All of eastern Ghouta is underground.
That is how one aid worker described the situation as thousands of people fled into basements and makeshift shelters in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus this week.
Eastern Ghouta is under a brutal aerial assault by Syrian government forces that has left more than 200 people dead in recent days, including many children.
As the war on the outskirts of the capital reached a new level of intensity, families huddle underground. For hours on end, they wait out the bombing, which shows no signs of slowing.
The assault is the latest by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on rebel-controlled areas in a seven-year civil war that has fractured the country.
In other cities and towns once held by rebel groups, like Aleppo and Daraya, the government has used a similar tactic of bombarding infrastructure and residential areas to force a surrender of fighters and the relocation of civilians. The Syrian government says that there are few civilians left in eastern Ghouta, and that those who remain are being held as human shields — an assertion disputed by international human rights groups and activists on the ground.
There are armed rebel groups active in the area, but Save the Children and the United Nations refugee agency estimate that some 350,000 civilians are caught up in the siege.
Footage from local activists shows women and children gathered in basements, playing and cooking to pass the time. Some share audio recordings of the planes and helicopters buzzing overhead, issuing desperate pleas on social media and WhatsApp.
In some parts of the sprawling suburb, the underground spaces are connected by tunnels. A local media activist, Firas Abdullah, filmed the scene as he made his way between the joined rooms on Wednesday.
“People here are hiding from the massive bombardment,” he says in the video as he ducks his head to walk through the tight space.
Mr. Abdullah, who has posted updates from the area for the past several years, said some women and children had been sheltering for more than 72 hours and were in need of food and water. He described the conditions as “grave.”
Local humanitarian groups have relayed the same information to international partners: The safest place to be is underground.
Sonia Khush, the Syria director for Save the Children, is based in Amman, Jordan, but has been working with local groups in eastern Ghouta for years. She said thousands of families hadspent most of the week holed up in basements to avoid the bombs.
“The fact is that people are in these basements and shelters, but it doesn’t even give them the mental comfort that they are going to be safe from these bombings,” Ms. Khush said. “Everyone is just terrified right now.”
While portions of the area have been subject to bombing since 2012, the recent surge of attacks is the worst there in years.
Above ground, hellish scenes are playing out. Footage posted on Monday by the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of emergency medical workers, showed people running for cover after a series of strikes.
Many see the basements as the only haven in a hostile environment. They had little chance to evacuate, as the area has been blockaded for months.
For Shadi Jad, a young father who has been in a basement since the beginning of the week, his shelter is a mixed blessing.
“Honestly, I feel the shelter is a grave, but it’s the only available way for protection,” he said when reached on Tuesday.
But Mr. Jad, who is hiding with his wife and eight other families, said that being in close quarters had also drawn his community together.
“We share stories, try to keep the fear away by telling some jokes,” he said. “The shelter makes the relationships deeper “
Another group of local media activists shared photos of a family huddled underground on Wednesday, baking bread in a stove.
Aid groups warn that conditions in the shelters could quickly deteriorate. They lack ventilation, electricity, running water and bathroom facilities. The Unified Medical Office in Ghouta — a local aid group that works in the area — said that those conditions could lead to health problems like “respiratory diseases, lice and scabies.”
Even before the current bombardment, a United Nations report indicated that in some neighborhoods, the shelters had already become a public health concern.
But people have little choice.
Since Feb. 4, when the government’s offensive began, 346 civilians have been killed and 878 injured, mostly in airstrikes hitting residential areas, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Wednesday. Ninety-two of the deaths took place in one 13-hour period this week.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ top human rights official, called for an end to the violence in a statement on Wednesday.
“These are hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been trapped for over five years under siege, suffering deprivation of their most basic needs, and are now facing relentless bombing,” Mr. Hussein said. “How much cruelty will it take before the international community can speak with one voice to say enough dead children, enough wrecked families, enough violence, and take resolute, concerted action to bring this monstrous campaign of annihilation to an end?”
Hoda Khayti, 29, has lived in eastern Ghouta her whole life, and said her family, like most of their neighbors, had spent much of the week in a basement. Twelve other families joined them in one cramped space. They could hear planes constantly passing overhead.
“The scariest moments are when rockets land, then silence follows,” Ms. Khayti said when reached Wednesday on a Facebook video call. “We feel our souls are leaving our bodies when the plane gets close, and we feel relieved after it goes away.”
They fear the bombs outside, but like Mr. Jad, Ms. Khayti said the shelter has become a place for the community to come together.They share food, blankets and stories while they wait for the sounds of planes overhead to trail off.
“Mom comes back from the shelter with lot of stories, like this woman got married, that had a baby,” she said.
But Ms. Khayti is sometimes hesitant to head down to the basement, because she is scared of being trapped. Often, she stays above ground in the family home while her parents and sister head to the shelter.
“I don’t want to die in the basement,” Ms. Khayti said. “I saw a whole family die in the basement. That was last week.”