Abu Yahya, his wife and four children are squeezed together on a sofa. This is their living room and now it’s also their bedroom. Like most houses in their area, the second floor has been blasted by shells. Outside the front door, sandbags are piled high. Through the windows they can see the battered landscape that is their neighbourhood. There is little in the room besides the sofa and a computer. Today, they are lucky to have power – a friend has lent Abu Yahya a car battery so he can Skype.
The family has been living under siege in Jobar, a district of Damascus, for more than three years. Shells are dropped by planes, snipers shoot from a nearby tower, rockets are launched from a mountain top. Abu Yahya won’t be moving away, though. First, he can’t afford to, and second, why should he? Jobar is his home, he says. The whole neighbourhood is pro-Free Syrian Army, and the regime is aware of that. “They are giving us a very hard time,” Abu Yahya says. “There is another district next to us that has also sustained heavy shooting, and they get very heavy shells. They are called elephants shells because they are so big. There is a mountain in Damascus and from here we can see all the artillery piled up there.”
He has a tough, rugged face – cropped hair, a moustache, defiant eyes. Abu Yahya used to sell fruit and veg from his small pickup truck. Not any more. “The situation is not stable enough to tour the neighbourhood with a truck.” Besides, there is hardly anything to sell. “The regime is shelling the farms that produce fruit and vegetables.” Now, the only vegetables available are courgettes. There is no meat or fish, just courgettes. “Courgettes are easy to grow. You just need a little piece of land.” He smiles. “They are Bashar-resistant courgettes.” In 10 days, the courgette season will end. Then they will rely on aubergines.
These days, Abu Yahya, 44, drives an ambulance for the local medical centre. There are six drivers and they work in teams of three, doing 12-hour shifts every other day. He says he is not a political man – never has been. “I have no business with politics and politicians. I am just a peaceful man. I want to work to earn my living and take care of my children.” But he is proud to be part of the uprising. He calls it “the revolution against injustice”.
Abu Yahya is also known as Rambo because of his bravery. Some say he is too brave. He goes out to work in the middle of the shelling to pick up the injured and the dead, and take them to the hospital or graveyard. Today, he has already collected one man who was hit by a shell. “I took him to the clinic, and came back to talk to you. Two weeks ago, 14 people were killed in one day and I had to move them. Last Friday, four of my cousins were martyred. They were standing in front of their house, and a plane came and shelled them.”
His wife, Umm Yahya, is terrified whenever he goes to work. “My wife cries when I leave the house,” he says.
“I’m so worried about him,” she says. “He works while all the shooting is still going on. I am worried he will be hit and killed.” He gets paid £60 a month – a wage raised by donations from doctors. A 1kg bag of sugar costs £6, and a bag of rice is £4.
The family gets up at 5am for prayers. At 9am they have breakfast. “The planes fly past at this time and usually drop four rockets. This is how we start the day. Every day we receive at least 12 shells from the mountain.” Abu Yahya says it is not only the regime shooting at them, but also Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.
Because they rarely have power, Umm Yahya cooks over a fire on the balcony. They have only enough food for two meals a day. Homemade barley bread and yoghurt for breakfast, and courgettes for tea. “The children don’t have enough energy because of the shortage of food,” Umm Yahya says. “When they bring water, they barely have the strength to carry the container.”
Before the conflict, the family had rarely come into contact with death. “People would die at 80 or 90 – my grandfather died when he was 100 – but after the revolution, you’d see young women and children dead,” Abu Yahya says. How has that affected him? “While I am working, I don’t feel it, because I’m too busy moving them, but afterwards I start to cry.”
He talks of one particularly traumatic incident. “There were four people injured by a mortar. I had to evacuate them. Three were already dead and one was still alive. So I went to my ambulance to get the trolley to bring the guy who’s still alive, and I was only 12 metres from the ambulance when a rocket hit it. It was completely destroyed. My colleague in the ambulance was killed. I took him and buried him in the graveyard.”
Everyone, and everything, is considered fair game, he says. Nowhere is sacred. “Even the graveyard is under attack.” He grins: “Bashar is worried that even dead people will wake up and resist him, so he’s even shooting dead people.” You need a sense of humour at times like this. Gallows humour.
Every few minutes, Abu Yahya leans over to give one of the four boys a kiss or a cuddle. The youngest, two-year-old Yazin, sits on his mother’s knee. “The first two words he uttered were ‘shell’ and ‘plane’,” she says. “Now he stands there shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar – freedom’, when the planes are flying overhead.”
“Our oldest boy, Yahya, is very sad because he lost a friend, killed by a suicide bomb,” Abu Yahya says. Umm Yahya is dressed in black because she is in mourning. “My father was martyred by a sniper,” she says.
Abu Yahya introduces me to 12-year-old Muhammed, sitting silently to his left. The boy lifts his hair to show the hole in his head where he was hit by shrapnel. He is waiting for an operation to remove it. “His head is still open,” Abu Yahya says. “There was an air strike on 21 May, and a rocket fell and hit Muhammed. I have always warned my children not to go out to play, but he didn’t listen to me. The plane came and he didn’t hear any sound. They started to bomb the place and half the building was destroyed. Muhammed got this shrapnel in his head 45 days ago and it’s only just beginning to close up.” Muhammed suffers exhaustion and dizzy spells, but his parents believe his brain has not been damaged. “It is a miracle he’s alive,” his father says.
The children have not been to school for three years, and their parents know that they can only teach them so much – Umm Yahya finished intermediate school, Abu Yahya is illiterate. She tries to teach them to read, but she can do only so much, and they are usually too exhausted to take a lot in. For much of the day, the children collect wood for burning. They find it in the wreckage of houses. It is also their job to bring water home in a bucket from a pipe in the street. “They do it at 5am. They know there is no shooting at this time. They have one hour to fill the bucket. It’s a safe hour.”