Trapped in Syria's besieged eastern Ghouta, both Anas and Mahrous were younger than 20 years of age when they started running to air strike-hit areas to document war atrocities and to take care of their families.
“My name is Anas Altaan. I’m now 22 years old. For four years, I don’t know anything about studying. My life is so different now.”
When the Syrian regime’s siege on eastern Ghouta began in May 2013, Anas Altaan wasn’t expecting the international community to convince the Syrian regime to open roads connecting the area to the outside world. He didn’t know when the air strikes would stop, but he was sure of one thing. No help was coming in, no one was able to leave, and the Ghouta countryside was burning from the bombs raining down on it.
So he had to find a way to survive, along with 400,000 other besieged residents.
The regime began bombing the Ghouta countryside, along with other opposition-held cities, after anti-regime protesters took to the streets in 2011. As Bashar al Assad’s fierce response turned the streets into a war zone, Anas found a truck, put a water tank on it, gathered some friends, and began driving to bomb sites to extinguish the flames. The youngsters' initiative was later supported by other civilians.
Anas was 18 years old when he started rescue operations in eastern Ghouta—something he didn’t imagine he would still be doing four years later. An organised civil defence organisation, known as White Helmets, was founded shortly after the siege that not only trapped civilians inside eastern Ghouta, but also made it almost impossible for rescue organisations to enter the area.
Instead of studying to become a computer engineer, he got training for rescue operations in order to join the organisation.
Even though his main job is taking photographs for the group, Anas also helps the rescuers take people out from under the rubble. He says that photos help document the crimes against civilians, and is his way of breaking the siege by sending a message to the rest of the world. And it's also a way to make money to survive.
His family depends on the $150 he makes monthly. But in besieged Ghouta—where the cost of food is up to 85 times more expensive than in the capital Damascus, which is only 15 kilometres away—it is far from being enough.
“That means only 60,000 Syrian pounds. And if you just want to eat and drink without buying anything else, this money can help you only 10 days. If you just want to buy bread, you need 2,500 Syrian pounds, and that’s only for the bread, without anything else. The price of only one kilo of rice is 6,000 Syrian pounds. And we have not talked about the breakfast yet,” he says.
Anas uses social media to his advantage. He shares the scenes of “massacres” on the streets, supporting his cause against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. But at rare times, he can’t stop himself from sharing the simpler struggles of life in Ghouta.
“Falafel just came to my mind,” he writes on his Facebook. “Damn the people causing the siege preventing us from it.”
Still, he is among the luckiest in eastern Ghouta. With some people forced to eat trash, fainting from hunger and forcing their children to eat on rotation, approximately 174,500 people in the besieged zone are trying to find alternative ways to survive, the United Nations World Food Programme says.
But people in the suburbs of Damascus insist on continuing to live. Mahrous Mazen, a photographer and aid volunteer from eastern Ghouta, lost his father three years ago during a shelling. As a 17-year-old in his second year of high school, he found himself taking care of his mother and three siblings.
“The life hasn’t stopped. We have to live with this situation,” he says. “Many of my friends left Ghouta or Syria. I’m not able to connect with them now.”
His siblings are still going to school. But in an area where public buildings are targeted by air strikes, only underground schools are able to function now. It means taking an unsafe journey every day, and getting an education in dim light. But Mazen says it doesn’t daunt anyone. Children still want to go to school. And the volunteers, who got trained during the siege to become teachers, still want to teach.
For his part, when he’s not photographing, Mahrous is helping an aid organisation to distribute food to people.
Like Mahrous, Anas witnesses the simple acts of resistance by people every time the air strikes hit the area.
“When the planes drop bombs, you see that shop owners repairing their places two minutes after air strikes. Because everyone wants to continue their lives normally,” Anas says.
As for Anas, two minutes after the air strikes, he rushes to the area that people are running away from to avoid a possible second strike.
Similarly, Anas' close friend, an ambulance operator named Abu Riyaad, recently drove his ambulance to a bombed area to see if there was anyone who needed help. But he lost his life, along with other members of the team, when a second bomb was dropped.
Both Anas and Mahrous know that death is a possibility for anyone running towards a bombed-out area. But they both keep doing what they believe they should be doing.
Anas says that one incident in particular gives him hope. He responded to an air strike once with his team. Everyone was sure that there would be no survivors. But then someone felt the ground under them moving, and discovered that a man was buried under the rubble. Pulling him out, they realised that he was holding hands with another man buried even deeper inside. Neither of them had any injuries and were both still conscious. A third man was also rescued, and only a fourth man had died. This was quite inspirational given that no survivors were expected from the air strike.
“You cannot find a house in eastern Ghouta that did not lose a martyr or even more. Surely people won’t allow the Assad regime to retake the area,” Anas says with hope.
“The air strikes ended life here. I’m behind four to five years from the people in my age,” he says. But he wants to return to his studies despite his age.
For Mahrous, age became irrelevant in eastern Ghouta.
“The situation here will affect the youth most but it doesn't matter,” Mahrous says. “I think age is just a number now.”