In the cellars of eastern Ghouta, Syrians wait in fear

EASTERN GHOUTA, Syria/BEIRUT, March 8 (Reuters) - Abu Alma has holed up in a basement for two weeks with his wife and baby daughter. Ten other families stay with them, hiding from the bombs that fall on Syria's eastern Ghouta.

They only venture out to find medicine or bring food they had stored at home months earlier, he said.

"We are living in the basement always," said Abu Alma, 30, an engineer and local aid worker. "We're trying to make it work. What can we do?"

Warplanes and artillery have battered the rebel enclave near the capital Damascus for over two weeks in one of the bloodiest assaults of the seven-year war. The bombing has killed hundreds and pushed people into makeshift underground shelters.

Syrian government forces have chewed off bits of farmland and marched into towns, squeezing the pocket in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

13 PHOTOS
Inside shelters in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta
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Inside shelters in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta
Children are seen in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Syria Civil Defence members help an unconscious woman from a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A wounded man is seen in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man is seen reacting in a tunnel at the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children are seen in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 27, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh
A boy washes dishes in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Abu Mohammad Alaya, 50, is helped after getting out from shelter in Douma, Syria February 22, 2018. Picture taken February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children play in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children stand near curtains in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man gestures as he sits in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2018. Picture taken March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen in a shelter in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Civil defence help a man from a shelter in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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As the battles creep closer, thousands of families fled their homes and moved deeper into the enclave, residents say. The cellars were already packed before that.

Russia, the Syrian government's key ally, has offered insurgents safe passage out. The proposal echoes evacuations in other parts of Syria, where fighters and civilians withdrew to rebel territory near the Turkish border.

Such deals - accept state rule or leave - have helped President Bashar al-Assad's military claw back control of major cities, with support from Russia and Iran.

Some in eastern Ghouta said they dreaded a similar fate.

"There's a lot of fear that the regime will enter, and on the other hand people don't want to leave. They want to stay in their homes," Abu Alma said in the town of Douma. "It's harsh in the basements, but it will be much harder in the camps."

"WE RAN IN THE NIGHT"

Since 2013, troops have encircled eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations estimates 400,000 people live without enough food, water, or medicine. It remains the only big rebel enclave near Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.

Khalil Aybour, a member of the local opposition council, said more than 16,000 people arrived in Douma alone in two weeks. He has prepared an emergency kit in case he has to suddenly run.

"There are families displaced five times, like my parents," he said. "People are having to open up their shelters."

17 PHOTOS
Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
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Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
Six-month-old twins Safa and Marwa, who suffer from malnutrition, are seen at their home in the Hazzeh area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, reacts as she sits on a bed in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A Syrian shovels away debris from the higher floor of a building that was reportedly shelled by regime forces in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta town of Kafr Batna on the outskirts of Damascus on November 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 20: People inspect the debris of a building after Assad regime's warcrafts carried out airstrikes over residential areas of Kafr Batna town of the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus in Syria on November 20, 2017. It is reported that 9 civilians, including 4 children were killed after the attack. (Photo by Anas Damashqy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man walks on rubble after an airstrike in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta Syria November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, is held by her uncle in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Children wait to be examined from Unicef health workers in Kafra Batna in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, Syria October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Injured students lie on beds at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children hold corncobs at Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian child is seen walking near International Red Cross vehicle in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian woman walks past damaged buildings in Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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Abu Firas, a farmer from the village of Shifouniyeh, escaped to Douma last week when the front lines reached his house.

"The forces advanced into the farms...We lifted the kids and ran in the night...We don't even have clothes," he said. "The warplanes and rocket launchers pounced. The bullets were reaching our building."

With their three children, he and his wife also live in a basement. "It's disgusting," Abu Firas added. "We want to return home...We have our lands. We abandoned them, our cows, our sheep." The army now controls the village.

Moscow and Damascus say their forces only target armed militants and seek to stop mortar salvoes by Islamist insurgents that have killed dozens of people in the capital.

Russian and Syrian forces have opened corridors for civilians to exit the suburbs. But there are no signs that anyone has, and they accuse the Ghouta insurgents of preventing residents from leaving. The two main factions deny this.

Abu Alma said people do not trust the route and worry about an uncertain fate if they go to government territory. "Because there are no guarantees except from the Russians and the regime, and they are the same ones bombing Ghouta."

To pass the time in the cellar, they read the news or try to check on the status of relatives, he said.

"A MILLION DEATHS"

Some people said they did not doubt that a small part of the population wanted to get out, at least for survival.

One resident in Douma said that many now wanted the bombs to stop falling at any price. Their despair has grown and the government onslaught has intensified so much that they now resent the insurgents, the resident said.

Ahmad al-Meshrif, an ex-rebel, left his town of Nashabiyeh with 14 relatives including his mother, wife and son. Air strikes followed them as they moved across towns over the course of two weeks, he said.

"This latest attack...has not spared anything. If only you see the sheep and the cows in the streets, how the shrapnel tore them to pieces."

16 PHOTOS
Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
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Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Smoke rises from buildings following bombardment on the village of Mesraba in the rebel-held besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian Mohammed cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital in Kafr Batna after being wounded with his mother in government air strikes on the town of Jisreen, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Ammar SULEIMAN (Photo credit should read AMMAR SULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civil defence member carries an injured child rescued from between the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on February 17, 2018 shows a man walking next to another pushing a bicycle loaded with a carpet, down a rain-soaked street past damaged and destroyed buildings in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man stands amid the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in Douma following air strikes on the Syrian village of Mesraba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civilian inspects the damage following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian civilians look at the rubble following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries a child injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Children are seen at the debris of buildings after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from buildings in a rebel-held area of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta following government shelling on February 20, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Children are inspect damages on a street in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 11, 2018.REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Debris of buildings are seen after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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When his family stayed in a shelter in Mesraba, he said, they could barely step out to the water pump because of the shelling. "That's aside from the psychological state they put us in. I cannot find the words to describe it."

Meshrif, 35, has taken care of his nephews and nieces since two of his brothers died fighting against the army in recent years. His third brother was in a government prison.

"We can no longer bear it. We put our hope in God," he said. "I would rather die a million deaths than live under (the state's) control and stop battling it - impossible."

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and a reporter in eastern Ghouta; Writing by Ellen Francis Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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