed aboard alone with them, notebook in hand and camera moving across the passengers, they sat like extras in a movie, faces from the siege. Were they silent because they were fearful of the future? Or because they were still trying to frame their own suffering of the past?
We were all aware of the usual rumours; that those armed jihadis who had refused the Russian conditions for leaving the besieged villages and fields of Ghouta would shell the refugees to discourage them from crossing. Rubbish. Or that’s what we thought until a mortar swished over the buses and crashed in the powdered rubble 30 metres away. The refugees – for that is what they were now after the tunnels of Ghouta – turned their heads like birds towards the cloud of smoke rising into the sky, and the Syrian soldiers outside ran towards the buses. A general climbed aboard. “Get these buses moving!” he shouted.
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