Pakistani national Muhammad Akram and his wife Sighra Bibi escaped eastern Ghouta, leaving behind several family members, including Akram's children from his second wife, who was a Syrian.
Muhammad Akram and Sighra Bibi can’t forget the moment when they were told to get ready in the early morning to be evacuated from the Syrian regime-besieged town of eastern Ghouta. It was a moment of both relief and sadness.
“My grandchildren grabbed me and my wife from all parts of our bodies. They were crying and begging us not to leave them alone under the bombardment,” Akram told TRT World.
Though Akram was aware that he made a selfish decision, he and his wife couldn’t take them along since they weren’t Pakistanis. “Only God knows and we know the circumstances in which we were taken away from there”
Akram came to Syria in 1974. “Actually I first came to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. But there some friends suggested going for other pilgrimage sites which were located in the nearby countries like Syria and Iraq. So we extended our visit towards Syria,” he said.
He along with his friends first entered Jordan and then Syria. Sadly, he couldn’t get an Iraqi visa so he prolonged his stay in Damascus. “After spending a couple of days in the city, I started to like the area,” he continued. “People were nice. The area was neat and clean. The atmosphere was perfect, that led me thinking to search for some suitable work.”
Akram was a professional welder in Pakistan. He tried his luck in the same field and got a job in a factory in the suburb of the Syrian capital. The following year, 1975, he got married to a Syrian woman and decided to live there permanently.
In 1980, he came back to Pakistan on his father’s constant insistence. But this time he wasn’t alone and was accompanied by his Syrian wife and two children. That stunned the family as he hadn’t shared the news of his second marriage with his parents. Akram already had a wife before leaving Pakistan for Umrah.
“My father told me not to go back to Syria again. He said it could be disastrous,” he said.
His Syrian wife, Raba Jarrad, struggled in Pakistan. She wasn’t accustomed to the Pakistani culture, language and above all standard of life. Akram’s home in Pakistan is in a village, several miles away from Jhelum city. Despite her discomfort, Jarrad did the daily chores along with other village women. “She was putting cow dung on the walls, harvesting crops and cutting wood – that wasn’t something common in Syria.” She liked the village but missed her previous life in Damascus.
Akram left for Syria once again in 1988 following his father’s death. He started to live in Jobar district where his wife now owns property.
“This time I had come to Syria to live permanently,” Akram said, adding that he started working in two factories to earn more and more. He and his wife began a happy life along with their kids and were enjoying the serene weather of Syria.
That didn’t last forever. In 2011, the Arab revolution engulfed the Middle East. After the successful regime change in Tunisia, people also took to the streets in a bid to overthrow the regime of Bashar al Assad.
The regime forces besieged eastern Ghouta in 2012. Among the 400,000 people trapped in the city were Muhammad Akram and his family. They braved harsh and inhumane conditions in the days and years to come.
“Syria was like a paradise. I even forgot my motherland, my parents, brothers and sisters,” says Akram, adding that its people were humble and the weather was beautiful. It has been six years since the insurgency started in Syria. The war has cost civilians terribly, and so far nearly half-a-million people have been killed and more than 10 million displaced. “Now, it’s a town of dust.”
The daily bombing and shelling affected his wife Raba Jarrad's health. Her immune system could no longer cope, and one day in 2013, she died of a heart attack. But that was just beginning.
One day Muhammad Akram’s older son, Aimen Akram, went out to visit his sister in a nearby town called Kafr Batna. As he entered the town, he died in an aerial bombing.
Aimen Akram is survived by four sons and a widow. Both deaths occured in 2013.
But Muhammad Akram blames neither the regime nor the rebels for the catastrophe. He believes it’s something else. “I think I went to Syria against my father’s advice. He had forbidden me to go to Syria, and that’s what led to my disaster.”
Describing the siege years, he says, “We have eaten the leaves of trees and even grass to fill our stomachs. Sometimes the people nearby would distribute cauliflowers and turnips, but then there comes the issue of how to cook without wood.”
He said he used sheep dung as a source of fuel to cook the food and occasionally to heat up the room during extreme cold.
Akram had gotten married for a third time in Pakistan in 2004 to Sighra Bibi. He had brought her to Syria after the marriage but kept her in a separate house. As Syria plunged into a civil war, he asked Bibi to move in with him and his Syrian wife. They all began to live together.
Bibi now takes care of the kids who were born to Akram’s Syrian wife. “When there was a bombardment we would rush underground and come out only when warplanes disappeared,” Bibi said. “The kids would hug me after the blasts due to fear,” she says. “They were calling me ‘Khalti’(mom’s sister) and Akram as ‘Jeddo’.”
Akram’s sons weren’t going underground at the time of bombardment. They had a different perspective about where they may be killed. “If someone were killed on a street, at least there would be a body to bury, whereas, if they were killed under the rubble that would sometimes make it difficult for people to go through proper burial,” said Akram, describing his son’s point of view.
Bibi says the prevailing situation has destroyed the education system. With no schools in the neighborhood, kids have no plans for their future. “Before the uprising youngsters had dreams of becoming officers, doctors, engineers but now they don’t discuss such things,” she said. "The younger generation has turned desperate. They get involved in looting and plundering."
In February, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres called the situation in eastern Ghouta "Hell on earth” and said it must end. 63-year-old Bibi also considers eastern Ghouta as one of the most dangerous places on earth.
“There is no more life left in Ghouta. Everyone is trying to leave. Nobody wants to stay in Ghouta,” Bibi says. “We were changing our clothes after four months due to the shortage of water. There was no soap at all, and I was using dirt to rub and clean the clothes with ”
The 73-year-old Akram, can now barely complete a sentence without coughing. “He is weak and has chest problem,” said Muhammad Irfan, his nephew, who received the couple from Islamabad airport earlier this month.
Akram left behind two sons, four daughters and 19 grandchildren in Syria. He interacts with them via WhatsApp messaging. They are still entrapped in Ghouta. “I haven’t made any contact with them for a few days. They are out of reach. I wish them well.”
Though Akram spent all his youth in Syria, he now wants to retire in his village. “There was a time when I was young and capable of doing many things. But now I am too old to go there. I want a little peace.”