Conversations: Baking by Night in Deir Ezzor

DEIR EZZOR — Abed Rahman al-Khodor is known across this eastern city for his perseverance in providing the most basic edible essential, bread, to its most vulnerable residents.

Written by Ahmad Khalil Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The 32-year-old, known by his nickname Abu Ahmad, heads the Rawafed organization, which runs the city’s orphanage and nursing home and the bakery and kitchen that sustain them.

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We first met Abu Ahmad the night we arrived in the city, and he asked us to accompany him to the bakery in the early hours of the morning.

“Here, bread is baked, but only twice a week,” he said. “There is a severe lack of flour and diesel. The price of flour has gone up threefold, and transportation has doubled. This is all on top of the threat of regime shelling.”

Deir Ezzor is divided between the warring regime and rebels. The opposition-held side (where Abu Ahmad lives) has been under siege for over a year. With over 10,000 people to feed there, his biggest obstacle was finding a way to smuggle flour into the city.

“Sometimes we cross the Siyasiyeh Bridge, but with slow-moving trucks and the extra weight, we are easy targets [for government troops],” he said. “Most of the time, we use boats but even this presents problems. The flour bags often get wet and we are still targeted by rocket launchers … but the chances of survival are higher.”

Cooking with a Bicycle Pump

To run a bread kitchen, one needs products other than flour. The Rawafed kitchen is the last place in the city that prepares daily meals to feed residents in need, and the occasional fighter.

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Abu Ahmad said his main goal is to feed the civilians living under siege, and that 5,000 meals are prepared here every day. Twenty-three volunteers work in the kitchen and together they wash, cut and cook vegetables, rice and bulgur. Canned food and other rations are distributed to civilians whenever possible.

In the absence of cooking gas, Abu Ahmad and his staff fill gas cylinders with diesel fuel and use a manual bicycle air pump to cook. Food is always ready at 2 p.m. Hungry residents know the routine, and are always at the door early, assembled in three neat lines: one for children, one for women and one for men — all unconcerned with the shelling that’s often happening in the background. Each person carries a plastic bucket or two to fill with food and take home.

The nursing home for the elderly houses 43 people; their families have either fled the city and were unable to bring them along.

With others, “we don’t know anything about their families,” Abu Ahmad said. “Three ladies and four youth volunteered to take care of them. We feed them, wash them, change their clothes daily, make their beds and clean their rooms. They are like our mothers and fathers.

“The siege is the reason this happened to them; why they no longer have homes, why their families aren’t with them. But we’re here, and we are their children. It is our duty to look after them and care for them. This is what our religion, our traditions and our humanity compel us to do.”

The other end of the building is used as an orphanage. There are 15 children, who, after losing their parents, were brought here for care.

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“Some were wounded so we tended to them. Families often volunteer to pay for an orphan’s expenses, but we take on the rest,” he said.

Today, 100 volunteers, who have been with the Rawafed organization since the siege began one year ago, run the kitchen, bakery, orphanage and nursing home.

They are carrying on without their leader.

On Nov. 8, Abu Ahmad was on his way to the Rawafed kitchen when he was wounded by a regime mortar shell. He was rushed to a field hospital and then taken to Turkey for medical treatment.

Ten days ago, Abu Ahmad died of his wounds in a Turkish hospital, leaving behind behind a wife and three children in Deir Ezzor, the eldest only six years old. The Rawafed orphanage was renamed as the Abed Rahman al-Khodor Orphanage in his name. Its work continues.

This post was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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