‘Upload what you can, burn what you can’t’: As rebel-held East Ghouta falls, a civil society destroys its records

AMMAN: Civil society organizations in Douma city destroyed years’ worth of documents and physical records this week as residents evacuated and East Ghouta prepared to return to complete government control.

“We burned everything,” Suleiman, an aid worker from Douma, told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Wednesday before leaving the city. Suleiman asked that his full name and the name of his non-profit institution not be published for fear of government reprisals.

As thousands of civilians and fighters evacuated Douma under a surrender agreement with Russia and the Syrian government over the past week, Suleiman said he and his colleagues burned reams of paper and documents, hoping to remove any trace of the “tens of thousands” of people that they had served through support to soup kitchens, orphan care centers and educational and health organizations.

Members of aid organizations, hospitals and the civil defense told Syria Direct in recent days that they feared any records left behind as residents evacuate could fall into government hands and put individuals mentioned in the documents at risk for being involved in opposition-linked operations.

“Many of these people are staying,” Suleiman said. “We can’t rule out the possibility of our documents being used against them to say: ‘These are terrorists.’”

Russian representatives in Syria said government forces were in “full control” of Douma on Thursday as evacuations of civilians and fighters from the city continued. Russian military police units arrived on Thursday to oversee a transition to government control.

Legal documents are prepared at the Douma Local Council in October, 2017. Photo courtesy of Douma Local Council.

While more than 10,000 people left Douma this week, according to Russian state media, many more remain in the city, where the population was estimated by the United Nations to be at least 78,000 people as of April 4.

Local organizations and authorities worry those who remain may be at risk of questioning or arrest by government security forces, Iyad Abdul Aziz, president of the city’s opposition-affiliated local council, told Syria Direct on Wednesday from Douma.

“There is a fear that the regime will summon them,” if any connection to the opposition is known, he said.

One humanitarian organization, which has supported a network of medical facilities in East Ghouta, told staff in Douma to destroy physical records before the Syrian government re-establishes control of the area. Some of the organization's staff, who requested that their employer not be mentioned by name in this report, are not evacuating.

“Upload what you can, and burn what you can’t,” is what hospital staff were instructed to do, an advocacy manager for the organization told Syria Direct via Facebook on Wednesday.

In an April 3 video aired on Syrian state television, a correspondent shuffles through documents allegedly seized from a hospital in East Ghouta’s central sector following evacuations there in late March. The documents list employee names and financial information.

“Looks like they didn’t get a chance to burn these documents,” the correspondent says.

Several of the half-dozen civil society members, aid workers and others who spoke to Syria Direct this week mentioned the April 3 video as a worrying indication of how their own records could be used in the wrong hands.

“The only solution was to get rid of the full paper archive,” Siraj Mahmoud, the spokesman for the East Ghouta Civil Defense said via Facebook from Idlib province, where he arrived on a bus from Douma earlier this month.

The Syrian government and Russia have repeatedly accused the western-backed civil defense—also known as the White Helmets—of fabricating information and staging chemical weapon attacks.

But as some organizations in Douma destroy physical archives and prepare to rely only on what can be salvaged digitally and taken out in computers and hard drives, the fate of documents recording familial and property rights remains unclear.

Douma’s opposition-affiliated local council maintains physical records of births, marriages and divorces in the city, in addition to proof of property ownership.

These records have not been destroyed or removed from Douma, said council president Abdul Aziz.

Although opposition-linked civil documents may be perceived negatively by Syrian government authorities, Syria Direct reported earlier this year, the president is hopeful that they will be seen as neutral, vital records from the past several years.

“We are preserving them,” he said.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.