Fleeing Ghouta, Tunnels Are Only Way Out Of Syrian City Under Siege

While residents in Madaya may have no way out, other besieged areas under government control are finding creative ways to carry on. In Eastern Ghouta, a well-known rebel-held area in rural Damascus, residents can access a network of tunnels to escape or t

Syrian fighters in Eastern Ghouta
Syrian fighters in Eastern Ghouta
Mohamad Khair Alhamwi

Armed groups in the besieged rural area around Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta have started allowing many residents to use their military tunnels, at no cost, to escape or get what they need.

With the world focused on the widespread starvation in Madaya, Bashar al-Assad’s government has reportedly tightened its blockades of other areas, including Eastern Ghouta.

There, armed groups have built an intricate network of tunnels over the past two years, mainly to smuggle weapons, ammunition, food and fighters past the blockade, according to residents.

Until recently, the groups would rent out their tunnels to residents who wanted to escape, charging about 150,000 Syrian pounds (around $380) per person for a one-way trip. Sometimes the groups also let desperate residents, including the wounded and people with urgent medical conditions, use the tunnels for free.

Since the government tightened its grip on the area and escalated military operations in Eastern Ghouta, the armed groups have changed their policy, and are allowing most people to access the tunnels at no cost.

The exception is men between 17 and 40 years old, whom they fear could join a pro-Assad militia called the “Loyalty Army” made up of defectors from armed opposition fighters in Eastern Ghouta.

One of those who escaped using such a tunnel was Abu Ali, 47, who recently left the region’s main city of Douma with his wife and two children. Abu Ali said he used a tunnel built by the main armed opposition group fighting the government, Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam.

The process of applying to use the tunnel, he said, was strangely bureaucratic for such a risky method of escape: He submitted an official request at a Jaish al-Islam office and was informed two weeks later that it had been granted.

“I secretly sold cigarettes, but Jaish al-Islam prohibits smoking in Douma. Therefore, my wife and I decided to relocate to a regime-controlled area before they could discover the nature of my work and punish me for it,” he said.

He said that he and three other families granted access to the tunnel started their journey on a bus from the city of Hamouriyya.

“The bus took us to the city of Arbin. In Arbin, the bus took side streets, so that we wouldn’t be noticed. We finally arrived at a house where our identification cards were checked, and our luggage was searched. We were told that we had to be very careful, so no one would discover where the tunnel was,” he said.

The tunnel “was very tight â€" there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side and it was about two meters in height. In addition to lights, the tunnel had turbines for ventilation purposes.”

As of June 2015, some 163,000 people remained in Eastern Ghouta, surviving under a siege that has progressively tightened since it was first put in place in early 2013.

According to Abu Ali, there are other tunnels that are “bigger and better equipped, but are used only for military purposes like transporting weapons and fighters. These tunnels are not open for civilians, unless they have very high connections.”

Joumana, 33, made the same difficult journey to seek medical treatment for her two children aged seven and nine, who both suffer from a skin condition.

“The tunnel was very long. It felt like it was endless,” she said, explaining that it took them about 45 minutes and that no one from Jaish al-Islam escorted them. “I carried my son most of the time. The stony ground was very hard to walk on, especially for children.”

She said she was scared the whole time: “We heard that the regime had bombed tunnels while civilians were crossing, and I was very worried that they would discover the tunnel and bomb it.”

Their journey ended in Barzeh, a neighborhood to the north of Damascus that remains relatively peaceful due to a truce between the armed opposition forces who control the area, including al-Nusra Front, and the Syrian government.

Jaish al-Islam recruits during a military parade â€" Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“The tunnel ended at a house in Barzeh, and we were then transported to a nearby mosque that I could not recognize in the darkness,” Joumana said.

The next morning, the families were allowed to go wherever they wanted.

Joumana said she intends to return to Douma after her children are treated and resume running her small dairy products business. “I do not want to take the risk and stay in a regime-controlled area. They might discover where I am from and arrest me. I do not want to end up in the regime’s prisons. The most horrifying things happen there,” she said.

Abu Ali, however, will not go back to Eastern Ghouta before the war ends.

He is currently staying with a friend in Barzeh but will soon relocate to Jaramana, in southern Syria.

“We have to make up for all the things we have missed â€" from education for our children, to work for me, and providing my family with a reasonable life. Our life back there was very hard,” he said. “I would be much happier if the war were over, and we did not have to leave our homes and the place where we were born and raised.”

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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